When I called Santa Ynez–based folk-rock-pop songstress Stephanie Croff, she was up on a mountain somewhere in the vicinity of Figueroa Mountain and Zaca Peak, loving life. The wild-flowered slopes remind her of her teenaged days growing up in the Black Hills of South Dakota. “I would just hang out on the cliff out there and just listen to the wind coming, and you could just hear everything and feel the history,” she said. “I felt way more connected in the trees.”
The warm climes of Santa Ynez are a world away from her “desolate” hometown of Watford City, North Dakota, where she lived for the first nine years of her life in brutally long winters and bare prairies. “My feet were always frozen, my shoulders always crushed,” she said.
But cold and darkness is something Croff bears well. From being raised in an environment of Jesus Camp–style religious fanatics to enduring abusive relationships and deaths in the family, she has endured more than her fair share of trials and tragedies. And yet hers is a phoenix tale, rising out of the struggles with greater strength and a fuller self-understanding, with music making as her medicine.
Her latest work, The Dream Is Gone EP, was released digitally on June 19 and is based on the fallout of a nearly decade-long relationship. The instrumentation is as sparse and vast as a Dakota plain, her voice sweet and sorrowful both. The recording process helped her face difficult internal truths. “Any struggle that we face brings us closer to our true selves,” Croff said. “Though this was a really significant struggle for me, it brought me incredibly close to myself, and that’s really what this body of work is about.”
It’s a common theme for Croff, who has used music as a means of exorcism and wound tending. Her songs aren’t so much about the events themselves as about the dealing with them, the long churning and repairing of the heart after its initial breaking. On 2013’s The Healing Session, for example, she and musicians Bear Erickson and Nate Keezer let it all out in a fully improvised session of musical catharsis that allowed Croff to confront some long-buried feelings about her damaged childhood. The release captures the intensely raw jam that followed a painful phone conversation between Croff and her mother, an of-the-moment musical purification. “I was finally starting to understand that the beauty of life is in the imperfections, and The Healing Session was a big revealing to me that it’s okay to be vulnerable, that all the things that we feel are going to kill us are the things that make us into the beautiful gems that we are,” she said.
Nowadays, Croff is looking ahead. She’s expanding her creative boundaries, finding childlike glee and wonder in looping acoustic instruments via guitar pedals. She hopes to record a new album in the fall and has a pair of upcoming shows this summer, including one at the Piano Kitchen on August 15. In all, she’s in a sunnier place, more self-confident, more self-determined, and more at peace. “I’m figuring out how to live my life in a way so that I feel really joyful and authentic. I’m not going to let that go, and that feels like a determination that I can believe in,” she said.