Winter Break

Ice, ice, baby: Stephanie Winter skates, talks about Holocaust
Peter S. Scholtes
Stephanie Says
Sex, Socialism and the Seaside

Stephanie Winter's new song "Holocaust" would seem an ill-advised choice of subject matter. If pop music has tackled the Shoah with taste before--and the Big Star song of the same title doesn't even try--this Slayer fan missed it. But Winter's naive simplicity is oddly moving. "I wish it was just a story," she sings, as warmly opaque as Nico. "We can't live in a nightmare/We can't live like we don't care."

"Holocaust" is about knowing evil, not just knowing about it. Yet Winter's new solo debut, Sex, Socialism and the Seaside (Grimsey), has become my all-purpose horror soundtrack for the unreality of natural disaster in south and southeast Asia--the wave of mutilation on TV, and my own numb response. Recorded under the band name Stephanie Says with members of the Owls, the Hang Ups, the Autumn Leaves, and the Carpetbaggers, Winter's deceptively nostalgic pop has a darkness that catches up with you. You don't need to imagine violent incarnations of the seaside (or sex, or socialism) to notice a profound sadness in her crisp voice.

In person, Winter is an unusual combination of shy smiles and frank honesty. The band name, she says, was coined 12 years ago by the drummer she was playing with at the time--before Winter had heard the Velvet Underground song of the same name. This initial group only played two shows, and had pretty much broken up by their second gig: new band night at the Uptown Bar.

"It took me so long to get the gig that we went ahead and did it, anyways," she says.

As she speaks, Winter is waving her arms slightly, her blond hair blowing over her pink scarf. She has agreed to an interview with City Pages on ice skates, at the crowded Depot Rink in Minneapolis. Nearby, a little boy runs across the ice in sneakers, using a metal walker to keep from falling.

"I haven't been skating since I was with Jim," Winter says.

If you know Stephanie Winter at all, it's probably as backup singer for the Legendary Jim Ruiz Group, which started out as "the Legendary Jim Ruiz, the Hang Ups, and the Honorable Stephanie." Ruiz became Winter's musical as well as romantic partner around the time Stephanie Says evaporated. With Hang Ups guitarist John Crozier and other friends, Ruiz and Winter recorded one of the best Minneapolis albums ever made, 1995's Oh Brother Where Art Thou? (Minty Fresh)--a kind of bossa nova pop opera about love and loss.

Six years after the Legendary Jim Ruiz Group disappeared, Winter is now forthright about her subsequent retreat from public life.

"When I was with Jim, we concentrated on the Legendary Jim Ruiz Group," she says. "And then, after me and Jim broke up, I went through a big depression. I didn't do anything for a while. I didn't even work."

She teamed with Allison LaBonne, Charlotte Crabtree, and Mike Crabtree of the Carpetbaggers to form Les Arbres, and John Crozier later recorded with Winter as the dance-pop duo the Shebrews. But neither group performed live. Until she began singing and playing guitar with the Autumn Leaves last year, Winter mostly avoided the stage, though friends rallied around her as she withdrew. The Owls made their first public appearance at a basement fundraiser party to pay Winter's rent, on which she'd fallen behind.

Winter likens songwriting to keeping a journal for therapy--"journalin'," she calls it. And even the brightest tune on Sex, "Qu'est-ce que tu fait?," contains in its title the question she faced for years, albeit in mistranslated French: What are you going to do?

"It sounds kind of happy, but it's not," says Winter. "The first line is something like, 'When love is hard, and your life is just existing, what do you do?'"

Winter pronounces the word "existin'," and similarly renders the title of Viktor E. Frankl's Holocaust memoir as Man's Search for Meanin'. Though born at Andrews Air Force Base in California, she retains her British accent from growing up in Great Yarmouth, a seaside town north of London. Her mother divorced her father, but the couple reunited in New Hope, Minnesota, bringing along a teenage Stephanie before divorcing again.

"Wherever I've gone, I've always been a foreigner," says Winter. "Because when we moved to England, we were kind of used to being Yankees. Then I moved back and I was the English girl at school. Which was kind of funny, because it was right after Grease came out, and everyone would ask me to say things from Grease."

In December, Winter returned home to play Chickfactor in London, the event named for Gail O'Hara's pop culture magazine out of New York. O'Hara, a longtime fan of the Legendary Jim Ruiz Group, booked Winter at the last second, after having a dream about her.

If Stephanie Winter is still an outsider, she's at least getting outside more and more.

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