“I’m beginning to imagine what I could tell kids. [I’d like to tell them] it’s hard to disarm other human beings so fast, so treat [stuttering] like the superpower that it is.” – Steve Varney
“I’d love to have you at my home; it’s such a sweet little farm,” musician Steve Varney says as we set up a time and date for an interview. The home he’s referring to is Starling Farm, a six-acre community farm in Boulder, Colorado. The property is owned and operated by none other than Gregory Alan Isakov, Varney’s bandmate and Grammy-nominated folk musician. The two live at Starling Farm in separate dwellings along with a few other residents who inhabit the various buildings and tiny homes that line its private drive.
I arrive on a beautiful Boulder day. The air smells like spring and a light haze has descended. I park and walk toward the end of the drive as instructed. I have no idea which of the small buildings I should approach to find Varney for our interview, but my confusion is quickly ameliorated when I spot him bounding through the grass in my direction. “Is that Allegra?” he calls out amiably.
Although it’s our first time meeting in person, he skips over with a smile and greets me with a hug. “I was just about to make coffee – would you like some?” he asks. I follow him into a clean and sunny two-story cottage. The living room is filled with instruments and sheet music. As Varney makes for himself what can only be described as a very impressively constructed cup of coffee, we chat about music and his family, including his partner Ali and seven-year-old daughter, Ayda.
Varney, who goes by Kid Reverie in his solo career, is an international touring musician and a passionate songwriter. He has been a celebrated artist on stage performing in front of thousands of fans around the world, but this is not why I’ve come to speak with him. Behind the scenes, Varney struggles with stuttering, which he’s experienced since the age of eight. In recent years he has become more outspoken about his stuttering and is eager to share his story in the hope of helping others.
Before we begin, he suggests we take a small tour of the farm. As we walk together, he talks excitedly about the farm and about Isakov, whom he describes as being as devoted to farming as he is to music. I ask if Varney also helps out around the farm, but he clarifies that, unlike Isakov, he spends his working days solely committed to music. In addition to songwriting and performing, Varney also teaches. We wander over to a small studio that serves as his office and take a seat outside on the patio.
He begins by describing his very first recollection of stuttering. Varney thinks he was around eight years old. He was giving an oral report about alligators and the first line included how many eggs they can lay at a time. “It was sixty,” he says, “and I did that block [on the /s/ sound]. It was long enough that I just got terrified.” He remembers taking a deep breath and trying again, but he still couldn’t get the word out. The young Varney ran from the room in a panic.
He hid in a teachers’ lounge under a table, breathing hard. His teacher came looking for him but didn’t come and speak with him. Varney believes she was as confused as he was by what had happened. She turned out the light and left him there to his own thoughts. When he finally went back to his classroom, nobody spoke. “It was unusually quiet,” he remembers.
This memory stands out as the pivotal stuttering moment of his childhood. Varney has a difficult time recalling salient stuttering events that followed in the years after that initial occurrence. He remembers that he talked to his parents but didn’t pursue speech therapy because the speech therapist at his school wasn’t properly trained. Also, he adds that he felt angry about his stuttering. He wanted to run and hide from it, not talk about it. “I was the reason I didn’t get therapy,” he concludes.
Varney grew up in Littleton, Colorado. His mom was a fifth-grade teacher and his father worked as a pastor for a non-denominational congregation. He was the middle child of three boys, and says stuttering runs in his family. In addition to a grandfather who was a lifelong stutterer, his older and younger brothers each stuttered for a time. Yet, unlike Varney’s experience, stuttering didn’t persist for either one of them. Further, his grandfather was “a rural guy – Southern Baptist, from Tennessee.” They never discussed stuttering, and Varney attributes this to their cultural and generational differences – stuttering was just not something that was openly acknowledged.
Varney asserts that his parents were supportive and tried to help him, but didn’t exactly know how to do it. The adults around him kept giving him advice – most often, “slow down and relax.” Their suggestions led him to conclude that he must be an overly tense person. He figured that he wouldn’t stutter if he weren’t so anxious and high-strung.
All things considered, it was a recipe that led to him being covert. Varney says he concealed his struggle with speech as much as possible. He recounts that it took an exhausting amount of mental energy to hide stuttering and shares a memory from his high-school English class. In anticipation of his turn to read aloud, he would count the number of people preceding him and then frantically count the lines of a reading passage to try and figure out his part ahead of time. Would there be any hard words or sounds that would cause him to stutter in front of the class?
He found other ways to hide. At restaurants, Varney would order something he could say fluently, rather than the food he actually wanted. In line at the movies, he would hope the person in front of him would be seeing the same film as him so he could say, “I want that also,” and avoid saying the title. When it came to dating, he would think about the name of his potential date. Could he say it? If not, then that rendezvous was likely a no-go. In class, he’d pretend he didn’t know the answer if it involved saying one of his feared words. Even later in life, Varney would pre-consider his address, phone number, and even credit card number – anything he would need to say frequently that involved a challenging sound would be circumvented as much as possible.
However, there was one thing he discovered that didn’t involve talking, and that was music. It is well-documented that people rarely stutter when they sing, perhaps because singing uses a different hemisphere of the brain and utilizes alternative physiology. On this Varney comments, “It’s usually one of those realms where you can go and be fluent.” Varney also realized that he could channel his creative-writing skills into songwriting. He found success performing in the school talent show and pursued multiple instruments including piano, guitar, and saxophone. Music became his refuge from stuttering.
After graduating from Columbine High School (the infamous site of the 1999 school shooting massacre, which he avoided since he was a freshman the year after the horrifying event), Varney continued his music studies at CU-Denver. He threw himself into songwriting and musical performance classes. Varney was writing furiously, completing a song every week. In the midst of writing a song about children playing war (and he stipulates this song was not about the Columbine shooting), he hit a major stumbling block. The song had the line, “These soldiers all have bedtimes.” He was recording it alone and suddenly became stuck on the word “soldiers.” Before this moment, Varney had never stuttered while singing.
Varney felt a growing sense of terror. He was taken back to that initial childhood memory of stuttering. “I immediately thought of running out of that room trying to do my report on alligators.” Once again, he felt helpless and confused. For the following two years, Varney couldn’t sing without worrying he might stutter. The stuttering “monster” was back and had made its way into his music, his paradise. He contends this is what finally led him to pursue speech therapy for the first time.
He began working with a stuttering specialist, a well-trained speech therapist who also happened to be a stutterer. Additionally, Varney joined his first stuttering support group. Therapy, combined with the support group, had a profound impact. He learned that he was one of the most fluent speakers in the group, a powerful realization. He also learned speech strategies and how to recognize his avoidance behaviors. Varney began to confront his fear of stuttering, beginning with saying what he wanted to say regardless of the situation. To practice, he and his speech therapist would visit coffee shops, use their strategies, and order exactly what they wanted. The therapy process kicked off a mental shift in his attitude about stuttering.
However, speech therapy didn’t solve all of his troubles. The speech therapist couldn’t explain why Varney stuttered when he sang, nor was there a cure for stuttering. So he continued to find ways to cope, such as writing harmony lines into his songs because he wouldn’t stutter if someone sang with him. To this day, the thought that he might stutter while singing remains in the back of his mind, but it doesn’t bother him as much. He hypothesizes that this is likely because stuttering no longer terrifies him.
“I kind of don’t care if it comes back [when I sing] and maybe that’s what will, in the end, keep it from coming back.”
Varney wasn’t feeling as anxious about stuttering and was even beginning to embrace it as part of his identity. I am curious about what he attributes to this shift from covert stuttering to acceptance. He has a hard time pinpointing it, but says that in addition to speech therapy he went through a divorce five years ago. His divorce took up so much mental energy there was no space left to agonize over stuttering. Varney describes this as an excruciating time, but one that provided him the opportunity for a rebirth. He was forced to start over and asked himself, “How do I want to live my life now?” One thing was clear: He would stop giving stuttering so much attention.
I ask him what advice can he give to others who are still fearful of stuttering. He tells me one thing that helped was self-disclosure, a tool he learned in speech therapy to let a listener know about stuttering up front. Varney gives the example of calling customer service. This used to be a task he would dread, but now because of self-disclosure he will make a phone call and immediately say, “I stutter and you may hear me have a hard time with certain words.” It takes the pressure off of needing to be fluent. He also noticed that the more he practiced self-disclosure, the easier it became. He started to nail down his script. Also, he found that “nobody cared” that he stuttered, and when they knew why he sometimes grappled with words, their reactions improved.
Sometimes, openly stuttering even led to meaningful chance encounters that wouldn’t have otherwise occurred. He shares with me a story about meeting his songwriting “hero,” Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie, in a Boulder coffee shop one day. Varney noticed him sitting with his family and desperately wanted to introduce himself but knew he would stutter saying his name (“Steve”). When he did work up the courage to greet Gibbard, and did in fact stutter on his name, Gibbard pulled out a chair and asked Varney to join their party. He is sure this would not have happened had he not been so vulnerable and exposed in that moment of stuttering.
He says that such moments are “a lesson in vulnerability that I think spans way beyond stuttering. You can know a person for a long time before learning about one of their truly vulnerable things, and this puts you in a situation where you’re revealing one of those things immediately.” In other words, the vulnerability of stuttering puts relationships on fast forward.
Of course, not all people who stutter share this sentiment of stuttering as a positive. So what might he say to the person who is reticent to self-disclose or is turned off by the idea of radical acceptance? Varney responds, “All I know is that when you embrace [stuttering] for a while, that’s what has made me more fluent than anything else.”
As an example, he tells me about a time when he and Isakov were asked to play a Hollywood house party. It was hosted by Aaron Paul, an actor best known for his leading role in the television series Breaking Bad. Varney understood that he might stutter while introducing himself to one of the celebrity guests. Ultimately, he decided to let the magic of that evening overpower any lingering anxiety he had about stuttering. He explains that he made a conscious decision to be confident, and at one point walked straight over to Bryan Cranston filling his plate at the buffet. The two engaged in a conversation that Varney recalls as delightful and free from stuttering.
“I’ve allowed those things to have way more power than the times where it doesn’t go well,” he reminisces.
Not all conversations play out this well, and tough exchanges still happen. Recently, in another coffee-shop incident, he was placing an order and needed to give his first name. He became stuck on that tricky /s/ sound in “Steve.” The young barista behind the counter then quipped, “Are you part snake?”
Varney was completely taken aback. He recounts, “I leaned in and said, ‘I have a hard time with those words.’” He said it forcefully enough that the coffee shop immediately quieted. People stared in their direction. The mocking stopped, but the barista handed him his coffee cup and on it was written “Ssssteve” with four /s/’s. Varney left the coffeeshop stunned. He thought to himself, “You didn’t even give me a new cup?”
Varney posted about the incident online with a comment about how stuttering is an “invisible handicap.” He clarifies, “Invisible handicaps are hard for other people to grasp.” He was upset by what had happened, but says even this negative interaction led to something positive. The daughter of the coffee shop’s owner saw his post and was horrified. She reached out and eventually the two became friends, and she even signed up for music lessons. Varney puts these kinds of experiences into perspective. Regardless of the outcome, he sees them as an opportunity to educate others about stuttering.
Varney further illuminates, “I began realizing what an act of truth and bravery it is to let [stuttering] come out. People are going to react the way that they [do]. [Stuttering] has been a filter for me for a long time with people. Let it help you pick your friends.”
Speaking of friends, the annual FRIENDS convention is coming to Denver this summer, and Varney is excited about attending. FRIENDS is an organization that provides support and education for young people who stutter and for family members, friends, and speech therapists. This year’s convention will mark the first time he’s been with such a large group of people who stutter. He anticipates a feeling of belonging that is difficult to find anywhere else and is anticipating the role he could play as a mentor for children who stutter. “I’m beginning to imagine what I could tell kids,” he muses. He’d like to tell them, “It’s hard to disarm other human beings so fast, so treat [stuttering] like the superpower that it is.”
Varney expresses somewhat sorrowfully that he wishes he could go back in time and have this same attitude. He spent so many years scared, angry, and worried about stuttering. I ask him what advice would he give to his young self, that terrified boy hiding in the teacher’s lounge. He looks away, overcome with emotion. His eyes fill with tears. It takes him a beat to recover. Then he replies, “[Stuttering] is not going to go away, and you’ll be so happy that it didn’t one day. You don’t need to be scared, just make it a part of who you are from this point on. We all have our things; one of yours is going to be invisible.”
I realize that Varney and I have been talking for going on three hours at this point. We wrap up our conversation and he offers me a hug goodbye. I walk through Isakov’s property back to my car and see an open camper van parked alongside it. Inside is Glen Phillips, another famous singer-songwriter, of the band Toad the Wet Sprocket. Phillips smiles and waves.
This place is surreal.
After leaving, I think about my time with Varney and how life unfolds like the rolling tide. Not everyone has the opportunity to succeed on such a publicly celebrated level, but stuttering is one of those great equalizers. It reminds us that we are all human, that we all struggle from time to time, and that we all make decisions along the way to share those struggles openly or to hide them. In sharing them, we not only free ourselves, but also do the brave work of forging a path for others to follow.