Fighting Above Your Class: Steve Poltz on Songwriting, Loss, Relocation and, Yes, Wrestling
Veteran singer-songwriter, Steve Poltz's album Shine On exemplifies his best artistic tendencies, although he still lets the people do the talking.
1 March 2019
Steve Poltz is a living example of the American music tradition, a songwriter who can bend your ear with a hooky melody, then break your heart with a wry observation about the human condition. His latest album, Shine On, stands as a testament to this fact. A short, 10-song turning of the mirror onto us, it is the culmination of events, namely the veteran troubadour's relocation from San Diego to Nashville, where he worked with producer Will Kimbrough.
He'd met the storied producer some years earlier while on tour. Poltz was traveling as a member of the Rugburns while Kimbrough served as a member of Todd Snider's Nervous Wrecks. "Me and Todd had painted each other's toenails, and we were playing whiffle ball inside a club in Indianapolis," the Canadian-born musician recalls. "I followed his career after that and knew, when I moved to Nashville, that I wanted to make a record with him."
Despite the producer's connections at a number of Music City studios, the pair cut Shine On mostly alone, working with a batch of 25 songs that Poltz quickly boiled down to 10. "We went to Arnold's," he recalls, "which is a meat and three place. You pay 15 bucks and get your meat and your three vegetables. Will said, 'You've got 25 songs.' I said, 'I'm only putting ten on the record.' He said, 'No way! You've got to put at least 12 on there.' I wrote down the ten songs I wanted on a napkin and said, 'I will not take 'no' for an answer.' I even tried to cut it down to eight. I wanted it to be 37 minutes long, so I could put it on vinyl easier. I got to make the record I wanted to make with the guy I wanted to make it with."
The result is some of Poltz's finest material to date, including a co-write with Molly Tuttle ("4th of July"), a meditation on the all-too-common problem of mass shootings ("All Things Shine") and a the spur-of-the-moment "Ballin' on Wednesday", inspired by a quip made by a diner cashier when Poltz whipped out a $100 bill midweek to pay for his check.
In conversation, Poltz is unassuming and humorous, though the celebratory nature of the new release is tempered with some sadness as he reflects on the loss of his mother, a former English teacher who died recently at the age of 88. "She told me three rules to always remember when writing," he recalls, "Who was there? What happened? How did it make you feel? After she died, my dad had a heart attack and got pneumonia. They were married for 61 years. But he made it. I went back to San Diego to make sure he'd be OK."
Poltz was with his mother when she died and describes her passing as "really powerful".
Asked if he feels that she was part of what spurred him on as a writer he says, "Big time. She really nurtured it. She was so proud of me. I would call her after I got a standing ovation at some festival. She'd be teary-eyed. We were both huge New York Times junkies, for the op-ed writers. I'd say, 'Did you read what Maureen Dowd wrote today? What does this word mean? I had to look it up!' I miss that."
As for her appreciation of her son's talents, Poltz says, "She never let me forget that she loved One Left Shoe. I've made 12 records since but she'd say, 'Oh, Steven, your father and I were listening to One Left Shoe, is that ever good, eh?' 'Mom, I put out a bunch of other records.' 'But we love One Left Shoe. We love that record. I keep saying to your father, "Why isn't Steven playing the Super Bowl? He should be playing the halftime show. Those Rolling Stones, they were terrible."'
Poltz recently spoke with PopMatters about his new album, songwriting in general and some of his most important inspirations.
This new album is rooted, in some ways, in your move from San Diego to Nashville, right?
I had lived in San Diego until a little over two years ago. I don't know what I was doing in Nashville, probably playing a show or writing a song with somebody. My girlfriend was with me, and we said, "Let's just get a realtor and look at property." Next thing you know, we bought a house! [Laughs.]
It's so weird! I can't even believe it because I'd been in San Diego for 30 years.
At that point, you're a native.
At first, I was thinking, "Damnit, now I'll never get a Lifetime Achievement from the San Diego music awards!" [Laughs.] I mean, who cares? But I'd seen all the older guys who would finally get some recognition, get one of those awards. It's weird how your mind works. Well, my mind.
I remember one time, a plane I was on almost crashed. I had had my choice when I was booking the flight to hop and switch planes in Chicago or Newark. I chose Chicago. I was going on to where I was born, Halifax, Nova Scotia. The landing gear wasn't coming down. There were all these ambulances waiting around; we were going to have to tuck our heads between our knees. The plane was going to be skidding. I thought we were going to die. The only thing on my mind was, "Why didn't I pick Newark?"
Not, "What a drag it is to be dying." I was mad at myself for that one moment. Anyways, I moved to Nashville, bought a house, and thought, "Man, I don't know if I can do this." But, from the time that I moved there, it's been great. I love it. I never lived in a music town.
Did that impact the way you wrote or what you wrote?
I really think it did. I lived in San Diego so long I could get kind of complacent and not go out. I'd go, "Ah, so-and-so is playing at the Casbah. I've been there a million times. I'm just going to stay in." I'd be off the road and kind of tired. I wouldn't reach out. My touring schedule has always been so hectic. It's like 200 gigs a year. That means I'm gone 300 days a year because of travel.
So, when I moved to Nashville, I discovered some differences. In San Diego, people would say, "Hey, you wanna go surfing?" In Nashville, it was, "Do you want to write a song?" No matter who you meet, they're, like, "Hey, we should write." At first, I was a bit taken aback. "Well, that's an intimate thing to do." Then I thought, "When in Rome." So I just started saying yes to people. Everybody wanted to write with me because I had had one hit song. In San Diego, nobody cared that I'd had a hit song.
In Nashville, if you've hit gold, even once, people will say, "Oh yeah, that dude wrote 'You Were Meant For Me' with Jewel.'" Then it's "Hey! You wanna write a song?" Everybody's looking to write songs. I feel like it put me in a different club, so to speak. At first, it was weird, and then I got really into it.
I can imagine.
I live by a really cool coffee shop, and there's always somebody in the business there, some music manager or an attorney or a fellow songwriter or a soundman or a festival booker. Sometimes you just happen to be having a coffee outside and the next thing you know you're sitting at a table with six other people. That's how I met Molly Tuttle and started writing with her. When you live in a town where Vince Gill is playing every Monday night for $10 you realize how insignificant you are. Everybody's so much cooler than me. I get my ass kicked daily.
Even with co-writing. The other person will say things like, "You might want to try the minor sixth there." I'm thinking, "D minor 6th?"
At some point you've got to get out, challenge yourself.
I wrestled in high school, and I was a 98-pounder my freshman year. My sophomore year, I wrestled 98, my junior year, I was still 98 but had to diet to make it. My senior year, I shot up to 106. But I always wrestled the 123-pounders because I would make me stronger. I feel like that's what I'm doing now.
It strikes me that San Diego is a place where humor in music is important, whether it's the Beat Farmers or Bowling for Soup. Is that a San Diego thing, like, "Don't get too big for your britches. Don't take yourself too seriously"?
I think that for a while it was like that, but then it got serious with Rocket From the Crypt and Drive Like Jehu. There became this San Diego sound, which was kind of heavy. It's funny that you should mention the Beat Farmers because those guys were my teachers, them and Mojo Nixon. I think the reason my songs had humor in them was because I grew up listening to those guys. They would take the piss out of things. But Jewel broke big, and Jason Mraz broke big from there too.
But I feel like I was always too much of a smartass to get really big. I had a major label deal, I had a hit with Jewel, but I feel like the label wanted me to be more serious. I had a hard time with that. The label kept asking me to be more like Duncan Sheik. He's great, but that wasn't me. I think I was always a smartass, even as a little kid because I was skinny. I had to talk my way out of getting my ass kicked.
And also the standout songs to me when I was a kid were the songs that were played on Dr. Demento. I thought, "Why can't all songs be like this?" People would say, "Well, those are novelty songs." I'd say, "They're better than most songs." I remember the first time I heard "Hello Muddah Hello Faddah." I thought, "Finally! Something good!" Or the first time I heard Loudon Wainwright III's "Dead Skunk." I thought it was the best song ever. And to this day that song is great!
I would hear songs by Tom Lehrer. He was such a sarcastic, really well-read, funny songwriter. I was drawn to that and the Dead Milkmen. Oh my God, "Punk Rock Girl"? That's why I always liked the Replacements, I think because they were always such kind of idiots. They would get really drunk and they would sabotage shows.
But then you get to a point where you say, "Am I just hiding? Because I'm scared of success?" I always go through these self-analytical moments. Anyway, when I went solo, I always felt like I was a cross between James Taylor and Robin Williams. I couldn't do one or the other. I had to mix it. [Laughs.]
Photo courtesy of Red House Records
It became this thing where the live shows were really fun, but you can't re-create that on a record. Eventually, I said, "I'm just going to make the best records I can make and pick good people to work with. And always put on a good live show." And I always wanted to have an element of danger like my teacher Country Dick Montana from the Beat Farmers. That was one of my main guys.
I also remember when I went to see Loudon Wainwright III at McCabe's in L.A. I was in the Rugburns at the time. Singing crazy songs like "Sky Fucking Line of Toronto". I'd be wearing a dress onstage. But I saw Loudon, I brought this girl Anastasia Davies with me, she ended up becoming the talent buyer at Schubas in Chicago, and I said to her, "I can do that." She said, "What do you mean?" I said, "That's my future. I can't always do what I'm doing with the Rugburns but I can do that." Not like he was doing but I could do what he was doing. Tell stories, make people laugh, have a guitar.
He's amazing at that.
I played a show with him a couple of years ago at the Kessler Theater in Dallas. He was watching me, and he came up to me afterward and said, "Man, I love that song, 'Folk Singer'." I told him the story about me seeing him and him changing my life. I started crying when I told him. He was like, "Yeah, whatever." [Laughs.]
Which made it even better! But he knew that I knew Rufus because he and I had opened for Lisa Loeb years ago and Rufus, after the first show, said, "I'm going on before you from now on. I don't know how to follow what you just did!" He calls his dad and says, "Dad! I met your illegitimate son and his name is Steve Poltz!"
It seems to me that, like him, you can write a song about pretty much anything.
Most nights, on stage, I end up making up a song on the spot. Something will happen. A bar back will come in, drop a case of glasses, and they shatter. Everybody goes, "What?!?" Out of the blue. Next thing, I'll play a G chord and make up a song about it. It'll turn into a four- or five-minute song, where I find a chorus. I get everybody singing along and then it's never played again. Those are the best moments and why I love playing live.
How much of songwriting is about keeping yourself entertained? Because I feel like most of us who make art do it because it's something that keeps us from going crazy when we're alone or when there's nothing else to do.
I have to do this. I get a lot of thoughts in my head that give me anxiety. I don't take any drugs or drink anymore, but I've learned that I can only have one cup of coffee a day. I can't have it until I've had my oats. It has to be in the afternoon. I feel like I have to play shows because they release my angst.
You recorded this new album fairly quickly. Is that typical for you?
Do you know the baseball player Yasiel Puig?
He played for the Dodgers. He just got traded to the Reds. He's from Cuba. He's like a wild horse. I feel like I'm really hard to coral into a studio. It's like herding cats. I can forget what songs I wrote just last month because I'm always writing. To get me into the studio takes a lot of effort because I'm a live performer. When I go in there, I just start throwing out songs and recording them. I know how to play the songs because I've tested them in front of an audience. The audience, without them knowing, has always been my A&R. They never lie.