Nothing Can Stop Steve Poltz
Photo credit: Red House Records
The last few years has seen Steve Poltz uproot from San Diego to Nashville, survive a stroke and somehow he still put out a record. His relaxed outlook creates beautiful and smooth music on Shine On, that brings out the same calming feelings that inspired the songs. We caught up with Poltz ahead of his July 4 set at RBC Ottawa Bluesfest (Bluesville Stage) to discuss his collaborative spirit, discovering the Grateful Dead and how he revived a decades-old song for modern audiences.
Ottawa Life: What prompted you to move to Nashville and how did that inspire your album Shine On?
Steve Poltz: I'd lived in San Diego for about 30 years, and I kept running into people that were moving to Nashville. I ended up going out there and meeting my friend Will Kimbrough who produces records, and from the moment I made that move it's just been fantastic. I feel like I'm with my tribe now.
What other changes have you noticed living in such a music-focused city?
I feel like everyone here is doing it at a level similar to the level I'm doing it at. They're constantly touring, constantly co-writing, and they're living this life of music 24/7. It's such an industry town that every day is like Folk Alliance or South by Southwest. So for someone like me that works really hard, it's a perfect place to have landed. I'm fully invested in what I'm doing, every day I'm meeting someone to work on a song, video or something. People are all playing songs for each other to write or critique here.
I was interested to hear about life in music after your stroke since you've talked recovery from that, and other changes you've noticed besides a new love of the Grateful Dead?
I've slowed down and tried to enjoy life more. I remember being in someone's car and the Grateful Dead came on, but I didn't know who it was. It was "Ripple." I wasn't ever against the Dead, they just weren't on my radar before that time. So I remember going on that journey to discover them, which was daunting because there was so much to them. I don't know if it's affected my song writing but I've learned enough of their songs that it's probably manifesting itself in a way that I just can't see yet.
How did Will Kimbrough get involved in the record and what did they bring to the table as a producer?
Years ago he was in my friend Todd Snider's band, the Nervous Wrecks, and my band, The Rugburns, was on tour with them. We'd play wiffle ball inside clubs and paint each other's toenails, just being weird and goofy. I first met Will then, and we'd bump into each other off and on. When I was in Nashville though I thought he would be the perfect guy to work with because of his laidback style. He has this studio at his house, and it was so relaxing because I didn't feel like I was on the clock. We would discuss songs, have lunch, play them and the picture came together until I had ten songs that worked well for the project. And Will was able to add other guitar parts; he has good ears from time on the road with everyone.
You're decades in and over a dozen records through now, so what have you noticed is different now in your writing and performing?
I have this joke with my friends, and we always say it backstage no matter what kind of gig it is. "Just remember, everything is riding on this one gig." For some reason that just makes me laugh so hard. My friend sat in with Jackson Browne a couple years ago because he'd been seen playing a djembe, a sort of hippy drum, and Jackson randomly called him up for the last song. He was on stage in front of 5 000 people, and just before he walked out, David Crosby turned to him from the side of the stage and said "Hey kid, remember, everything is riding on this one gig. So I think what I've learned is that everything is riding on that one gig, and if you can laugh about it all adds up. We act like everything's serious, but it isn't. If you can show up every day and do your work with some momentum, it builds and then coming down is a lot slower too.
I understand that the title track "Shine On" came from a very beautiful morning, so how did it become a song and what lead to your against-the-grain choice to start your record on a slow track?
It was a couple years ago, I woke up in Encinitas, California and I remember grabbing my guitar. I loved the feel of it in that moment, and what it was saying. Sometimes you don't know exactly where something like that is going, and it's more like a blurry picture coming into focus. For that song though, it came into focus well and I liked that it was super slow. Everyone from my label was saying not to start my record with a slow song, which meant to me that I should. When people tell me not to do something, I usually go the opposite way. I think it's cause of my O.D.D., it's oppositional defiance disorder, so I ended up starting on that song.
You've collaborated with a lot of musicians like Jewel, so how does that process differ from your solo work?
I hope when someone asks me for a co-write is that they're looking for a part of me, and whatever gift I have to offer. So I try to stay true to me and not become them, because if I try to give them what I think they want, it's never as good. If I can stay goofy and say some dumb things in the collaborative process, the other person will say "He's an idiot, so I can say dumb things too" and that's where the guard comes down. That's where you can find ideas that you wouldn't have otherwise.
How did you end up working with Molly Tuttle on your song "4th of July" and what brought that song out of you two?
I was aware of Molly since I moved to Nashville. I knew about her but I hadn't met her yet so I wanted to finally do that. She came over one morning and said she wanted to write with me. It was such a natural fit, she's fun to write with, she's great at guitar and lyrics, and she has a great feel for songs. She also brings a soul to it. We wrote a bunch of songs, some on her album and some on mine. I look forward to our collaborations in the future too.
What's the most interesting collaborative session you've been on?
Recently I was writing with Molly Tuttle, she had come over to write songs for her records. She was getting ready to leave, and for some reason I brought up this old song I'd never finished with Jewel. It just had a verse and a chorus, and I felt like I had to play it for her to see if she wanted to do anything with it. Molly loved it and asked to take it home. I forgot to ask Jewel first, so Molly worked on it, Jason Isbell sang harmonies, she was in the studio with Sierra Hull to sing and play mandolin too. Molly called me up at one point to check up if Jewel had approved it, and I lied and said yes "Jewel says it's cool!" I knew I would be in so much trouble if Jewel didn't like it, but I thought it was better to ask for forgiveness later. Two weeks later Jewel texted me from a retreat and said the song was great. I didn't tell her until we were on this musical cruise ship last year called Cayamo with Emmylou Harris and Dawes. I told Molly on stage about my lie and she turned to me like "Are you kidding me?" The song was "Million Miles Away" which was crazy because it ended up as her lead single, and it was written 25 years ago, something like 1996.