The Popdose Interview: Steve Conn

He’s never been a household name, but Steve Conn has produced, played with, and written for a long list of artists over the last several decades, and if you’re a fan of New Orleans roots music, you’ve almost certainly enjoyed his piano and/or accordion playing. We used the recent release of Steve’s new album, Beautiful Dream, as an excuse to have a frank, in-depth, and often ruefully funny discussion about his career, his approach to writing and performing, and the state of the music business.

I was excited to see you had a new album out — I’ve been a fan of your work since 1993, when you and Sonny Landreth stole the spotlight during the “Footloose/I’m Alright” portion of Kenny Loggins’ live album, Outside: From the Redwoods.

[Laughs] How kind of you. That little thing has been the most — I don’t know, the best thing I ever did was my association with that situation. It’s garnered me more fans and, I don’t know, love, than anything else I’ve done. My most recent ex-wife recently posted a couple of clips from that show to her Facebook wall, and it started all over again. All these people who were friends and didn’t know that ever happened — and a couple of my old high school friends — kept wanting to know how I stayed looking so young. I don’t get on Facebook much, but I finally had to interject and point out that it was on account of me having done the show 20 years ago.

Well, you know, the story behind that was that my friend Steve Croes was one of the first Synclavier guys in L.A., and he sampled all of my accordions at one point. He told me if he ever got any work as a result of those samples, he’d hire me to do the actual playing. So here’s Kenny Loggins on an airplane, and he’s listening to the music on some National Geographic special, and he tells his assistant to find out who it is. Turns out it’s my friend Steve, and what Kenny was hearing was one of my accordions. Steve got hired to produce the concert video for Outside, and true to his word, he called me. Sonny is usually the one who drags me along for things like this, but for once, I was able to return the favor for him.

You’re probably the closest thing to an in-demand session accordion player that we’ve had for the last 30 years, and on that performance, it’s easy to hear why. The two of you took a really produced pop song with a machine-driven groove and opened it up wide.

Well, you know, for me and Sonny, we were unencumbered by any pre-conceptions. Neither one of us had ever heard the damn song. I swear to you, I’m not sure I’ve heard it yet to this day. [Laughs] Croes wrote out the arrangement for that version, and he wanted to base it around “Hey Pocky-Way.” That’s what I’m playing on the piano there, the classic “Pocky-Way” lick. Because I knew Croes way back when I lived in Colorado, where I had a band called Gris-Gris that he used to come and see. We did a lot of that stuff.

A lot of your work has had that New Orleans vibe, but the new album is a lot quieter and more introspective.

Well, the timeline kind of — I did a record in the early ’90s, right about the time all this Loggins stuff was going down, and I was just coming out of my Gris-Gris phase. But I’ve always just written songs. Really, the thing I always wanted to do more than anything was be a songwriter, and to have enough people record my songs that I could make a living and keep on playing the music I loved. I built a little studio, and I actually had a few of my songs end up on some fairly popular albums. Anyway, that was always the plan, but after I moved to Colorado in 1980, I put Gris-Gris together, because it was just fun. We were packing up the clubs. Gris-Gris didn’t play many of my songs — I had another band called Free Advice that was for my own music, and we’d play to like 19 people. [Laughs]

So some friends of mine encouraged me to gather up all of my Louisiana-influenced songs. They knew I was coming out of that phase, and they felt like no matter what I did from that point forward, I needed to put out an album of that music before I was finished with it. So I put out an album called River of Madness that contained all the funky Louisiana stuff. My next album, Steve Conn, came out in 2003, and that still had some of that sound. What happened next, quite honestly, is that I’m a really slow writer. I’m really slow, man. I needed to put out a record, and these were the songs I had. The last track on the album is one I wrote in 1979! Most of them are not that old, most of them are from the last few years, but some are from, oh, ten years ago.

So it wasn’t exactly planned as the type of album you’re describing, but I know it sounds that way. Some friends of mine have been coming around to sort of suggest that maybe some therapy is in order. [Laughs] One of my oldest friends called it a “profoundly sad record.” With which I disagree, but it’s just that these are the songs I had on hand.

It doesn’t strike me as a sad record, per se. More of a realistic record. One that’s asking some hard questions, and isn’t shy about the uncertain answers.

Well, I appreciate that evaluation, and I think that anyone who thinks it’s sad is not paying complete attention, because — you know, the first noble truth is that life is suffering. But the next three are about how to end the suffering. That’s what it’s about. That’s what the focus of my life is. That’s what I do every day of my life, is try and figure out what the hell to do with it. It comes and goes — a couple of weeks ago, I wouldn’t have been talking to you. I really went down to the jaws of Hell. Farther down than I thought I could go, man. I was really surprised to see how low I could go. But by and large, for a guy who was literally born depressed, it’s just gotten nothing but better.

It’s interesting that you frame your struggle in those terms, but you still describe yourself as a slow writer. Many songwriters describe what you’ve been going through as the ideal grist for new music.

Oh, yeah. I don’t think happiness produces great art, as a rule. It’s when you get down into the depths of the soul that you get the stuff. I remember this quote from, I think, Rickie Lee Jones, years ago — something along the lines of “I don’t believe happy songs soothe people’s pain; I believe sad songs do.” Because they let us know we’re on the same page. We’re not alone. But yeah, I don’t know what that is. I’ve always been a slow writer. A lot of it is the time element — just finding the time to do it. But I’m also just a really slow writer.

I mean, I work at it. I work at it, and write a little, every day. I could sit here and play you bits and pieces of a bunch of different songs right now. Really solid beginnings that I’ve followed into a wall. My challenge is that I need big blocks of time to work on songs, and I rarely have it.

Is that a side effect of being a session musician?

I wish that were the case. [Laughs] My session work has fallen off a cliff. I don’t know how much of it is me — I have a lot of good friends in the business, and everybody says the same thing. It’s just in the toilet. I just saw the other day that profits in the record business are down 50% over the last ten years. That’s affected every aspect of it. I was never a first-call guy — more like a second-call guy. Never playing on a ton of master dates, but a good number. But that’s when all the sessions were happening all the time, all the demo mills, and that’s really slowed down a lot.

Fewer songs are being cut, fewer people have publishing deals, and fewer demos are being recorded. So as a result, guys like me — I mean, I was the guy who would get the call saying, “We’ve tried everything, including a trombone choir, and none of it worked. Now we’ll try an accordion.” Even if it didn’t work, I still got paid double scale, but those days — man, I haven’t had one of those in probably two years.

Is that what motivates you to continue assuming the burden, and the risk, of being a solo artist?

The only thing that motivates me to keep moving, I guess, is that I don’t know what the hell else to do. You know? I think this is what I’m supposed to be doing, and there are days when I know it is, but I’ve spent most of my life — especially the last 10-15 years — saying “Okay, if this isn’t what I’m supposed to be doing, I’m ready to know what comes next, and move on to that, and perhaps not struggle so much.” But I don’t know, really. That’s why I put out the record — I needed to get the music out there. I think the songs are good, and I think they’re saying something relevant, and I think there are a lot of people — you know, adults — who would like to hear it, if they only knew where in the hell to find it.

I think you’re right. I read recently that someone compared you to Mose Allison –

Man, if I could find a way to say it like Mose. Or like Randy Newman –

You can definitely hear echoes of their work in yours. A very wry, frank approach to the reality that life doesn’t always do what you want it to do. But that kind of music has almost always existed at the commercial margins. I don’t think anyone has really figured out how to bring it to a large audience.

And that’s what I have to keep coming back to, is the question of who and what I am. If I’m an artist, then I need to find a way to shut up and stop whining about it, and just do it for the sake of doing it. I have a friend, Dan Welch, who’s 87 years old. God love the man, he played in my father’s band in New Orleans, and I’ve known him all my life. He had a bunch of hits back in the ’50s as a songwriter — all these country guys had hits with his songs. Ella cut one of them. Hazel Dickens — one of her biggest tunes was “Go Away with Me,” which he wrote. And to this day, he’s living in Atlanta, writing songs every day and obsessed with trying to get a cut, because he wants history to remember him.

I’m not as interested in that. I’m much more interested in trying to get a new car. [Laughter] But only on my terms, you know what I mean?

Let’s talk a little about your songwriting process. I know you said it takes awhile, but where do you generally start?

Always from the melody. I work with a melody until it’s where I need it to be, and I also write a little in a journal — or whatever you want to call it — pretty much every day. Occasionally an idea pops in. But generally, I’ll just beat a melody to death — not necessarily day in and day out, but I’ll have it in my mind for a long period of time until either it generates an idea, or until I realize it fits with an idea I’ve already had lying around. That’s why it takes so long for me — it’s much easier to write songs in a strophic form, where you’re not as concerned with melody. I’ve found that it’s far more challenging to write something to a melody that isn’t extremely simple — to write lyrics that sound conversational. I don’t want to sound poetic, if I can possibly avoid it.

I can hear that. You aren’t using flowery language in your lyrics, but at the same time, these aren’t girl/world, love/above rhymes. They aren’t easy. It doesn’t sound like you copped out at the end of a verse.

Well, I appreciate that, because some of these things dog me for years. The first song on the new album was like that — I rewrote it several times, played it at gigs, and something just wasn’t right. Something was bothering me until I got down into it and cut out all the crap. It just takes time.

And how do you maintain your instrumental chops? How much time do you devote to practice at this point?

I still do finger exercises every day. I still practice the piano for about 45 minutes every morning. I had a piano teacher years ago who told me that if you aren’t looking to improve your playing, you can get by with two or three hours of practice a day, and if you’re looking to get better, you need to give it more. Well, that’s not gonna happen. But when you’re on the road, and playing all the time, it’s a different beast, because this is all about muscle memory. Unless I’m playing the same stuff night after night, my fingers get seized up, and I think that’s because I didn’t practice a lot when I was a kid. You’re supposed to go through two books a year, and it took me four years to do that; I was a terrible student. I still can’t read music for shit. I probably wouldn’t need to do these finger exercises if I’d practiced when I was younger, so tell your children that. [Laughs]

What it always comes back to is that what I really want to spend my time doing is writing songs. That’s the thing that’s worth me going to the mat for, sacrificing and struggling for. I guess it’s my way of trying to know God — I don’t really know of any other way to put it. I think that’s what I’m trying to do. I love music, I love melodies, I love words, and perhaps to my detriment, that’s what my songs are — trying to work that out. What are we doing here? What’s this creativity for? Is it to get on the Grand Ole Opry and make money? There’s got to be more than that.

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  • Matt

    Stellar, Jeff. Another artist to add to my list of people I must check out. Of course as soon as you made the Loggins connection, I knew him immediately!