The Popdose Interview: Steve Poltz
Steve Poltz has toiled away on the fringes of popular music, with a short unexpected detour into the mainstream, for the better part of two decades. However, Steve would never refer to what he does as “toil.” As he would tell it, he’s living the life he loves and loving the life he lives. And that life has taken him from busking out in Europe, to living the rock n’ roll life with the Rugburns, to co-writing ‘90s folk-pop sensation Jewel’s biggest hit, and most recently, recording his own folk-pop masterpiece, Dreamhouse, with Canadian producer Joel Plaskett.
While Dreamhouse is filled with great music – it perfectly captures that laid back California cool that has informed all the best West Coast music, from Stan Getz to Crosby Stills & Nash to younger indies like the Parson Red Heads – it’s also filled with great songs, written with the confidence of a master.
In this interview, Steve takes us through the processes and stories behind some of the best songs on Dreamhouse, as well as some high points of the journey that has brought him to the present day. Along the way, we also get a sense of what matters most to Steve when he recounts the aftermath of the hand injury he sustained earlier this year… oh, and if you’re at all into yoga, you’ll definitely want to stick around through the end. Knowing that Steve is a regular practitioner, how could we resist the opportunity to get his thoughts on his favorite system?
I’m relatively new to your work. I only got my hands on Dreamhouse maybe a couple of months ago.
...which, I have to say, that record hits a musical sweet spot that I’ve really grown into in recent years, that laid back, folky, countryish California groove.
Yeah, we had fun making it.
It certainly sounds that way.
Yeah, I’m glad you like it.
…and I went back and listened to some of your older stuff, and it sounds way different.
Yeah, everything kind of had its own vibe. One Left Shoe had its own sound, which was really different from the Rugburns. And Chinese Vacation was totally different from One Left Shoe, and then Traveling and Unraveling had their own vibe, and now this does. That’s what’s neat, is always being able to change and keep advancing and growing, you know, in songwriting and everything.
To what degree did you and Joel Plaskett deliberately plot out a record with an intimate, mostly acoustic vibe to it?
Well, we sat down together and I had a bunch of songs, so we were able to listen to all of them and just hang out. And I love the way that he likes to record, which is on two-inch tape. And that was pretty cool, being able to do 16-track analog, 2-inch tape.
It’s definitely flattering to that style of music.
I’m expecting the vinyl will be even better.
It sounds really good on vinyl. I was just in Marfa, Texas, and there was a record player I got to put it on there. It was fun.
Can we get into some of the back-stories of a few of the songs on Dreamhouse?
The title track is probably the biggest earworm for me. Are you playing a nylon string guitar on that one?
Yeah. It’s funny ‘cause I wrote it on a steel string, and then I showed up at Joel’s studio and he had this really beautiful nylon string guitar hanging on the wall. I picked it up and it reminded me that, as a kid, I always played classical guitar. So that was all I had, were nylon strings. And I just remember sitting there thinking, “I haven’t played a classical guitar in a long time.”
So I started strumming it and then I said, “this might sound good for ‘Dreamhouse.’” I thought I was going to have to do about ten takes because we weren’t really punching in, because it was tape. And there was a lot of construction going on around the studio. It’s a small studio, and there are no computer screens in it. He doesn’t like any of that. So I said, “I’ll just try it on this guitar just to see what it sounds like.” And I hit it on the first take, you know? Which is pretty cool, singing and playing it. We just looked at each other and went, “well, that one’s done!” And we just knew that we only wanted to add this girl’s voice singing, Jenn Grant. So we did that.
It was pretty cool how that worked out, that it just, we got that one fast. And most of them we got fast because I’d been playing the songs. I tour so much that the songs are kinda rode and show-tested. It’s not like I’m coming in not knowing how to play the songs, you know? ‘Cause a lot of times a band will come in, and they don’t play the songs that much or they haven’t played live that much, and they have to do a million takes. So that’s a cool thing about touring a lot, is you really get to know your songs really well when you’re playing every night and you’re used to playing live.
…and then you’ve worked out all your kinks already and you’re ready to go.
Yeah, you don’t get as nervous. It’s kind of like that book by Malcolm Gladwell, “Outliers,” how he talks about the 10,000 hour rule of practice. And so, if you’re playing a lot, it makes a difference, you know?
Absolutely. Was there any particular event or feeling that inspired that particular song, “Dreamhouse”?
Yeah, I had had the melody kind of kicking around in my head. I was finger picking it. And then I teach a songwriting workshop every summer in Yosemite, at a place called Lady Lake. It’s like 10,000 feet up, and it’s in Ansel Adams’ back country of Yosemite. I teach this workshop with my friend Tim Bluhm, who’s in a band called the Mother Hips. So we make people write songs, and I came up with the idea of everybody writing a song using the words “dream” and “house.” So I remember writing down “dreamhouse” kind of as one word, and holding it up and saying, “you have to have this song finished by the end of the weekend trip of our teaching.” And so, I didn’t even know that my song was gonna come out of that. And I ended up writing it up there, which is really cool because I’d been wanting to write something to that melody.
That reminds me of something a friend of mine had told me, how he said you can’t really set out to write a good song, it usually just kind of happens. This sounds more like it was an exercise, and yet it happened at the same time.
Yeah, that song was like a construction site. The foundation was built through the melody, and I was still working on it. And then I was waiting to finish the song, and the timing was right. And then “dreamhouse” just fit. The next thing I knew, I came back down the mountain with that song and, you know, I was pretty happy. And I knew I was ready to make that record with Joel. So I went out on the road, and I always have shows ‘cause I’m constantly on tour. So I started playing the song “Dreamhouse” a lot live to get the fingering down, ‘cause it’s kind of complex to play it and sing it at the same time. And then, by the time I went up to Canada, it was finally done cooking.
I actually tried to sit down and figure it out myself [on guitar], and I’m like, oh man, this will probably take me months.
OK, “Digging For Icicles” – where’s the line between fantasy and truth in the story behind that song?
That came out of a songwriting game I play with Bob Schneider and Anya Marina and Jason Mraz, and Tristan Prettyman and Billy Harvey. I think M. Doughty was in it for a while, from Soul Coughing. The group’s always changing, of people who play this songwriting game.
Somebody emailed me the title, or the words we had to use for our next assignment, and it was “digging for icicles.” So we usually have about 24 to 48 hours. I like having deadlines, so, I just sat down and… I didn’t know where I was going with that song. I had this cool little melody in my head, and next thing I knew, that song was done.
I actually wanted the person in the song to die, and the song to end with them frozen to death in their cars digging for icicles, just wanting to live. And it was going to be, like, this horrible scene. And then, as I was making up the song, it’s like, the songwriting gods intervened and said the guy was going to fall in love. I was actually fighting against that happening, but the other voices in my head won out. I was really fighting against it. I wanted the song to be brutal, but it ended up being a love song. (laughs) So it goes to show that I’m not really in control.
I noticed that “fishing” comes up a few times, and it made me wonder if there’s an interest there, if you’re an avid fisher.
No, I’m not. I’ve been before, but I’m not avid. But I know I could be, and I’ve always enjoyed it when I’ve gone fishing. I’ve enjoyed the patience it takes, and the relaxing, laconic pace. But I’m not an avid fisherman. For some reason it comes up on that record. It’s really weird. Like, I had this one record with the Rugburns where hot dogs were the theme, on this album by the Rugburns called Taking The World By Donkey. And I think it’s kind of like where my head was at during that moment. And then on Chinese Vacation it seemed like food was mentioned a lot.
“Song For Kosovo” is the lone instrumental on the record. I always like hearing instrumentals on records. It’s like a nice little, a friend of mine calls ‘em “palate cleansers.”
What does your friend call them?
That’s what I call them! That’s weird to hear somebody else say that.
Well, he’s a singer-songwriter too, so he’s probably just very much on the same wavelength.
Yeah, they are palate cleansers. So, I was over in the Balkans traveling around, and I think I wrote that song when I was in Croatia. And I was just traveling and looking at all kinds of stuff. And I was talking to people about the war that broke out, just like aimlessly going up and just getting in conversations with people. And then I wrote “Dog in Bosnia” and “Kosovo.”
So “Kosovo,” I didn’t know where it was coming from, but I wrote two guitar parts for it. One’s ascending and one is descending. And I have ‘em meet right in the middle. So I would record one part and then get on Garage Band and do the descending part the other way. And I spent a whole day, I didn’t leave the hotel room. I was so into creating that song, and I still to this day love playing it. But when I play it live I just do one of the guitar parts. I guess I could record the other guitar part and do it that way. Sometimes I find somebody else who’s a good guitarist and I’ll teach him the other part, we’ll do it so we get both parts. But the song to me makes me feel really relaxed. I love playing that song. Sometimes I just come out and start a show with that, ‘cause it just puts my mind at ease, like really meditative for me to play that.
…and then it literally just cleanses your mind and gets you ready to go.
Yeah. And I was really bummed because, February 2nd, I broke my left hand skiing, and I wasn’t able to play for a couple of months. Like, just sitting here talking to you, my hand is like really stiff, and it’s still healing.
Are you still able to play relatively well with it at this point?
Yeah, I’m able to play all those songs on the record again, and I didn’t think I would. If you had talked to me about the middle of March, I was really kind of getting depressed and really sad, because I’d been in a cast, and the body isn’t meant to be in a cast, and the tendons tighten up fast. I mean, we’re meant to move every day, and so by the time I got out of the cast, my hand was so… the ligaments had tightened, and I had no movement. I couldn’t even play a D chord, and I lost all my calluses. I went to play a D chord, and it made me start crying. And I was so bummed because I’ve played since I was six years old, and I thought, the one thing I really love to do is taken away from me. And then I just slowly started rehabbing it, doing the exercises and playing every day. And now I’m back. There’s still a couple of things, like a C chord for whatever reason. Playing a C chord and then taking my middle finger and trying to, taking it off the note on the 4th string which is and E note and then bringing it down to the first string second fret which would be an F sharp, I have a hard time holding a C chord and doing that. I’m still stretching the tendons out on that part. But for the most part… like, I can play “Dreamhouse” really well now, and all the other songs. So I’m pretty happy.
It’s so good to be playing again, I really appreciate it more after having broken my hand. Like, I really, I’m scared to ever go skiing again, and I love skiing. But having that taken away from me sucked. I got really anxious because I like to play guitar every day, and when I play guitar it really relaxes me. And I started getting really bitchy, and kinda got mean and kind of stressed out because I didn’t know how to relax without it.
Well, I’m glad it’s at least almost 100% now.
Yeah, me too.
One last song to go through. When I first listened, the very first pass on the album, I wasn’t paying that close attention, so by the time “The Way We Were” ended I just thought, “oh, that’s another cool original.” Then I listened to it again and I realized, “oh my God, that’s ‘The Way We Were,’ the Barbra Streisand tune!” What compelled you to cover that one?
I always loved that song, and I love Barbra Streisand a lot. I like a lot of those classic songs, especially the stuff she did in the ‘60s, like “Stoney End.” Then when “The Way We Were” came out… I always liked those really dramatic films, even when I was a little kid, I don’t know why. I like playful movies too, but I love really dramatic romance films. I’ve always liked those. And I don’t get why, I don’t even understand it.
So I loved the song, and I like learning old classic songs like that. So, the way that Marvin Hamlisch scored that, Marilyn and Alan Bergman, the way they wrote it… the chord changes are amazing, and the melody’s great. So I love learning songs that are really tough, that have neat chords in them because it affects me later when I write songs. I don’t even know how it affects me, but just, when I learn the song and play it a lot live, it really affects me.
And plus, the song, kind of at the beginning when I play it, makes people start laughing because they think I’m gonna take the piss out of it. But then they don’t realize I really love the song. And I like the sentiment of, “if we had the chance to do it all again, tell me would we? Could we?” I like that, thinking about, like, would I do some of the same things I did if I had the chance to do it all again, even if it involved pain at the end. Kind of like, would I fall in love with this person even though I know it was going to end horribly, to have that moment. I’m not kidding, that song just hurts. I think it’s such a beautiful, emotional song, so I wanted to record it and put in on the record. ‘Cause I don’t think anybody else was doing that song, so…
I don’t think so. And lot of the same things were going through my head listening to it over and over, and I could tell it wasn’t ironic, that it was actually, you know, earnest.
Yeah, I’ve done those ironic covers before, and they’re fun, you know? There was a time when everybody was doing the ironic cover, and I get it. I did it. But on this one, I just really wanted to do the song. I guess that view comes from getting older. That’s what I love about getting older. I just don’t give a shit as much as I used to. I really, before, really cared a lot more, what people thought. Which is, I think, pretty normal. And then the older you get, you just become more confident with who you are and you don’t care. I mean, you always kind of care, but, with each passing year I love getting older. I love how life unfolds, and I never want to go back in time. Like, I wouldn’t want to go back and be 30 again. I’m glad that I got to be, but I like where everything is now, you know?
And now you’re, what, like, 50?
I’m 50, yeah. And I look forward to touring, you know? Hopefully health and everything stays intact. I’d love to be doing this when I’m 80, you know, telling stories and finger picking, and who knows what songs will exist then? That’s what I always get excited about each new year, and I always think, “I wonder what new songs I’m going to have by the end of the year?” It’s really like a whole mystery to me that’s unfolding. And, you know, I could be wiped out next year, who knows. But I like the journey of it, and always playing new venues and coming up with new songs, and trying to get better at my craft. Because I really love, I have to do this. This is my life, so…
A lot of times people will say, “isn’t it hard? Aren’t you tired with all the travel? It must be such a hard life.” And I just look at them like, “what’s hard about it?” I get to play music for a living. People clap for me. I’m creating. It’s play time all the time. Yeah, I guess the travel can wear on you, but…
It’s a small price to pay for something you love.
Yeah! Exactly. And then always meeting other musicians, really talented people, and being involved in that creative thing, I think it keeps me really young. Like, if I had some job where I was an accountant, 9 to 5 in an office, I think I would just feel a lot older. But I’m always around younger musicians who are doing really interesting things, and they’re writing interesting songs, and they have stories of the road. It’s like this whole group of people who are involved in the arts, you know? I love the fact that we get to create, you know?
Speaking of younger musicians, I’m gonna dip back in the past a bit. You know, whenever I mention to several people now that, “oh, I’m going to be interviewing this guy Steve Poltz,” there are a few people who knew who you were, but all the rest were like, “oh, I haven’t heard of this guy.” The one thing I can always say that will jog their memory is, “do you remember that song ‘You Were Meant For Me’”? So it got me to thinking, that musical association with Jewel was relatively brief. How lasting would you say for you was the impact of that collaboration?
Well, it’s funny, because everybody knows that song. It’s weird. Like, even über hipsters know that song, you know? You can’t help but know that song. Like, young hipsters. It’s in their DNA.
The other night I was playing in Alpine, Texas, outside of Marfa, and there were these late 20-somethings in the room, and they were really, like artists, and into all kinds of happening stuff. And they came to see me play ‘cause they heard me on the radio in Marfa, and they were like, “we hadn’t heard of you before,” which happens a lot with me. People are always saying, “I haven’t heard of you but I kind of liked what I heard.” And then towards the end of the show I did my version of “You Were Meant For Me,” and they were just like… first they were just laughing, and like, there are so many different ways to look at that song. It’s like, “oh my God, that’s, like, so cheesy!” Or, “it was so a part of my life, being a little kid!” That’s what they were saying. Like, “oh my God, I remember being 12 years old and that was the first song I learned on guitar! I bought Jewel’s record, I saw her in concert, I think I saw you open for her.” Or something like that.
‘Cause when I met Jewel, she obviously wasn’t Jewel yet, you know? She was in a coffee house and she was really… like when she first started breaking, she was really cool. ‘Cause nobody had heard of her, and it hadn’t been built up to the hype. Now we’ve seen her peak and then now down in the valley again. But for a while it was, like, huge. 13 million records. So it was cool to be around it in the beginning of it and watch it build, and have Neil Young be a fan of hers, and then that’s when we did that first record. We got to stay up at his ranch. And all the different stuff that had happened, and then her just becoming ubiquitous and omnipresent, and it was everywhere. And now she’s back down again, and it’s Lady Gaga’s time or somebody else’s time, you know? You only have your moment to shine that lasts so long, and then you have to hopefully sustain some sort of a career.
So, watching those girls sing along to the song “You Were Meant For Me” was funny because it was like part cheesy, part kitschy, and it’s weird that I wrote that with her, you know? And that I was a part of it, it’s in our DNA. Very few people don’t know that song. So it’s kind of a crack-up, you know? I wish I wrote “The Way We Were.”
It’s such a better song, you know? Hey, I got my little piece of history there with [“You Were Meant For Me”], and it made me some money and allowed me to keep doing what I love to do, which is [to] always write songs. ‘Cause you gotta remember, we wrote that song before she had a record deal, and we weren’t trying to write a pop song. It was just one of many songs we wrote together as we had what I call “play time,” where we pulled out the guitars and we were in Mexico together or somewhere traveling and we’d go, “let’s write some songs!” And we would make up songs, not knowing that [in] the future, she was going to be as big as she got.
I always knew she had that special something because, when she played, people would be kind of gob smacked, and go, “wow, that voice!” To this day, I will tell you this: I don’t know of any other woman who can sit around a campfire and play guitar and sing, with no bells and whistles attached to her or anything, who can really hang with her [and] the tools that she was given. Like, her voice, all the different ways she can use it… and her pitch is perfect. And her guitar playing’s really good. So like, whether or not it got cheesy… I still say [to] anybody, if you were all sitting around a campfire, you would just be like, “whoa!” I mean, what a voice! It’s crazy when you hear it unproduced. It’s like this wild animal. And it kind of matches what she was raised as. She was like this feral cat in the wilderness of Alaska, living on a homestead with an outhouse, riding horses bareback. She’s definitely still got that in her. And then she got to have this big career, and now she’s back to living on a ranch with her husband in Texas and not nearly as big as she once was.
So it’s kind of funny to have been involved in all that. I’m really thankful that I got to… even look at the machinery of the business that way. I’m really grateful.
A few non-musical questions to close things out. What’s your favorite type of yoga to practice?
For me it’s Bikram. Because, being on the road, I always know I’m going to get this consistent workout, and it was the first yoga I ever did. No, I did Iyengar first. I got really heavily into Bikram because it was near where I lived in San Diego. And the reason I liked it is, in high school I was a wrestler, and I wrestled for four years. And I sustained a bunch of neck damage. So as I got older, I was constantly pinching nerves in my neck. Like, I couldn’t get out of bed sometimes for a full day, the nerves would be pinched so bad. And, I think it’s like 26 postures in Bikram. It’s a 90 minute class. And the sequence of the postures is like the holy grail for my neck, because I had gone to chiropractors, I was taking pain medication, I was taking muscle relaxers. And now I take no pills and I never see a chiropractor. I don’t need to. And as long as I have a steady practice of Bikram, my neck is so healthy. So I feel sort of into Bikram Choudhury, the guy who came up with those postures, or whether it was his guru Bishnu Ghosh, whoever came up with them. It really works for me. And I like the heated room because it reminds me of wrestling practice, because we used to have practice in a heated room so we’d lose weight, so it’s sort of instinctual for me. And first time I walked in the heated room of Bikram, I was like, “ah man, this is great!” This is like what I grew up practicing, but wrestling. And I like the stinky smelly hot room where everybody’s sweating. And I can’t do it on my own. I need to do it in a group of people, because left to my own devices I’m too lazy to do it on my own.
How would you say it compares to Ashtanga?
I love Ashtanga. My criticism with Bikram is it doesn’t have enough upper body work, and Ashtanga is really tough. It does a lot of upper body work and a lot of downward facing dogs, so I like to do pushups and stuff on my own. I like to stay really fit, and I want to get more into Ashtanga. I would like to be able to … take 6 months off of the road and do one day of Bikram, then the next day Ashtanga, next day Bikram, next day Ashtanga.
And you wouldn’t get sore doing that day after day after day without a break in between?
I’d take like one day off. I have a really addictive personality. I did like 45 days straight of Bikram, I think it was, and then took one day off. And I was feeling so good going every day. Like, my knees felt so good, ‘cause Bikram really stretched out my knees. And my elbows, my neck… I felt like I was walking on air the more I went. It’s really good for keeping my body all lubed. Yeah, I love it. You can eat what you want, you know, [and it will] keep you kind of trimmed down. And I want to live a long time. Like, I don’t drink alcohol, or take drugs. I really want to live. My drug now is music. But I used to drink, and I’m glad I got to do that. I’m glad I got to be in the Rugburns and be drunk every night, and then be a solo folk singer drunk all the time, that was fun. It’s kind of like, I look at life like it’s a board game, and there’s a beginning and an end. And so I already passed that part of the board game, and it was fun, landing on the squares, and then progressing on. But now it doesn’t make sense.
I like looking at it that way, that’s a good way to look at it. I read in the press release that you were busking before you knew how to do it. Were you doing something wrong? What’s the story behind that?
I had never busked really before, and I remember the first few times I did it in Europe, I was like, “I’ve seen people do this, but is this what you do? How do you pick your corner?” Like, it’s one thing to say, “I’m gonna go busk in Europe and play guitar and see if people throw money in my case.” It’s one thing to talk about it, but to actually do it, it’s like, OK, how do I scout out where I’m going to do this? Where’s an area where there’s heavy foot traffic and somebody who owns a store who isn’t going to come out and yell at me? ‘Cause that happened the first couple of times. [I was] so embarrassed because I was so new, and I was like, “I’m sorry! I’m sorry!” and just apologizing to everybody for getting in their way. And then another musician yelling at me, like, “that’s my area!” I was over in Ireland. “That’s my area, mate!” Got pissed off at me. It took a couple false starts till finally I was like, where I didn’t feel like totally out of place. And then after doing it for a week, it was like, OK, I understand how this works now. Spend my hours, make some money.
If I had been really rich and I didn’t need to busk, it would have sucked because I wouldn’t have met the people I met and had the opportunity to stand on some street corner like a hooker playing my music and having people throw money in my case. And then, maybe a couple girls walk by and say, “where are you from?” You know, a bunch of girls or something say, “we’re going over to this pub to have some drinks, why don’t you join us?” And then taking all the change I made and going over there, and then people inviting me back to their house that you would have never met, and letting me stay with them. And the experiences that come from that, that you cull from that. Like, I’d never heard John Prine before. I didn’t know before that trip to Ireland who John Prine was… I met this Irish girl that I would have never met, she traveled with me a little bit. I met this Israeli journalist, this really cute girl named Teresa who was also a bartender in Amsterdam. I wouldn’t have met any of these people had I not been standing on the street playing music.
It’s crazy, the windows that opened up, of opportunity, [through] this whole gypsy life. And that was when I first learned that I would be taken care of by the universe if I just went out and played music. I just had to have faith in the gifts that I had, that I would be taken care of and I would never have to worry. I mean, I would worry, but I wasn’t going to starve.
And you were right, weren’t you?
I really was. I was scared to quit my job. I went to Europe in ’88 for Dublin’s millennium celebration. It was their 1,000 year celebration of Dublin in 1988. I think Reagan was president, and I saw America in such a different way going to Europe, you know, what people thought of us. My mind was opened up to different books and literature and art. And then, I came back and I still kept my job because I was kind of scared to quit it. But I knew in the back of my mind, I thought, “man, that was the happiest I’ve ever been in my life, being this gypsy and traveling. And this is what I need to do.” And I kept throwing it out into, like, I kept meditating on it and thinking about, “I have to do this. I have to do this.” And I quit my job, and the Rugburns did really well. I’m really glad I got that experience of being in a band. We were like this crazy gang traveling the country. It’s something I wouldn’t want to do now, but it was fun.
This has been great, Steve. I just have one last question, just an abstract question to tie it back to the record. Is your dreamhouse already built, and if so, what does it look like?
I’m traveling in it right now! I’m in a van traveling the country, and that’s my dreamhouse. So, my idea of dreamhouse is you can have it wherever you are. Dreamhouse is a mental state, and wherever you are, you can take that dreamhouse with you. And if you don’t have it now, you can get it. Never too late.
That’s a great way to cap this off. I’m going to carry that with me the rest of the day today for sure.
Alright! Well it was good talkin’ to you.
You too, thanks so much. I really appreciate it.
All photos (except the Jewel Pieces Of You album cover) used with kind permission from poltz.com.