Interview with Kevin Steinman

Tell us a little about yourself: who you are, where you’re from, what you do.

I was born in Tokyo, raised in S. California and Germany, went to college in Northfield, MN (Carleton). Graduated with a B.A. in English, and a license to teach English to Middle School and High School students, which is what I had thought I would do when I graduated. But I got a chance to sing with Four Shadow, a professional a cappella group, so I did that simultaneously for a while, and then eventually switched over to music full time. That job offer was very serendipitous timing. Now I have my own band, play my own songs, and still devote all my time to music. And basketball.

When did you first become interested in performing music?

I have loved performing music since I was very small. I sang in church choirs and in the community musical theater productions that my dad directed since I was 4. I always loved those experiences. I recently attended a musical theater production my cousin was in, and while I was there, I remembered that the orchestra pit was a place of great enchantment, with talented orchestral musicians who produced magic spells when they began tuning, and the lights went down, and they launched into the intro theme. I also took piano from age 5, and learned to read music quite early. So vocal music was always relatively easy for me, and thus always fun. Instrumental music was a bit more of a translation, so when I took up trombone at 8, and guitar at 16, I had to really work at it. But vocal music was always a very native expression for me.

You grew up in, and have since been to, a number of different countries, which was your favorite and why?

It’s very difficult to say which is my favorite country. What I’d rather say is that traveling opens one’s mind to the possibility that, although all cultures are slightly different, we are all human beings seeking the same basic happiness, and struggling against the same problems. Favorite cities: Berlin, Munich, London, Paris, New York City, Minneapolis.

Who are your biggest inspirations and what about them inspires you?

I’d have to say my mom and dad have always been steady participants and leaders in the arts. If I have a talent for music, it’s clearly because of their encouragement. I should also definitely mention my grandmother, who sang on a duet recording of hymns with another woman in the 80’s. I can still recall the moment we popped that tape in the car audio deck, and I had an “Aha!” moment. Up until that time, the only people who had gone in the tape deck were music gods, like Madonna, Michael Jackson. But that moment revealed to me, at a young age, that mere mortals could also make beautiful recordings. Nowadays, I look up to people like Jonatha Brooke, Suzanne Vega, Patty Griffin, Mason Jennings, Jeremy Messersmith, Chris Koza. People striving to write authentic, beautiful, awesome songs.

In college, you majored in English literature, is there a reason you chose that over music?

The reason is partly pretty lame: I didn’t want to wake up early every day to spend a year studying music theory and history. But also, I had early success writing English essays, and I enjoyed studying lyric poetry of Keats, Wordsworth, Shakespeare, Dickinson, et al. So I figured I’d approach the study of music from the lyrical perspective, and let the music itself take more of an experiential path. I should mention that while in college, I involved myself in choir, chamber singers, jazz band, orchestral band, a musical theater production, vocal and guitar lessons, not to mention the Knights, a male a cappella group. So I was plenty busy with music, which allowed me to graduate a year early, with all the extra credits I racked up. I was overloading every term.

I met you around 2001, when you were a member of the a cappella group, Four Shadow, were you in any bands or groups prior to that?

The Knights was really my first experience with arranging and transcribing music, and leading an ensemble. We took turns leading on the songs we each arranged, which was a pretty democratic way of doing it, compared to other groups, many of whom who had a dedicated music leader. I also had a rock band for a few performances in my last year of college. We did a few of my originals, and some REM, Jeff Buckley, and Duncan Sheik covers.

Is there anything you miss about performing as part of a group?

It’s tough to compare a cappella singing with what I’m doing now. Pulling off a great show with a repertoire of 40 pop a cappella arrangements is a daunting task. It took years to get the lineup right, and if I’m very honest, I’d say the mix was better musically and performing wise than personality wise. So in a way, I’m more comfortable around the people I’m working with now, although the show I’m putting on now is very differently focused – much more on the musical performance alone, and less on schtick, jokes, choreography, audience participation, etc. I enjoyed all those elements of the Four Shadow show a great deal, and so, yes, I do miss them. But I would not trade my situation now to get those back. I’m really happy doing what I’m doing.

How is writing a song for instruments and voice different than for just voices?

I know you asked about writing, but in a cappella you never write without thinking of arranging. Arranging for a cappella and instrumental pop are very different things is the short answer. With voices, you’re constantly thinking, “How can we pull this off?” because the human voice is limited to singing one note at a time, whereas the keys can plunk down 6, 7 notes at a time, the guitar up to 6, the drums can be hitting, say, kick + cymbals at one moment, followed closely by a snare/tom hit. All of these scenarios are impossible for a cappella performance, which makes arranging so challenging, and performing so precise. With an instrumental band, all that pressure’s off, and it’s much less a question of necessity, in terms of how to put the music across, and it becomes a question of artistic rendering: how shall it sound? Organ on the keys, or piano sound? Electric or acoustic guitar? Fuzzed out, distorted bass, or no?

Do you play any instruments other than guitar and piano? Are there any that you would like to learn?

I mess around on the harmonica, melodica, glockenspiel in another band, and can play a bad C scale on the trumpet. So I’d not say that I’m great any any other instrument, but on a certain level, it’s all music. If you know what good tone sounds like, given a few months practice, you can get a song to sound good on pretty much anything after 30 years of playing music.

Please describe your musical style in one sentence:

Pop rock with folk influence, or Arena Folk.

If you weren’t in music, what would you be doing?

Probably teaching.

What is your favorite track off your new album and why?

Well, I’m not sure I have one favorite. I have moments in each that I really really like, like the string outro in “Just in Time” or the bridge of “What Was I Thinking Of.” Also, after about 1:30 of Moonlight Navigators, that song is pretty cool.

I saw Pre-Existing Condition as an album about journeys of discovery. Taking into consideration your statement that all of the songs are about love, I listened again and found it to be about the journey to find love and its eventual destination of marriage. Am I reading too much into it?

While it’s true that that’s what happened to me during the time when I wrote this album, I’d hesitate to say that’s what it “means.” I don’t want to bore you with literary theory, but if there’s anything I learned in college, it’s that there are many, many ways to find meaning in a work, depending on one’s preferred lens of interpretation. So I’ll save my energy on this one, and just let the interpretation of the record be up to my listeners.

What do you see as the biggest difference between Things to Keep in Mind While Balancing and Pre-Existing Condition with regard to style or theme?

Stylistically, PEC has a lot more of a live feel to it. With TTKIM, I was working with only a couple other musicians, and so much of what was on there was the product of just a few heads and hands. On this one, I was really determined to get as many people actually playing their instruments on the record as possible, and I’m really happy with that result. It feels, to me, much more like a living, breathing record of our time in the studio.

You’ve been playing several of the tracks on Pre-Existing Condition live for a number of years, what was the process like to create new rearrangements of them to fit the album?

I worked with Andy Thompson a lot to hone the songs into their final form. He’s a stickler for paring away the unnecessary elements of a song (which he learned from working w. Dan Wilson), so that what you’re left with is the simplest, most essential bits, whether we’re talking about melody, harmony, or what have you. I really enjoyed his input. I also asked Chris Koza for some help with lyrics, and he obliged, making some of my songs much stronger in the process. My wife, who happens to be an incredibly talented writer, was very helpful in that regard, too.

There seem to be a lot more collaborations on this album than the last, was that something you planned or did it just work out well to do so?

I planned it; I knew I wanted to work with these people, and so I asked them, and they said yes. I was thrilled about it, and really pleased not only that I got to record them for my album, but that I got to know them in the process. I can say that every person I recorded is a solid, kind, awesome human being. I’m so grateful for their contributions.

All of your upcoming shows seem to be Minnesota, are there plans for any tours?

Well, I’m not sure when you’re publishing this, but I’ll be in Portland, OR, July 2, and then will be going to Norway around mid-July for a couple months, and will be playing around the southern part of the country while I’m there. I’ll be doing a very cool film festival in the mountains of the west of the country in September, where I’ll actually hike up a mountain with my guitar, and sing, unamplified, for the other film festival goers who hike up with me. That should be a blast.

Do you have any advice or encouragement to give someone who is just starting out or is struggling with their own project?

I just had a chat with a 21 year old singer/songwriter the other day, and found that he was struggling with lots of the same issues I was dealing with at that age. So I’ll say what I said to him: be patient. Give yourself the time you need to develop. If you know music’s your path, allow yourself to grow in the stages that come naturally. Don’t try to force anything. The voice is made of cells and tissue. It’s not a light switch that you can flip on one day, and have it work the way you want it to. You have to work at it, and realize that it doesn’t mature for most men until their 30s. Same with songwriting. You have to write a lot of songs before they start coming out like you want them to.

Is there anything that we have not covered that you would like to mention?

Being an independent musician these days is very challenging – please, if you like someone’s music, consider buying it, so that they can afford to keep making great music that you like!

——-

For more information on Kevin, visit kevinsteinman.com, or check out his music at kevinsteinman.bandcamp.com. A review of Pre-Existing Condition will be posted on this blog soon.

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