A Jumble Of Parts
– An interview with –
by alex wexelman
Stephen Steinbrink doesn’t self-identify as a singer-songwriter, but he does identify as a pop artist. Recently, over the phone, I ask Steinbrink why he allies himself with a genre often sneered at by those in the indie and DIY community. “Pop music to me is… really simple, emotional ideas conveyed in a concise way in a pleasing melody,” Steinbrink tells me. “I think there are a million sub-genres you can divide that into. My records are pretty varied and I think it’s hard to concisely describe what style of music I play so pop seems the most fitting and broad.”
Steinbrink’s most recent effort, Anagrams, is a song-cycle that doesn’t recycle: he flirts with a myriad of genres including folk, power pop, synth pop, yacht rock, baroque pop and country rock. Despite its disparate nature, each of the 12 songs, recorded over two years, flows with ease into the next like a lazy-river raft drifting down the bay. For a record about anxiety and self-doubt, as Steibrink describes it, Anagrams is a surprisingly lovely thing to listen to.
Stephen kindly took some time out of his day to discuss the making of the record, his songwriting process, his influences and his life on the road…
On ‘What Identity’ you sing “Your song is on the blog / But you’re getting it all wrong.” Do you find that writers ascribe meaning to your words that miss the point of what you’re trying to say?
No, that lyric was referencing not blogs or not writers but more musicians attitudes towards press and heightened expectations of how it’s going to validate your creative aspirations or goals, does that make sense?
Do you mean that they’re expecting to get hyped up and if someone says something wrong that they get upset?
Sure, or maybe just the idea that getting press is going to give you any more self-satisfaction or validation as an artist. I feel like that comes from within and not outside sources but y’know I think a lot of times people get mixed up in the pursuit of getting press and needing that validation
So how do you approach press usually?
Oh, I try not to think about it.
With your words, are you attempting to imprint a narrative on the listener or do you give them just enough that they can kind of form their own experience around it?
It depends, with a few of these new songs there’s a really clear narrative: “Shine a Light on Him” and “Psychic Daydream” are pretty spot on portraits of a specific time in my life, but I guess narrative can be used loosely because I’m just stringing images together and I feel like that gives a better idea than like their being a narrative tied to a timeline. I feel like images are more powerful.
So how do you try to evoke images through a medium that’s auditory?
Well by using words, describing places. I sing about place a lot: like certain street corners are mentioned frequently on this new record, stores, different cities.
In a press release you said while making ‘Anagrams’ you felt like you were losing it. Why was this album particularly difficult to make?
I don’t know. I think that’s part of why I felt like I was going crazy cause usually making an album is a pretty streamlined, easy process for me, but for whatever reason I didn’t know what these songs wanted to be and how they wanted to sound. I think a big part of that was I was moving around so much and recording frequently and the sessions were scattered over the course of two years and a person can change a lot in the span of a couple of years and with that change comes different ideas about what you are so I think it was just difficult for me to grab hold of the themes of the record. It wasn’t until I finished the record that I realized it’s more of a record about self-doubt and uncertainty than anything else, and anxiety too. That’s the cool thing about making a cohesive body of work is that you don’t really know what it is until you’re finished with it. I think that’s true with short stories and albums.
Now to go back a minute, you said that these songs didn’t really know what they wanted to be so would you say that the music dictates the process? The way you described it, it almost sounded like the songs were dictating how the album was going to go as opposed to you as the creator of the songs. How do you approach making music? Do you find that songs almost come to you in a way?
Oh totally, yeah. Every time I’ve tried to write a specific type of song it never works. I think the trick to songwriting is being open to whatever comes and sometimes that can be a really frustrating process, too, because if you’re just letting songs come to you it’s hard to predict what they’re going to be like, what they’re going to be about. Its like reverse engineering an album and I hear a lot of songwriters say the same thing so I think it’s a common thread with songwriters that write in the same genre that I do, introspective guitar music.
The next question, maybe you already answered this, if writing is difficult for you, why do you continue to do it. I guess that you said that it’s not usually difficult for you, it was just this particular time around so…
It wasn’t the writing that was difficult or the arranging and recording, [it was more] the subtle details of all the songs that I was getting hung up on. And maybe I was valuing this idea of perfection more than I should have.
Was that because you felt like this album was a specific time for you to breakout?
No, I also think it has more to do with the change in process. I self-recorded all my albums up until this point and it’s an entirely different process than going into the studio with demoes already made and arrangements planned out and that certain, strict time guideline that you have to follow and hired musicians and stuff like that. It’s a little more difficult that way and just getting into the groove of studio recording, there’s a pretty steep learning curve for me.
Yeah, totally. Did you find it difficult to give up control?
Not necessarily. I produced these sessions too so basically the only thing that I gave up was actually engineering the album itself. Nich Wilbur at the UNKOWN engineered this record, but I was still producing and arranging all of it so it definitely wasn’t a control issue.
You seem to approach song writing from a unique place. Are there artists who inspire you or do you kind of follow your own influence?
There are so many songwriters that I love. Last night I just played with Katy Davidson in Portland. She used to have a band called Dear Nora and her other projects are Key Losers, Lloyd & Michael, she’s an incredible songwriter and writes a lot about technological isolation and rental cars and California and pollution. She’s been one of my biggest inspirations since I was a teenager. She’s from Arizona too and we never lived there at the same time, but she’d often come back to Phoenix and play shows so I grew up listening to her and started writing songs around the same time I was listening to a lot of her records. She’s a huge inspiration to me. Her and so many bands from the Pacific Northwest, a lot of Olympia bands: LAKE, Karl Blau. I’m always listening to songs. I’m always trying to figure out what about certain songs I like and trying to listen to new perspectives and different lyricists. Right now I’m really into Wizard Apprentice. Have you heard of her?
No, who is that?
It’s this incredible artist from Oakland. Just like really intensely personal electronic folk songs and lyrically she’s just blowing me away right now. It’s really incredible stuff.
Do you enjoy playing live? Is that a fun experience for you or a necessary evil?
I like it. It’s a totally different thing than recording. I approach the two things really differently. Songs change a lot and performing is cool because it gives you an opportunity to keep working on the songs and rearranging them and adding new verses or taking away verses. It’s really freeing to me. I’ve been really into playing solo lately. Really connecting with an audience and being quiet, forcing them to listen to the words.
Does touring a lot affect the way you write your songs or write your music?
I don’t know. As opposed to what? I’ve been touring and traveling like this for like six, seven years so I don’t like to think of my traveling lifestyle as preventing me from writing music or making it more difficult. I really try to make an effort not to pressure myself into thinking that I’m not being productive or thinking that I should be writing when I’m not. I think putting any kind of expectation or framework around your creative practice can be pretty damaging, or at least it is for me. I try to keep it as this structureless activity: I play guitar when I want to play guitar and then songs happen when they do.
How did you get started in music?
I started playing in bands when I was 15 in Phoenix just started a band with some people in my early 20s. There’s this really cool community of art spaces in downtown Phoenix. In the early 2000s it was really cheap to rent space, there was no interest in it from developers, so one could rent a thousand square foot gallery space for $200 a month and host shows there. It was a pretty magical time thinking about it now. There were like 15 all-ages venues and it caused this explosion of young bands playing pretty interesting, weird, fucked-up music because you didn’t need any permission to play whatever you wanted to and it was relatively easy to play shows. But it was cool. I was able to open up for some really amazing people in my late teens because Phoenix is such a small market for interesting music. I was playing a lot of shows in high school. A lot of four-track…constantly work[ing] on music, constantly record[ing], writing songs, putting out short-run cassettes and playing house shows and then I started touring. I was around 17 and that’s what I’ve done for the last 10 years more or less.
Has touring been a fun process for you, has it been gruelling, has it been kind of a mix of both?
It’s a mix of both. It’s been my life and life is always a mix of everything. Right now I’m excited to take a break. I’m gonna move back to Oakland and get a room and stare at a wall for three months. Touring’s amazing; I’ve gotten to see the world. So I’m really grateful in so many ways. Yeah, it’s hard. You sacrifice a lot to travel all the time. You sacrifice a lot of comforts and relationships suffer. There’s definitely a downside to it. It’s not always this really romantic thing.
Why did you name the record Anagrams?
It’s a self-referential thing for how long I spent on the record and how many mixes and how many different version of the songs I recorded in the two years working on the record and after working on it for two years it seemed arbitrary what the album was and I had to just pick a version of it that made sense and put it out into the world. Anagrams made sense: it’s just a jumble of all these parts and put it together and it makes a word.
What was the recording process like on this album?
I recorded it at the studio called UNKOWN in Anacortes. It’s a big, de-sanctified, Catholic church. For a while it was used as a sail-making studio for sailboats so it’s just a massive room. Two years ago some friends starting building a studio and it’s an incredible place. It’s in a really tiny island town in northern Washington by the Canadian border and it’s really slow and sleepy and it’s a cool place to make a record…
‘Anagrams‘ is out now, via Melodic Recordings
Stephen plays a European tour this Summer, the dates are as follows:
09/26 – Denmark, Copenhagen @ Beta
09/27 – Denmark, Aarhus @ Atlas
09/28 – Germany, Hamburg @ Clubheim Im Schanzenpark
09/29 – Germany, Berlin @ ACUD
09/30 – Belgium, Antwerp @ Trix (w/ Pinegrove)
10/02 – The Netherlands, Rotterdam @ v11
10/03 – UK, Leeds @ Headrow House
10/04 – UK, London @ The Lexington
10/07 – Switzerland, Luzern @ Neubad
10/09 – Italy, Varese @ Twiggy
10/10 – Italy, Livorno @ Ex Cinema Aurora
10/11 – Italy, Misano Adriatico @ Wave Club
10/12 – Italy, Roma @ Na Cosetta