When you just can’t stay home; how Steve Poltz survived the pandemic
“I wasn’t made for these times, for a a pandemic,” said Steve Poltz. “My wife says I’m like a golden retriever. I just want to jump on everyone’s laps and lick them!”
The singer-songwriter is telling me about how he handled the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. In two words: not well.
“I said, I’m going to go crazy if I stay inside!” he said.
So Steve called a friend in San Francisco to see how many people it was legal to perform in front of. The answer was 20 if it was outside, and the friend offered to book some shows.
“I got on a plane when the airports were empty and [it was] tantamount to committing suicide to even think to get on a plane,” he said from a Colorado hotel room. “We figured out a way to do shows with a little Bose speaker [in front] of 20 people outside. I was doing 16 shows in five days ’cause I’d do three a day.”
Adding to that were some online shows that were quite successful. But Steve’s not a fan of Zoom concerts.
“I hate Zoom for doing a show,” he said. “I don’t want to see the people, because in my mind I think they’re going, ‘Yay! This is great!’ But in reality, they’re yawning, there’s some little kids running around, somebody’s not even at the camera [and] they have horrible lighting.”
Steve stuck to Facebook streaming shows so he could picture how his audience looked in his own mind.
“I’m insane, and in my mind, I’m playing to 20,000 people in the Coliseum. Let me live in my own demented fantasy because I don’t want to see where everybody lives and watch them yawning while I play.”
Steve’s new album, Stardust And Satellites, his 14th, got its start during the pandemic lockdown in Nashville.
“I live a few houses down from Chris Wood, who’s in The Wood Brothers band. We would go on walks, and I got to know his brother, Oliver.
During dinner one night, Oliver invited Steve to check out his studio. Steve went over and soon emerged with the song “Frenemy.”
“I really liked what we recorded,” he said. “I thought, ‘Man, I think I’m making a record!'”
Living in Nashville, Steve has access to countless great musicians to pick and choose from to bring his songs to life. But Steve doesn’t work that way.
“If I was smart, I would get a list of names because there are so many opportunities, and I would listen to everything they did, compare and contrast. But I don’t even know how to write a set list, so everything is kind of on instinct.”
In the end, Stardust And Satellites was a collaboration between Steve, Oliver Wood and Jano Rix, who’s also a member of the Wood Brothers.
Steve’s reliance on instinct is grounded in his intense preparation of the songs before he even gets into the studio.
“If I write a song, I’ll play it 200-300 times alone,” he explained. “I have to do that; it becomes instinctual, and I get inside the song. What I’m doing is high-altitude training for that one moment in the studio where I’m inside the song and not thinking about the chord fingerings. I want everything to come naturally. Then I know, ‘OK this is the big moment.'”
Steve also relies on instinct when it comes to his songwriting, as in “Frenemy.”
“I was reading Kierkegaard [and thought], ‘That would be a good opening line for a song.’ I started [writing], ‘She was into Kierkegaard and I was sitting in her yard.’ I loved that I got to name-check Kierkegaard. I thought, ‘What else could I do?'”
What followed were the lines, ‘She danced just like Baryshnikov while holding a Kalashnikov.’
“It’s almost like fishing or something,” he said. “I feel like, Oh my God, I’ve got a great fish on the line here. I’ve gotta finish this song!”
Steve has a degree in political science, which has come in handy, not in his songwriting but during live shows.
“Sometimes I’ll play a two-hour show, and I’ll only do five songs,” he said. “I find humour in everything, especially gallows humour. So [during] my show, I can go on a ramble about politics but not in a way to make people feel uncomfortable.”
His shows also rely on capturing those “lightning-in-a-bottle” moments to make each concert special, even if those moments are manufactured to some extent.
“I have this moment in my shows where I’ll go, ‘This is the greatest show I’ve ever played in my life!” he said. “Every day is the greatest day of your life, and you need to fool your mind into believing that it is. So even if it’s not the greatest show, I’m going to say that to the audience because in some way, I’m going to believe it really is. That way you’re really living in the moment.”
To find out more about Steve Poltz and Stardust And Satellites, go to poltz.com.