How did you decide to become a musician? How has that path been for you?
I’ve always been really into music and rhythm, ever since I was a little Steven. I remember humming little melodies and tapping out beats on my belly or on a tabletop to go along with it. I was obsessed with Michael Jackson’s Thriller, as well as the score for the movie The Terminator. That main theme composed by Brad Fiedel, with its odd time signature, always fascinated me.
Acting was my first love, my first passion. As a kid, I was always performing—my mom would sew capes in the style of Superman or Batman—my favorite was Dr. Fate, for some reason—and I would run around the house as a superhero. I did theatre in high school and college and was fortunate to have some very strong training at various points throughout high school and my college career.
My first memory of picking up a guitar was at age 13. My dear friend Rob Davis (who I credit as being the person who got me into making music) let me play it. Little did I know that this would become my primary instrument and songwriting tool (besides my singing voice pen to the page). At first, there was some trepidation, as I play upside down (I play right handed guitars and ukuleles, but I play them left handed). My friends were like “dude what are you doing?!” There was the option of restringing them or buying a lefty guitar, but I didn’t like those options. I wanted to be able to pick up any guitar and just play. Lefties are also rarer and thus more expensive. Besides, I think playing upside down actually sounds cool and unique.
Eventually, I really developed a strong rapport with the guitar, and started to really enjoy singing. My first “songs” were not really all that special, looking back on them now. But they were special to me then. They were really important to me. No one else knew how to play them (I guess that’s still the case!) I was finding my own identity. Acting was like my escape—my way to discover other characters and things outside myself. Songwriting became my way of expressing myself, and what I was concerned about. It was a new path. I think I’ll always be exploring both of these paths, and it’s fun when they intersect as well.
Who and what have been (and continue to be) your influences?
There are so many!! This is fun, because I think it’s important to distinguish between music that I really adore and admire vs. artists who have “rubbed off” on me and appear in my style….artists that have truly influenced my work.
I would start with Bob Mould. Again, the credit must go to Rob Davis for introducing me to his work. The intensity of his voice and his strumming always really pulled me in. I’ve had some people tell me that my songwriting style reminds them of Mould, and I’m flattered. There’s an immediacy to his work that I really appreciate.
Second would be a musician you recently interviewed for your blog…Mr. Jason Anderson, formerly known as Wolf Colonel. I first saw him while at Bard College in 2001. He was doing a K Records tour with Calvin Johnson (founder/producer of K Records, Beat Happening, The Halo Benders, etc.) and The Microphones. Calvin played first, and he stood precariously on the beams of this stairway outside of one of the academic buildings on campus. It was scary at first, but it soon became apparent that he was quite comfortable perched there with his classical guitar. He played beautifully and encouraged all of us to gather round and get close, much like a campfire setting. Things continued in this same vein when Jason brought us inside and he shared a bunch of beautiful songs with us. Some of them were so short, like sonnets!
Literally, there were songs like Bless Us Now that lasted for sixty seconds. It was so powerful, like a gust of wind followed by complete silence. He had us in the palm of his hand. His spirit, his positive energy, the inclusiveness which pervaded his performance—it was all so immense. I remember thinking that I wanted to be able to capture a room like that. The way he breaks down the wall between audience and performer is something that I aspire to, though not quite in the way he does it. I think I’ve found my own version of that, but it really hit me hard. It was so life affirming and rejuvenating. It was magical. A few friends and I bought his Something/Everything CD right then and there. The Microphones were incredible, as well. Phil Elverum is a force of nature. The next time I saw Jason Anderson was at the Empty Bottle in Chicago, right after I’d graduated from Bard in 2003. I approached him after the show and tried (somewhat feebly) to articulate what that 2001 performance had meant to me. I was kind of fawning over him, honestly. We became friends. I’ve since opened for him four times here in Chicago (twice at Elegant Mr. Gallery, twice at the Den Theatre) and will do so again this June (again at the Den Theatre). I feel so lucky to know him. He is such a wonderful friend and an inspiration. He is my favorite songwriter of all time.
Next would have to be J. Mascis of Dinosaur, Jr. He is mostly known for his face-melting electric guitar solos, which is something I would never even really aspire to, though I am getting better at playing lead. What’s interesting about Mascis for me is that the first time I ever saw him perform was at an acoustic show at the University Of Chicago. He was opening up for Henry Rollins, who was doing a spoken word set. I was initially there for Rollins, who was fantastic. But it was J. Mascis that really blew my mind. It was the songwriting and the dexterity, the rhythm of his acoustic playing that knocked me out. His vocals were scratchy in an endearing way, like Neil Young. The way his falsetto would sometimes creep into a song was charming and felt experimental and courageous to me. I fell in love. I felt the power of song that night, and I knew it was what I wanted to do. If there was a definitive moment for me, that was it. The day after the show I bought every single Dinosaur, Jr. album I could find. I had also taped most of his set on a little tape recorder my friend Brian let me borrow. I listened to it over and over again for weeks.
Lots of honorable mentions and influential figures, without whom my musical life would be far less exciting: Mark Kozelek (Red House Painters/Sun Kil Moon) Anders Parker (Varnaline), Damien Jurado, Chris Whitley, Mark Eitzel (American Music Club) Eric Bachmann (Archers of Loaf, Crooked Fingers), Mark Linkous (Sparklehorse), Broken Social Scene, The National, Bradford Cox (Deerhunter, Atlas Sound) Mirah Yom Tov Zeitlyn (Mirah), Lou Barlow (Sebadoh, Dinosaur, Jr., Sentridoh, Folk Implosion), Kristian Matsson (The Tallest Man On Earth), Wes Kidd (Triplefastaction), and Jason Narducy (Verbow).
What is the songwriting process like?
The process is everything. It’s such a rush. I’m not sure there is a better feeling in the world to me than writing a new song. More often than not, a song begins with the guitar or uke part and then I begin singing whatever comes out…sometimes I’ll just sing nonsense words and gradually a phrase will emerge from my subconscious and then I’ll structure the song and the lyrics will stem out from that. Occasionally, the entire song (lyrics and music) all happen at once, like lightning. That’s amazing, and rare. After I’ve got a rough draft, I usually record it on garageband or on my iPhone—just a really scratchy version so I can listen to it over and over….that’s when the rewriting begins to take place. I sculpt it and reform it until I really love it. It’s rigorous but fun. At a certain point, I hear the song so many times in a row that it can become almost nauseating, and that’s when I need to take a break and come back to it. I also love adding vocal harmonies or little riffs here and there….the recording process usually reveals several of those “happy accidents,” which often elevate the song and give it new character. That’s one of my favorite things!!
“Forgive Yourself” is an intriguing name for an album. How did you select that title?
There’s an artist/tagger in Chicago who tags the word “forgive” all over the city, on sidewalks, on walls. I’d like to meet him, but his identity is a mystery. The first time I saw his tag, it was the two words “forgive yourself.” It’s on the southwest corner of Diversey & Ashland, right where the southbound #9 Ashland bus stops. I was just very moved when I saw the words there, and so I took a picture with my phone. Every time I’m at that corner, I make a point of stopping and looking at those words. I think everyone carries some intense guilt with them in their lives. Simply put, I think we all need to sometimes give ourselves a break…to forgive ourselves.
How do your different identities affect your music?
This is a perfect lead-in to what I wanted to say next about Forgive Yourself. I might as well come out and announce that Forgive Yourself is actually not a “Steven Gilpin” EP, per se. It’s the first collection of songs of an alter ego I’m developing called Torso, which is my ambient instrumental side project. Steven Gilpin the folk singer/songwriter with lyrics and verses and choruses (sometimes) will be a separate musical entity. On a basic level, I think Forgive Yourself as a phrase/title has a serenity that I thought matched that sound well. So, in a sense, it’s like I have split myself up into two people….which is wonderful and exciting, if a bit pretentious.
In what ways is your work feminist?
I don’t know that my music is feminist, but I would definitely say I’m a humanist. I think many of my songs revolve around friendships and romances I’ve had with women, and so in a way, these songs are tributes to the amazing women who have come into my life. It’s no secret that heartbreak plays a role in that, but there’s also the power of memory, the power of holding on to that love, and transcending that pain through melody. But it’s not all pain. There’s a lot of joy, too. I think all of my songs, even ones that come from an angry place, reflect a worldview that we should all be treated as equals, and that together we can hopefully combat the marginalization of any group of people.
The term “folk” has been applied to your music. How do you understand that genre?
Well, I think of folk music “the people’s music.” They’re stories about ordinary people. They’re relatable. I hope so, anyway! Defining things by genre can be so tricky, but it’s useful as a reference point. I definitely think of my songs as rock & roll or pop just as much as they are folk. I created this term Dusty Folk Pop for my genre, but I honestly don’t know what that even means. I think the “dusty” part of it came from the fact that I was recording in a very lo-fi way, so there was some dust on the songs, in an aural sense. People always ask me: “what kind of music do you play?” It’s not an easy question. I certainly couldn’t call my music hip-hop or country, but at the same time, the term “folk” or “rock” can be so limiting. I would hate to have someone not listen to my songs just because of the label attached.
On what projects are you currently working?
I’m actually in the process of completing an EP called Syndrome. It’s comprised of my songs. I’m really quite proud of it, more so than anything I’ve ever done musically. My good friend and fellow songwriter extraordinaire Brice Woodall recorded it and is mixing it. Then we’re sending it off to be mastered by an extreme Chicago talent (who shall remain unnamed for now). A wonderful artist named Dmitry Samarov did the cover artwork, and I’d highly recommend everyone check out his work—it’s stellar. http://www.dmitrysamarov.com/
What advice do you have aspiring musicians?
Find your voice. Keep developing your voice, keep honing your style. Never give up. If a phrase, lyric or chord change sounds good to you, don’t change it, even if someone criticizes it. By the same token, if something feels off to you, your instinct is probably right. Keep listening to music, too. Don’t become insulated by your own sound. Don’t be afraid to use your music to confront the issues in your life—what upsets you? What drives you? What makes you happy? Don’t be afraid of symbolism or abstraction, but also don’t be afraid to get literal and intimate. Wow, I’m really going for the opposite extremes here, huh? I sound a bit like a fortune cookie. Now I’m hungry!