Steve Poltz: Around the world and back

San Diego songwriter gets lost to find new songs, sounds, and St. John’s

Steve Poltz is pretty rad. I know when people use that word, it’s usually with a smirk and hint of irony, but dipping into my university-educated vocabulary, it’s the most appropriate word I can summon.

When the singer-songwriter called me from Little Italy in San Diego, it was only 8:30 a.m. there.

“I find it really hard to sleep in – I’ve always been that way. I wake up at seven. I’m a weirdo.”

Weirdo isn’t the word I would pick, but he’s certainly had an interesting life.

Poltz moved from Halifax to California with his family as a child, then, in 1992, left a nine-to-five job to take his band’s (The Rugburns, made up of friends from the University of San Diego) music more seriously. A few years later, when American songstress Jewel was just getting her start, he took a trip to Mexico with her, assisted local authorities in a major marijuana bust, and end up co-writing “You Were Meant For Me,” which spent 65 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100.

Poltz admits the song’s popularity once annoyed him because it was all interviewers wanted to talk about, but he has since learned to embrace it. “If you look at all your songs as kids of yours, that’s the one that went on and got his PhD. That one’s helping to pay your bills now, so love that kid!” he laughs.

“It will always be on my resume, because people will always want something that they can find some common ground in.”

Nonetheless, Poltz has been busy as a non-chart-topping musician, recording three albums with The Rugburns and nine as a solo artist. He’s also currently at work on a soundtrack for an independent film (working title: A Poet on the Prairie) and is busy promoting Noineen Noiny Noin, his newest album, released last month.

Halifax and Joel Plaskett

Though he grew up in southern California, Poltz spent a considerable amount of time visiting relatives in the Maritimes and often wonders how things might have turned out had he never left Canada. He had a chance to rediscover the influence of the Atlantic with his 2010 release Dreamhouse, produced by Nova Scotia indie great Joel Plaskett.

“My friend, Mike Campbell, kept saying to me, ‘Oh, you gotta listen to this band called The Joel Plaskett Emergency,’” Poltz recalls. “One night, we were sitting around, drinking a few beers, and he put on ‘Light of the Moon,’ and I just flipped when I heard that song. Everything about that song I loved. Years later, [Joel] came down and saw a show of mine, and he really liked the show, and we just sat and talked at the bar at the Carleton until way after hours. We had so much to discuss, music-wise, and we were instantly great friends.”

Poltz ended up at Plaskett’s studio, where he started recording songs on reel-to-reel 16-track analogue, listening to Willie Nelson records, and drinking tea. “As a producer, he’s really methodical, and really organized – the things I’m not. He will mull over one part of a song and analyse it, construct it and deconstruct it. He’s painstaking, and that’s why he’s so good.”

Australia and Noineen Noiny Noin

“For me, when I’m happiest, I’m sitting in some foreign café on a corner – I love being in some city I’ve never been before, like Berlin, or Prague, or Ljubljana, sitting outside and watching people walk by, and taking a couple of hours to just think about life.”

The pull of the exotic – and the way that pull ultimately leads inwards – has long been a priority in Poltz’s writing and recording. Having been to Australia a dozen times in the past, he recently returned to do some shows opening for Kevin Mitchell, of the immensely popular down-under group Jebediah. It was then that he forged a friendship with drummer Malcolm Clark, who invited him to his studio in Perth, the “most isolated city in the world.”

Idolizing the career of Neil Young and his constant artistic redevelopment, Poltz still gets excited about his new projects. He brought that, along with an armful of new tracks, to the studio in Australia, and the result is the new record, a collection of acoustic pop songs with international flavour intertwined into the groove. At no point is it too serious, but it’s sophisticated and different enough to make you turn your head.

“That’s the cool thing about my job: I can record anywhere, and I’m not beholden to a band, because I’m a solo artist” Poltz says. “I’m able to find groups of musicians in places and make a recording. Still on my list is to go to Cuba and make a record.”

The title Noineen Noiny Noin comes from how an Australian might pronounce “1999,” which was when he first came to Australia as an opening act for Jewel. It might have still been early in California, but he was in the right mood to test my pronunciation.

“That was really good!” he laughed.

Steve Poltz and St. John’s

August 12 marks Poltz’s fourth trip to Newfoundland, where he’ll be performing at The Ship Pub in St. John’s.

“It’s so beautiful. It kind of reminds me of Tasmania – it’s like a part of Canada, yet it’s not a part of Canada. They sort of have an air of independence about them, and Newfoundland seems like it’s its own country. Which I really like – Newfoundlanders have an independence about them and a joy of life.”

Having played on larger stages as well as at intimate house concerts, he admits to preferring the latter, and is looking forward to being able to share stories in his disarming, candid manner on a Sunday evening with a room of soon-to-be friends.

On this visit, as before, he will only be in the capital city – still, he’s looking forward to someday driving across the province and possibly playing in Corner Brook along the way. And while he has resolved to learn to plan and schedule things better, Poltz is having a lot of fun doing things the way he has always done them, by getting lost in something totally new and unexpected. Whether it’s in the nooks and crannies of Newfoundland or halfway around the world, there are still plenty of things to see.

“There’s so many more places I need to go. I say make your motto like Chet Baker: let’s get lost. Going wherever the roads leads you, those are some of the funnest days.”

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