Excerpt from an Exclusive Unreleased Interview with Sam Steffen
Today is January 6, 2019. I’m sitting here with Sam Steffen. Sam is a Philadelphia singer-songwriter who just released, a couple months ago now, I guess, it was, an album—let me see here, when was it?—looks like September of 2018—just released an album back in September the title of which is Words, Words, Words. It’s a pretty good album, as far as folk music is concerned, and he’s here now, in the studio, talking with us today. Hey there, Sam.
How you doing?
I’m doing well. How about yourself?
I’m good. So let’s get right into it, why don’t we? Sam, tell me. How long have you been writing songs?
Let me think. I started writing songs the summer after I graduated from college, which was in 2010—so, ah, let me see, that would be…what is it? Nine years, I guess.
And have you always played guitar?
Well, I’ve been playing guitar longer than I’ve been writing songs. I started playing guitar in high school, but I never really had the courage to write any of my own stuff until—like I said—after college.
Why is that?
I’m not sure. [long pause] I think when I was younger I had some strange ideas about art and art-making that I had to really work to dispel myself of to feel more comfortable making things I could feel good—or even alright—about sharing with anybody.
Like what do you mean, specifically?
Well, I remember reading Thoreau and Emerson in high school and really feeling like these guys had it pretty figured-out. There’s this essay by Ralph Waldo Emerson where he talks about being self-reliant and independent—
Yeah. Right. The line I remember from it that really stuck with me was this part where he says “imitation is suicide.” And this whole idea that if you’re not doing something that’s totally brand-new, unique, then you’re just bound to disappear into the multitude of ordinaries or whatever. I mean, maybe that’s a gross and elementary reading of the text, and I’m embarrassed to say I haven’t read that essay probably since I was in high school and would not at all be surprised to learn that what I had taken from it when I was fifteen was probably pretty far from what Emerson intended by it, and is probably pretty far from what I might glean from it if I were to read it now—but I remember a younger version of myself where I had these pretty solid convictions about who I was and who I wasn’t and what it would take to make art that mattered—and, thinking back on it, I’m not sure I had my head on straight about any of it. When I was in high school and even after that I really wanted to be a writer. That’s what I thought everything was driving towards. I had all these ideas for stories and I was constantly trying to flush them out, to make something tangible out of them, but I always felt like everything I wrote came out sounding an awful lot like whoever I happened to be reading at the time. That didn’t really stop me from trying, but it did kind of stop me from wanting to share my work with anyone. You know, because I was afraid I would get feedback like “This sounds an awful lot like Vonnegut to me” or “This sounds like James Joyce,” or whoever it was…Which is just—it’s funny now to think back and remember that as a fifteen year old I was worried about producing art that would be compared to my favorite writers of the time…because—well, I guess that just shows I must have been pretty arrogant and thought awfully highly of my own work. Truth is, anybody looking at any of the stories I was writing then probably would have said, “It’s alright for a highschooler.”
And where are you with that thinking now, as far as the “imitation is suicide” thing?
I think I’m just…I’m over it. So, I think a lot of the work I had to do—and it took a lot of time and a lot of work to realize it, but I think I eventually did realize it—was just working towards this notion that if you want to make good art, you can’t be hung up on whether or not your art is going to look or sound too much like one person and not enough like you. I think you have to start out by imitating the people who are making the art that you yourself want to be making, that maybe you wish you could make but feel you can’t yet, for whatever reason. Because that will help you get better. If it’s an issue of talent, then you’ll go and you’ll practice. It’s like with any song you hear: If you hear a great song and you’re like, man, I just got to learn to play that song—you go out and you learn it and you study it and maybe you get it and maybe you don’t, but you try and you sort of see where you’re able to get. If it’s an issue of creativity, then, I don’t know—maybe you’ll expose yourself to wilder things to sort of help you think outside your comfort zone, or whatever it is. I think that’s how you learn. I think Emerson kind of set me back a couple years by convincing me that if I tried to write something that I thought sounded like anyone I liked it would be the end of an artistic career for me. But I don’t think that, now. I don’t think imitation is suicide. They say it’s the highest form of flattery you can give to someone, and I actually think it’s the first step towards making art that will be lasting and meaningful to the person making it.
It also seems—if I can chime in here—it seems like there’s something particular about folk music that sort of lends itself to being a good vehicle for taking that sort of “first-step” as you’re calling it, towards imitating others. I mean, as you were just talking about this, I was just reminded of how there’s a lot of great folk music out there that started out as one song and wound up being the tune for another, more popular song. You know?
Yeah. Definitely. Sure.
Like, I guess I’m thinking in particular of how some of Woody Guthrie’s songs were songs that he wrote the words for, but the melodies were just lifted from like, old fiddle tunes, or Carter family tunes, or hymns or whatever. Like how the melody to “This Land Is Your Land” was taken from the Carter Family song “When the World’s On Fire.” Or how Bob Dylan’s “Blowin In The Wind” is a song that he wrote the lyrics to, but the melody was an old spiritual called “No More Auction Block.”
Yeah, sure. And—yeah. I’m glad you mentioned that, because I think it’s actually folk music that helped me change my mind about a lot of those misguided notions of self-reliance that I was just talking about. I mean, I remember the first time I realized the “talking blues” were sort of like a folk-trope. I think the first talking blues song I ever heard was Pete Seeger's "Talking Union." On the recording I have of this, he mentions learning the talking blues from Woody Guthrie, and even plays a stanza of one of Woody's talking blues songs as a way of introducing his own. I think Woody Guthrie was the first one to write the standard, but don’t quote me on that…Anyway, not long afterwards, I began discovering more and more talking blues songs by other artists who were using the exact same chords and lyrical meter to create talking blues of their own. It was a wonderful thing to realize how learning one song made it possible to play so many others, and that all these “talking blues” songs that had been written were not original in the sense of providing a brand new sound that nobody had ever heard, but were sort of like this common starting point for literally dozens of other songwriters to riff off of and contribute to.
Yeah, there’s a lot of talking blues songs out there, huh?
I can think of a few off the top of my head. In addition to Woody Guthrie's "Talkin Centralia," "Talking Fishing Blues," "Talking Columbia," "Talking Dust Bowl", and others, when I first became interested in writing a talking blues of my own, I just started looking and found a whole bunch: Dave Van Ronk's "Talking Cancer Blues"; Phil Och's "Talking Birmingham Ham,” “Talking Airplane”, "Talking TV", “Talking Vietnam”; Bob Dylan's "Talking Bear Mountain Picnic," "Talking John Birch Paranoid Blues," "Talking World War III", "Talking New York"; Townes Van Zandt's "Talking KKK" and "Talking Thunderbird Wine Blues"; Todd Snyder's "Talking Seattle Grunge Rock Blues"; Pete Seeger's “Talking Union,” "Talking Atom"... The list goes on. It seemed to me that if I was going to play folk music I was going to have to write one of these for myself, sooner or later. Granted the definition of "talking blues" can be argued, but these songs I've just listed fit a very particular definition which all use the same three chords and essentially provide the same melody for the lyrics to stand on. They usually require two rhymed couplets—like in Pete Seeger’s “talking union” song I just mentioned, it starts out "Now you want higher wages, let me tell you what to do / you got to talk to the workers in the shop with you // you got to build a union, got to make it strong / if you all stick together, boys, twont be long…”—and it’s followed by a trailing, unmetered thought which carries no responsibility to rhyme with anything—"you get shorter hours; take your kids to the seashore!”
What’s been your contribution been to the “talking blues” trope, as you call it?
I’ve tried my hand at a couple talking blues songs. There’s one on my first album about technology, that’s about a guy who’s learning about cell-phone technology; I’ve got another one that I put out on my first EP that’s called “A Twenty-Something College Graduate’s Talkin Blues” that’s sort of about the experience of going to a liberal arts college and graduating with a ton of debt and no real idea of what to do in the world.
Is that taken from your own experience?
Yeah, that one’s pretty much true. Don’t get me wrong, I loved being in school—would love to go back, actually. But I can’t say I’ve found much of a way to make money using what I majored in.
Do you mind if I ask what you majored in?
Creative writing. Yeah. [laughter] Ah—yes, I was a creative writing major.
You said before that you weren’t really writing songs when you were in college, that you didn’t start writing songs until after you had graduated…?
Yeah. I think I was really putting a lot of energy when I was in school into being a different kind of writer. As in, not a song-writer. I had never written a song at that point, didn’t really know if I could. I spent my whole senior year working on a novel, and all four years prior to that the only real writing I did—or the only real writing I did that had any personal value to me, that I really cared about, was short fiction. Like short stories. Yeah. So…I don’t know. I guess I just wasn’t trying to be a songwriter at that time.
I guess part of what changed was… I gotta think back, here, now. Let’s see. Right after I graduated from college, the first thing I did was move to the Pioneer Valley in Massachusetts. I moved there because my brother lived up there and he knew someone who needed a roommate and I was looking to move pretty much anywhere so long as I didn’t have to move back home with my parents…
Remind us where’s home for you, again, Sam?
I’m from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. I was born in Duluth, Minnesota, but I was brought to Bethlehem when I was still too young to remember and pretty much got raised there.
What’s the matter with your parents?
Nothing, really. I mean, I feel very fortunate that I’m able to get along pretty well with both of my parents. It’s just that—I felt like being away at school the past four years had gotten me used to living on my own, and I wasn’t really ready to go back…I mean, I’m not saying anything against people who graduate college and move back in with their parents. I know a lot of people do it. Hell, some of my favorite writers did it.
Like who do you mean?
I think Sylvia Plath did something like that. And Flannery O’Connor? I’ve got nothing against the trajectory that puts you in higher education only to put you right back at home. That’s just how it goes for some people; there’s nothing wrong with that. I’m just saying, it’s not what I wanted to do at the time…
Alright. So you graduated college—you didn’t just transfer right into the work-force, start making good money as a fiction writer?
Haw. No. When I graduated, I didn’t know what to do. I had a hump of debt and no employable skills. Really what I wanted to do was stay in school. I had applied to a pHd program in English, but didn’t get in.
So you moved to Massachusetts…
I moved to Massachusetts where my brother was still in school at the time, and I lived with a friend of his. I didn’t really have much money and I needed to pay rent to keep living there, so I went to a temp agency and they placed me in a job at the Yankee Candle factory, in the shipping department. I lived in this apartment that was right next to Emily Dickinson’s house. Geographically speaking it was right in between where she lived and where she was buried. I felt like I was in the middle of this very interesting space for that reason...
Yankee Candle? Wow.
Yeah. It was a factory job, so you were just on your feet all day long and they had all these very strict rules. You couldn’t sit down. You could only get water when it was break time. I saw a lot of people get fired for doing really basic human needs kinds of things. Like using the bathroom without asking.
They’d fire you for that?
Yeah. I saw a guy get fired once for having his shoelace untied. It was very—I don’t know—strict. But anyway, yeah. So what I would do is, when I was just standing there on my feet for eight hours, I started to get these little songs and melodies that would come into my head. And every day they gave us these print outs when we got there that were like a ‘to-do’ list of all the product we had to bundle up and load onto these truck-beds. I used to fold mine up and put it in my shirt pocket. Usually by the end of the day it was like full of song lyrics, or, if not lyrics, at least like sketches of ideas for songs.
So you just weren’t that in to writing stories anymore? Burnt-out on novels?
I don’t know. I was still working on some fiction at the time. I guess being in a new place where the only person I really knew was my brother, I was spending almost all of my time outside of work by myself. I was writing, but I also had this feeling that I really wanted to get out there and sing somewhere. The thing about writing songs is that, well, compared to writing novels, it’s not that they’re easier, but they’re certainly more finishable. I don’t know if that’s the right word. I don’t want to make it sound like writing a song is easier than writing a novel, because how do you measure that? But when you’re working on a novel, you have to be okay thinking like, okay, I’m working on this story and there’s a good possibility it won’t be finished until, I don’t know, a year, two years, ten years from now? Or maybe it won’t ever get finished because I’ll get side tracked in the middle of working on it and start something else and just never come back to it. I think part of the reason I started writing songs was because it gave me something smaller to work on, something that I could have the feeling of satisfaction of finishing, while I was working on these longer, more tedious projects.
I’d like to ask you here about your third album. So, you released an EP of five songs back in 2013. The next year, 2014, you released your first studio album, what we’ll call album number two, Someone Else’s Blues. Correct?
That sounds right.
Then you came out, the same year, with another collection of songs that you titled Failed Novels. I’m just curious about this name. Were these songs, like, plans for novels you meant to write that never made it into book form or what?
Kind of…I mean, Failed Novels is a title that has a little bit of context to it. I mean, first of all, when I started writing songs the thing everybody told me by way of criticism was that my songs were…usually they’d say, “Wow! Loved your song, dude, but—how do you remember all those words?” I mean, the critique for a lot of people was that a lot of my songs were just too long. Which is a critique I’ve never really understood or given much ear to. It’s like the old Woody Allen joke, “how long should a man’s legs be?” You’ve heard this?
No. How’s it go?
How long should a man’s legs be?
I don’t know. How long?
Long enough to reach the ground.
I don’t know if I—
It’s not really funny, it’s just—like, what kind of question is that? What kind of critique is that? I believe a story should be as long as the story. Some stories are short and some are longer. I’ve been told that most songs have to be between 3 to 5 minutes if you want to get any kind of radio play on them at all. Most of the songs on Failed Novels are like, 7 ½, 8 minutes long, at least. So, in one sense, the title’s just a reference just to the length of some of the songs. They’re songs that are too short to be novels, but too long to be songs, by some people’s standards. But it’s also meant to draw attention to the fact that a lot of the songs on that album—if not all of them, actually—are actually categorically story-songs, kind of like novels. They’re long songs that tell stories, which is something that I’m also interested in.
Yeah. You’ve got a couple different ballads on here, “The Ballad of Abraham and Isaac,” for instance, and…what else? “She With The Million Names”…?
The other…yeah. So the other reason I decided to title that album that is because…well. If I can just be a total nerd here for a second, and digress into the subject of American literature… One of my favorite books of all time is Moby Dick. There’s this letter that Herman Melville wrote somewhere right around the time that he began writing Moby Dick, or even before—and I can’t remember if it was to his publisher or to Nathaniel Hawthorne or who it was to—but he was at this point in his career where he had written five or six books none of which had done extremely well, but all of which had sold and brought him a little bit of money …I mean, he had basically crossed this threshold where he had made up his mind and was trying to make his living, pay his bills and everything else, by being a writer, you know…and he writes this letter to whoever it was saying how he really had this desire to write a book that would definitely fail. As in, like, financially. But at the same time, would be exactly what he wanted to write. Something that would not elicit any profit whatsoever. And he says this right as he’s writing one of the weirdest books the country has ever seen or will ever see, one of the best books I’ve ever read, that, when it was published, actually did fail in terms of sales and artistic legitimacy and in every other way except that it evidently meant a whole lot to Melville. Moby Dick was a failed novel when it first came out. It brought Melville like zero dollars and I think he plunged into debt after he wrote it and never really got out of it again. It’s a sad story because—have you read it?—it’s just the best book. It’s so good. But this term “failed novels” highlights a tension I like thinking about and do not enjoy dealing with at all, between art that the artist makes with the express purpose of turning a profit and art that the artist makes for no reason other than because the artist wants—maybe even has—to make it. I think that’s something that all “starving” artists are faced with at some time or other who want to keep making art and want to figure out how to stay out of more traditional “jobs” doing it…
It seems like there’s another sense in which this album is just like a nod to your love of literature in general, isn’t it? I mean, you have quite a few songs that are inspired by books you like, is that right?
Sure. Yes. They’re not all on a single album, but yes—
I’m just thinking of some of the times I’ve heard you play and you’ve brought them up by way of introduction. Like John Steinbeck, Flannery O’Connor, Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, William Faulkner…I mean, that’s quite a roster.
Yeah. I’ve got a song called “Tom Joad’s Promise” that’s sort of a rehashing of the speech Tom Joad makes at the end of The Grapes of Wrath about the universal soul…but that’s—I mean, to go back to the whole folk tradition thing we were talking about earlier, Woody Guthrie wrote “The Ballad of Tom Joad” using the melody to the Leadbelly version of “John Hardy” that’s basically just like a spark-notes version of the novel. I remember reading somewhere that John Steinbeck actually heard that song and was really impressed by how true to the book it managed to stay. Bruce Springsteen’s also got a song about Tom Joad, and it wouldn’t surprise me if others did, as well. I mean, that one’s been done—again, I feel like all I’ve done is contribute, or participate, in the legacy of that story and that speech, which is one of the cooler aspects of the genre of folk music…but yeah, I’ve also got a song called “You Can’t Get Any Poorer Than Dead,” that’s on another album I did, which was the original title to a publication by Flannery O’Connor that eventually became her second novel, The Violent Bear It Away. I’ve got a song called “That Girl I Was Telling You About,” the first line of which is “You will know her by her eyes…” which started out as a parody of an Emily Dickinson poem that begins “You will know her by her foot…” Yeah—and Faulkner. I have a two-part song that’s about 15 minutes long I had titled “Absalom, Absalom” after the Faulkner novel, but the story isn’t really a retelling of the Faulkner plot so much as it is a watered down version of the biblical story.
And that’s another place you seem to get a lot of inspiration for your songs, too.
Yeah? I mean, can you talk a little more about that?
Sure. What do you want to know?
I mean, just so the folks listening at home know, you’ve written quite a few songs that are centered around re-tellings of Biblical stories. I can think of a few off the top of my head—you’ve got, here, on, uh—which one is it?—on, oh yeah—Failed Novels. “The Ballad of Abraham and Isaac.” The one you just mentioned, “Absalom.” Is that recorded anywhere?
Not yet. I’m working on an album I hope to include that on. But…no, not yet.
Oh, yeah. There’s a song on your first album called “Jericho.” And the title track to your fourth album, “Ain’t It a Pity?” is a song that imagines Jesus coming back on Easter Sunday and taking a stroll through the modern world, looking at how modern people are living and saying, Well—aint it a pity? There’s also a track on your latest one that’s called “Grow Long Thy Hair, Samson.” Samson’s a Bible-guy, right?
Yeah. But that song’s maybe not as narratively linear as some of the other ones you just mentioned.
Okay, but, so this is, like, a pretty steady theme in your music, right? I’m just wondering if you can talk a little about it.
Sure. I mean, I guess this goes back to the story I was telling earlier. About a year after I graduated from my undergrad, I wound up going to divinity school down in Nashville where I spent a lot of time reading and thinking about biblical narrative as an art form—among other things. I mean, I was also in the Music City so it was kind of hard not to be thinking about making music in some way, too. I guess it was inevitable that some of the biblical stuff should make its way into my songwriting at some point.
Were you looking to become a minister? Is that why you went to divinity school?
No. Not really. I went because…I’ve always been really interested in stories. I just wanted to get a better understanding of some of the oldest stories in our culture, to spend some time studying up on some of the sources and influences for a lot of the stories and songs that I’ve grown up listening to and really falling in love with. Because biblical narrative plays a big role in the folk tradition, too, you know? And I mean, I guess I had more practical reasons for going, I guess. For a minute I was really thinking I would try to keep up with my academics, and maybe pursue a career as a teacher. But in the course of getting my degree, I guess I wound up feeling like maybe I’m destined to do something outside the walls of the academy.
I guess we don’t really need to talk about influences, do we?
I mean. We can talk about that, sure.
I just mean, it sounds like you’ve got a lot of different influences.
I guess so. But I think there’s maybe a difference between the influences for the subjects of my songs and the influences for the music.
What’s the difference?
I don’t know. They’re just separate sources, I guess. I think I get inspired to write songs from all different kinds of things—books is part of it, but I also have a lot of songs that are about experiences I’ve had, experiences I’ve wanted to have. I’ve written songs that are inspired by things I’ve heard people say in conversations that have struck me as being sort of funny or strange-sounding—
Oh, uh…let me think. I don’t know. I guess—I’ve got a song on my most recent album that’s called “I Ain’t Even Had My Coffee Yet.” That’s not from anything—that’s just something I’ve heard people say, something I’ve said myself before from time to time. Yeah. I’ve got another song that hasn’t made it on to any record yet that’s called “Your Guess Is As Good As Mine,” which, again, is just something I heard somebody say once, something maybe I’ve even said myself. I mean those are actually my favorite kinds of songs to write, the ones that are not really that clever, but are just like, you know, the skeletons of common speech… things people say all the time for whatever reason that someone figured out how to make a song out of.
I want to ask you here about your songwriting process. It seems like you’ve got a pile of material already, but I’m just curious if you could say a few words about, like, how you approach songwriting? Do you start with the lyrics or do you start with the music, the guitar parts? When you sit down to write a song, what’s that look like?
It…boy. I don’t know. I’m inclined to say that it usually starts with the words, or—to rephrase—I guess it’s the words that I wind up putting the most time into. I guess it starts with the guitar usually, like, letting my hand just try something that’s familiar but at the same time trying to keep a line or something in my head…I think it depends on the song, though, actually. I usually start with the idea, which is usually, like, the line in the song that the song’s going to be about. The title’s usually what that winds up being. I actually keep a list of song-titles that I hope to find the time or the inspiration to write someday…
Really? A list?
Yeah. You know—in case I need inspiration. But usually, I’ll say that usually I’ve got like a line or two, and—I don’t know if you’ve caught on to this, but I’m really big on rhyming. I like lines that rhyme with other lines because if they rhyme, I find, it’s usually a little bit easier to remember them. They say that’s why the old epic poems rhymed, because it was this mnemonic—pneumatic?—mnumonic?—is that the word?—it helped the ballad-singers remember the lines better.
So—is that how you remember all the words to those songs?
Yeah. I think that’s part of it. I mean, part of it is also just repetition and practice, like it would be with anything else. But rhyming—yes. I’m very big on rhyming. I’ve talked with songwriters who say that they feel like rhyming is this constraint on their freedom of expression, you know? Like having to make something rhyme with something else is this huge impediment to their creativity. I know it’s also something that contemporary poets are really opposed to, for some reason.
Well—I don’t know. How many poems do you read anywhere that have the structure of like a traditional sonnet to them? I mean, they’re kind of hard to come by, at least in the magazines and publications I pick up every now and again. I guess I’m also basing that assessment on an experience of mine, which is—I remember taking a poetry class once when I was in college and the first thing my professor did was abolish the rhyme. He said, “Let’s try to avoid poetry that’s rhymed and metered.” I mean, he was a great poet, so I figured I’d better listen to him. But in hindsight, I’m not so sure it was the best advice to hear for me, personally, and maybe it was one more thing I had to give myself time to get over before I could feel alright about trying out the whole songwriting thing—which isn’t exactly the same thing as poetry, but is still all about words, their sounds, syntax, how they’re used, plus finding a musical progression to play on top of it, so. I mean, he wasn’t saying you couldn’t rhyme, but he strongly encouraged us to try to write lines that weren’t like, constrained to that limitation in anyway.
And that’s not conducive to your method?
Well, I wouldn’t say it isn’t conducive. But I would say that I find the opposite to be true for my own songwriting. Like, if I’m writing a song and I’ve got one line that ends with a particular word, it’s just so much easier, to my mind, to narrow down the infinite number of lines that could follow it by eliminating from the field of possible candidates anything that doesn’t rhyme with the word in question. It just makes it easier to know whether you’re heading in the right direction with a story.
Do most of your songs come from experience?
Not necessarily. A good amount of them do. There’s some songs I’ll never play out because they’re just too personal. But it’s just as important to write the personal songs as it is to write the topical ones, I think.
Okay, we’re just about out of time here, so this is going to be my last question. Ready?
How do you want people to feel when they walk away from one of your shows?
[long pause] Like they’re human and still alive.