"The Audience Doesn't Lie": Talking to Steve Poltz about Performing Live Often, Approaching Politics in Art, and Living in Nashville

Steve Poltz is the travelling troubadour who never slows down.  Famous for co-writing “You Were Meant for Me” with Jewel, Poltz has dedicated his life to making music and connections.  Live performance is where Poltz really shines.  No matter the setting, he takes his audience on a journey to provide a unique performance through story and song.  I had the pleasure of chatting with Steve Poltz last week while he was on the road between Nashville, Tennessee and Atlanta, Georgia.

photo credit: David Harris Photography

photo credit: David Harris Photography

LC:  What is your connection to the Georgian Bay Area?  How did you get started playing around here?

SP:  I started playing in Toronto, and then people would come to see me and they would say, “Hey, come play out in our cabin.” Like, one guy took me out on a boat to Georgian Bay to some cottage he had, and a bunch of people came for a show there.  And then I started playing around Collingwood, and then Steve Vipond asked me to play his house concert series.  And I always liked playing there.  Then, I was playing a lot of festivals.  I can’t even remember the names of all of them.

LC:  I think you played Mariposa, maybe?

SP:  Yeah!  Mariposa, a couple others.  … Summerfolk, I played that.  That was great.

LC: Do you find that the audiences up here in Canada live up to the stereotype of being more reserved?

SP:  Oh is there a stereotype of that?

LC:  Like just of Canadians, you know how they say Canadians are polite, and, I don’t know, boring.

SP:  Oh, right.  Haha!  No, I think they’re great.  I try to just go into every show and be myself and kind of seduce the audience.  Slowly get them into my warped point of view.

LC:  Does it usually work?

SP:  Yeah, usually.  I mean not always.  There’s been a lot of stumbles along the way, but the more you do it, the better you get at it.  You kind of become like the audience whisperer. … I like the audiences up there.  They’re super nice.  They are, kinda, some can be really polite.  There is a difference when you’re playing like the Dakota versus, uh..

LC:  Like a more intimate, sit down theatre type of place?

SP:  Yeah.  You can be a bit more crass at the Dakota.

LC:  Totally.  So do you have any tips for what to do when those stumbling blocks do come?  Like if you’re finding that an audience isn’t really relating or getting into it?

SP:  Well, I used to listen to the voice in my head that would say, “Oh my gosh.  These people don’t like you, you’re horrible,” but I’ve learned to block that voice out from playing enough shows to just knowing, stay the course, people are digging it.  You’ll convert them.  It's kind of like a little game.  You just gotta stay with it.  I think part of it is an audience is like a horse.  And a horse knows if you’re scared of it when you get on top of a horse for the first time.  So, if you kind of get on the horse and the horse knows you know what you’re doing, the horse will listen to you.  And I kind of feel like all audiences are like that.  I almost feel like I’m Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Terminator and I come out and I read the audience and there are all these possible scenarios that I click up in my head like on a rolodex card.  There are all these different, like, computer functions I could go with.  But I have a lot of different songs and I try to read the crowd and think, “What will work in this situation?”

LC:  And I guess the storytelling kind of helps with that too because it helps people connect and get into your head a little more, and relax a little more, and open up.

SP:  Yeah, a story can always help.  Number one, never let the truth get in the way of a good story.  You gotta keep it interesting, you gotta embellish it and have it hopefully segue seamlessly into the song that you’re gonna play.  If you do it right, you tell a story that can have the audience on the edge and then have that story seamlessly lead into a song without missing a beat.  And when everything’s clicking, it’s great.  Sometimes I can tell a story perfectly, and then think I’m going into the song and my guitar’s muted, because I muted it.  And that kinda screws things up.  And you think, “God I had this going so good!”  There’s a lot of different factors at play in how you tell the story.  If you feel like you’re losing people, you’re kind of reading the crowd [thinking], “Do I need to shorten the story?  Do I need to add something more exciting into it? Do I need to ad lib on the story and take a side turn?  Or do I need to abort the mission and just go right into the song?”

LC:  Yeah I guess that could always happen, too.

SP:  Yeah, there’s so many factors at play.  Is it an outdoor gig?  Is it an indoor gig?  Are they seated?  Is it a bar?  Are they eating?  There’s so many different factors, that kind of set what I’ll play, because I don’t just do one type of show.  Usually I have an end game in mind and the end game is hopefully, putting on a good show for people.

Photo credit: Youtube clip - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9RShSgErZzo

Photo credit: Youtube clip - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9RShSgErZzo

LC:  So do you rehearse the stories at all?

SP:  Everything’s worked out on the road.  So, like, there’ll be something new that happened, so I’ll ad lib on the story, like a roaming travelogue.  There’s always something weird that happened during the day and you turn it into a story.  And then, other stories you’ll have more flushed out from the road, and songs, and you get better and better at what you’re doing if you do it all the time.  You have to get out and do it in front of a lot of different audiences.  You can’t just do it in front of your own home crowd.

LC:  Yeah exactly.

SP:  I always said, you can tell if a band went out on the road for the first time, and then they come back and you see them again.  Like, if you had a baby band that had never gone out, they’d played their little pub where they have all their hometown crowd, like 80-100 people.  Then you see them, they go out on tour for the first time and they come back 6 weeks later, and they play that same pub, then they’d become a band, usually.  The songs are much tighter because you’ve been playing them every night, and you’ve been playing to potentially hostile audiences.  You’ve had these stories, and maybe arguments, and rifts within the band that ultimately draw you closer to some sort of familial bond.  And the same thing even touring solo.  The more you go out, then you come back, you hopefully come back with more of a swagger.  More confidence.  But, just when you think that you’ve seen it all, you’ll see something new.  That’s one thing I’ve learned.  Just when I think I’ve seen it all, something weird will happen or something new.  Some weird hurdle that I have to learn to get around.  

LC:  Do you have a recent experience with that?

SP:  Well, like power going off.  You know, maybe I’m showing up to a show and I just started and for some reason some storm hits and all the power goes out.  Then you have a quick decision to make.  Do I keep playing?  Do I play unplugged?  Which I had to do in Australia, and I just unplugged, moved down to the middle of the crowd.  But there’s like, 1000 people at the festival.  And having then somebody hoist you up on their shoulders, and you keep singing.  People like it to be real.  All they want to know is that you’re giving it all you have.  In fact, those are sometimes the best shows, because you completely go off script, and people know.

LC:  And it's so intimate.

SP:  Yeah.

LC:  So when that happened, did you get the audience singing along as much as you could?  Or did you just keep travelling around the crowd?

SP:  Yeah, get them singing along.  Then you become like this whole gang, and they’re a part of it.  And then if the power comes back on, which it did then, then I go back up [on stage] and they’re kinda bummed.  The key is to just not quit.  That’s what I tell everybody.  No one gig is gonna make or break you, so you’ve gotta just keep going.  You’ll have bad shows, and good shows.

LC:  Did you always recognize yourself as a storyteller, or was that something that developed more when you started doing more solo stuff?

SP:  Yeah, I kind of morphed into that.  Because we were in a band, and it was kind of a more rock and roll band, so, we would maybe make funny quips over the microphone but they’d be fast.  Then when I went solo, I realized it was really fun to start spinning some yarn about some song.  I realized, as well, that I had a bit of a knack for it, so I got into it.  And then, that gave me enough confidence that I kept doing it.  I got better at it.  You always need like a little seed, something to get you going, and then a pat on the back, like “Hey that was cool!” You get that and you’re like, “Oh, really?”  And then you think, “Oh, cool.  People liked that.  Maybe I can do this.”  It’s kind of like stumbling through the dark blind and then you stumble upon something and you go, “Oh my god, that worked!  Maybe I’ll try this next time.”

LC:  So, I noticed that you recently released “Hey God (I’ll Trade You Donald Trump for Leonard Cohen)” on an anti-Trump album to support Planned Parenthood.  I was wondering if you find that in the folk scene, if there’s an obligation to be a little bit political.

SP:  No, uh, maybe in the past there was.  But, almost, a lot of times people are sick of politics and they don’t wanna hear your point of view.  Like even last night I was playing in Nashville and some guy said, “Just what I want to hear, some guy yelling about his political point of view.”  A booking agent in the club.  And I thought, you know, he’s kind of right.  And he said, “How many arguments have ever been won?  None.”  None.  It is true.

LC:  But it’s a conversation.  But I mean, I was curious about that, because, yeah, like you said, it kinda used to be that way, but now I think we’re kind of moving past genres, too.  But, also, I feel like, maybe because we are living in Trump’s world, that maybe it can’t be avoided right now.

SP:  Well it’s amazing, like I can do that song, and I was doing it a lot for a while.  And I can do it, and if I’m in Australia people love it.  Or Canada.  They love it.  But, I get to the States and I do it, and, definitely, somebody’s gonna be mad.  If there’s 200 people in my audience, somebody in that audience.  I mean, you could say, "Yeah well you’re a folk singer, nobody in your audience would.”  You’d be surprised.  Like, if I was totally an overtly left-leaning political singer, my show was was all based on that, then I would, through Darwinism, slowly get rid of those people in the crowd.  But, there are people that voted for Trump that like my music.  They’ve told me!  And they hear that song and they just think it’s kinda funny.  And I don’t shy away from the fact that I lean more politically to the left, as do most people in the folky world.  But, that being said, it’s really easy for me to get up there and sing that song, knowing I’m going to offend some people.  So, when I wrote it, I was like, “Dang, I’m sitting on this, kind of, weapon here.  How do I want to use it?”  Sometimes I just say, you know, w.t.f.  Throw it to the wind.  Who cares?  Like, if I offend people, I offend people.  And that’s true.  Be fearless, and what would Woody Guthrie do, and all that.  But then I have another side of me that says, man, I like singing this song because it was gifted to me.  These songs, I feel like, are gifts.  For whatever reason, they pop into my head.  So I sing ‘em.  So I write another new one.  And so I’ll do ‘em.  And I don’t like to censor myself.  But that being said, I also like to–I don’t want to play a show and offend a bunch of people.  I’ve done that, like when I played in The Rugburns.  And it was fun.  Punk rock, and all that.  But I feel like, I have like a bigger purpose, and that is, I kind of want to bring people together.  Like, I want to be totally honest on stage.  Make fun of myself, and be able to laugh at things, but, I also want the show to have some sort of an arc and some sort of salvation in the end.  Where people are kind of arm in arm and they’re like, “Man. Yeah!” And they’re saying shit they never would’ve said, like weird things.  And so, I almost feel there’s a better way to be political.  the other night I played for 900 people.  And I didn’t do the Trump song.  And it was in San Diego, my hometown.  (Where I used to live, I live in Nashville now.). There were probably some Trumpers in that crowd.  And rather than do that song, I did “This Land Is Your Land”, because it’s such a socialist song.  With all the verses Woody Guthrie wrote, like “In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people/By the relief office I seen my people/As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking/Was this land made for you and me?”

LC:  Yeah!  It’s more powerful.

SP:  Yeah.

LC:  Were people singing along with that one?

SP:  Oh yeah.  So instead, I had them standing arm in arm, singing along.  And, I feel like I learned a little–I don’t know.  I feel like I did my work, if that makes sense.  I feel like people were singing along and they heard these overtly political lyrics, and yet they still sang the chorus.  They still sang along.  And it was really cool, because it was almost more subversive.  I did that other verse that they never teach in school which is, “And as I rambled I saw a sign there/And on the sign it said ‘No Trespassin’/But on the other side, it didn’t say nothin’/That side was made for you and me”.  And those are beautiful lyrics.

LC:  Totally.

SP:  To me, that’s like scripture.  That’s folk scripture.  And that’s punk rock folk scripture, because Woody Guthrie was a punk rocker.  So that's being handed down.  So I almost felt better doing that because I left and everybody was arm in arm.  And had I done the Trump song, that would've been cool, but I would’ve had members of the audience cheering loudly and others feeling ostracized.  And it’s easy to do that behind the mic, and–I don’t know if that is my point or not.  That day, that’s what I was feeling like doing.  I was feeling more like I wanted to be a person who brings people together.

LC:  Yeah, and I think that’s kind of what good art should do, anyway.  Or at least, like, make people connect in some sort of way, and come together in some sort of way.

SP:  Yeah.  Like I love Bob Dylan.  And he was political when he was younger, and then, he wasn’t.  And then, I love The Clash.  The Clash were really political, and they’re one of my favourites.  And I love The Replacements, and they were just kind of punk rock, indie rock, and they weren’t political at all.  So, this whole thing, I’m always shapeshifting.  I know that day it felt right.  But then afterwards, I was selling CDs at the merch table and there was a huge line of people, and there were some people mad at me that I didn’t do the Trump song!  They had come all the way to hear it, and I felt really bad, because I want to, I don’t know, I was like, shit maybe I should have done it.  If I would’ve done it, I would’ve done it earlier in the set.

LC:  Right, because you want people at the end to be kind of arm in arm, like you were saying.

SP:  Yeah, like I want the show to have a journey and an arc.  There’s gotta be sad stuff in the show, happy stuff.  … When I was younger, I would be more inclined, when I was in my early 20s, to just pander to the audience.  You know.  Like almost embarrassingly so.  And then I didn’t feel good about that.  The nights I did it, I’d be like, “Why do I feel empty?”  And then I had to question it, because like, I live to do this.  I don’t ever shut off.  So, I was like, “Man I just pandered”.  I need to be more challenging, I need the show to have a journey.  And I constantly am studying music and going to see shows, watching film, reading books, you know, staying inspired, because it’s a never ending journey that I’m on to get better and better at this craft of being a troubadour, travelling around the world singing these songs.  I still have a long ways to go, but I love what I’m doing.

LC:  Yeah, and when you’re not pandering to the audience, you can actually take yourself on a journey too.

SP:  Yeah.  Exactly.  Like every show somebody’s mad about something, I will say that.  I get snappy emails from people, or somebody waits in line to yell at me about something that I've said about god or something.  Like, I’ll talk about being raised in the Catholic church and I’ll do something where I make fun of Masses.  Especially when you get in the more rural areas, people get offended.  And, so I always let them yell at me and bitch at me, and I’m like, “That’s great!” And they don’t understand, they get more mad when I say “That’s great,” like, “Why is that great?!” And I’m like, because you just waited in line to tell me that!  Woody Guthrie said art was meant to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.

LC:  Yeah, that’s so true.  That’s so cool.  So, now that you’re living in Nashville, I think I read somewhere that you said you’re living in the same neighbourhood as a bunch of all these incredible songwriters and artists.

SP:  Yeah, my whole neighbourhood, East Nashville is just filled with all of these musicians.  And it’s a really good time to be there right now, it's a time of growth and a time of prosperity for the East side, and I mean, some people will complain it’s getting too crowded already.  But, I’ve only been there a year, so I’m part of the problem.  I’m one of the people that have been imported in and I’m loving it, because it’s such a music city.  And I’ve never lived in a music city, where they really revere the songwriter.

Photo credit: Stacie Huckeba

Photo credit: Stacie Huckeba

LC:  Is it intimidating at all?  To be near like all these other great performers?  Or is it just purely awesome?

SP:  It’s–I don’t know that it’s “intimidating”, because I’ve done this a long time.  But, if I hadn’t done it for a long time, it would be more intimidating.  What it is, is it’s, I guess a better word would be, it’s a little bit daunting sometimes.  Because there’s so much choice, and there’s so many people playing every night of the week.  And they’re all really good, and it’s humbling for sure, because, I feel like Nashville is where all the people who were the bigger fishes from their small ponds move to.  So now you have all these people that were used to being bigger fishes in the same pond.  And then they’ve gotta be an even bigger fish.  And so, it just lets you know, or lets me know, that I’m a gnat on the ass of a cow.  With all these other gnats.  And I’m trying just to carve out my little area to hang out in.  And I’m doing that, and I feel like I’m making progress.  I’ve been there a year, and I’ve written some great co-writes with people, and I’ve made these good connections.  I feel that I’m still gone too much, and it’s better to be home.  Every time I’m home, good things happen.  Like, I woke up this morning and I went over to Will Kimbrough’s house, and Will had just gotten off the road with Emmylou Harris.  And I went to his house and he had his mic set up, and I recorded 9 songs.  I don’t know how many will make a record, but he’s gonna produce those tracks, and we’re on this journey here and who knows what it’ll come out as.  But it was really neat to be with Will Kimbrough, because I’m a fan of his, and I’m a fan of his work, and just as a person.  And he’s become a friend, and so, this wouldn’t happen if I wasn’t living in Nashville.

LC:  That’s so cool.  So it’s just like constant collaborations it seems.

SP:  Yeah.  Last night I played at the Round with these other songwriters.  There was a guy named Rod Picott, he’s written a bunch of songs for Slaid Cleaves, and he’s a really good songwriter.  There’s a guy named Joe Pisapia, who’s a producer/songwriter, a really great songwriter and a really great singer.  Really interesting, complex songs.  Really heartfelt.  And then there was a guy who was in the band The Lemonheads.

LC:  I love The Lemonheads!

SP:  Yeah and he played in that band and now he’s an attorney in Franklinton.  A music attorney.  And his name is John Strohm.  He hadn’t played out in years, and his songs were really good!  And, he’s really connected.  He represents like, Sturgill Simpson, Bon Iver, all these people he represents as an attorney.  And that’s a whole other side of Nashville.  It’s not just musicians, it’s the music business.  So that’s really cool because, here I am, in a ‘Songwriters In the Round’ at The Basement East, one of the coolest clubs…And I’m going song for song with all these guys and hanging out with them, it’s like, hey I’m a member of the club!

LC:  So, lastly, what advice do you have for people trying to make their songs more relatable?

SP:  Well, the audience doesn’t lie. And you can feel the energy from the audience, and you can hear in their response.  So, I would say play out and as often as possible.  All the time.  And be very pro-active, like have house concerts.  Get together with other songwriters and say, “Hey will you listen to this song?”  Because the more you do it, the stronger you get performing those songs, and you need a lot of hours.  There’s that whole thing about the 10,000 hour rule of practice that Malcolm Gladwell talks about in Outliers.  There’s some truth to that, in that, you really need to do it a lot.  Not just once a month.  You need to play like every night.  And, it’s a craft.  No different than if you were making shoes for horses.  Or anything.  Painting, whatever.  It’s a craft, and you gotta stick with it, and hopefully your craft gets better.  You’re gonna have times where you think you’re not getting anywhere.  Part of the key, too, is finishing songs, because, when you finish a song it’s done, and that sometimes leads you to a song you would have never written.

LC:  Yeah, that’s interesting.  Do you normally write songs like, would you sit down and write a song and finish it, or do you have a few songs on the go at different times?

SP:  I like to sit down and finish them, and then play them out and tell what’s not working.  I can always tell when I play in front of an audience, if maybe it needs to be shortened, or a certain line’s not working, maybe I need a stronger line.  So I can rework that line.  So I kinda work out my songs on the road.

Thank you SO MUCH to Steve Poltz for this wonderful interview.  I hope you all enjoyed the read, and please come out to one of his upcoming local shows!  August 9th at Simcoe Street Theatre, tickets here: https://www.ticketscene.ca/events/18651 and August 10th at Heartwood Concert Hall, tickets here: http://www.ticketfly.com/event/1503588-steve-poltz-owen-sound/