One of the perks of interviewing modern musicians is soaking up their insider music recommendations. For instance, Kurt Vile couldn't recommend his friend, collaborator and former Violators band mate Steve Gunn, highly enough during our interview last November. Vile's tip didn't disappoint, thus introducing us to the hypnotizing psych-folk repertoire of songwriter Steve Gunn.
"Kurt's great," Gunn says from his Brooklyn home during a recent phone interview. "He's been really supportive."
Though it's well into spring by now, Gunn complains that this year's particularly cold and lengthy New York winter has been tough, even for a native East Coaster. Like Vile, he was raised near Philadelphia; Gunn's sound, however, suggests rich cultural roots. His typically acoustic songs are tempered with improvisational segues and otherworldly drone.
Gunn is as "American" as they come, though, and credits his music's palpable international influence to his discovery of jazz while attending college at Philadelphia's Temple University. The fusion of his innate Americana roots with this lush ethnic inspiration has made Gunn's resulting music particularly multi-faceted.
Listen to his latest album, last year's Time Off, however, and you might be surprised to learn that Gunn's musical foundation wasn't established in classical music courses or honed abroad; rather he first played in a hardcore punk band in high school. "We were so terrible," he laughs. "We could barely play our instruments."
"I begged my parents to let me go on this small tour," he recalls, "and they agreed. Anything outside Philadelphia was a big deal for us then, so we played in people's basements for a few days. Pretty hilarious."
But Gunn's hardcore days were brief. "I'm so far away from that now," he reflects.
"After high school," he says, "I got really interested in jazz, particularly in John Coltrane. Listening to him and to his ethnic influences led me down the path of exploring classical Indian and African music, which I got really into. I've been interested in that ever since."
With such precise emphasis on shaping the intricate guitar-focused aspect of his songs, Gunn's singing took a backseat to the music until recently. Time Off is the first album to more prominently feature Gunn's vocals.
"I always thought of myself as a guitar player first," he explains. "I spent years playing loose, improvised music, wherein I did some singing, but I pursued it only lackadaisically."
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The lack of vocals in Gunn's songs essentially allowed his complex guitar playing to be showcased first; his vocals add another dynamic dimension to his music, without distracting from its underlying guitar proficiency.
"I used to be super nervous about singing," he admits. "I'm a pretty quiet guy, so it took me a long time to get away from the fear of singing. I'm still working at it."
Currently touring in support of Time Off, Gunn is using his live shows to debut new material too, as he's currently putting the finishing touches on a new album (which he says features his singing even more). Slated for a fall release, Gunn describes his forthcoming work as a "bigger, more thought-out album," featuring harp, synthesizer and banjo parts recorded by members of Gunn's go-to musician brethren.
Gunn and his band play Mango's on Sunday. "I've never been to Houston," he says, "so I really look forward to hanging out there."
Like a true East Coaster, he is eager to soak up some Southern sunshine -- well, some of it, at least. Mere moments after complaining about New York's unseasonably chilly temps, he reels himself back in, his "quiet guy" nature again revealed.
"But hopefully Texas won't be too hot..."
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