Singer-Songwriters of the Calgary Roots Scene Part 2: Steve Coffey
*This series will feature interviews with members of the Calgary and area roots music scene. Calgary is one of the main cities in Alberta, a province in western Canada. Interviews were conducted as part of the research for my dissertation, Roots Music in Calgary, Alberta, between 1999-2009. Someday, when I get it together, I’ll turn it into a book, but for now, I’ll post these interviews here.*
If there is anyone who embodies life on the prairies, it is Steve Coffey. When he’s not writing songs that document the landscape around him, he’s painting the stunning scenery that he sees from his front porch. Like few others in the local scene, Coffey has managed to carve out an existence as a full-time artist, and his Western Canadian roots are a central part of that artistic identity.
Coffey grew up partly in Portage la Prairie, Manitoba, but moved to the small town of Innisfail, Alberta later in his childhood. He was surrounded by music during his childhood: “My mom was kind of a songwriter at the time, my dad was in a band called KC and the Rhythm Wranglers, he was a steel guitar player for about 45 years. When I was eight years old, nobody wanted to listen to Johnny Cash. But I was nuts for him at the time. My brother loved Merle Haggard… I always went to sleep at night with the band playing in the basement. So I was around it all the time. I picked up the guitar when I was fourteen. I think I tried to write a song on the first day. I wasn’t interested in doing anyone else’s stuff. And it was my dad that said that to me, he said why beat the shit out of somebody else’s music when you can beat the shit out of your own.” Coffey was equally interested in folk singers and country artists, among other influences, which is evident in his current songwriting: “I listened to a lot of R.E.M. through university. And who else, CCR. There’s lots, it’s really across the board. I love listening to classical music, I don’t really focus on one in particular [genre]. Really a big fan of Leonard Cohen, I love listening to that stuff. Sometimes he’s really dark and heavy.”
“Valley of Wildflower” is a sonic document of the open space of the prairies. It opens with a slide guitar whine that evokes a train whistle, while the underlying accompaniment of rapidly strummed acoustic guitar chords suggests the chugging of a train’s wheels across tracks. When Coffey sings the verses, he is augmented by high-register arpeggiated chords on the mandolin, which ring out into the air and fade away, similarly evoking broad, empty places. If you look at his paintings – even just those from 2012 – Coffey’s visual representations of the energy and expanse of the prairie sky match that sonic representation in his songs.
Coffey went on to art school, moving to attend Red Deer College in 1983. “I was painting and drawing all the time as a kid, and I got fired from a job and the guy that fired me said ‘You should go to art school, all you do is sit around here and draw.’ I went to the University of Calgary, did my undergraduate, then when I was in Regina [Saskatchewan], did a master’s out there. And all that time I wrote music. I was probably spending more time writing and playing guitar than doing school. And I trained as a sculptor [laughs]. Metal sculpture. Just really big metal sculpture.”
Never one to shy away from speaking his mind, Coffey writes openly about his love of the prairies and the slow destruction that oil companies are bringing upon them. “My Hometown”, from Coffey’s 2007 disc Same Boy, was “inspired by the Lynnview Ridge fiasco and many other stories of towns disappearing because of corporate/big business abuse.” Lynnfield Ridge is a residential development in Calgary which was built on a brownfield, an oil refinery previously owned by Imperial Oil for fifty years. It has recently been discovered that most of the homeowners’ properties contain up to three times the acceptable limit of lead. Coffey created six videos to accompany the songs on Same Boy. The film was picked up by the Bravo network in Canada, and they aired nine times a year for three years, beginning in September, 2007.
A stubborn independent streak characterizes Coffey’s approach to making music. Most Calgarian musicians have resigned themselves to the fact that they will be forever ignored by the mainstream, as have many roots artists today, so Coffey constantly tries different methods for distributing his records and getting radio play. But he won’t , as he says, “kiss anybody’s ass.” “I think the key to that whole thing is to keep putting out really good music. And you know, ignore the rest of it. And just keep putting out good music and sending it where it should go. And who knows what might come around the corner.”
His bandmates all have families and other responsibilities, so gathering them together for a gig often requires a fair bit of planning and advance notice. He says, “I’ve heard many a time, ‘oh we gotta tour, we gotta tour’, but I don’t listen to it. I saw it when I was young, my old man did it for many, many years and I went on the road with him and didn’t know who he was, so that had a lot of influence in my life. So when I became a dad it was very, very important they came first, that was it. And it’s always going to be the case. Maybe it leads me into doing something like a DVD and working with film and painting more because that’s very studio-home-oriented. And maybe getting involved with some more producing, working with other musicians.”
Coffey moved to Vulcan, Alberta a few years ago with his wife, Barbara Moore, former principal dancer for Alberta Ballet, and his two daughters. Moore now runs a successful dance school with two branches in Calgary and Vulcan, one that is “non-competitive, with a kinder, gentler approach to teaching ballet,” while Coffey records and paints full-time. His band, the Lokels, gather in Calgary to play venues like Mikey’s Juke Joint and the Ironwood. They are a slightly scattered band, with Coffey in Vulcan and bassist Russ Baker in Edmonton, and Lance Loree and Dave Bauer in Calgary, both in high demand as roots sessionals in the city.
Coffey is solidly dedicated to his home and the arts scene that grows slowly but surely in Calgary and its surrounding area: “I like the prairies. You know, now that we’ve found this place, [in Vulcan] I think that this is going to be it for us as far as moving anywhere. We’re pretty excited about it. As far as Alberta, yeah, I mean I can’t think of a better place, it’s really got a lot of energy. It’s great, man. I mean, there’s a lot of money and greed and all that, but also at the same time there’s just really cool things going on. And boy there’s a lot of talent, there’s so much out there from the artists that are producing right now, so that’s exciting. Yeah.”
Steve is not only a part of the music and art scene, but gets some dancing going whenever The Lokels play:
Coffey and the Lokels will be celebrating their latest recording at CD releases at the Geomatic Attic in Lethbridge, Alberta on February 25, and the Ironwood Stage and Grill on March 2. Check out Coffey’s website for more details and for songs and some images of his artwork.