Steve Gunn Finds Empathy in Stories of the American Unseen
Photo by Clay Benskin.
There’s this expectation that a singer-songwriter must brand their identity in order to be successful, turning themselves into a character by telling some tall-tale version of an origin story. Crafting a mythology has become an unspoken rite of passage for emerging artists, particularly those working with sounds steeped in the American tradition. We have a certain soft spot for the traveler who reinvents their past.
As a prolific multi-hyphenate (singer-songwriter-producer-composer), Steve Gunn’s eclectic background has never afforded him such an opportunity. Though every bit of his biography cements his place alongside the new canon of American musical greats — Gunn’s flexed a demonstrable mastery of early Piedmont and Delta Blues guitar traditions along with American primitive folk, drone, and world music; produced and played sideman on albums by British folk legend Michael Chapman; backed up slacker existentialist Kurt Vile on tour; and recorded his newest album with the help of Bob Dylan’s longstanding musical director, Tony Garnier — Gunn speaks about his work without ego. He is a documentarian, a chronicler of the sounds and stories that move him, whether they fit into a clean narrative or not.
Speaking on the phone a month before the Jan. 18 release of his fourth solo album, The Unseen In Between, Gunn points out that American songwriters were once unconcerned with creating a character out of themselves, focused instead on holding a mirror to the characters around them.
“This music business can be so egotistical, and people can create these characters of themselves then walk around thinking the character really exists,” Gunn says. “But I like to be a bit more grounded with it and use the platform the way that I’ve learned to write songs —listening to stories. I like to be a bit more observant rather than self-reflective or speaking about myself as a character. I’m more interested in other characters.”
Gunn adopted this approach after developing a taste for pre-war blues and pre-folk music at an early age. Like so many, he became enamored with Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Musicas a young man, but it wasn’t until later that Gunn realized why Smith’s bootlegs had such a profound effect on his own songwriting.
“The early music of this country is narratives and work songs, stories about these characters,” he says. “That tradition is something I look for in music, and something I gravitate toward in my own songs.”
To that end, Gunn’s solo albums have become exercises in empathy, focused less on himself than on the characters who populate his stories. A skilled technical guitarist, he’s worked consciously to make sure that songcraft takes precedent over the fretboard flashiness.
Gunn perfects this approach on The Unseen In Between by singing with a wayfaring omniscience, becoming a traveling narrator who vanishes into his vignettes and sees himself reflected in others.
Consider the sprawling, psych-dusted road epic “Vagabond,” wherein our singer sings about an unnamed, legendary transient while subtly considering his own life as well. “Luciano,” meanwhile, imagines what’s going on in the life of a bodega cat as a stand-in for the supportive roles in one’s life, the people who are far too easy to take for granted.
“I like to write stories more aware of things and people who might not necessarily get attention,” Gunn says. “Here in New York everyone’s just pushing around, trying to get from point A to point B. Sometimes there’s not a peripheral awareness of everyone, their history and where they came from.”
The most poignant example on Unseen is “Stonehurst Cowboy,” an acoustic number wherein Gunn pays tribute to his late father, who passed two weeks after the release of his last solo album, 2016’s Eyes on the Lines, following a two-year battle with cancer. Gunn says that his renewed focus on telling other people’s stories stems from reconnecting with his father after his diagnosis.
“My dad was definitely a storyteller, and he had a funny command of language,” Gunn remembers. “He got sick and opened up to me about a lot of things that I was interested in, particularly about as he was becoming an adult. He came from a really poor family and had a lot of baggage, like we all do. It was interesting to see his trajectory through all that.”
While learning about his father’s life helped Gunn illuminate his own path, he had help navigating the making of the album with bassist Tony Garnier, Bob Dylan’s sideman and de facto musical director for 30 years.
In the studio, Garnier took a genuine interest in Gunn’s compositions beyond the usual obligations of a session musician. After Gunn wrote and demoed the tunes with his longtime collaborator James Elkington, Garnier’s approach helped him let the songs progress organically, with minimal extra-technical playing or dubbed production flourishes.
“For every song, Tony said, ‘Print the lyrics for me, I want to read what you’re saying’ and just got into the emotions of it,’” says Gunn. “Not getting in the way, and just guiding [the song] when it needed to be guided. We were all in the room together, playing together, so it was really meaningful. Not just playing bass over the track.
“For me, the music starts getting lost when you start picking apart and scrutinizing it,” Gunn continues. “You have to have a sense of scrutiny when you’re recording, but for me to feel it, at least, I’m just doing it live. That’s really palpable in music, and when I listen to records I love from the ’60s and ’70s. There’s this real lost art form of studio engineering when bands would go in and play their songs. That’s an American art form as well.”
Just as Gunn helped tell his father’s story, and Garnier helped tell Gunn’s, Gunn got to help an idol when he produced the last two albums for English folk legend Michael Chapman.
“Michael’s still so engaged with the music that’s being made and is always turning me on to new artists I don’t even know about,” says Gunn. “He’s still working through it. To learn from him and hear his stories, it was just about being on his level, sitting on his couch, playing guitar and talking shop.”
Gunn remembers one story Chapman shared while the pair worked on songs in Chapman’sold stone house in Lancashire. One night in the late ’60s, Nick Drake played a gig in a pub down the road. The notoriously shy Drake wasn’t feeling good about his performance, but Chapman approached him afterward and congratulated him, offering him a place to stay. “So I’m sitting on this couch and Michael says, ‘Yeah, Nick Drake slept in this room. We stayed up all night playing guitar and drinking, and when I got up in the morning, he was gone.’”
Maybe it’s deep inside those memories where the true power of storytelling is illuminated, where “Americana” becomes more a tradition of shared remembrance than a simple genre label.
“Empathy is an important word, you know,” says Gunn. “I don’t want to lose that sense of empathy, particularly with songwriting, and just existing is such an important quality to be conscious of. It’s more about absorbing landscapes and people than passing through and moving on.”