Steve Gunn Remembers the Stonehurst Cowboy
Guitarist deep dives into the lyrical and familial
By Michael Toland,
12:01AM, Thu. Apr. 18, 2019
Steve Gunn’s often been mischaracterized as solely a guitar slinger. Instead, the Philly-raised NYC resident and former Kurt Vile sideman prizes songcraft above all else, designing eighth LP The Unseen In Between as an introspective counterpoint to the six-string aesthetic of albums past. Experience it for yourself Wednesday, April 24, at Barracuda.
Austin Chronicle: The Unseen In Between is such an evocative title. What does it mean to you?
Steve Gunn: The title is always so tricky, because you can’t be over sentimental, and it has to ring and look good when you write it. I had written down 100 different titles and was bouncing around a few of them. Then I called in friends and some people from the label, just to get a second opinion, and everyone really responded to that title.
I realized that it really correlated with the stuff I was singing about. I was thinking about things beyond the surface level, whether it’s physical objects or mentally. I know this sounds cliché, but I like to sing about people who wouldn’t necessarily get sung about.
For me, it’s important to not be the sort of songwriter that become this caricature of themselves and sings about themselves. I like to be a bit more observational – kind of in the background. Also the first song, “New Moon,” started the record in so many ways, and even just listening to the lyrics, the title just really correlates.
I’m into mystery and the unknown. What’s out there and what can happen – by chance or by intuition?
AC: You’re talking about writing outside of yourself, but “Stonehurst Cowboy” addresses your father’s passing.
SG: Yeah, it’s very personal. But I try not to make it “Here I am in real time walking down the street,” although that song is a tribute to my dad. I wanted to try and do a song from his perspective, essentially him going over his life, walking down his old street and singing the song.
The second half of the song is a bit more reflective. When my dad passed away, in the six months leading up to it, he and I became very, very close. There was a lot of undiscussed and embedded things I wanted to figure out, just as far as our relationship and his story. I felt like it was important to sing about.
Also, it’s a sentimental thing that a lot of people who lose someone go through, and I was trying to tap into that feeling. Where there’s a certain sense of sadness, but there’s also kind of a beauty to it, and a sense of hope. I was trying to come full circle with his story, and essentially mine.
It’s funny, because that title was his nickname. He grew up in this rough area of Philadelphia, and he always claimed he was the toughest guy in the neighborhood. As he got older, it became this tongue-in-cheek joke where you’d call him that and shadowbox with him, but usually he wasn’t the toughest guy [laughs]. So that was one of his nicknames, even though it was an ongoing joke with the family.
AC: The flipside of that song, it seems, would be “Lightning Field.” Was it challenging to make a piece of art about a piece of art?
SG: Yeah, it was. The Lightning Field is this installation in New Mexico. It’s essentially a lightning field, but it’s very, very specifically built, and you have to go out of your way to see it. It’s a whole process. Definitely you can experience the lightning.
This artist, Walter De Maria, was really interested in changing the experience, and creating other experiences from viewing his art. So in certain respects, it’s a bit of a joke on the people who go see it. Because a lot of people don’t see anything, but they get picked up by this local guy, who’s been the groundskeeper for 35 years and is a total character, and stay with two other people in this tiny little house. People really have to get to know each other.
I was thinking about De Maria’s intentions, and how experiencing art or anything in general can lead to other things. You have to learn how to see that, be receptive to it and open, and I’m still learning how to do that. Art has really helped me to think that way.
AC: Which song on the album do you think best encapsulates its vision?
SG: I mentioned “New Moon.” That was the first song I wrote, and it started the process for me. I was ready to crack open a new project and I had a lot of things to say. I’d been on the road a ton, and my father died, and all this shit went upside down, but I felt I was being pretty introspective.
That song was my first attempt to start thinking about what was on my mind: worrying about some friends who were struggling, Trump was elected, my dad passed away. A lot of people were feeling a similar way. There was this heightened sense of a level of paranoia. I was trying to feel hopeful for the greater good.
AC: When do you know you’ve found success in a song?
SG: That’s difficult, but I have one example. There’s a song called “Morning is Mended” on the record. I had this crazy spiritual moment when I was in Philadelphia and my dad had just died. I’d been up all night, and the sun was coming up. The sky was pink and blue, and I was walking through this parking lot. We had all been so stressed out for weeks and weeks, and all that was just gone, and I felt this kind of clarity, and this enormous sense of peace.
I was thinking about that moment for a while, and I just could not put it into a song. I had lines, but I couldn’t quite pull it together. I had booked the studio, and I was like, “Fuck, I just don’t have it yet.” I was stressed.
Then I woke up in the morning, and I just fuckin’ wrote it, right before I left. I’d been thinking about it so much that it was there for me to do that, but it came into focus right before I went to record it. So I felt really good about that.
Obviously some of the other songs are different. I was editing things quite a bit, and changing things with the demos, but that was something where I was like, “Damn.” Just the whole process of thinking about it so much and [finally] letting my guard down.
People I know who are writers and artists, there’s a certain sense when you’re writing that you have to have an element of practice and discipline, but you also have to let yourself be free to conjure up these thoughts. For me, that was really important. On that song in particularly, the practice worked.