Steven Dunn Interview
SBS: Steven! Thanks for taking the time to talk to us brother! Lots to cover, short span of questions to get to the heart of it all…so let’s do this! I’ve had a listen to your music…I’m sure I could throw out a description or attempt to make a comparison or two, but let’s hear it from you direct. What defines the music & sound of Steven Dunn and what sets it apart from the rest of what’s out there right now?
Steven: Simply it’s Rock N’ Roll. I have a few Indie Rock influences as well as Blues and Americana that can be heard throughout my discography. It’s hard to think that you’re distinct as an artist because everything has been done before right? That said, my voice and songwriting is definitely my own.
SBS: You’re based in Nashville right now from what I’ve read…and I’m somewhat notorious for poking holes in the boat of the infamous music-mecca for plenty of reasons. I think it’s a helpful-to-some but dangerous-to-others place when it comes to being an artist looking to craft their career & songwriting. At this point, I feel like 99% of the time, what ends up going in, comes out entirely changed, but in almost every case changed into something that’s exactly like everyone else. Yet here YOU are…and somehow, you’ve honestly beaten the odds…you’ve kept your authenticity and you sound identifiable – truly, I’ll remember the music of Steven Dunn long after this interview is over. But perhaps you can shed some real insight into what’s happening down there or what they’re putting in the water in Nashville – is it as hard as it seems to be to resist the allure of ‘the perfect song?’ You know what I mean? There are so many songwriters in that city that there’s hardly room for anyone else…but again, 99% of them seem to have the same ideas, write in endless clichés, and are generally dated in their approach overall – but it’s STILL undeniable that they CAN write a song that will appeal to the masses…and for many out there, that’s the end-all & be-all of music. I feel like you’re in this whole thing for completely different reasons and that you understand the importance of your own artistic integrity. What’s the value in authenticity? Commercially, personally, as an artist…you could be a hit-making top-40 sensation by tomorrow night if you wanted to throw away your soul down there in Nashville brother…tell us why there’s more to it all than that.
Steven: Well first thank you. We’re all walking billboards in one way or another. What we choose to wear and tell people on a daily basis is calculated whether consciously or subconsciously. Honestly, one of the reasons I like to be authentic is it’s a lot less of a headache than to remember the details of a persona.
As far as Nashville goes I often get that from people outside of it, but truthfully there’s pretty vibrant and diverse group of people down here making great music. The side of the industry that you’re talking about definitely exists, but it’s also been one of the most encouraging artists scenes I’ve been a part of. In other cities I’ve been in there almost seems to be a competition between bands, but I’ve discovered more of a community of everyone supporting each other in Nashville.
As far as what’s in the water, there’s quite a few songs that would lead you to believe it’s whiskey.
SBS: I’m highly interested in your EP series. “GOD-LOVE-AND-DEATH” “GOD” AND “LOVE” are already out, and AND – a collection of B-sides will be out this month, with DEATH coming later in the year. That’s ambitious in all kinds of ways…particularly in how you chose to record it ALL over the course of two days! Quite honestly, from the quality, there’s absolutely no way anyone would ever even possibly know…from the production to the performances, it’s stunning brother. So…man…there’s so much I want to know about this! I’m assuming we’re talking about two days to get it all laid down and then maybe time spent afterwards to mix & all that? No matter how you slice it or divide up the work though, that’s still an incredible amount of effort and you’ve pulled it off incredibly well. Take us inside of those two days and give us an insider’s look at how a project like this all comes together – how intense does a process like that get & when all was said & done, how does the process itself end up playing a role in the music?
Steven: The main tracks were recorded in about twelve hours over two days. All guitars, bass, and drums were live. We certainly spent more time mixing and adding auxiliary instruments after the fact. I like to record this way for two reasons, one it has a more energetic feel to it, and two it’s immensely cheaper. We spent about 4 days before going into the studio finalizing arrangements, as my home doesn’t have an hourly rate. The guys I work with in the studio are good friends and it never really got intense. My experience has been that when people are relaxed and having a good time you generally get better takes than if they’re worrying about messing up. Some of the most lifeless albums I’ve ever listened to are mistake free. The end result is one I’m pretty happy with as it has an energy to it that I’m not sure I could replicate with solo tracking each instrument.
SBS: We can often project as songwriters & musicians when we express ourselves. On your main website, it mentions that the purpose behind this record series is to ‘bring attention to the fleeting lives we lead and our inability to rationalize different aspects of emotions throughout various stages of life.’ So, you see where that puts us now right? Either we have to find a way to get you to acknowledge that you’re just like the rest of us in that assessment, or that you’ve got it all figured out & you’ve got all the answers. From the music I’ve heard from you…you seem a bit too humble to be the kind of dude shouting down from the mountaintop to the rest of us down below with advice…but at the same time, you’ve got your own experiences and things you want to express as an artist. So, which would you say it is…self-projection, reality of the way things are, a combination of both – where do you fit into that description? What’s the key to getting a concept like this across sincerely without tipping the scales into something that might come across as pretentious or over the heads of the people listening out there?
Steven: I think there’s no denying that our lives are ending at some point and anyone who tries to tell you they’ve never let their emotions get the best of them is lying. I would hope that the manner in which I write my music would show that I’m asking questions about life right along side the rest of everyone else. Hopefully this can be seen throughout the series. Like the tag in Different Ways, “we all face our demons in different ways” or the chorus on How Come I Don’t Wanna Die “Hell’s got a hold on me/So what’s the point in life/If salvation is truly free/Then how come I don’t wanna die?”
We all are dealing with these things and we often hide behind colloquialisms or well-meaning phrases instead of addressing them head on. Sometimes that’s good; but often times I think we’re digging ourselves a deeper hole.
As far as being over anyone’s head, a song is how you perceive it. Chris Thile has talked before about how he’s had people come up to him after shows and tell him what his songs are about and they’re not right at all, but he doesn’t correct them. If someone thinks a song is about a break up and they tell you it helped them through it, then that’s what it’s about.
I don’t set out to write overly heady songs, or try to see how many references I can get into a verse. I want to write honestly and inspired. After it’s finished I just hope some people connect with it.
SBS: How many tunes made it onto these records versus falling onto the cutting room floor? I’m assuming many of these songs were ready to go somewhat if not fully ready to roll once you hit the studio…but I’m guessing there’s probably a few that came from the magic of the moment as well. But at the end of the session…when you’re listening back to these tunes – what exactly are you listening for in the production, songwriting, and performances? What do the songs of Steven Dunn have to have in order to make the grade and end up being on an official record that you’ll put out for others to hear?
Steven: Great questions that I’m not sure I have great answers to, but here goes nothing. I hold my songs pretty close to the vest until I think they’re ready to go. If a song doesn’t seem to be working with the band or doesn’t feel right then it’s tucked away to be revisited another time. And is an entire album of those songs. Only one song in the compilation got bumped and it was for Dust Settles on And. I wrote that the night after our first day in the studio and showed it to the guys, and they told me to go ahead and put it on the record.
As for what I’m listening for, or what songs need to make it I’m really not exactly sure. I think that’s where the technicality of music leaves and art steps in. It’s a feeling. Granted if the drums are just entirely out of time I’m obviously not going to release it, but I don’t mind a mistake or two if the song feels good.
SBS: When it came to the two-day recording process…was there a point along the way where you felt like you had to potentially compromise, rewrite, or adapt a part of your style, sound, or songs somehow? I can’t even imagine how busy those two-days must have been, but I’m assuming that sleep wasn’t to be found often. I get the sense that, this recording and the whole approach to the songwriting, execution & concept is related to appreciating the beauty of the moment…so in a way I can see that concessions might have to be made during a process like that, but standards of course have to still be maintained. And they certainly, sound like they were from everything I’ve heard with my own two ears. So, when IS it okay to compromise when it comes to your art & music? Or is it?
Steven: I think compromise just has to be a personal choice. Take the 48 Hour Film Project for instance. Clearly they couldn’t make Avatar in 48 hours, but you can make a beautiful film in that amount of time. Maybe you don’t get to spend as much time color correcting, but you can still tell a great story. I think the same is true for music and you have to know what’s most important to you. When you’re making albums quickly you don’t get the luxury of writing in studio or trying out a million different microphone set-ups. In a way that could be a compromise, but I’m still proud of what I accomplished. There could be a way to mic the drums that yields something that better fits the record or any number of other variations of how we could do something. Better however is relative and when you don’t have time to worry about that as much I find it becomes more about the song and performance then it does the production. For me, that’s ultimately what it’s all about.
SBS: When it comes to the four records…how did you go about choosing which songs went where? What divided the content – and what aside from the live-aspect/recording process would you say cohesively brings these songs together in the full-set being released overall?
Steven: I had a pretty set idea going into it. Death is a serial killer album so there’s a clear chronological order for that one. With God, Love, and And it was a little trickier, but I arrange them in a way that hopefully tells a complete story and flows well.
I joked with friends that you could replace some of the songs on Death with the songs on God. You could likely do the same with Love. That’s part of what inspired this project in the first place, what else is there other than God (or spirituality), Love, and Death? They all intersect and are key tenants in our lives. Go to a funeral and you’ll see a large outpouring of love. Attend a religious service and you’ll likely hear about love and death.
SBS: Open-floor my brother. So many things we could talk about in a short interview and there’s never a way to fully get to them all – so if there’s anything else on your mind that we didn’t talk about that you want to bring up, now’s the perfect time to do just that! I’ve enjoyed every single second I’ve spent with your music dude…and I’m seriously stoked to hear where it all goes from here. It’s been a privilege & honor to listen. Thanks again for taking the time to talk to us Steven – all the best to you my friend.
Steven: Thank you for the thoughtful questions; it has been an absolute pleasure. I was fortunate enough to see Victor Wooten in an intimate setting and he talked about a lot of things his mother taught him as a kid; but one thing he said in particular stuck with me. “Life doesn’t need more good musicians, it needs more good people.”
As much as I want to create great art that I’m proud of, I hope I never lose sight of that. Peace and love!
Thanks so much!
Find out more about Steven Dunn’s music at his official website at: http://www.steven-dunn.com