Standing on a street corner in Rome, Brooklyn-based musician, Steve Gunn is waking up. Forced to greet the morning sans wifi and consequently sans coffee, the local cafe he was hoping to Skype Cyclic via, abandoned in favour of a stroll down the street.
The innate meandering nature of this seasoned muso is as evident in his phone manner as the music he is renowned for creating.
His latest album Eyes on the Lines, released mid last year to wide acclaim, is the musical fodder that is keeping him, along with a best friend (and travelling companion) occupied on the touring circuit. As a songwriter Gunn explains he draws inspiration from fictitious stories, mysterious circumstances, mysterious people and random occurrences and he says he tries not to keep things that are overly concessional or personal at the forefront of his lyrics.
“For me I’m not interested in that kind of thing, as an appreciator of music, of course I like that kind of thing but you know I like content to have a bit more of an open ended meaning in the way it can be interpreted in different ways and for different people, then it’s not so specific.” He says.
A track from the album ‘Night Wander’ prompts Gunn to reflect on the song’s meaning and his sense of exploration as an adult is what jumped back at him.
“I was thinking a lot about the house that I grew up in and I used to have this cat that I would let secretly into my window, and I also as a young kid would be exploratory. I’d like being adventurous and as an adult I still sort of feel that way and one thing that I did when I was young, I would kind of walk around my neighbourhood when everyone was asleep – not even doing anything wrong, just to kind of walk around and be alone and be in a quiet neighbourhood and the cat would follow me a lot. Intent with memory when he speaks again, “I was thinking back at that time and sort of reflecting on where I am currently and thinking about how I have this sense of wanting to explore and discover things, so that’s sort of what that songs about.”
At the time of writing, Gunn is in Europe, traversing Italy and then on to Norway and Spain. Despite the album’s guitar drenched melodies versioned together for the release with the assistance of ten session musicians, Gunn is mindful of the change of pace playing the songs solo allows.
“That’s part of why I’ve been enjoying playing these shows so much. I can reinterpret the music and reinterpret the songs.
For Gunn the guitar-heavy nature of this album’s songs is attributable to one musician in particular from his band and means that he himself is really having to step up to ensure the songs are done justice.
“It’s sort of for me like a daunting challenge to stand on my own and play the songs. Like they are my songs and I can get behind them, so if I can reinterpret and bring them back in a minimalist way- that’s important.”
The reception from the crowds at these solo shows can be telling. Gunn observes that until the crowd is assessed it’s hard to differentiate how each night will go.
“I think some nights are more difficult than others, some nights are more special but it’s really random, you can never tell, unless I’ve been to the same place before, I kind of get a sense of what the show will be like and that’s kind of interesting.”
His career spanning almost 15 years with 13 studio albums behind him since 2007, Gunn is accustomed to playing solo or with various musical contemporaries and through these performances he reflects that he has indeed learned a lot.
“I used to get frustrated and thought certain things happen playing by yourself, you sort of become very sensitive to the room, it’s this really trippy experience where you can’t quite let your guard down, you kind of have to sort of go with the circumstances and make the best of them.”
Aside from the focus on the Europe tour, recurrent throughout the conversation with Gunn is a theme of his admiration for those peers who he sees to be ‘working hard’ and alongside musicians (Jack Rose and Kurt Vile to name two) who effuse huge levels of effort and their reaping of reward because of this.
“Hard work definitely seems like it does pay off if you have the right focus. He muses.
“I always feel like I have to figure out and improve what I’m doing – it kind of pushes me to try different things.” he adds.
Cyclic asked about where and when this specific driver and motivation arose. Gunn pinpointing it to the levels of effort he had impressed on him through his father, who used to make Gunn street sweep and do a lot of work around the house.
Recollecting: “At that time, I got really into music and into these sort of musicians who worked hard and became virtuosic in their own way.
“I got really turned off by posturing in music and people who pretend to be these kind of characters, kind of doing these formulaic songs and not really working too hard.”
By his own admission, Eyes on the Lines (as an album and through its production process) is for Gunn representative of the pushing of his own boundaries. Significant in that it’s his first album released under label Matador the gestation for this album was completely different to any other.
A whole new approach was adopted, Gunn choosing to remove himself from the same studio he’d always known in the same place and instead he moved around from studio to studio, ensuring this time his song catalogue was solid and had ‘focus’. Focus on the songs that he hadn’t had before and with these subtle adjustments came changed outputs.
“My song writing style changed a little bit and songs were a bit shorter and were concise and I was at this point where I wanted to make that record something that had a bit more of an edge to it.”
“I feel like a lot of people from my album before that thought I was living in fields in the country somewhere, but I’m actually a real city person. I kind of wanted to give Eyes on the lines, a bit of that edge, but at the same time still kind of hold onto what I was doing.
A trip to Australia lies ahead for Gunn as well a return to the studio to lay new tracks for an upcoming album again through Matador (2018) and work with his sometime collaborative partner.
“So we kind of have this duo – where we make instrumental records, and we were kind of messing around with that right before I went off on tour and but I’m also working on new songs, I’ve been in the studio already and going back into the studio when I get home.”
Steve Gunn tours East Coast venues of Australia on the following dates:
Sydney, Thursday July 6, The Basement
Melbourne, Friday July 7, NGV Friday Nights
Brisbane, Sunday July 9, Junk Bar