A coffee with ... SIMON LINSTEADT
Hi Simon, welcome to Bibliomusique and thanks for being here! You're the first international artist we talk with, it's great to start from you! Would you briefly tell us about yourself and your passion for music? How and when did you discover music? How does Simon Linsteadt precisely write a song?
Thank you gusys, very happy to be speaking with you, and I am honored to be your first international artist. I started playing piano when I was six years old, studying classical piano and performing at classical piano competitions and other various recitals. When I was ten I became completely obsessed with guitar, and dreamed of a red Fender Stratocaster. My musical interests at this time were classic rock and pop, and modern pop. I liked everything from Cream to Vanessa Carlton. I became interested in folk music when I was twelve, because my older sister was in a folk band in high school. I looked up to her and her friends and wanted to emulate what they were doing. I started my first band Steep Ravine right out of high school in 2011. We played everything from bluegrass and eventually folk rock, but always with a gentle singer-songwriter core. In 2015 I began focusing on my solo music. Now ten years later, I have made eight albums and toured extensively around the United States.
In terms of how I write a song… it’s not always the same, but usually it starts with me sitting down with my guitar, or whichever instrument is available to me, in an inspired moment. I’ll get a feeling about two or three chords together with a fragment of a melody, maybe with a little lyrical phrase like “When you awake in this half moonlit mood” or “Show me how to grow strong like a buckeye bough”. Then I’ll put my guitar down and do something else. Then that motif rattles around in my head for days, weeks, months. I’ll be subconsciously whistling it as I’m doing other things, and then other small fragments of lyrics will start coming to me. Then next time I sit down with the guitar, it’s like I’ve opened up new ideas in my subconscious and I’m able to continue. I always stop when I get that tired feeling. Sometimes it takes me a couple years to finish lyrics. I never force them. The recording process is a whole different art form. It’s my favorite part, and usually I’m already thinking about an arrangement and the production as I’m writing a song. The greatest thing about making music, is that when it comes to recording and producing a song, there are endless possibilities of how to bring a song to life. I could go into more depth with this, but that might take me pages and pages so I’ll stop there.
Gualala it's your fifth album as a solo artist and it's very different from the others. It seems to represent a new era for your music. Why have you chosen this title? Please tell us more about the genesis and the characters of this new record and about your main sources of inspiration for this record.
Gualala is the name of a small river mouth town on the coast of Northern California, and a Pomoan word meaning “Where the water flows down”. It is a place I have driven through many times and spent several nights. I have always been drawn to the way the word rolls off of the tongue, and the sleepy seaside feeling of the place. Before moving to New York City in 2018, I spent a few nights in Gualala, saying goodbye to California. It took me four years to complete this album from tip to stern, and I released ‘The Fool’ in the interim time. All the while, I knew in the back of my mind that this project was called ‘Gualala’, partly because it was a place where I said goodbye to the first chapter of my life. Overtime, the word came to represent this colorful, new sound of my music, and became detached from its other meanings. It was a symbol of the sonic textures, new colors, new songs, new directions. While the album is a departure in my catalog, it’s mainly a departure in terms of its production. I started writing ‘I Will Never Know’ and ‘The Hard Way’ around 2016. I just never found a way to express them until I began exploring electronica. ‘This I Swear’ I wrote in 2007. It was one of the first songs I ever wrote, and I wanted to pay respect to it on this album.
Moving to New York City I started soaking in a lot of new music, and new ways of creating music with technology. I would walk for hours along the Hudson river and in Central Park listening to Kraftwerk, Cyndi Lauper, Gorillaz, Sting, Beastie Boys, Paul McCartney’s McCartney II, Herbie Hancock Future Shock, Prince, Michael Jackson’s Bad, Moby’s Play, Peter Gabriel, Kate Bush, Angelo Badalamenti, U2, Aphex Twin, Air, Daft Punk, and much more. I met a synthesizer repairman at Rogue Music in Manhattan, and he taught me how to use a subtractive synthesizer, turned me onto a lot of interesting machinery (samplers, drum machines, etc), and then I started exploring on my own terms. I really got obsessive about it. I would wake up thinking about synths, go to bed thinking about synths, then dream about synths, imagining wires and cables synchronized to each other making beautiful music. That’s how I’ve been about all of my musical pursuits. When I was seventeen, it was flat-picking and bluegrass music, later it was rock n roll, now it was pop/electronica. I go really deep when I get into something musical. The learning curve took me about a year. Right away I was making music, but it really took me a year to figure out how it made sense for my songs.
You're so young but your career is already so full of music. Let's talk about your previous albums and also about your music with Steep Ravine. According to you, which are the differences between every single album?
My first album was Trampin’ On (2013) with my previous band Steep Ravine. I’ll preface this by saying, it is a bit challenging for me to listen to ‘the old me’. But I have love for that nineteen-year old kid who made that album. I was head over heels in love with bluegrass music at that time. But what set that album apart was that my take on bluegrass was pretty colorful, gentle, poetic leaning, and I was really intent on paying respect to what I viewed as the very best bluegrass, newgrass, and acoustic jazz like the Tony Rice Unit, The Osborne Brothers, John Reischman, John Hartford, Norman Blake, and Django Reinhardt. I was also really into James Taylor and Paul Simon at the time, which I can hear in the sound. That was a really beautiful time, I was very passionate about the origins of folk and jazz music. My second album was The Pedestrian (2014), also as Steep Ravine. It was an intense project, I was striving for an extreme level of perfectionism, bringing flat-picked guitar into a more genre progressive atmosphere. I was pretty young and trying things out though. The band was not wildly enthusiastic about making this album, I pushed everyone really hard and the songs were not easy to play live because I played guitar, mandolin, and banjo, and our bassist Alex Bice played drums percussion and bass.
Then came my first solo album Simon Linsteadt (2015). At this time, Steep Ravine was breaking up. I needed to express something more personal and vulnerable. I was interested in music that was recorded using primarily guitar and voice, such as specific recordings by Nick Drake, James Taylor, Neil Young, Tony Rice, and Norman Blake. There was something spacious and haunting about the sparse instrumentation and I was up for the challenge. I was in a really intense period internally, coping with panic attacks, and trying to quit drinking. (I am now four years sober). I also recorded most of this album while I was freshly stitched up and out of the hospital from appendicitis. Almost immediately after releasing my first solo album I began recording Fixing My Head (2016). I recorded it in my parents’ basement. I wrote most of the songs on the fly, in the basement. I was feeling liberated, and I was tired of playing the guitar with such a perfectionist mentality. I felt trapped by form and structure. I wanted to express something more ragged, and allow my sense of humor and different parts of my identity to shine through. Some of my inspirations were Neil Young’s Tonight’s the Night, John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band, Stevie Wonder’s Talking Book, Paul Mccartney’s McCartney I. I was interested in the one-man band approach to making an album. Sometimes I look back onto this period of time as the happiest time of my life. I felt so free and alive. Steep Ravine stayed alive for another year and a half despite our brief hiatus. During that time we included a new drummer and made Turning of the Fall (2017). I think it is Steep Ravine’s most realized album. It has a very live feel. I was insistent on tracking vocals live with the performance. After touring the album extensively, Steep Ravine went on indefinite hiatus.
February (2017) was released around the same time. Yes, I recorded two albums at the same time. This one saw me playing a lot more nylon string guitar, and striving to continue the seriousness of my first solo album, but with more instrumentation. I was once again intent on recording guitar and vocals live, to capture a certain natural musicality and rhythm. My experience was that when I sang and played live, everything sounded more natural, and the song was there. My sense of groove was more natural, and easier to record drums and bass on top of. I don’t hold myself to these “rules” anymore, but it helped me achieve a certain sound for that album. I look at that album as the end of a chapter, the lights went out on an era in my life. I moved across the country, I was ready for something different.
Next I recorded The Fool (2019). This was a bit different for me. Most of the songs I wrote in high school, and the idea was to breathe new life into them, now ten years later. When I was fifteen I made a poorly recorded EP called The Fool, and I view it as a very earnest, innocent, and true expression of myself. I wanted to recapture that, maybe for posterity, and maybe for looking ahead too. There are a handful of new songs on the album too. I was becoming interested in spirituality and surreal art like Cecil Collins and William Blake, and experimental film which was also non-representational. The Fool is a musical nod to some of these artistic interests. I recorded and mixed most of this album in an apartment in Manhattan. I wanted to use mainly folk and bluegrass instrumentation but play as if I had never heard bluegrass before. I was trying to unlearn things for the sake of a deeper self-expression.
Now here I am with Gualala. If February was a death, then The Fool was the underworld. That must make Gualala a rebirth. That’s how it feels to me. I am really excited about where things are heading for me creatively, and being open to whatever makes me feel excited.
If you should do a "best of" made of ten of your tracks, which songs would you choose? I'll tell you my personal tracklist then!
I can be tough on myself when listening to my own music, but my ten would include the following.
Pine Hill Rd
Everyday (You Have Grown) Turning of the Fall version
I Will Never Know
The Hard Way
The Holy Fool’s Inn
What is your favourite music? Tell us about your best albums and songs! What song you would have write and why?
As I am writing this list, I realize that my favorite albums really are albums I like to listen to all the way through, and sometimes they don’t contain my favorite songs.
So my favorite songs are detached from my favorite albums.
McCartney I and II
Neil Young Rust Never Sleeps, Trans
U2 Joshua Tree
Deb Talan Lucky Girl
John Lennon Plastic Ono Band
Michael Hurley Hi Fi Snock Uptown
Michael Jackson Bad
Deb Talan - Butterfly
Cat Stevens - If I Laugh
The Weepies - Simple Life
Sting - Fields of Gold
Paul McCartney - Junk
Wings - Arrow Through Me
Michael Jackson/Paul McCartney - The Girl is Mine
Michael Jackson - Man in the Mirror
Beck - Lost Cause
Michael Hurley – Watertrain
How is Covid situation going right now in the States? In which way did you live your quarantine?
I was lucky to have moved to Maine with my girlfriend a few months before COVID got out of control. We live in a small town and cases stayed pretty low. I spent quarantine recording Gualala, so I took the isolated time to really focus on the new sounds and recording techniques of the project. What are your musical projects for future? Are you scheduling a tour? What's your usual live setup for a gig? Will you have some shows also here in Europe and Italy?
As with most albums, by the time I release one, I already have a vision in view for the next. At this time it is hard to say exactly what the production will look like, but I have a lot of new songs and I plan to keep pushing into new territory and following whatever makes me feel impassioned. I plan to be more visible on social media and get back out onto the road as a solo artist. Usually my live set up in the past has been pretty organic, with guitar, drums, fiddle, bass, and mandolin. In the future I want to include more keyboards and technology into the mix. I hope one day to jump over the pond and perform in Europe/Italy!
Thanks for having a speech with us, have a great day and good luck for all your plans!
Thanks for having me, I really appreciate the opportunity to talk about my music and hope that your readers resonate with my words.