After years’ worth of records filled with observational songwriting in the third person, the time has come for the real Steve Gunn to appear in front of you. The Brooklyn-via-Delco acoustic guitarslinger is back with his 15th studio album, and this time he was kind enough to give us a taste of who he really is. Prior to this year’s album, The Unseen In Between, Gunn had focused his lyricism on characters he created from the inventive depths of his imagination. For this album, he pivots toward his own life and his own personal struggles, like the death of his father soon after the release of his 2016 album, Eyes on the Lines. The Star had a chance to chat with Gunn about his new music prior to his upcoming show at Fishtown’s Johnny Brenda’s on Aug. 2. Lucky us.
On this album, your songs are a bit more autobiographical than in years past. What prompted that?
I don’t know. I think just growing as a songwriter and just I think in the past I was always writing about observing things, observing people, singing about other people and not really addressing my own psychosis, but I think circumstances align themselves in the right way and I needed to take a break from everything and really write and work on songs, which is not something I was used to. I’m always a busybody and I never really gave myself time, and so I just realized that it was important for me to not be on the road and be home and not feel guilty for going and locking myself in a room for three months and really try to understand how to do it in that way. I think I just sort of have this kind of like low attention span and low patience for that kind of thing and I just realized that I need to put the work in and I was just sort of in a really introspective place just because of everything. I had made a record for Matador, I was on the road and all this crazy shit happened and I was kind of reflecting on that and also just taking a step back and it was more like just being introspective and going to the same place every day and just working. I felt like it was time to be a bit more personal. I think my opinions change about songwriting. Before I was always like, no, it’s such a weird predicament and position to be in when you’re singing songs because you’re either singing about yourself and it creates this ego-driven kind of thing, and I was always battling against that. And this time, I was just thinking about personal struggles, but I felt like addressing that stuff was also a universal topic where everyone has to go through those things and address, I guess, the darkness. And at the same time just sort of being hopeful for the greater good is how I would put it.
“Luciano” is one of my favorite songs on the album. Can you talk a little bit about how that song came together and what it’s about?
I kind of used just figuratively just a deli owner and his cat, and basically I guess the premise is that he rescues the cat and some of the song is from the cat’s perspective, but it’s about how this cat is feeling really grateful about how he’s rescued and how he’s worried about his owner and they kind of have this mutual carrying relationship. I also was really interested in this one deli owner in New York and I see him all the time and I know his story is amazing, but he’s kind of on the fringes of any kind of socialization of Brooklyn. He’s a real loner and he’s an older guy and he’s super friendly. I’m super interested in his story and I kind of wanted to paint more of a picture with him in it instead of someone else or someone with a kind of story or something simple, but important for me. Almost like singing about like a stranger or something like that. For me, the song represents the relationships in your life that are nurturing and how there’s people who, you know, when you worry about someone and you’re worrying about if they’re OK and it’s a hopeful song about thinking about people who are going through troubled times, you know.
After attending college at Temple, you ended up landing a job working for Connecticut-born, minimalist artist Sol LeWitt. Do you make any visual art yourself? What impact does it have on your songwriting?
I don’t make visual art, but I’m certainly informed by it. You know, I got really into certain kinds of art and the artists and their stories and their philosophies of working particular with a lot of minimalist artists. I got really into that. And there’s definitely a correlation with music. A lot of those artists were really into music or were musicians themselves and I think that there’s certain patterns of working with repetition and certain simple ideas and long-form sorts of gestures and things that I was definitely reading about and thinking about in musical terms, too. This was kind of before the songwriting stuff really solidified for me. I was doing a lot of long guitar pieces and more sort of ‘journey’ kind of things. The art was all in my head when I was doing all that, too.
How does Philadelphia compare to New York?
For me, New York offered me to kind of step out and be autonomous and immerse myself in music and I just – I wanted to take that step. I had been coming up here a bit. I always had a deep connection with Philly. I love the community in Philly and the music scene, but for me, I never felt like I was a part of any scene. It started growing inward, you know? And it became, like, so close and everyone knew each other and you sit in a bar and everyone is dating each other’s girlfriends and there’s like all that kind of stuff. I come from a family in Philly and I feel like I’m not chasing a new horizon, so to say, New York isn’t far away, but I just kind of made the step and it’s just a trial situation and I ended up finding a place and getting lucky with my job and the housing situation. I found a great place and met a lot of friends up here and just kind of stuck it out. And I’ve been here since then. But Philly is really my home and my family is still there and being in New York, you realize that that city informed me and shaped me into the work ethic that I had and just generally, personality-wise. I really hope you realize that if affected my life.
But the difference is, it’s just a bigger place. And it’s more expensive and there’s more traffic and it’s annoying and at the same time I moved up here to be closer to the art museums and to be able to just kind of go to shows all the time and I know you can do that in Philly, but for me it’s like there’s this kind of international aspect to it. It’s its own place, and I just kind of immersed myself in it at the time.
Can you talk a little bit about “Stonehurst Cowboy?” What’s that song about? Is Stonehurst a place?
Stonehurst is a place. It’s a little enclave of a neighborhood right near 69th Street and it’s where my dad and his family grew up. My dad grew up in a really small house with a bunch of siblings, and his mom raised the family and he just kind of had this ongoing joke that he was this kind of street-fighting kid and he was the best boxer in the town. Somehow he got this nickname Stonehurst Cowboy. He had a bunch of nicknames, but that was one of them. He was always saying, ‘I’ve got the fastest hands in all of Delaware County’ and. ‘No one could mess with me’ and it became this ongoing joke throughout his life later in his life and it’s a funny thing now to think about. I would always tease him about it, and he would spar jokingly about it.
Gunn will perform at Johnny Brenda’s on Friday, Aug. 2, at 9 p.m. Tickets are $20, and you can grab them here.