Steve Poltz reflects on his prodigious musical output as he stirs his coffee outside Ugly Mugs on a rare day 65-degree February day. “I never go back and count how many records I’ve done, but I would say maybe this is my 15th solo record. I could be wrong but that sounds about right.
“I just keep making them,” the prolific, endlessly ebullient, and almost aggressively amiable Poltz continues. “I never have a good plan, I just kind of stumble into making records. It’s not like I sit down and have a wish list of producers, songs I want. I sort of haphazardly get together with people like Oliver Wood or Will Kimbrough and he’ll say come over to the studio and hang out.” And then, with a healthy dose of serendipity, a new record is born.
“It happened fast,” he says of his latest album, Stardust & Satellites (which, for the record, is his 14th solo outing). “We did the record in like two weeks. When I go into the studio, I know the songs because when I write a song, I’m really obsessive about it. I’ll play it 100 times in a row and not be sick of it. So by the time I go into the studio I’m a part of the song. I’m no longer thinking about the chord fingerings. I’m inside the song and it’s a really cool feeling.
“And I’m good for one or two takes,” he continues. “I’m taking something out of the song if I play it too much. … So I feel like it was effortless, and we recorded it live. I don’t like to sing with headphones on. When I play with headphones on I feel like I’m trying to be too precious with my singing. And I’ve learned that over the years. Just sing how you would sing it. So I’ll record it, and sometimes Jano (Rix, from The Wood Brothers) would be playing right next to me with a little sound wall around him but we’d be looking at each other. Or I would do it and say I’m not doing this with a click track. I don’t care if it speeds up a little. Some of my favorite songs speed up a little.”
With a storied career going back 40 years, Poltz at 62 hasn’t slowed down. The Associated Press called him “part busker, part Iggy Pop and part Robin Williams, a freewheeling folkie with a quick wit and big heart.” That sounds right.
With long nutmeg-gray hair, he looks nothing like his age and acts even younger than that. If you look up “sunny personality” in Merriam Webster, there’s a picture of him. He spent many years living in San Diego before moving to Nashville, and a hundred years ago became friends with Jewel when she was living in a van behind the coffee shop where they both worked. They co-wrote “You Were Meant for Me” — a massive hit that put a little jingle in his pocket and allowed Jewel to get a house.
Stardust & Satellites — produced by Oliver Wood and the aforementioned Rix —will fit in his repertoire nicely, with its mixture of delicately fingerpicked pastoral moments broken up with an exuberance befitting his live performances, which are two-thirds affecting music and one-third sidesplitting commentary about whatever is on his mind at the moment. There are plenty of opportunities to see him do that too since he plays on the road about 600 nights a year.
“So, my goal has always been, especially recently, to keep the tracks organic, have some total solo acoustic songs, but also have some band songs … see where it goes and see what fits. And my other goal is to never put more than 10 songs on a record these days. I used to put like 20. People will show up and they’re superfans, and you’ll play a song, and they’re like ‘oh man I love that new song!’ And I’m like no, that’s on a record I put out in 1998 and they’re like ‘oh I have that record,’ and I realize we think people hear them all but they don’t.”
“Can of Pop” is the single, a swampy groove, rusty like an old shoe, with a genuine Mississippi slide guitar. On “Wrong Town,” we find an aging rocker’s lament with a delicious acoustic intro and lyrics tinged with defiance. The protagonist isn’t into settling into dotage; he still has a life to live. “Frenemy” is a love song but with qualifications to that love in the lyrics.
Born in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Poltz was raised in southern California. His first successful group was the Rugburns, and through working with them he came to meet the regulars on the scene during the early eighties; people like Mojo Nixon and the Beat Farmers. And, it being the eighties, there were mass quantities of illicit substances consumed. Poltz certainly swam in that cesspool for a while but has long said goodbye to that lifestyle. “Sobriety is like a drug to me,” he’s been known to say. And for his audiences, he’s the drug for them.
Steve Poltz celebrates the release of Stardust & Satellites at City Winery Nashville Tuesday, February 22 at 8 p.m. Tickets are available here. Presented by WMOT.
Stardust & Satellites is out now via Redhouse Records/Compass Records.
Colored, autographed vinyl, as well as streaming links and merch, are available at poltz.com.