Steve Poltz: On co-writing with Jewel, having a stroke, moving to Nashville and the good, the bad and the ugly in two countries

While living and gigging in San Diego in the mid-’90s, a musician co-wrote a song with his girlfriend, also a musician. After one of their gigs, they stopped at a taco stand in San Diego at 3 a.m. and asked some sex trade workers to decide who should record the song after each had a turn singing it to them. The ladies of the evening chose the girlfriend and the song, You Were Meant for Me, was recorded by the girlfriend, Jewel, and hit No. 2 on Billboard’s Top 100 and was the most played song on the radio in the United States in 1996.

After they split, Halifax-born, Palm Springs-raised Steve Poltz continued to do what he’d always done — write music, play music, record music, tour music and dream music — everywhere he could, releasing several albums and leading to his songs appearing in movies and some acting stints for himself.

He also had completed a political science degree but the joking question, “So did you make a lot of use of that degree?” that one might ask a writer of some tongue-in-cheek songs who also has stints as a comedian is passé. In a conversation with the songwriter, it quickly becomes obvious that Poltz has put that degree, his thoughtful wit, and his insights to use every day of his career.

The voracious reader of newspapers and books (which he reads on his iPhone, so he doesn’t have to carry much while traveling) moved to Nashville about three years ago after living in San Diego for 30 years. Before that, he had a stroke in his thalamus onstage that left him temporarily blind. There’s a lot to talk about.

Q: What have you been reading lately?

A: The (book) that I just finished was Michelle Obama’s book, it was called Becoming. And I just finished this one that I was really into … a book about Guy Clark by Tamara Saviano called Without Getting Killed or Caught. It was good, it was more clinical the way it was written. I went from that and I read Graham Nash’s book Wild Tales (A Rock and Roll Life). I read Jeff Tweedy’s book before that called Let’s Go So We Can Get Back, and I read the Joni Mitchell one, A Portrait of Joni Mitchell, Reckless Daughter. I loved the Springsteen (Born to Run) book.

And I just finished Loudon Wainwright’s book Liner Notes: On Parents & Children, Exes & Excess, Death & Decay & a Few of My Other Favourite Things. I love books about music — oh, and I just finished Bob Dylan’s Chronicles. It was great! I read it because I thought I read it when it came out but I don’t think I ever finished it. When it came out I wasn’t ready to read it because I remember I tried to and I was like, uh, I’ll do it some other time but now, I have this voracious appetite for music biographies, and that’s all I want to read.

Except, I just started reading this famous self-help book from the ’70s called A Course in Miracles because there’s a woman running for president named Marianne Williamson, who everybody makes fun of because she’s kind of very New Agey. She has all these books out she’s kind of a spiritual guru. I was kind of fascinated by her and she sort of interprets A Course in Miracles so I’m really into that right now.

Q: You moved to the United States when you were young. What do you notice about the differences between Canada and the United States?

A: I’m a dual citizen; I have two passports so when I come to Canada they always go “Welcome home.” And now I come to the States they say, “Get in line!” It’s funny because when you fly into Halifax they all say, “Hi! And who is your father? And your mom was from here?” If you go to a smaller area they’re like, “What are you doing here?” “I’m playing Stan Rogers Folk Fest.” “Oh, is that ever great!’” And then you fly into like Chicago or something they’re like, “Everybody get in line over here! Grrrrrr!” and they’re yelling at you.

I love the States, don’t get me wrong, but it’s like, a harder country. Both countries have the benefits — there’s good things about both and bad things about both that I find.

Q: Such as?

A: I would say the good things about the US is it was a country that was a huge melting pot when it started so it took a lot of different people from all different countries and it didn’t have a long history to deal with from the 1500s. I guess a good example would be when you go to England you’re like, “Can I get the eggs, but I don’t want ’em scrambled, I’d like them poached two and a half minutes and instead of potatoes could I get a side salad and some avocado?” When you go to England it’s like, ‘No, we’ve always done it this way and this is the way were gonna do it.” In the States it’s like they’re rule breakers.

So I think that’s the good thing — the bad thing is there’s a good and a bad side to capitalism, and with capitalism you have winners and losers. Something like a Springsteen song, “You’ve got winners and losers and those caught on the wrong side of that line.”  It’s an inherently flawed system and so’s anything — life is inherently flawed.

The middle class gets kind of bought off, if you will. They get their TVs, their cars, they’re able to own a house. For a while, blue collar workers were able to purchase a home and have this hope and as we became a global economy and everything started getting manufactured overseas and we would look for the cheapest way to get it built, a lot of these people started losing their jobs but they were able to get flat screen TVs for cheap.

So it became ripe for someone like Donald Trump to come in because you have a disaffected population that are angry, so you get somebody coming in and they’re outside the system and they start speaking a language that these people need to hear. And they’re like “Hey, that sounds good to me. I’m angry!” and they start castigating the person who doesn’t look like them and that’s how the country was built.

In Canada you’re able to get health care and it’s a right, but all my relatives live in Canada and there’s a wait for certain things — you need your hip replaced, your knee replaced, there is a wait but you’re not going to pay for that. It’s an imperfect world that were living in.

(Note: Poltz also sings the praises of CanCon and government grants for the arts at this point.)

Q: What is the bad side of Canada?

A: You know what I don’t like about Canada is when I go back there there’s so many rules. It’s such a nanny state in a way. I’ve always thought outside the box. Here’s an example. Two weeks ago I’m at Mariposa Folk Fest and my friend is playing with Birds of Chicago and he’s playing electric guitar with them. He’s onstage, and we go over to the area where the artists eat. So that lady that’s there checking us in, checking the wristbands, sees us and says, “Oh my God! You were so great up there. I loved your show!” He’s like, “Thank you so much.” We go into eat and she says, “Wait, where’s your wrist band?” He says “We got here late so I didn’t get it yet. We just had to run up onstage and play.” She says, “You can’t come in here to eat — this is only for artists.” He says, “But I am an artist, you say me play onstage.” She said, “No, you don’t have the wristband.” And that’s what I don’t like about Canada — it’s like, so passive aggressive. “No, you’ve got to go get in line.” “But you saw me up there, I just want to eat, I have the laminate around my neck.” “No.”

I don’t like it when things become too PC. The art I like is like The Wild Bunch, Five Easy Pieces, Jack Nicholson and that kind of thing. I don’t like it when art becomes too PC and everyone’s like, “That guy didn’t recycle in the right bin!” It becomes a bunch of tattle tales and I’m like, “Are you fucking kidding me? What happened to rock and roll?”

Q: So I was going to joke about this, but now I’m not. You put your political science degree to good use as you love politics and this conversation shows you put effort into being informed and thinking, not reacting.

A: Oh my God! I’m obsessed with it! I love reading all the different periodicals I can get my hands on. Conservative writers to liberal writers to other county’s newspapers to Globe and Mail. You know, how the world looks at us, how we look at the world. I like seeing all different sides and I don’t really get angry. I don’t get in arguments over it.

The New York Times. I love writing them letters.  I’m obsessed with Maureen Dowd, I’m like a groupie for Maureen Dowd even though she’s so snarky. I love going back and reading her pieces. She’s one of my favourite political writers even though she’s so mean — and I always learn new words. She’s a Washington insider. I like Gail Collins, too, Gail Collins is great. She’s more lighthearted and finds humour in everything. I also really like David Brooks who’s more conservative, more religious, but I love his take on stuff, everything is spiritual. My other favourite writer is Roger Cohen. I like him because he’s Jewish and he looks at stuff from a Jewish viewpoint but not a Bibi Netanyahu, right-wing Jewish viewpoint. And he’s very poetic. And I like Thomas Freidman but also from a Jewish viewpoint but he’s really pro-technology and investing in cities and all that, and I love him.

Q: What’s it like living in Nashville after all those years in California?

A: I love it. Every time I go back to California now, because in California you have state income tax, and you pay a lot to live there, even though I was never there because I was always on the road, I was paying 12 to 15 thousand dollars a year in taxes just to live there, and (laughing) Tennessee has no state income tax. So you pay no state income tax. I don’t know how they get their money, maybe tourism, who knows, but now every time I go back to California now my line is, “Do they vacuum the freeways here?” It’s so clean. Whereas I live more in the dirty south now.

I love it because of the music scene because there’s so much going down. It’s like the golden era right now. I feel like everybody just keeps moving there that was living in Williamsburg and Portland and Austin. There’s a whole scene there in East Nashville and this is only coming from me now, the way I see it, but for me I was living in San Diego which was like a surfer beach town. We had a music scene but not like Nashville.  So for me it would be like living in Silicon Valley and being a programmer — I’d be with my tribe. 

Everybody on my block plays music in my neighbourhoods, at the coffee house I go to. So whatever I want to get done, oh, I wanna get artwork, I wanna get a bandana designed, make a video, I wanna go in and record a quick demo. It’s like I can get the best of the best, I can get anybody to play on anything at any time. Just throw a rock and you’ll hit some musician. I love living there. All I think is why didn’t I move here 10 years ago? And then all the co-writes I get to do with people. It’s making my own songs, I feel, better. I thought I was just going to write with people to help their songs then I realize when you get together with people and they’re really like minded. Wow.

Q: What’s it like writing stuff with Jewel now? Is writing with an ex-girlfriend one of those water under the bridge things?

A: So fun! I just played Telluride Bluegrass Festival and she lives in Telluride so she came to my show and we sang onstage together and people were freaking out, not because of me but because of her because she was a way bigger name than I was. And she hasn’t been in the public eye a lot in the past few years. She said, “You should just stay here and we’ll write some songs.” So I stayed for another few days and we wrote some songs. I’ll see her after I play Calgary … I’m going up to Salmonfest in Alaska and she’ll be up there and we’ll write more. It’s really cool being able to write with her. It’s really, really neat.

Q: You had a stoke a few years ago?

A: Four years ago I had that when I was onstage and I lost my vision and didn’t know why and went to the hospital and they put you in a tube an give you a brain scan. Now I’m good. I’m lucky. I’m one of the lucky ones. Mine was in the right side of the brain, in the thalamus region. It made me a little skittish when I came out of it. Like I was maybe paranoid for a year that it was going to happen again I and would die. I kind of walked around a little more fearful.

For that year I worked less and ate well and relaxed and now I’m back in the thick of it and going hard again. It’s like the body has forgetters, so you forget. Otherwise we’d live in constant fear or constant grief. So our forgetters kick in. It’s a protective shield we have because otherwise if somebody died you’d be in a constant state of grief and get nothing done, but (instead) you go through that grief and eventually you’re able to joke about the death of that person even and smile. I guess our forgetters kick in.

(Photo courtesy Laura Partain.)

Steve Poltz plays the Calgary Folk Fest. For more information go to https://www.calgaryfolkfest.com/

Mary-Lynn Wardle is a Bragg Creek writer.