BWW Interviews: Seth Glier and Steve Seskin at Kerrville Folk Festival
Seth Glier continues to entertain audiences all over the U.S. as he tours with his new album "If I Could Change One Thing." Steve Seskin collaborated with Seth as he prepared for his album release. BWW sat down with both of them during a recent visit to the Kerrville Folk Festival in Texas and talked about how they met and their creative processes.
You have had a lot of your songs recorded over the years by many notable musicians such as Tim McGraw, Colin Raye, Mark Wills and Peter, Paul and Mary. Tell us more about those songs and what are some of your favorites you've written over the years?
STEVE: I've been blessed with a lot of songs that have been recorded. I'd have to say, "Don't Laugh at Me" is probably one of my favorites mainly because I like the Mark Wills version of it but I also because Peter, Paul and Mary recorded it and a year later, created a school curriculum from that called Operation Respect and it's in 28,000 schools and ten other countries. That would have to be my favorite in terms of what's happened with it. I also wrote a song called, "Grown Men Don't Cry" that Tim McGraw did and I still love his version of it. I also like "I Think About You" that Collin Raye did. I tend to be very philosophical in most of my writing. During the 90's, I turned to country music to get some of those songs out on the radio. That's hard to do these days where Luke Bryan meets Jason Aldean and they mainly sing about trucks. But, there was a time for about a ten year window where songs like "Don't Laugh at Me" or "Grown Men Don't Cry" were both number one records. That's sort of a miracle in the sense that they don't scream off the page as big hits when you finish them. We were very lucky to find artists to say that. Or "Life's A Dance," the first song I ever wrote with Allen Shamblin that John Michael Montgomery did. It's still probably my biggest song in terms of repeat airplay. I continue to write now but I have to say, those days were great. It was an era in Nashville where there was a ton of energy and nobody was like, "Oh, I better write that song with the artist in order to get it cut. It was all writers, some of them were artists, but everybody was just like rocking and writing songs and there were 30 labels and 150 major label acts. There was always a home for a song. If it was really great, you finished a song and you recorded it and then it was like, "Who do we pitch this to first?" There were strategy meetings and now it's like, "Who can we pitch this to? Nobody's cutting songs like this." I turned in a song the other day and they said, "Ah, man, that's great but, it's a story song." And I said, "Is that like a bad thing?" You have to listen to the whole thing to really appreciate it. It's not four hours. It's only three minutes and 23 seconds long. I worked really hard to get it down. My publisher's point was just that nowadays it's such a soundbite society that it's hard to get some people to listen for nuance. You don't get this part unless you heard that part. I'm from this world where people are attentive and listening to every word, they're hanging on every word and I'll be darned if I'm not gonna still write that way. I refuse to dumb down for the market. And I've been doing things that float my boat. Writing with Seth this past year was just so enjoyable and I have great respect for him as an artist and a person and as a writer. So, I'm doing a little less of the pointing at Nashville all the time. I've been working with a woman named Julia Sinclair with (Seth) and several other people and I'm just having fun. And, if something great happens from it, I think that will be great. That's all I've ever done. Let art drive the bus. I believe if you let art drive the bus, the commerce will come. Whereas if you let the commerce totally determine what you ought to be writing - well, first off why don't you just go get a job at the stock market - but also for me at least, it doesn't work. There are some writers that are great at target writing and what does the market need. But, I've never been one of those people. If my heart's not in it, I can't do it. I can't do my best work.
Who are some of your own musical influences in your life?
STEVE: Most of them are not the people I've worked with. I came up on the singer/songwriters of the 70's. Tom Rush is here. I was a big Tom Rush fan. Simon and Garfunkel, Jackson Browne, James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Crosby, Stills and Nash; that era which is probably where that seed was planted. Those were songs that were on the charts that that actually said something.
SETH: "Lyin' Eyes" I think of the Eagles. That was a six minute hit. It told a story.
STEVE: And just to put things in perspective, that doesn't mean I don't love a good Motown song. I'm not against having fun. I just don't think all music should be an escape. I think some music should be that. I love to make people laugh, I love a good dance tune. You also ought to be able to use this gift to move people to say something that maybe they need to hear and do it in a way that they don't feel like you're telling them how to live. There's an art to that. We have a song called "Standing Still" which I love. And it's written in a way where we're not telling people, "You know, have you been standing still lately?" It's in first person and it says, "I was the guy that was reading the paper and what can I do about it?" And in the course of the song, the guy kinda comes around to going, "No more standing still." That way the audience can listen to it and it either hits them or it doesn't. They're not gonna be alienated by it. That's something I've always felt has been a bit of my specialty. Preach without being preachy, I call it. I grew up on all that music and the Beatles were a huge influence on me more melodically than lyrically. But, musically, the Beatles taught me how to write a melody and those songs are so much fun to sing 50 years later just because they are incredibly well written in terms of the journey and fun musically. And Steely Dan and lots of other people. And then I listened to John Hiatt I knew back in the 70's in San Francisco and then lots of people over the years that have influenced me but those are the main ones. David Wilcox, I've just been hanging out with this week. We came up together in the 80's. A woman named Christine Kane that's no longer playing but I wrote 20 plus songs with her. That was somebody I had a deep connection with. And I've always come back to the folk world. With all my connections in Nashville and the country stuff, I've always been a folky at heart. I listen to pop music, country music, rock stuff but, that storytelling mode is a folky sort of thing. It creeps over into other kinds of music. But that's the other thing that I realized too. To me, if you can take the essence of storytelling of folk music and put it in people like Julia or you (Seth) and put it in musically; more compelling music - there's nothing wrong with three chords and the truth sometimes - but you take the lyric essence of that and you put it in something like the John Mayer song, "Belief," it's the best groove ever. If you look at that lyric, it's a heavy duty song but it makes you want to dance at the same time. I think that's a secret. That's something I aspire to is to make the delivery system something that's infectious and then people are going to want to hear it over and over again.
You spoke earlier about the "Don't Laugh at Me/Operation Respect" earlier. Tell us more about that.
STEVE: It's called Operation Respect. Peter Yarro is the main force behind it but we have a board of 12 people. I'm on the board. Two things that it's known for is first off it's absolutely free. There are some great character education curriculums for schools, most of them are businesses. The school district has to shell out a whole lot of money to decide before they even use it whether this is the right program for them to use. With our program, it's free. McGraw Hill is our corporate angel, if you will. They print the guides and the CD's and the DVD's free so it doesn't cost the school anything to order the program or the individual teacher can order it. A lot of people use the program but not implement it school wide. It's just a teacher who heard me sing the song, or Peter and we mention it and they went and got themselves a program and they use it in their classroom or their whole school uses it. And the other thing is it's all arts based so the belief is the best way to impart messages of kindness and respect, self-esteem and appreciation and diversity to kids is through song, art projects, theater skits, not just telling them about it. A song is three minutes long. I've seen kids with "Don't Laugh at Me" just break down and cry. I've had kids come up and say to me, "I like that song because I've been picked on." But a couple times, kids just come up and go, "I've been a bully. I'm gonna change." I caught a kid singing it to another kid in the hall. That's like blow your mind kind of stuff. And it's not just my song, there's tons of songs that are anthems of something and music has always been a champion of different - it compartmentalizes it into a three minute deal.
SETH: Melody is our teacher. It gives us discipline.
STEVE: It works. So, that's happening. And Kids Write Songs which is my program that never would have happened if it wasn't for Operation Respect. Nowadays, I spend about 60 days a year going into schools. I used to just do assemblies. Now I spend the whole as an artist in residence. I've written over 350 songs in the last eight years with kids about these same topics except they are their words. That never ceases to amaze me. If you give kids a forum to express themselves about what's going on in their world, they usually take it. You can check out the songs at www.kidswritesongs.org. All that came from this whole thing which came from here. From Kerrville. Very quick story. I was teaching at the song school, I don't even think (Seth) knows this.
SETH: This is great for me. I'm having a lot of fun just listening to you.
STEVE: I was teaching at the Song School 15 years ago. We had just written "Don't Laugh at Me." I was getting ready to do a talk on point of view. And "Don't Laugh at Me" has a very interesting point of view in that it's first person but it has six characters. We wrote it originally in third person and it didn't feel like you were getting close to the characters, the listener feels it in a different way. They can't ignore it as easily. I'm doing this class and it was really hot. It was one of those Kerrville days where it was like 104 and I was going, "What the heck am I doin' here?" Song School doesn't pay that well. I had a little talk with myself and said, "Alright, are you done? There's 12 people waiting to talk with you about point of view. Get it together." At the end of the class, this young woman comes up to me and said, "I really liked the class. That one song, 'Don't Laugh at Me,' wow. My dad's just gotta hear that song." I told her it was on one of my CD's. And she said, "My dad is Peter Yarrow from Peter, Paul and Mary." It was Bethany Yarrow, Peter's daughter. She was 19 at the time. Sure enough, she brings him the next night to my show. He heard the song. He loved it, took it back to New York. Peter, Paul and Mary started singing it. A year later, Operation Respect was born. The moral of that story is you never know what is going to happen from what. Just be present and plowing along. Everything that's happening, including changing my life; I spend 60-80 days in schools these days. I didn't do any of that before this. And where was it born? Two picnic tables away. You never know what's going on. The universe acts in strange ways.
So switching gears a little bit. How did you and Seth meet?
SETH: Here. In the green room.
STEVE: Kerrville's a pretty magical place. A lot of good stuff happens here. That's why people keep coming back here.
SETH: I had heard about Steve through my friend Liz Longley. Liz had gone out and done a couple tours with you (Steve) in San Francisco and California. And then I saw his set and we exchanged numbers that night and it wasn't until...
STEVE: Then you came to San Francisco to Mill Valley when we first wrote "Proof." It was when you were working with Crystal.
SETH: I remember I had a musical idea for "Proof" and I sent Steve an email about a hacked together chorus. But, I wrote in the email how impermanent many things can be in our lives and how oftentimes we some of the most important things come down to trusting that it does exist or it is real. I walked into Steve's living room and he just read me the email back. He's like, "This is a really big idea and what you've got musically is good but what you're saying just writing, there's something more to it." You had the chorus pretty much developed on the piano part and we ended up breathing some life into it by throwing a backbeat into it. It was kind of written as a ballad.
STEVE: He made it his. The big difference between writing with a writer and writing with an artist is that artist is going to take it places where - plus Seth is just so musical - I mean, I'm musical but I'm not a great player. I play piano but I'd never do it in public. I play guitar, but I do it in public but barely. He's just so musical. That's not to say he's not a really good lyricist as well but, I remember when you sent me that file after you put the backbeat thing to it. It wasn't in my wheelhouse to imagine it being done that way but I liked it.
SETH: I set a microphone up in my living room and did like claps and played a table. I played my kitchen table.
STEVE: Any good co-write situation, you gotta complement each other and it doesn't always happen but, it happened with us. And every time we've gotten together, there's been something. I have to be honest, my favorite thing to do is NOT to write with artists because you have to - if Allen and I are writing, we are only pleasing ourselves. We'll find the artists who would say this later. When you write with an artist, you've gotta respect that. We may get a song that we wrote recorded by somebody else someday but if we're sitting down to write, you're writing it for him. To tell you the truth, I only do it if I admire the artist and I love what they do and what they're trying to say and who they are and then I get excited and I can add something to the party.
SETH: And also, working with Steve throughout the year, made me a more honest artist because I think I certainly had a facility; I was always a good player and a good singer. But, sometimes if I had a lyric that was slightly weak, I would be able to just sing it louder, just belt it. I could structure some of my other talents around an insecurity that's there so working with Steve show up and when you held me accountable to that email, I still do this when I'm writing myself. I'll get away from the song and write as if I'm writing to a friend as if it's a compassionate letter.
STEVE: Sometimes the most compelling honest lyrics can come out of that. And I'm a notorious rewriter. We had the second half of "Lift You Up," second verse. We must have had about a hundred texts back and forth working on just two lines. And they're way better now. And they weren't bad. The hardest thing to rewrite in a song is something that's working pretty well. We all can look at it and go, "That's not very good at all. I better rewrite that." It's when something is doing its job. It's not a bad line. It's not a bad musical section. But, is it a homerun? Is this your favorite part of the song? If there's anything in my gut that goes, "That could be better. Is that what we really want to say? Should we have opened that door when we don't have time to walk through it?" So, I tried to push him and he pushed me which is a good union. And I will not work with somebody who's not willing to do that. That's what I love about Allen Shamblin too. We don't care if it takes us 40 hours to write and we've had songs we've written in three hours. Sometimes it just all comes together. But, if you remember with "Craigslist." I called you and said, "I've been working on the second verse."
SETH: I'm like, "WHY?"
STEVE: We wrote it in an hour or two. And I go, "It could be funnier." So, we got together and wrote again at my cousin's house which is an hour from where he lives.
SETH: That's when we wrote, "Lift You Up" and "Standing Still." That's another great thing about me as an artist. As an artist, you get wrapped up in your identity or your message or your purpose, so that song (Craigslist) really came out - we had already written a serious song and I told Steve this story. And he's like, "Let's just go for it. That's hilarious." And I would never had done it.
STEVE: I knew when we put the time into writing it; we had a ball writing it. We laughed so hard. That's a big deal to me. There are writers I know that would go, "What are you going to spend time doing that for? It's definitely not going on his record because it would have ruined the record." We've both been singing it live and people dig it.
SETH: It makes the show for me because I've got so many serious songs that the levity just changes when that comes across.
STEVE: And that's a payoff for me if we sit there and laughed all day and wrote this song, that's all I care about. When I do it, I introduce it as, "This song is autobiographical (pause) for Seth."
SETH: I'll take that bus. I'll gladly lie in front of that bus for you. It's totally my story.
Seth, you've been touring with the new album. Tell us more about the tour.
SETH: I'm so excited abSout the album. One of the things that's been really successful lately, is that I don't do a lot of outside material but the one song that I did do was a song that Steve wrote with Brian Simpson which is "Electricity." As I've been writing so much with Steve, I've never met Brian but, it just felt like it was part of the family. It felt like it was in my wheelhouse and this song been doing really well on Sirius XM Radio. I got to hear it on the plane the other day. It was on American Airlines. I pointed to the person who was sitting next to me and said, "Hey, that's my face." That's been great and I've been touring and I'm just so excited about the songs on this album. This is really the year to do 200 dates and take it to as many people as possible.
STEVE: I like it a lot and listen to it quite a bit, not just the songs I wrote, which is a big deal for us songwriters. I'm not lying. I listen to "If I Could Change One Thing" all the time and "You Wear it Well," "Love is a Language." I like the whole record.
The title of the album is "If I Could Change One Thing." What made you use that for the title track?
SETH: It interested me and then also, there's a lot of hard navigation that was this year between I was in love with somebody who was dealing with depression and how to navigate that and still manage to hold respect and love and admiration for somebody but also know that you can't take all of this on. That's what "Lift You Up" is all about. Then also, the other reoccurring theme was some of the things that arose from my parents splitting up and the individuality that comes as a son and that circumstance. So, "If I Could Change One Thing" felt like it tied those two worlds together and it felt like a bookend in a way. She's (Crystal Bowersox) so great to work with. Steve and Crystal have since connected as well. I think they're working on some stuff together. She's one of the most authentic humans I've ever met. She's fearless even when she thinks she's not. She's phenomenal. I have a lot of love for her. She's still doing that night after night even post the show (American Idol). She's really developing that conversation with her audience night after night. That's ultimately where careers are broken and built. There's a lot of distraction and even for me. I'm participating in some of those distractions. I want my song to be played on a lot of radio stations but still the integrity and the most true thing that I do is this is what you'll see tonight. So, for 50 minutes, I get to have a conversation with a community and I get to do that try to continue from where I left off. Some days are better than others.
Do you feel like it's your responsibility as performers and songwriters to tell other people's stories as well?
STEVE: I think to me after the cathartic healing part of writing for yourself, any of us who perform want to open the door for the listener. Maybe it's selfish, but nobody really cares about us. No one care's about your life or mine. When they hear a song, maybe for a moment they have a little compassion or empathy if they think you went through that. But, unless they went through it; unless your song reminds them of their lift you up person.
SETH: I always thought that people don't ever remember the songs that you sing, they remember how they felt when they heard the songs that you sing. That's where they're buying a CD because it's a souvenir of their own emotional journey. It's something that they become proud of.
STEVE: I think a great artist needs great songs. (To Seth), and don't take this the wrong way but when I heard Seth; the first time I heard him was here. I was like, "Wow, who is this guy?" More of that was because of the performance than the songs. I'm pretty tough as a songwriter and I heard some really good songs but I found holes in them but then again, I'm really tough. But, I walked away from it remembering more about the performance than the songs. And I remember thinking that if that guy had songs that you'd want to hear eight thousand times, more of them, he'd be dangerous. And that's what we try to do. I think there's seven songs on the new record like that. I can't stop playing, "If I Could Change One Thing" because everybody has that if I could change one thing, if I could change the ending. I'd wipe the sorrow from your face, and put my love back in its place. Who doesn't relate to that? To me, that's the most exciting thing about this record. It's compelling to have a whole record like that.
SETH: I'm getting to know myself better - asking for help has always been a really hard thing for me at any point in my life but I knew going into this album that was going to be the thing. I was always really comfortable in front of an audience ever since I was a little kid. I understand it and I'm really passionate about it but at the same time, I knew that I needed help and that's where Steve came in and was able to facilitate it but in such a loving way. The whole time, I never felt small during the process. I felt so taken care of and supported and it allowed me to get to places in my own writing that I would never have ever have gotten to.
STEVE: Yet the essence of every song we've written has been what he was going through. But, that doesn't mean I didn't relate to it too on some level. It's been really great and I hope we'll continue working together whenever we can.