It’s easy to get lost in the kaleidoscopic melodies and rippling rhythms of singer-songwriter’s Steve Gunn latest record, “Eyes On The Lines." The Philly-born Brooklyn-based musician plays with a softness that could be mistaken for simplicity; but there’s wildly sophisticated musicianship in these songs, all densely-layered soundscapes infused with lyrical possibility.
“Eyes On The Lines” is Gunn’s most ambitious project to date. In the last decade or so he’s grown steadily from a backing player (he was a member of Kurt Vile’s band, among other projects) to a confident writer and vocalist in his own right. He says many of the nine songs in “Eyes…” are inspired by dreams, and like dreams they operate on multiple planes — the intellectual and the visceral — with equal grace. Gunn is currently on tour, likely coming soon to a city near you.
In his own words, here’s Gunn on writing songs about dreams, the tricky art of sleeping on tour and why modern songwriting is too selfish.
I don’t really like the confessional style of lyric writing: Putting myself in the song, trying to portray a character of myself. I think that a lot of songwriting today is sort of selfish — there’s a lot of posturing. I’d rather sing about other people. So I try to look at different perspectives, I like to use a lot of visual description. And the dreaming definitely helps with that, whether it’s abstract or not. I think there’s a language that I’m trying to use, in the new record, that came from me trying to describe certain scenes that went through my head.
I take a lot of inspiration from maybe an older style of songwriting, even back in the early American folk tradition where the songs were character-based. One example would be Harry Smith’s “Folk Anthology” where a lot of the songs are work songs or different kinds of thematic songs, usually based around certain characters. The language is very descriptive, painting a certain picture of an experience.
There’s a song called “Night Wander” that basically was a dream. In the house that I grew up in, I had this cat. I wasn’t really allowed to have it, but it came to my bedroom window, on the second level, where there was a porch. I found him crying out there and I started letting him in the bedroom at night — when I’d go to bed I’d open the window and let him in, and he’d be gone in the morning. Then when I’d be going to school I’d see him outside. It was like this secret friendship.
And when I was thinking about the album, I read this story that made me think about my childhood, and it triggered this dream of being younger. The cat came to visit and we went on a walk through my old neighborhood, and he kind of led me back to the house, and I woke up. It was meaningful to me because I still had this sense of exploration and adventure.
It was sort of a new idea for me to try to do incorporate dreams into my songs. I was thinking that in the past I was writing songs and really kind of overworking the words. For this album I was trying to let my guard down, just hold onto certain memories, weird dreams and daydreams.
My sleep schedule at home is a little different than when I am on the road, in that I get more of it. I also have that privilege of sometimes napping. I usually get about 7-8 hours of sleep on a normal day — falling fast asleep after reading few pages in a book (or a few words, when I'm really tired). That's how much sleep I need. If I get less than that, I overcompensate by drinking too much coffee, then I'm crashed out by midday.
I often get much less sleep on the road. There is an art to sleeping on tour, and I haven't been able to master that in the slightest yet. If my tour schedule allows, I'll have one morning when I can sleep in and get some solid resting hours back. Those mornings are truly golden.
I’ve slept in a whole different run of trucking hotels. There was a hotel after we played in the best venue in the country — Red Rocks in Colorado. We played there — we opened for Wilco — and it was an incredible experience, and then we had sort of the opposite experience later that evening. We booked a hotel on the border of Colorado and Kansas and, we’ve never done this before, we basically said it was too scary to stay. There were trucker dudes just standing outside with their arms folded at four in the morning, watching us. It was frightening. We ended up driving another three hours into the night and staying at some other fleabag motel.
I go through certain levels of sleeplessness. I’m sort of realizing that I need to sleep better. I get really wrapped up in my own head writing songs, I forget to do things — eating, that kind of stuff. I forget to take care of myself and it’s often a selfish thing to do. And that affects my sleep. Lately I’ve been trying to control it with general things like exercise, trying to stick to a certain schedule.
My bedside table: Usually the New Yorker; a notebook; right now I’m reading “Barbarian Days” by William Finnegan.