Singer/songwriter Steve Madewell uses dramatic textures to enhance song experiences

Written by Carson James
To these ears, Steve Madewell is a painter as well as a musician. Too often in this genre, we give such an emphasis on the craft of songwriting that we neglect the creativity needed for the arrangements. Not so with Madewell. Here is an artist who spent as much time and effort into making every track on his album Arrow Creek sparkle like his words. Let’s take a trip into Madewell’s world, one that spans historical events and geographical territories.
Carson James: You differ dramatically from many other singer/songwriters, past and present, by placing as much emphasis on sonic texture as your lyrics. Are you influenced by movie composers, too? If so, which ones?
Steve Madewell: Well, a song is a story set to music. For me sonic texture has a tremendous impact on the power of the message in the lyrics. Arrow Creek is very sparse, and I was working to make the texture of the music that is there as dramatic as I could, especially for what I was working with, including emptiness. I can listen to some songs for years and never hear the lyrics because I can’t get beyond the texture of the music. Speaking of beyond, the song “Beyond Where I Have Been” was a lyric that I liked, and I had a kind of Gospel thing in mind. Every recording I did sounded way too “march” like. So much so that I wouldn’t even share a demo with Caroline Quine, who was helping me with the project. I was in the barn one night trying to work it down to the essence of the tune, and scotch played a big role in that effort. I recorded the version that is on the disc that night and sent it via Internet to Caroline. She really liked it and when I played it back it was like, “Who played that?” But it got to where I needed it to be. So, yes, texture is important – no, critical. I appreciate a good sound track. Some of my favorites include Hustle and Flow and T-Bone [Burnett] is at the top of my list. Eddie Vetter’s Into The Wild is great and I’m Not There has a killer soundtrack. I think Once is not only a good soundtrack but that recording sequence does a great job depicting what that whole scene can be like, too.
James: There’s substance to your lyrics, but you write about a variety of topics beyond the formula of love found and lost, especially the plight of a Native American hero on “Who Will Weep for Me.” Are these subjects personal to you in a deeper way that we, the listeners, are not aware of?
Madewell: I hope they are just as deep to you as they are for me. An interesting thing about “Who Will Weep For Me” is the connection that the story makes with the loss of a family farm, i.e. a way of life (and even the loss of the neighbor who is telling the story) and the loss of Logan’s family and subsequently the loss of the Native American people’s way of life. It is a song as much about suburban sprawl as it is anything. I have worked on many farms as a kid and young adult and that way of life is truly in decline. I heard a Native American address a land conservation conference, and he delivered an invocation in his native language which he interpreted. He asked the attendees to be blessed with their efforts to protect and preserve the rare and endangered plants and animals on Earth and to be blessed in their efforts to protect open space, but he also asked for someone to work to protect his people from extinction for in his tribal subset he was one of only 19 remaining. The two ideas fit together. And the Chief Logan story is one of many many heart-wrenching events that occurred in the early history of this country. As a general observation, people have no idea what has historically gone on around them. Consequently, they have a limited sense of where they live, limited value or reverence to their surroundings and inadvertently a diminished sense of self.
James: “Is This What We Have Become” questions the shift in priorities of baby-boomers, namely the idealists of the late ’60s. Do you feel that people have become increasingly materialistic over the past few decades? Why do you think that happened?
Madewell: That song came out of the experience of having in a very short period of time several people from my past look me up and tell me how screwed up they were and one asked me to forgive them for something that happened 30 years ago. Leaving me thinking: what is up with that? People are looking for some sort of spirituality that takes them away from who they are and the richness of what they have lived. And this explains the growing trend in evangelical fundamentalism. The route that will wash away the sins of your past, but there is a price. And that is “hey baby it is my way or the highway” mantra of most fundamentalist religions, and “Oh, by the way, if you don’t agree with my point of view, you are going to hell or maybe my religion is justified in killing you.” I know a number of people who have jumped on this bandwagon that were certainly out there in their youth that simply clamped down on their children. I know what these folks were doing, and they seemed to live through it. They are productive and good people now. Yes, I have seen my share of casualties on the way, but isn’t life full of them? Don’t we truly learn from these experiences? I am not sure we learn anything from homogeneity. There is so much misdirected money spent on the effects, not the causes of social problems, child rearing, drug abuse, the environment, you name it. Really, it seems that there was a great deal of talk but limited commitment by us boomers to seek meaningful change. Don’t get me wrong, there are some wonderful exceptions, and the world is a better place for the efforts of those people who have worked to keep those ideas of the ’60s and ’70s alive, but all and all we just settled into being comfortable, fat, and consumed with wanting more. We know better, but history has demonstrated time and time again crisis creates change. We’ll keep at it until we create a crisis. Also after 9/11 happened, I found myself walking around airports with people in uniform slinging semi-automatic weapons on their shoulders, and we began to live in the social self lock down. Hey man, I am not in some little country somewhere, I am in Cleveland, Ohio. Please don’t get me started.
James: The production and mixing on your album is stellar. How much time was put into this project to achieve that pristine audio quality?
Madewell: Thank you very much. I spent a considerable amount of time with mic placement. There is really not much there, very open arrangements. I worked a great deal on the texture of the tunes. Trying to get the right openness. I was trying to get a sound like you are sitting in a stairwell playing the guitar. Michael Joly helped me with some suggestions and also did some modification on a couple of my mics. The recording was done with flat EQ, no compression, no effects going in at all. Several of Caroline’s vocal tracts were built around pieces I emailed from Ohio to Colorado that she recorded and e-mailed back. She recorded everything dry and was using Pro Tools and an AT 4040 mic I think. I used bits and pieces from three different tracks of Billy Lestocks’ slide mandolin piece to get the stereo field I wanted on “Climb,” and I sort of did the same thing with the bowed bass and upright bass for “Is This What We Have Become.” Everything else was very straightforward and recorded on a Korg D 1600 with Oktava mics and a couple art tube preamps. Afterwards, I added some reverb, multiband compression and sweetened up the EQ. Oh yes, Alex Bevan set the final master EQ, and I think he was using Digital Performer.
James: How long have you been writing songs? How has your music evolved since then?
Madewell: I wrote my first tunes when I was 14 or so and did some of my own material in high school rock bands. Really, I needed to make a living and was playing cover tunes for the past several decades until it was time to start writing songs again. I have been pretty much consumed with my conservation gig for the past 30 years and written volumes and volumes of proposal for environmental grants and such. I played in clubs and bars for many years because I needed the extra money and then also just to keep doing music. I was afraid if I quit gigging I would be done. In the past few years I stopped playing out over the winter months to give myself time to write songs and allow the music that has been brewing all these years to come out. In one way I guess the song ideas have evolved in my efforts to tell the story in a place or create a surrounding for it. I never thought about what that could do for the image of a song years ago. It’s funny though as some of these tunes I hear as band pieces, but I don’t have the time to do that right now, so I put the effort into finding a stripped down version that works.
http://www.madewellmusic.com
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