Steve Abel in NYC (+video)

Musician Steve Abel talks to Ila Couch about his recent trip to New York City. Watch Steve Abel and

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By Ila Couch in New York

Over a tasty brunch at Brooklyn Label NZ artist and designer David Thomas introduces me to his partner Ginny Braun and musician friend Steve Abel. It’s the first time we’re all meeting so I’ve bought along my good friend and fellow New Zealander, artist Lorene Taurerewa.

Like David, Lorene emailed me after reading my blog. Since then she has become my surrogate family of sorts and I’ve taken to crashing marae-style at the Brooklyn apartment she shares with her husband artist Warwick McLeod.

David and Ginny have been in New York since December 2008 and are more than half way through their seven month stay. David has been exploring art galleries and working on his NZ MA thesis in Art & Design. Ginny, on a research sabbatical in the Socio-medical Sciences Department at Columbia University, has a talk lined up at Apexart Gallery about the phenomenon of ‘designer vaginas’. Her contribution is part of an exhibition called “I am Art - An Expression of the Visual & Artistic Process of Plastic Surgery” and she’s not sure how her questioning of this type of surgery will go down since the exhibition is curated by plastic surgeons. It all makes for interesting lunch time convo.

Steve is in town for a few short weeks and over brunch I learn the next gig he’s playing happens to be at the apartment of a friend called Shahzad, who my musician husband Claude has played with.  Big city, small world. Steve is currently living in Geneva with his partner Deborah who works in the field of human rights.

This is his first trip to New York City and like David, he has the glow of a man who has fallen in love. New York in the spring time will do that to anyone but since I happen to live with a musician, I understand they’re pretty much happy wherever they are as long as they get to play music. Since time is precious and the restaurant way too crowded and cacophonous, I end up interviewing Steve once he’s back in Geneva via Skype.

That was your first trip to the States right? What was your first impression when you landed?
It was my first visit and I landed by night at JFK but I had a buzz in my stomach I was very excited - more than I thought I'd be.  I loved NYC. I loved the aesthetic, the vibe, the filmic quality of it all and it was surreal how familiar things were and yet completely new to me.

Is your music inspired or informed at all by any US musicians. I mean did you get a buzz from being in NYC at all given all the amazing musicians who have come from there?
I really think my most favourite musos tend to be American.  Well – I mean that’s a slightly silly thing to say - but I feel a strong draw to the US musical tradition so it was a kick for that reason to be there.  And I've been listening to Lou Reed since I was 13 or 14 so he was a big part of my perception of NYC.

It seems like an obvious question but what bought you to New York City?
I had a couple of invitations from people who were there but what made it was the generous help of Jolie Holland who offered to get me some gigs there and did.

How did you meet Jolie Holland?
We met after an Auckland gig she did. I introduced myself and gave her a CD and invited her to a gig I was doing the next night. Her and her manager came along and she even jumped up and played with us that night on fiddle. She came back to NZ for a writing retreat and I played her a song I wanted her to sing on which is Cinders of the Sun on the Flax Happy album.

What is it about her music that you find complimentary to what you do?
I guess her whole sensibility is the key.  She's a songwriter and loves the tradition and knows it really well and she has a very intuitive response to music which I think is essential. Jolie has a great feeling for the songs I'm doing and where I'm coming from so that's what matters in collaboration.  I hugely respect her songs and musicality - she's a great musician.

Is that a box violin she plays? Do I have that right? I love the sound it makes.
Yeah it is. It’s a one off made by a friend of hers.

So what was it like playing in New York?
Incredibly satisfying and enjoyable. The audiences were amongst the best ever in terms of their willingness and responsiveness.  I was really impressed.

Any in particular that stood out?
I think I probably did the most connected stuff on the last gig in Shahzad Ismaily’s apartment. Shahzad produced Jolie's most recent album and he offered to host a gig at his place and he played as well of course. It was something I've never done before and didn't know how it worked. It was only meant to be 35 audience but I think was more like 45?

It was really quite a magical setting. I didn't know what to expect but walked in (late) to this huge expansive room and a rapt audience all listening attentively.
That's cool. Nice to hear an audience perspective.

Have you found there to be any advantages to being a kiwi when it comes to playing music outside of New Zealand?
I think I found a general positive impression of NZ musicians and a willingness to listen and inquisitiveness about where we’re coming from musically.  I am not hugely attached to the idea of music nationality – I think all nations have the full range of good and not so good music across all genres and you can find people who get where you’re coming from anywhere.  I was impressed at the receptiveness of the NY audiences I encountered.  I also saw a Coco Solid gig at Brooklyn party and overheard some of the locals singing praises. I think being in NY possibly means you’ll get judged more purely on your merits – there’s perhaps less baggage there than at home or in the UK.

What's the biggest challenge about making music outside of New Zealand?
I think the absence of familiar contacts and muso friends is the biggest challenge but of course the most interesting aspect about NY was the opportunity to meet and play with and learn from new and foreign musicians.

Has all this travel changed your music at all?
Through exposure to other people and experiences and ideas which is a perpetual occurrence at home or abroad and that changes you naturally I think.  Creating is an evolving craft so you are influenced by all things – at least I don’t think you can resist being changed and you’ll only make yourself ill trying to resist.

One thing reaffirmed for me is the absolute value of ones unique take on the world. The less derived and more integral to itself you are the better – sounding like some other band is death.

Did you do any recording while you were in NYC?
In the end I didn't unfortunately but I'd love to come back and do some next time

Did you write any music?
I did write some new songs it was inspiring being there in lots of ways. There is a certain vitality and life that few places necessarily have.

How do you go about songwriting? We were talking about it at brunch the other day because it's different for everyone?
I think the best ones occur as nearly finished songs. It’s a song and a melody and they might come in unison nearly a refrain or opening line that becomes the basis for the song and I play very simple guitar usually just to carry the melody and lyrics. Other songs need more work and are difficult labours if you like some kernel of what you want to say but there are various melodic or lyrical problems to overcome. I have dozens of incomplete songs of course and few of the difficult ones make it to be honest. I'm fussy about what i keep.

What did you enjoy most about your time in NYC?
The music for sure. Creating/writing and playing and recording are the 3 things that make a musician know he's alive.

Written by

Ila Couch

6 May 2009

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