Many Miles Ahead: The Blissful Wanderings of
“It’s hard to comprehend life in the state I’m in now,” Steve Gunn realises. In an effort to purge himself of jet lag, he swigs from a hulking mug of piping black coffee.
It’s mid-afternoon and he hasn’t been awake for long. Yet through his travel worn weariness comes an adamant warmth and sensitivity. His muted tone invokes a feeling of tranquility. Gunn explains that this state of excessive movement and living in constant flux is something that has taken over a decade to perfect. “It can be hard to ascertain, but nowadays my motivation stems from being on the road. Things become simplified in this abstract way. You just have to get to the gig and play. But that’s what I love,” his brow gently sinks below his shades. “I mean I hope I love it, because I do it a lot.”
Steve Gunn’s work ethic is vigorous. Since the release of his 2007 self-titled debut, the Brooklyn-based songwriter has woven a concentrated patchwork of LPs, EPs, singles, splits and one-offs. From collaborative work with indie folk treasure Kurt Vile and ‘post-everything’ instrumentalist Mike Cooper, to picking alongside old-time Appalachians, Black Twig Pickers, Gunn writes with such a momentous frequency it’s as if time decelerates for him.
As a self-taught guitarist, composer and, latterly, a singer, his luscious deconstruction of Americana tinged blues, country and psychedelia switches between the accessible and the experimental. His instantly discernible finger-picking guitar style has a very human, physical feel to it, and it’s helped him gradually gather an international, cross-generational fanbase. Eyes On The Lines, his 14th studio album and first to follow his recent signing to Matador Records, delves further into the Gunn’s songwriting capability and gently affirms his burgeoning confidence as a performer.
“That’s something I’m always working on,” Gunn begins, “Trying to improve my confidence. I did a lot of touring as a solo act. I had to hold my own and drop any self-consciousness. I would always get really nervous, sing inside of myself and not let my guard down. Today, I have no guard to let down.”
Being unguarded is not to say Gunn has nothing left to expose, explore or prove. Eyes On The Lines, he expresses, maintains a loose conceptual arc based on “living with ideas and just letting things happen”. According to Gunn, this is the first time he has fully permitted himself to “get lost,” to allow every thought to exist naturally and without obsessive revision.
“Nothing is too weird anymore,” he says. “I never really thought about songwriting as a practice before, but now I’ve just got lost within my own head. I started embracing the concept of being lost and being comfortable with that; trusting where you’re going and not fearing where you’re going to end up. In our present time, everyone’s concept of getting lost both mentally and in the physical world is changing. People’s perspective of just taking a walk for walk’s sake is pretty alien to most because they’re too concerned about what their final destination is. It seems like no one can just say ‘fuck it, I’m going for a walk.’” Part of the enjoyment for Gunn is to reinterpret his own collection of abstract thoughts, the memories that are stored away in the recesses of his mind while he’s on the road. “Seeing the world this way is warped,” he says. “Touring life is like this different window into reality which is not actually reality. You’re just passing through and nothing’s really tangible with your environment. I write mostly on the road and usually it’s reflecting where I am and that moment. Briefly living in that place. Lyrically and conceptually I’m always trying to deal with that. When I get home, I try to make sense of what I was thinking. I lock myself away and construct everything. So I’m working with all the material from my ‘road mind’. It puts me back in that place.”
Place and time is clearly elemental to Gunn’s perception of reality. He tells me about moving away from his hometown in Philadelphia to his current base in New York, the latter a city which offered the foremost opportunity to seriously consider music as a full-time career. “I love Philadelphia dearly but there’s a cloud there,” he reminisces with a sagged, wistful timbre to his voice. “It’s a tense place to be. As a young college student I just had this desire to explore in every sense and the closest outlet for that was New York. It just enables you to be anonymous. Philadelphia is different. I don’t want to say I felt trapped there but I needed to make a step up from where I was. It has this habitual cycle where maybe you’ve hung out in the same bar. I started seeing that life within myself of just going to work and drinking myself to death. Was it possible for me to do what I needed to do there at the time? No. I needed to put myself in a place where I didn’t know anyone. That was New York.” Yet Gunn still presents himself as some kind of nomadic drifter; the proverbial guitar wielding stranger. One particular line from Eyes On The Lines that encapsulates Gunn’s constant creative wandering reads: ‘Landscape of repetition, drained out at the service station’. Reciting this out aloud makes him smile meditatively. “I can remember exactly where I was when I wrote that. We were on a 50 day tour stretch last year. The longest stretch. We were in the UK, on our way to Manchester and stopped off in Birmingham. I was drinking coffee. Zero energy. The whole thing just felt like a different world to me. These images, these couple of seconds, snapshots of memories are the biggest sources of inspiration available when all you see is the bus, the hotel, the stage. They sort of become your home away from home.”
“I got lost within my own head. I’ve started to embrace the concept of being comfortable with that”
Gunn’s coffee finished over an hour ago and he’s now moved on to a pint. With energy levels revived, his mood remains stoically gracious and forthcoming. Dwelling on the Matador signing, he begins to weigh up his considerably taxing press circuit over the coming months. It’s overwhelming. But despite the fact that Eyes On The Lines is assured to be his most physically and mentally ambitious release to date, his experience leaves him perfectly placed to handle the pressure. “I’ve been hustling for years,’ he concedes, arms casually nestled around his drink, “But this is how I work. I write, tour, and just let the songs live. It’s like an infinite loop. The wheels are forever turning. It’s just about trying to savour it all while it lasts.”
Eyes On The Lines is released 3 June via Matador