The singer-songwriter/violinist talks about his new album
Born in Montana, residing in New York, Skye Steele has an eclectic palette. His forthcoming album, All That Light, mixes his violin-based folk-art sound with 808s, Moog basslines and synths, and takes full advantage of each specific element. The result is a smooth and diverse effort that creates its own classification.
The record was written in Montana’s Bitterroot Valley before Steele headed to Los Angeles to record. What might seem like an odd juxtaposition of destinations is what makes Steele’s music unique. It’s where nature and machine meet, where rural and urban collide. The new record looks out at nature and the interplay between energy and matter.
ARTISTdirect caught up with Skye Steele as he was waiting for a flight in the Burbank Airport to discuss exactly how his record came together, why he always keeps a notebook with him, and what is it that keeps him making music.
Hello – Please introduce yourself.
Hi! I’m Skye Steele. I write songs, I play the violin pretty well, and a lot of other instruments just-well-enough.
Where are you right now?
Burbank Airport, headed to see my family for a few days off. I just finished a 2-month tour opening for and accompanying Vanessa Carlton (I am her one-man-backing-band. Picture Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins but with a laptop).
Tell us about your new project: Who did you work with? Where was it recorded? What’s it about? Is there candy?
In 2015 when I released my last record, I went on the road full-time and had no address for almost 2 years. I managed to spend two months that year hiding out writing between tours– April in Paris, TN; and July in Victor, MT. I have family in both these places who like having me around. So I got together about 30 demos that I sent to my friend Cassorla in LA. He and I used to be roommates in New York and have made a lot of different music together over the years, and I’m a huge fan of his sound, so I asked him if we could make a record together. The timing was great because right when I finished up touring last spring he finished building his new studio in Silver Lake, so I came out to LA and we spent about 6 weeks working every day on it. It was a dream collaboration in many ways. Probably 85% of the sounds on the record are Cassorla or me, but we also had a few friends make guest appearances. Vanessa Carlton overdubbed this beautiful ghost-angel-choir on “At The Waterfall,” and Jolie Holland sang a duet with me on “Stay With Me.” Jolie and I have played together a little bit, and I already idolized her as a songwriter, but having her in the studio and hearing her take the verse we gave her and totally transform it for her voice was really amazing.
How do you describe your music to new friends?
This record is a group of songs that started in the woods and ended in LA. It’s folk music but with 808s, moogs, and casios.
Other than you, what should your hometown be known for?
A visual artist named ladypajama, a novelist named Josh Wagner, a choreographer named Megan Schneeberger, a brewery called Higher Ground.
Please look around you right now and please describe the first item or person you see that’s significant to you (and that your relationship with it/them). Can we see a photo?
I’ve been filling up these notebooks since I was a teenager. There are dozens in boxes in my house. Almost every song has started in one of these books, almost every letter has been torn out of one. If I write everyday, even just a little bit, I feel okay, I can make enough sense of the world and myself in it to put on pants and walk around and do things. If I don’t, things gets real weird real fast.
What first inspired you to pursue music? If it was a musician or a specific piece of music, please tell us all about why you find it so inspirational…
The violin and I have an arranged marriage. My mom and my three older siblings all played strings, so when I was three and they put a violin in my hands it might as well have been a spoon or a crayon– It was just a part of life in our family. So I grew up around a lot of classical music, and I love it but I never saw myself in it exactly either. It wasn’t until I was 13 and I discovered a tape of Stuff Smith (a jazz violinist and singer from the 30s) at the library that I was like, “woah woah woah, wait, what?! This thing can do that?!?” Before that I didn’t realize that I could use my instrument to do something really different, something of my own, and the impulse to do that is what still leads me.
What’s the best advice anyone has given you about pursuing a life in music?
For a few years I was taking these classes with Steve Coleman, who I think is one of the most innovative jazz musicians of the last 30 years. We mostly worked on really rigorous musical technique stuff– harmony and rhythm– but one day I asked him what *else* I should be doing to be healthy creatively, and he said, “Set aside time to go away every year, put your life and career on hold, and just do creative work.” So for the last six years I’ve tried to take a month out of every year to do that, mostly by going back to Montana, and it has pretty well transformed my life and my work.
Not including your current crew, who (alive or dead) would you love to have in your van for an all day drive from gig to gig?
Sam Beckett. Touring is basically mountains of absurd monotony punctuated by moments of intense poignance and connection, and I feel like he would get it and have amazing things to say about it.
What song best sums up your life right now?
Oh You Pretty Things, David Bowie.
What is the best reaction to your music you have experienced so far?
When I get a note from a friend or a fan saying “My mom’s been in the hospital and your record is getting me through the days of waiting,” or “My husband and I are having a rough winter and this song reminded us that it’s gonna be okay,” I feel like I’m passing on some of the gifts that music has given me in my life, and that’s really my goal.
Take a moment to dream – Where do hope to be a year from now?
I just want to keep making better music, writing more deeply, and reaching more people with it. I’m in this for the long haul.
What’s your next step towards that dream?
A loooong nap. Then booking this summer’s tour.