It became this thing where the live shows were really fun, but you can’t re-create that on a record. Eventually, I said, “I’m just going to make the best records I can make and pick good people to work with. And always put on a good live show.” And I always wanted to have an element of danger like my teacher Country Dick Montana from the Beat Farmers. That was one of my main guys.
I also remember when I went to see Loudon Wainwright III at McCabe’s in L.A. I was in the Rugburns at the time. Singing crazy songs like “Sky Fucking Line of Toronto”. I’d be wearing a dress onstage. But I saw Loudon, I brought this girl Anastasia Davies with me, she ended up becoming the talent buyer at Schubas in Chicago, and I said to her, “I can do that.” She said, “What do you mean?” I said, “That’s my future. I can’t always do what I’m doing with the Rugburns but I can do that.” Not like he was doing but I could do what he was doing. Tell stories, make people laugh, have a guitar.
He’s amazing at that.
I played a show with him a couple of years ago at the Kessler Theater in Dallas. He was watching me, and he came up to me afterward and said, “Man, I love that song, ‘Folk Singer’.” I told him the story about me seeing him and him changing my life. I started crying when I told him. He was like, “Yeah, whatever.” [Laughs.]
Which made it even better! But he knew that I knew Rufus because he and I had opened for Lisa Loeb years ago and Rufus, after the first show, said, “I’m going on before you from now on. I don’t know how to follow what you just did!” He calls his dad and says, “Dad! I met your illegitimate son and his name is Steve Poltz!”
It seems to me that, like him, you can write a song about pretty much anything.
Most nights, on stage, I end up making up a song on the spot. Something will happen. A bar back will come in, drop a case of glasses, and they shatter. Everybody goes, “What?!?” Out of the blue. Next thing, I’ll play a G chord and make up a song about it. It’ll turn into a four- or five-minute song, where I find a chorus. I get everybody singing along and then it’s never played again. Those are the best moments and why I love playing live.
How much of songwriting is about keeping yourself entertained? Because I feel like most of us who make art do it because it’s something that keeps us from going crazy when we’re alone or when there’s nothing else to do.
I have to do this. I get a lot of thoughts in my head that give me anxiety. I don’t take any drugs or drink anymore, but I’ve learned that I can only have one cup of coffee a day. I can’t have it until I’ve had my oats. It has to be in the afternoon. I feel like I have to play shows because they release my angst.
You recorded this new album fairly quickly. Is that typical for you?
Do you know the baseball player Yasiel Puig?
He played for the Dodgers. He just got traded to the Reds. He’s from Cuba. He’s like a wild horse. I feel like I’m really hard to coral into a studio. It’s like herding cats. I can forget what songs I wrote just last month because I’m always writing. To get me into the studio takes a lot of effort because I’m a live performer. When I go in there, I just start throwing out songs and recording them. I know how to play the songs because I’ve tested them in front of an audience. The audience, without them knowing, has always been my A&R. They never lie.