Forty-year-old Steve Gunn’s fingerpicking music, drawn from folk, bluegrass, country, rock ‘n’ roll, and psychedelia, is indebted to various kinds of American tradition. Originally from Pennsylvania, Gunn is wary of his American-ness being played up.
“There’s this term I really don’t like, ‘Americana’,” he says. “For me, it’s really a red flag as far as aesthetics go. It’s like a pop version of American music; something that’s really slick and doesn’t have much vitality.
“I’m interested in an older version of American music, the working songs, the old folk traditions, many of which originally came from Africa… I don’t just want to be the ugly American. I’ve drawn just as much from Indian classical music and African music.”
Walking the streets of Rome, where he’s playing that night, Gunn admits he’s self-conscious about being American in a foreign land. He’s been asked about his homeland’s political situation at every European stop.
Gunn, who now calls New York home, has spent most of his recent years travelling. He was on the road playing with Kurt Vile in his backing band the Violators, then turned attention to his own rising solo career. He started touring at 16, a kid from Philadelphia in a hardcore band. He thought the music was “formulaic”, but the experiences fostered a love of DIY culture.
After graduating college, Gunn took another formative journey, travelling through Morocco, meeting local musicians and buying endless cassettes; a boon in the pre-digital ’90s. “It was an incredible, life-changing trip,” he offers.
He returned to Philadelphia and spent years rehearsing, developing a style of improvisational guitar-playing big on repetition. He was already friends with Vile and tight with the late fingerpicking maestro Jack Rose. Gunn then began recordings at a furious rate, starting with his self-titled album in 2007. He’s had his name on dozens of records since, including collaborations with Vile, the Black Twig Pickers, and Hiss Golden Messenger.
He released Way Out Weather in 2014, his first album to embrace more accessible song forms. That same album fostered a relationship with mega-indie Matador Records, releasing his latest album, Eyes On The Lines; marking the culmination of a decade-long rise out of the experimental underground.
“When you start out, you’re making things just for yourself,” Gunn says. “There’s less risk. Or even no risk.
“Luckily, the ways I’ve changed as a musician have suited the trajectory I’m on. Through experience, I’ve gotten more accomplished in my playing and know how to put songs together. For years I was interested in working really loosely, recording live tracks.
“I’m more interested [now] in the studio, in the production aspect, in engineering, in making songs sound as good as they can. That all lends itself to making something more accessible to more people.”
Steve Gunn plays:
– The Basement in Sydney on July 6;
– NGV in Melbourne on July 7;
– Northcote Social Club on July 8.