Steve Poltz Shares Songwriting Wisdom Following Release of 14th Studio Album

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

Known for his countrified folk sound and “ability to spin a ripping tale,” Steve Poltz has created universally loved music for over three decades. Poltz is a veteran songwriter who never runs out of stories to tell and recently released his 14th studio album. In an interview with American Songwriter, Poltz shared his songwriting wisdom and philosophy about performing. 

When Poltz writes songs, he is not trying to impress anyone but himself. For him, the process is all about honesty. “I just don’t ever question anything and I never censor myself. I just let it fly out because we’re just real human beings with foibles and weaknesses,” he says. “And so I just find humor in everything and I just have heaps of stories and experiences and songs. And so when I write, I just— words just kind of fall out of me.”

In fact, to stay in tune with that honesty, Poltz never watches recordings of his performances. According to him, watching back and critiquing himself takes away the magic of being in the moment onstage. “I don’t ever want the voice in my head to say ‘You can’t do that,’” he shrugs. 

Poltz’s go-with-the-flow attitude also helps when writing songs with other musicians. He compared co-writing to a blind date—you never really know what the outcome will be. It’s daunting to start throwing out ideas with someone you don’t know very well, and it takes time to get in a groove. But Poltz gets over the initial nerves by not taking himself too seriously. 

“I like to establish from the beginning that I’m an idiot. And what it does is it lets their guard down because I’m goofing off,” he says. “What does it all matter in a hundred years? Nobody’s even going to remember it. It’s not rocket science. The most important thing is having fun, for me, and bringing joy to people.”

Joy is at the center of all of Poltz’s work. Whenever he performs, he prays to whatever higher power he can think of to give thanks for the talents he has. His goal is always to “go out there and make people forget how shitty life can be.”

Another one of Poltz’s pre-show rituals is to visualize the crowd at the end of the performance. “I visualize them on their feet at the end of the show, screaming and with smiles and me with my guitar in my hands like this. And it happens all the time because I’ve already seen the ending,” he describes. “And if you see the ending and you visualize things, anything can happen.”

In addition to working on music and touring, Poltz also teaches songwriting to budding musicians. He noted that the key to teaching songwriting is deadlines. If people wait for inspiration, he says, it might never come. If they know they need to write the song within three hours, they have to make their own inspiration.

Poltz explained that there are three “muscles” that all songwriters need to create music, and he tries to teach his students how to utilize each one. 

“First you have a recording muscle,” he says. “You got to know how to record something. How do you record it? And how do you emote in the studio? Do you sit? Do you stand? Do you need an audience there? What is the vibe you’re looking for?”

Next is the songwriting muscle. “You start collecting these songs, and these songs are like arrows in your quiver. And the more arrows you have in your quiver, if you’re writing a song a week, and it’s due, you have 52 songs in a year.” Poltz noted that as long as you keep using it, the songwriting muscle will get stronger over time.

The final muscle is the performing muscle, which Poltz explains is like advertising for artists. Once you have the songs, you have to be able to share them effectively. “You need to learn to shut off the voice in your head that goes, ‘Oh my God, that girl in the front row hates me. I think that guy hates me over there. Why can’t I play this song? I suck,’” he says.

Poltz’s trick for this is the oldest one in the book—he imagines the whole audience naked. “I used to have [stage fright] and my hands would shake so bad,” he recalls. “But now, at the age of soon to be 62, I feel so confident when I walk out on stage. I don’t care if somebody hates me… not everybody’s supposed to like you.”

Although Poltz has been making music for over 30 years, his momentum has not slowed. He released his fourteenth studio album Stardust and Satellites on February 18. The album was inspired by the pandemic, which hit while Poltz was supposed to be on tour. With the newfound free time and socially distanced jam sessions with his friends and fellow songwriters The Wood Brothers, Stardust and Satellites was born. 

Poltz also released a music video for one of the singles off the album, “Can O’ Pop.” Directed by artist and animator Duncan Hatch, the music video is just as bright and quirky as the song itself. Full of popping colors and standout images like Poltz’s leg being eaten by a catfish and a car falling into a giant glass of soda, the video perfectly captures the fun energy of the song.

For Poltz, all of his work is centered around bringing joy to himself and his fans. The money and success are afterthoughts to him, as long as he makes a record he is proud of. “Even if it doesn’t do well, I’m stoked. I don’t give a shit, because it’s a great record and I love it,” he explains. “And I think like, I really love all my records, which is a good feeling to have… I’m not embarrassed for any of them. I love them all for what they did.”

Referencing Liam Neeson’s famous line from the movie Taken, Poltz says he has a “particular set of skills” when it comes to music. “With these skills, you take away everything I have… all my money. Just leave me this banged-up guitar. That’s all I need,” he laughs. “And I guarantee you, I’ll start playing and magic will happen.”

Poltz has even more in store for his fans this year and will be kicking off his 2022 tour in March. He has more than 30 performances lined up from February to June in cities across the U.S. and Canada. The full tour schedule and ticket purchasing options are available here.

Photo courtesy of Michael Weintrob

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