Steve Gunn’s spellbinding guitar chops have always been highly-revered among those in the know. Whether on his extensive solo back catalogue or his collaborative projects with Hiss Golden Messenger, Kurt Vile, Michael Chapman and more, Gunn has proved himself to be an enigmatic, captivating musician who isn’t afraid of change. The singer/songwriter’s last two solo albums—2014’s Way Out Weather and 2016’s Eyes on the Lines—continued to push Gunn’s voice out of the shadows and contained increasingly accessible arrangements. His forthcoming LP and his second for Matador Records, The Unseen in Between (out Jan. 18), is an even more conspicuous continuation of those trajectories.
Gunn’s songs strike a deep chord with listeners and though he’s moved away from some of the electric guitar wizardry that he excels at, he was able to conjure just as much mystique and passion with a simpler musical outlook this time around. It’s a record that’s lyrically still fairly ambiguous, but musically and vocally, it bares its soul to anyone who listens. Part of this record’s newfound accessibility stems from its acoustic-driven sound and recording approach. “I wrote all these songs on the acoustic guitar and wanted to keep it as simple as possible. Recording them acoustically, it all came naturally,” says Gunn. “I feel like the last album, Eyes on the Lines, is a bit more electric and I kind of wanted to take a step back and be more vocally forward and let the songs unfold naturally. I wanted it to sound more live and I think I really felt like it would make a difference going into the studio knowing the songs.”
Gunn’s desire to make a more streamlined record is a long way away from his earlier, more experimental recordings. “For me as a guitar player, my trajectory is almost backwards because before I started singing, I was always writing over-complicated guitar pieces and different arrangements. It’s taken me a while to discover the simplicity of songwriting,” he says. “I’m starting to realize how powerful a simple song can be and how hard it is to write a good simple song. That’s something that I’ve been aspiring to do. I didn’t want to hide behind a web of pastey guitar or anything like that.”
Gunn’s lyrical style remains refreshingly outside the norm through his rejection of the vulnerable and personal songwriting that’s gained a lot of clout recently. However, he hopes listeners construct their own meanings out of these esoteric songs with the imagery-filled puzzle pieces that he provides. Rather than writing abstract songs devoid of meaning, Gunn writes abstract songs that ache, ponder and love just as wholly as more confessional songs. On The Unseen in Between, we still get a sense of his innerworkings in the themes he chooses to write about. As referenced with the album title, Gunn channels the emotions of outsider figures whose feelings are just as genuine and he does so with a sense of curious awe and reverent empathy.
Featuring bright vocal harmonies from Meg Baird, “Vagabond” was inspired by the Agnes Varda (one of Gunn’s favorite directors) film of the same name and it chronicles the life of wandering vagrants. “Luciano” is about the symbiotic relationship between a bodega cat and store owner, and “Chance” describes the unpredictability and helplessness that comes with having no home or loved ones. Gunn says of his interest into the lives of those on the fringes of society, “I think the concept of a vagabond simply is inspiring to me. I find myself packing bags and leaving and coming home and hanging out in airports and train stations most of the time. I’m drawn to outsiders and people whose stories might not be overtly heard. To me, those are the more interesting people to think about and maybe even write about. People who live private lives but who also have private practice of art or just stories of living life. With my lyrics, I like to tell stories but also guide people with words using imagery and things so they can make up their own story. That’s the model of songwriting that I like to adhere to.”
Gunn just doesn’t have an innate desire to insert himself into his music or evangelize with it. “I might have a different ego perspective than some other musicians,” he explains. “I don’t fashion myself as a songwriter like, ‘Me, me, me. I’m this person. Listen to my story.’ I’m more interested in conveying other people’s stories. It’s more tributes and storylines about other people that I observe. I think the songs are emotionally personal and there’s that detachment where you can feel, there’s nothing didactic in the lyrics.”
Though he relies on points of inspiration within each song, he doesn’t want to limit the songs to those initial sparks and believes in the song as a living, evolutionary thing. “There’s certain images and people and certain tidbits of information that trigger the songs but much like poetry, the meanings can shift around. For me, that’s what engages my mind, and as someone who appreciates visual art and writing and obviously music, I feel like the music that is most meaningful is the kind that gets you thinking,” says Gunn.
Gunn’s style of writing also results in a much-welcomed by-product through fans’ interpretations of the songs. “Travelling around meeting people, I’m always really interested to hear how they’re interpreting the songs. Also, some of the more abstract ideas people come up with are pretty interesting. That’s sort of what I’m trying to engage them to do. It’s becoming more of a lost art form.”
In a weird way, Gunn’s music itself is a lost art. Though these two traits are seemingly mutually exclusive, Gunn makes hypnotic music that is equally rooted in the present moment. He writes topical songs that derive from personal experience, but he removes himself from the situation, so as to fashion himself as an elusive onlooker. Through music, he transforms from an average Joe into a therapeutic poet and perplexing musician. Think of Gunn as a figure positioned under a bridge, wearing a hood that masks his face and delivering cryptic fortunes, fables or riddles to passersby. Then, the meaning behind those bestowed words of wisdom later become crystal clear and fill whatever void is deep within your soul.
“I can feel myself trying to convey certain messages, mostly positive messages. Messages of you’re not alone if you’re feeling like you want to give up on the world,” says Gunn. “Maybe the style of song is a little impersonal where it’s meditative, but perhaps it’s a comfort song or comfort arrangement to some people.” Channelling that comfort, “New Moon” is five-minute distillation of tranquility with its perky acoustic guitar, shakers and a wave of echoing electric guitar. “Morning is Mended” sounds like a gentle, bed-side lullaby and the subtle hypnotics of “Paranoid” coupled with its keyboards and bells, emanate a soft, but unmistakable glow.
The album’s lyrics also provide comfort in many forms. “New Familiar,” evokes a sense of community and it represents turns toward humanity for life’s answers. Not only does it avoid mentioning the name of you know who, it’s one of the most subtle political songs you’ll hear this year. Rather than talking about political gridlock or increasing disillusionment with leaders or the system, Gunn talks about how to operate in an era so politically dire that hopelessness pervades all aspects of life. He sings alongside a slightly twangy, looping electric guitar, ‘’Unravel me with humor / Suspend me in the air / It’s not there give it back / Laughing till we fall there’s not air anymore, new familiar.”
Gunn’s love of photography is apparent in his songwriting as he captures the aura of people in such a distinctly visual and vivid way. “I like to use these visual elements or vignettes to tell a story,” he says. “When I travel around, I take a lot of photographs and I think about places and I think about time. I try to throw them all together. I take a lot of notes. Just things I overhear on the street or things that people say or something I’m reading. When I’m writing songs, I always put everything out on the table and then try to piece things together. They’re all snapshots really.”
One of the most affecting snapshots is the acoustic “Stonehurst Cowboy,” which features bass from Bob Dylan’s musical director, Tony Garnier (who plays throughout the record). It’s a tribute to Gunn’s late father, who was a Vietnam war veteran and the talk of the town. “My parents were together for 45 years, best friends, inseparable, all that stuff,” Gunn says. “We talk a lot and I told them about the song. I told my mom that I’d written a tribute to him and I told her the title. That was one of my dad’s many nicknames and sort of this ongoing joke about him being the toughest guy in the neighborhood. I think he would be flattered and touched. I think he would get a kick out of it. I wanted to write a song for him and about him and people his age who went through really crazy times and were struggling emotionally and just generally. Coming of age during the Vietnam war, being from a lower-class upbringing and being thrown into this senseless situation. People like my dad, his brothers and his friends were really affected by it and I was never able to understand their story until much later. I think a lot of that pain and suffering that comes along with that trickles down into their children’s life and family’s life, so it’s a part of me as well. These people are still walking around. They’re still out there in society and they’re still suffering. My dad, late into his life, was able to see me play and sing and be in the local newspaper in Philly, and that’s a gold medal for me in his eyes. So, that was really satisfying that he was proud of me.”
With The Unseen in Between, Gunn has another absorbing record under his belt and he’s grateful for how far he’s come. “It wasn’t easy by any means. I had to make a lot of sacrifices and live hand to mouth for a long time,” he says. Growing up as a young Catholic school boy in Lansdowne, Penn., Gunn is at a rare loss for words when asked to reflect on his life as a touring musician and the fact that his albums will be in record stores for years to come.
He continues to build up his vocal and songwriting confidence, which he says it’s an ongoing process. “Writing is such a hard practice and much like being a musician, if you want to be good, you really have to work on it,” he says. “For me, I never pursued writing in that way. I have a lot of admiration for people who write because it’s not easy. I also never sang when I was younger. I was never in any choruses or anything like that. It took me years to come out of my shell with my voice and that was years of being on the road just performing in front of people.”
A frequent traveler, Gunn continues to find solace and inspiration from various landscapes, unusual characters, visual art, books and music. The thing that’s most recently gripped him is an exhibition at New York City’s Guggenheim Museum—a retrospective collection of works by Hilma af Klint, a Swedish portrait painter and abstract, spiritual artist. It’s no wonder Gunn takes a liking to Klint’s work. Gunn paints portraits of people through song—breathing life into forgotten stories and passing moments with his lyrics and infusing a level of spirituality and oneness into each and every stroke of his guitar.
Preorder The Unseen in Between here.