interviewed Steve Ison 10 years ago this month for IAC Spotlight.
Have known him since the mp3.com days and he's probably the
best male artist in my circle of friends, right up there at the top,
anyway. The interesting part about Steve is that he is waay
more accomplished now than he was then, when he won Best Male
Artist at the Golden Kayaks that year. He basically reeled off
a string of really good songs in the last few years, a number of good
videos, and at times his sense of arrangements reminds of the best late
60s music which if you know my tastes, is saying a whole lot.
He also is now actively doing live gigs which is another
thing he's added to his musical resume. Funny thing though,
when it comes to music career type stuff, he's as unpretentious as it
gets, just loves music and it shows in his own music that he uploads.
I wish I had the same attitude as him, he just goes about
making his music happen. He seems ageless, timeless, to be
honest at times ya wonder why he's still one of us, the kind
of quality songs that you find next to his name.
Steve Ison: 2 years ago with a lot of free time, being recently unemployed, i started a 'Song every 2 weeks' project where my good friend Colette and i pushed each other to seperately write and record new songs by giving ourselves a strict deadline every 2 weeks to produce something new....We lasted about 11 months with this and in that period both of us wrote/recorded a stack of new songs. ( I wrote/recorded Willow, On The Way Up, From The Morning, Ghost Of My Baby, Movie Days, Born To Love, Love In A Strange World, Winter (Sleep My Love), In The End, Falling Through The Window, The Night Lingers On, Written In A Song and Haunted People at this time). Toward the end of that period i was running out of steam abit creatively tho - mainly for fresh lyrical ideas - and couldn't keep up the intensity and songwriting quality, so i started using the time to properly record older songs i'd written and liked ( The Wheels Of Her, Mazie, Road To Mexico, Nothing Going On Round Here).
Finally i got my old job back - didn't have the time for writing/recording full time any more - so the last few were songs i'd already half-recorded previously but never got round to finishing (Boy, She's Come In Through The Window, Born In The Old Days, There You Are )
It was an intensely productive period for me - and i guess thats when you're really referring to as i've been nowhere near as prolific since then. In fact the last song i "released" (lol) 'I Woke Up From The Dead This Morning' was another old song i started recording maybe 4 years ago but never finished. So 'the change' was definitely the result of self imposed pressure and deadlines. In the absence of those, i find it difficult to keep being motivated to write/record with the intensity and focus needed to produce quality recorded work. I create musical ideas all the time for my own pleasure and write a lot of songs which never get recorded fully - 'cos its such alot of work to do it..
I think i'm better than most indie artists at remaining self-motivated without an audience or any outside reason to speak of, but its still easy to be lazy and drift purely, left to your own devices.
As for progressing with production skills, i don't really know. I guess you're always improving if you do something all the time - so i suppose i have got better, but its difficult to pinpoint specifics. I've definitely improved with drum programming tho.
Scott: It's not hard to notice on facebook that you now do live shows with a band. How did this come about and how is it going, did it turn out to be what you had hoped?
Steve Ison: The other members of The Strangest Feeling, Pete Churchill ( Bass/keys/BVs) and Paul Carroll (Drums/BVs) have been 2 of the other main artists on the 'Musical Connections' project i work for (A creative music-making charity for mental Health service users and people with disabilities) for over 12 years now so we all know each other well. It's probably been in the back of our minds as a possibility fror a long time. About 7 years ago we were gonna get a band together with this other female musician on keys but it never quite panned out.
What sowed the idea fully for me this time was being at a local gig with Paul Carroll where the band was going down really well and he said 'I think your songs are stronger than theirs -You,me n Pete should get a band together', and i just thought 'yeh why not ?' there and then. We asked Pete and he agreed.
It was just the right time i think. I was feeling confident and more open, as i was in the middle of recording/writing all those songs every 2 weeks. Also with Musical Connections losing its funding for a year (why i was unemployed at the time) we'd had some great dinner nights round at Petes with other friends/volunteers from the project so we could all stay in touch and try to keep the magical spirit of the project alive. On those nights we'd communally written some really cool, interesting songs together (3 of which we still use in our set ), so there was a lot of creativity and good vibes in the air..
Me and Pete also wrote a new song together for someones birthday party which fit in well with the set.
Its going really well at the moment. We've been together over 2 years now. Rehearsals and gigs are creative and fun. We all love and believe in the music we make, so there's a sense of joy with what we're doing. The music's consciously uplifting and sunny in vibe.... Working with Pete n Paul is easy going without the stress and tension i experienced in the last band i was in in early 2000s 'Special Needs'. Tho to be fair - for me - that's got a lot to do with the fact i generally feel a lot more creatively free and less uptight as a person than i did back then. Probably the highlights for me of being in this band are the 2 'Music On The Roof' micro festivals we've had every August (which i've documented on youtube) on Petes garden roof.. People coming together for the music, a real sense of community - joyful times.. The best reasons for being in a band for me.
To be honest, i didn't have any expectations really of how it would turn out other than to be creative and fun - which it is.. Maybe to play more festivals and get our album finished - which still needs some work.
Scott: Wanted to ask you how you think online indie music has changed since the days of mp3.com?
Steve Ison: As far as the music goes, i don't know really. There's always some creative, interesting stuff struggling vainly to be heard within a huge ocean of cookie-cutter music. That doesn't seem to change. With technology,obviously more people are making more music so maybe there's more of both kinds now..
In terms of community, with mp3.com and the early days of myspace 10 years and more ago, i know there was a healthy interest, openess and curiosity in what indies were doing from non musician listeners - and a sense you could build an audience organically and were part of a sea change. It seemed really exciting at the time. When intensely aggressive marketing and spam bombing took over by countless ambitious rock bands, who had everything going for them other than any creative, interesting songs, listeners became (understandably ) jaded - and that door shut pretty quickly.
I get the sense with OMDs like Soundclick now, there's far less people frequenting them than there used to be - and those who spend time there are all other musicians surviving on playing their music to each other in a virtual vaccum.
Those without 'message boards' like Reverbnation make grand claims (provided you spend money lol) that they can help you reach 'real' listeners -but whatever they say, the only audience seems to be other musicians wanting to be heard - as far as i can tell.
Scott: Who are the indies you listen to the most for personal pleasure? Do you use an iPod and if so are there many indies on it?
Steve Ison: I don't use an i-pod.. I listen to everything through computer speakers - which might sound weird for an intense music lover - but i'm just not that bothered by hifi. Sorry to say i havn't been listening to much indie music recently. My personal listening pleasure is taken up with the best 60s/70s creative pop of all denominations which suits my soul.. Saying that, I'll always listen to international musical 'friends' music on facebook and the few online sites i frequent and have a genuine interest in their creative journey. I occasionally listen to the 'stations' of indie music i made a few years back on Indie Music People and on youtube too..There's alot of good,local songwriters i see and hear out n about as well.
I do love my close friends Harper Stephens and Colette DeGiovanni's music .They're both very good songwriters. Creative, authentic and intelligent.
There's a lot of really talented people in my job at Musical Connections who i enjoy listening to too.. There's always good music around even if it can't get heard by many people..
Scott: You have always seemed like somebody who gets along with pretty much everybody, I'm just wondering if you ever had the sort of bad experiences with people on the net like I've had? Stalkers, grudge-holders, etc? Anything you regret you did or said?
Steve Ison: No real bad experiences with people on the net. Like most people i'm intentionally pretty bland and private on Facebook just 'cos i know everyone i know in my life is potentially watching. There's been a couple of self-pitying posts i've made when i was drunk that i've regretted, but it all gets washed over and quickly forgotten as a zillion new ones take people's butterfly attention lol - like yesterdays newspapers.
With the music sites i go on, i'm more opinionated, but its always about issues and ideas. I never personally attack people, so i don't really get that energy back..
Scott: I remember that you've always had a greater appreciation for lo-fi music than most people. Is that still true? Who's the best songwriter you've heard with weakly produced music?
Steve Ison: I think its more that Hi-fi isn't really important to me like it is for alot of people. Thats why i'm perfectly happy listening to all my music through computer speakers.. Its always much more about the song, the feel, the mood and the creative spirit behind it... As long as i can get those things from the music i'm happy - the hi-fi or lo-finess of it's basically irrelevant.
I DO actively dislike the kinda glass-sheen digital sound some modern artists and indies love - just 'cos it sounds so bland and characterless - and will intentionally do things to my own recordings to rough 'em up a bit so they don't sound like that.
I suppose just from my love of so much 60s music (that i'm sure modern sound snobs would call lo-fi), there's a kinda edge associated with that i do really like.. It has alot of atmosphere... Lou Reed's songwriting is very good on Velvet Underground albums - but its definitely a 'lofi' sound.. Same with the early Kinks, Beatles. Stones and The Who - in fact most of that mid-60s pop, girl groups and soul that i love would fit a lo-fi definition for modern listeners - but it sounds great to me!
Scott: How frustrating is it at this point with all the quality songs you've written that you're still relatively obscure in comparison to mainstream music?
Steve Ison: Relatively Obsure.. That's one way of putting basically completely unknown ! Ha !.. Yeh its definitely something i've got frustrated about in the past, now i'm more or less ok with it..
I'm essentialy a very private person, i think there's a strong part of me that dosn't want to be better known - so i've never created or chased opportunities that'd make it happen...The same as 1000's of other introverts round the world, beavering away creating their own little dreamworlds in their own little rooms.. Mythic superstars of their own imaginations lol
Another reason is i've got absoloutly no appetite at all for 'marketing' that you're supposed to do to reach more people. I don't like the headspace it puts you in.. Its just no fun at all.. 'Pushing your product', 'identifying your target audience' etc. The whole marketing speak and ethos feels totally alien to me and definitely doesn't sit well with the art - so it seems healthier for me to ignore it.
I'm a songwriter - not a buisnessman. I know you're kinda expected to be both in this brave new world, but its a strained, unnatural marriage at best and definitely doesn't suit me..
Saying that,i'm very grateful for the listeners that do take an interest in what i do generally on a couple of music sites and on Facebook - some of whom aren't even other musicians..
I know its a cliche but i do genuinely create music basically for myself and my own mental health .. It's my beautiful escape into a mythic, imaginative space of my own far, far away from the mundane world of polite meaningless chatter, work-a-day corporate violence, and media trash that assaults our lives everyday, everywhere..
Scott: What was your most memorable moment in regards to making a breakthru with your songs?
Steve Ison: If you mean in terms of songwriting, it's so difficult to answer, because its been such a gradual, ongoing process over years. Trying to become freer at accessing the unconscious mind. Learning to be fluid, flexible and 'intuitive' in your musicality and lyrics. Cathartically expressing emotion thru the music and being instinctive... Impossible to pick a particular moment.
If you mean in terms of outward 'success' then probably getting on the internet in 2002. Before then i'd played my songs to a few friends - then there was suddenly hundreds of people i didn't even know hearing my songs.. Incredibly exciting at the time !
Scott: Not to be morbid, but have you ever thought about what you're going to do with your songs and your recorded music for after you're gone from this world?
Steve Ison: Never thought about it and i don't really care... If the internet carries on and there isn't a huge crash where everything gets 'wiped', i guess the songs and videos will remain somewhere. They'll fade into the distance like ghosts as wave after wave of new creative expression takes over and pushes them further away.
If someone happens to chance on anything i've done, i guess they'll probably be seen/heard as curiosities of their time.. At best i guess you could hope a song could transcend that and give something creative and vital to the person discovering it.. But thats all total conjecture and beyond my control..
Scott: How has making videos been a part of getting your music out there? Any good results?
Steve Ison: I don't know really... I made them because it felt really exciting and new for me. I loved how they could bring a whole new dimension and space to a song.. I loved the creative process of making them.... Some of them have become more like a diary as i've always included friends in them. An artful memory of certain times/places/scenes preserved in a pop video..
The most hits i've had on any video is about 1,700 for 'I Wish I Could Say I Love You'.. Thats over 4 years... Is that succesful in terms of getting my music out there ? Probably not, all things considered.. But they've been great fun to do and i'm very happy i made them,
Scott: Any musical plans for the next few years, concept albums or that sort of thing?
Steve Ison: No,nothing like that lol. Getting The Strangest Feeling band album finished would be good. Getting my Steve Ison songs mastered properly and sorted into albums would be good too. But really, absoloutly no plans at all really other than keep on making music day-to-day and seeing where it takes me..