It’s been a busy year for New Brunswick singer-songwriter Owen Steel. After some quiet years, Steel is back at it, releasing “i am lost” in January and “weird looks” in February. Mixtape Magazine presents two new songs, both recorded during his residency at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity in March. We asked Owen Steel to tell us a little bit about his time in Alberta and explain the stories behind the new songs in this exclusive premiere.
Interview conducted via email by Jonathan Briggins and edited for length and clarity.
What was it like heading out West and doing a residency at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity? What’s it like going to a place away from home specifically to write and perform music?
Participating in a residency at the Banff Centre was very inspiring, to say the least. Personally, stepping away from my home base is a good way to rewire myself. So, heading west for a stint specifically to write and perform was more than welcome. I think it actively promotes breaking patterns and habits that perhaps can become mundane and limiting, and forces one to shift perspective which, in turn, changes the results of your output – usually for the best.
Even before the residency, you started releasing new music again this year. What’s led to the increased output so far in 2017?
Up until this year it had been a really long gap of not releasing much because I was keeping myself occupied with other interests and not committing to putting effort into writing and recording. So, in short, it was just time – better late than never! Honestly though, by now I should have so much more released, like, several albums. I’ll spare you most of the excuses. There are lots of things behind the scenes that cause roadblocks in releasing music. At the very same it’s also because I am plain broke, lazy and scared — but yeah, 2017 has at least seen a bit, and there is more to come.
New track “I Wanna Wear a Dress” is more than just a fashion statement. Sexuality, politics and identity all tie in here. What inspired this song?
Initially, this song actually was inspired just because of my infatuation with dresses: To appreciate how they look, how they’re designed and, if the right opportunity presents itself, to wear them. It was going to be about freakdom and comfort. That was gonna be it. But the more i chipped away at it the more I realized what it was touching on. And the more I started researching the history and politics of fashion, what it can stand for, and the roles that gender play (or don’t play), the easier the song was to write.
In two and a half minutes we had fun playing scrappy rock n roll music, and that was really important, but I also tried to point out a few things with my lyrics. This is old news. But I’m always late to the game. Fashion can be used as an incredibly powerful tool. We communicate visually before we do verbally. So, in a sense, what we’re wearing is our first statement in a conversation. Me shouting “I wanna wear a dress” can be taken literally, but it also equates to a desire to be daring and original. Clothing can give people confidence, express values and politics, bond us with friends and function as disguise or armour. Getting dressed is a daily ritual. It can be a ceremony. And your sex shouldn’t determine what you are expected to wear. Don’t get me wrong, I also love a good fitting pair of jeans, and that’s usually what I’m wearing. But come on now, the dress is transcendent!
New track “Balm of Gilead” is very detailed — sounds, visuals, and obviously, smells — what’s the story behind the song?
This song stems from a period years ago when I was living with an older couple in Crawford Bay, British Columbia. One day, I was asked to collect balsam in the forest by Kootenay Lake to boil down to make — what i remember as being called, yet, what might not have actually been — ‘Balm of Gilead’. An essential oil of sorts that smelled so sweet and lovely and was so poignant that I will never forget it. When my stay was up, I was handed a jar of the oil to take with me. I traveled with it for months, safely tucked away, whereupon returning home I gave it to a young woman whose heart I had once broken. To this day, I always smell it on the air in the summer time.
These details live in the first part of the song. However, the second part takes a turn and simply touches on a variety of smells that, whether beautiful or disgusting, are also stuck in my brain. The song is intended to portray the power of nostalgia via scent, mostly in a pleasant realm, but at times deliberately contrasting the very delicate sounds with vile imagery.
What’s been sending me for a trip is finding more out about Balm of Gilead after writing the song. Apparently, it was a rare perfume used medicinally that was mentioned in the Bible, named for the region of Gilead where it was produced. There is also an African-American spiritual called ‘There is a balm in Gilead’ which goes:
There is a balm in Gilead
To make the wounded whole;
There is a balm in Gilead
To heal the sin-sick soul.
I could go on and on about this one. Best just get lost in the rabbit hole yourselves – you won’t be disappointed!
You’re playing Flourish Festival this weekend. What can people expect, and what’s up over the rest of the spring and summer for you?
Yeah! I’ll be doing a half hour set by my lonesome on Saturday evening at Wilser’s Room. My old pal Jenny Berkel is also on the bill and she may join me for one tune. I’m gonna keep it pretty simple. A few old songs a couple new ones – nothing fancy.
Press photo of Owen Steel by Jesse Shire.