During the Sundance Film Festival, the songwriter and lead frontman of Civil Twilight, Steven Dayvid McKellar performed at the Sundance ASCAP Music Cafe. Closing out the last two days of the eight day ASCAP event celebrating songwriters and composer of the Sundance Film Festival, McKellar performed two sets alongside fellow ASCAP songwriters that also included ZZ Ward, and Fox Wilde. McKellar also performed at the Montage Concert Series on Friday, January 31st.
As a songwriter, Steven McKellar’s music can be heard on popular tv shows such as One Tree Hill, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, and Star-Crossed. Steven arrived in PC with two fresh solo albums, The Belleville Demos and his upcoming release “Ethio.”
Steven Dayvid McKellar: “I only discovered songwriting at about 18. I was really into bass playing. I wanted to be the best bass player in the world. So that was my idea. So I was really into jazz and doing a lot of gigs around Cape Town. And one day I went to my friends house to jam with him, right. we would do these jam sessions, and we jammed for like three hours and the whole time we were jamming his wife was laying on the couch, reading a book and he stopped the jam at one point and he said “can I play you a song”. And he played me a song and after he was his wife perked up and was clearly moved by this song, and she asked what it was about and was intrigued by what the story was and that was the first time that I noticed the people, notice what I didn’t notice in myself which is people are attracted to songs and stories and the power of melody and storytelling. And I thought “Man that is what I would like to get into” so I went home and wrote as many songs as possible and played them to him the next week and then he told me “Yeah these are quite good, you should keep going.” And so that was it, that is how I got into songwriting and I’ve been into it ever since. And it’s been a very therapeutic thing for me over the years. Music in general, it is like a great teacher. Where it leads you in life, man, like what we were talking about earlier. It can teach you amazing things about people, and patience and about, yeah how to live your life so it has been great for me.”
S.M.: It’s an impossible life because you are in perpetual motion continually and every night is everyone else’s Friday night. There is the party element, there is the drinking, but I think that gets into the psyche of it which is because of the perpetual motion you feel like you are moving towards something and the grand scale of time you are actually standing still. You are not actually growing. You are physically moving, but you are around the same people and same situations and circumstances and you can be deceived into thinking it is thrilling, but after a while, to excite that and keep it rolling, to keep the dream alive, you have to have something in your system. I mean, not everyone is like this but the majority of bands I have toured with, they would probably say the same thing. Big and small, you know?
And like bands too, bands are gangs. They are formed with a gang mentality, “all for one, one for all”. And to keep that up when everyone’s lives start to split and change, you have to either be really diligent with each other, sort of make a contract, or you keep the party rolling. Anyways, that is my experience, I know it is different for other people. But think about it, if you are away from a home (if you have one) on the road for months and months out of the year, trying to keep a relationship going or trying to keep anything going is hard, but it is a lot of fun, I had a blast and I am glad I did it.
S.M.: Well it is a split from what I’ve always known which is a democratic band. I didn’t realize that it would take my this long, but it took me a good two years to work out how to operate on my own, what I wanted, and how to make my own choices. You can be deceived into thinking you are making your own choices in a band, but in my case, I realized I wasn’t really.
And then the great question, what do you want? You know? What do you want this to sound like if it is on you? If it comes back to you? So that took a minute. But I think this latest record is definitely a byproduct of those lessons learned. I had to go crazy and make a record before this one that incorporated every sound that I could possibly think of. (Steven laughs) And I had to go there and then I dialed it back with this one.
I had to take like four elements, for instruments basically and just work with those, nothing else. That was the strategy. But then what came of that, lyrically and sonically, I think it was a lot to with the trip that my wife and I went on, Europe for 5 months, bummed around Europe and then came back to the States. And I think because of all the travel, it is stimulating and makes you very like spiritually aware of stuff or something. Like you are more sensitive. So I got back to the States and I felt.. I felt America in a different way. And I thought, “that is interesting. This is an interesting feeling” And I just dived into that when I got back home. And the record is kind of based upon that idea but it is my observations and feeling sort of portrayed through eight different characters. Because I am not political, I really don’t care about that.
I am way more interested in like, the people, the individuals, how an individual, how their’ dreams and expectations of life, of their own personal life can be effected by the culture that they are living in. How we sort of need to form some sort of identity and we cling to whatever we get and a lot of it is identity through nationality, through the laws, and through the boundaries that we have set for ourselves as a culture. And I think that is really, I don’t want say that it is sad because we all do it, it is part of human nature, but it is interesting where that leads for the every day person. So that is what the record is about. A lot of it. And there is hope in it too because even though the record is quite dark. After I got it back from the mastering people, I said, “Ah man this is a hard one to swallow. It’s a hard listen” but there is hope in it definitely because of the fact that we can talk about it. Put it out in the open so we can talk about it, so that is what I am doing I guess.
S.M.: The album cover that I put together for this latest record which is called “Ethio”, it’s like a section of one of my bigger pieces that I painted. Wich painting is something that I did from a young age too. I was about 13 or something when I got my first lessons. I got like two lessons actually from my aunt, who is a realist painter, a beautiful painter and she is quite well known in South Africa and she showed me the ropes in that regard and at the time I enjoyed it a lot but it didn’t thrill me, you know, that is why I felt the gravitational toward music. I needed to feel physical and that didn’t really please me.
I dabbled in it a lot over the years and then just recently I started splashing paint around and some things just clicked. It was the same feeling as when I was fourteen and the world opened up to me, I could suddenly hear things in music that I couldn’t hear before. It was like that with this (painting) which is a testament to how jump into new revelation, we don’t get to some age and then just peak out, like plateau out. There is constant things to be able to be discovered about what we are able to do and what is in us. Discovering this new form of expression, to me went hand and hand with music, with what I was creating. It needed to be physical and that is how it came about. They started off smaller and they are just getting bigger and bigger I did a show last year, an exhibition at my friend’s gallery. My first one and it was awesome. I loved it. I played a few songs with the paintings up and it kind of worked.
I am very excited about exploring those two things together, like we talked about, going into visuals, film, and music. Combining all three in an exhibition as well as the involvement of the artist and the public and the people who are there. I love that idea. I have my favorite painters rotating constantly because I am always looking at stuff. But I would say kids’ paintings are my favorite. I love the freedom of their interpretation of their world. It’s just here it is. A kid never apologizes for when he hands you a painting or a drawing, “Yeah, I did a drawing of you, there it is.” That is kind of what I want to aim for. We get so weird as adults, you know. So anyways, that has been a huge teacher for me, the painting. It has taught me a lot so I am excited about that and exploring that this year.