Following in the footsteps of the great Texas songwriters before him, James Steinle continues the Longhorn State’s respected tradition of musical storytelling. A self-proclaimed singer of “county country,” Steinle writes songs meditating on themes of western decay, urban angst, and faded love. His voice is characterized by a warm and homey grittiness, found exclusively in those whom have amassed wisdom through their experiences.
Unlike many of the pop-country artists today who pander from their Beverly Hills mansions, Steinle’s stories of working cattle by day and visiting honky-tonks by night feel real because he’s lived them.
But cattle farming isn’t all there is to this up-and-coming, Austin-based singer-songwriter. A Texas native, Steinle actually spent a large portion of his childhood in Saudi Arabia and Germany, aiding in the development of his unique worldview and the global scale of his songs’ subject matter. While he continues to garner comparisons to country legends such as Guy Clark, Robert Earl Keen, and Steve Earle, Steinle’s eclectic upbringing is a key factor in setting him apart from the traditional Texas artists who inspire him.
What I Came Here For, Steinle’s forthcoming full-length studio album produced by Bruce Robison is set to be released on boutique Austin record label, Shotgun House Records on February 7. We had the pleasure of getting to ask James a couple of questions about his music, his album, and his life…
Music Mecca: Where did you grow up, and who or what got you into playing music and writing songs?
James Steinle: I’m from the southern part of Texas. My family are cattle ranchers down in that part of the state so that’s kind of where my roots are, but I moved to Saudi Arabia when I was six going into first grade. My dad got a job over there working for an oil company. We were supposed to be there for a year but ended up staying for nine before taking a little interim/hiatus in Germany before we came back to the states. The school system over there pretty much ends at ninth grade, so you either moved home or went to a private boarding school. But I was, uh, too lazy/stupid for that and I just wanted to go home because it felt kind of like a long, drawn out, nine-year vacation. It was never really home for me so I moved back down to south of San Antonio and just went to public school.
MM: So how old were you when you came back to the States then?
JS: I was halfway through my freshman year so 15 going on 16. I still had my family’s place down there south of San Antonio, so some of it was vacation, but most of it was coming back, working cattle, and fixing all the fences. But it felt like I was really home.
MM: I see you have your debut album, What I Came Here For, set for release 2/7. Can you talk about the inspirations and influences behind it?
JS: So this is actually my second studio LP, but this is my first one I’ve released with any kind of label. It’s on a little boutique label called Shotgun House Records that my buddy Garret T. Capps, who is a great singer-songwriter from San Antonio started up. We’re kind of just buds going at it together. I’m kind of all over the place with my influences, because over the years I’ve listened to so many things I don’t even think about. But in the meantime, someone that’s really sharpened my pen in terms of writing is Gillian Welch. Just people who are very, I don’t know, you can kind of just imagine them in a nightclub with just an instrument and their voice but the songs speak just as loud as if there was a ten piece band behind them. The only person who has been like that throughout my life is Robert Earl Keen. My parents were big fans and I grew up listening to him. But in the interim it was anywhere from Bob Marley to the Black Keys to the White Stripes. I think the record reflects that sonic variance.
MM: While it may be like asking your favorite child, what song or songs are you most proud of and excited for fans to hear?
JS: Definitely “Blue Collar Martyr,” which is actually going to be my next single. It definitely sticks out like a soar thumb on the record. Sonically, it’s pretty heavy and has an old talking blues riff and my voice kind of follows the melody of the guitar. It’s really a pretty interesting song. Our global economy is slowly becoming more robotic and less human. I’ve been thinking about politics and all that and how we’re moving forward and how we’re making the things we use every day. It’s a kind of literary, cryptic thing. Other than that, the starting track, “Black and White Blues,” is my first linear narrative. It may not seem exactly like it, but the character in the song starts at point A and ends at point B and sometimes I’ve been known to kind of go all over the place, so it’s pretty fun telling very simple, narrative stories.
MM: Where did you record the album and how did you get hooked up with producer Bruce Robison?
JS: That was kind of a crazy series of coincidences. My friend Carson McHone, also another great songwriter, she was one of my first friends when I moved here and started going to UT in 2011. She’s always been super helpful. She first introduced me to Bruce and said, “you should give this guy your email because he has some great songs,” so I just shot him a hail mary email saying, “Hey man we met tonight, hope you dig the songs” and sure as shit two weeks later I had an email back. He answered and said he dug the songs and wanted to get a beer and talk sometime. It’s cool because he’s someone I’ve looked up to, and he’s from the same part of south Texas that I’m from. I’ve always looked up to him a lot. He dug my song and was willing to put some support behind it.
MM: Do you have any rituals or things you feel you need to do to get in the right headspace whether it be before shows, writing, or recording?
JS: On rare occasions I pull out my favorite set of dusters, but I got to be in the mood for that one. (laughs) For shows though, I’ve never really had stage fright. I guess a long time ago I kind of stopped giving a shit what people thought about me and my songs. All the people that I like are not classically good singers. That’s always been my big self-conscious thing, my voice. I think a lot of people have that. I kind of looked up to the people I like and thought how they didn’t really give a crap because they knew they’d put the work in on the words and melody and that’s all they could do. So I don’t have a ritual with playing shows. But for songwriting, it’s kind of like sleeping. I can just do it anywhere, but I’m also not a believer in writer’s block. I’m very partial to the idea that writer’s block is a time in your life when you’re supposed to be observing and living, not writing. I think consciousness is the most powerful tool a songwriter has so that’ll do the work when it’s time to sit down and write. Some people would completely disagree with me. I know there are lots of nine-to-five writers, Bob McDill being one of them. I know he got up everyday and wrote like it was an office job. So I guess it is more of a personal thing, but for me it’s just when it’s time, I’m writing non-stop. When it’s not time, I’m out there farting around.
MM: What do you think Texas does better than the rest of the country?
JS: (laughs) I’m not one of those ethnocentric Texans. You know, there’s this like cultural significance that they feel down here. It’s something I grew up immersed in. I feel very fortunate as I got to kind of go away and look at it from the outside, and then come back. So I’ve seen it from both sides, and there is a real special thing I think, but it’s funny because I think all the people who carry that special thing are the ones who kind of get lost in the cracks. Like for me, Guy Clark is like someone’s Elton John. I love Guy and he’s like top of the charts all the time so I think it’s just a very culture and story first kind of thing. I think that’s really what has given a lot of Texas writers a very rare chance to use all this inspiration that’s just moving through. I think other places have that too, and that’s why you kind of see hotbeds pop up. But yeah when I think of great Texas writers that’s kind of what separates them from the field, just the lemons they’ve been given to make lemonade with.
MM: Where’s the best hidden gem place to eat in Austin?
JS: I would say Austin has some really great barbecue. There’s a really good spot over here on the east side of town called Micklethwait and it’s run by the same people who run Franklin’s Barbecue right down the road from it, but you’d be waiting in line for about a year there. (laughs) But Micklethwait is right down the road. They have free beer on Saturdays and Sunday mornings, shorter line, and I think some of the best barbecue I’ve ever had.
MM: What artist, alive or dead, would you most like to have coffee or a beer with?
JS: Man, mine is definitely Dan Reeder. Here’s a quick backstory because I think he’s one of the most interesting guys. He’s from the Southeast, I think Louisiana, but he moved to Germany with his wife in the early 80s and he lived in Nuremberg. He was a visual artist first, but he built his own instruments and his own computer to record with. He grew up in the church choir and had a really odd voice and because of that he didn’t like to harmonize with people. Instead he learned to harmonize with himself. I think it was in the 80s that one of his friends connected him with John Prine and Al Bunetta at Oh Boy Records and told him to send them his tape. So Dan made them like a tape or CD and mailed it to Oh Boy, and someone told Dan that Al Bunetta had called him and he was all like “piss off” but Al called him and said, “we love your songs and we want to put out your record.” So ever since then he was like the only other recording artists on Oh Boy besides John Prine and he did one opening run with Prine in Canada back in the 80s and then never did it again because he hated performing so he doesn’t play shows, he just puts out records and makes art. He’s the guy that I’ve had this fantasy of just going over to Germany on a whim and walking around Nuremberg and going to pubs and just asking if anyone’s ever seen him so I can find him and just get hammered drunk. (laughs) That’s my guy man, Dan Reeder.
MM: What do you hope to have achieved in the next five years?
JS: I’ve been struggling a lot lately with focusing, but I have so many ideas. I’ve got this record called Cold German Mornings that’s not really a concept record, but about the time I spent in Germany. And then I have this record called The Middle East that I want to write that’s the story of an expat moving through all these parts of the Arabian Peninsula. I want to kind of redefine how people see shows and how they listen to art. It’s just everyone has that expectation of first impressions being how it’s always going to be, so I guess in the next five years, I want to be not only sustainable in the sense that I can make a living doing what I like to do, but be able to support other things I like. Also I grew up working cattle, and I’d love more time to keep doing that. I guess really it’s just about finding balance. I want to keep putting out new projects and keep trying to gauge people’s interest and make them listen I guess. You know, it’s always been kind of a hard thing for me to really dive in and listen and I’ve had to learn how to do it. I just feel like lots of people including myself are doing more talking than listening and that’s not always the healthiest thing. So that’s it really. In the next five, I really want to find some balance.
Photos by: Juliet McConkey