Steven Andrew Kacsmar is a San Francisco based singer songwriter. His band Phantom City has just released its second CD Off the Map.
Whirligig: Off the Map is Phantom City’s second CD and your third. What goes into making an album and how do you determine the arc of the music?
Steven: My songs come from my experiences and sometimes from my idealism. Sometimes I write tunes to try and help people think about how things could be better. Sometimes I just have a story to tell. But even the songs that are about a real event often undergo a transformation from the literal to the allegorical.
In terms of making a CD, there is a lot of work that goes into producing a CD that goes unnoticed unless you don’t do it. For example, on Off the Map we recorded many takes of each part then picked the best sections and then blended them into a single track. We also ironed out any wrinkles so that we put out a polished product, hopefully without losing the fresh feel of the song. In the process of creating a CD, you spend a lot of time listening, and honing, taking out as much as you put in.
Whirligig: How did you come to be a musician and songwriter?
Steven: I’ve always been musically inclined; I sang on my mom’s lap in the car when I was a child. I was in band in high school and have been playing guitar since I was about 8. There’s always a soundtrack going on in my head. I was curious so I asked some of my friends if this was true for them and was surprised to learn that not everybody has a soundtrack to their life going on in their head. So I guess it’s safe to say that music is an integral part of who I am as a human being. I have worked at many things in my life, but the day gig I had longest was with Bank of America, for 21 years. When I left the corporate world behind, it was with a very clear intent to focus on my music while I still had some fire in my belly.
Whirligig: Do you have a formal education in music or writing?
Steven: Well, my band director tried to educate me. I learned how to sight read trombone parts and I did take some piano and guitar lessons, but mainly I’ve taught myself. There are, therefore, some gaps in my musical education.
Whirligig: What is your process?
Steven: Each song is different, but most songs start with a seed of some sort, an idea, a line of the chorus, or sometimes, a musical idea or melody that invokes a mood or inspires a vision. Some songs get written in a day, some simmer on the back burner for years, until the time is right to finish them. But before I get ready to record a song, I end up re-working it to tighten up the lyrics and make sure the song holds together and doesn’t have any wasted lines. You only get so many lines in a song to tell your story, so it’s important that each line adds something.
Whirligig: Do you write poetry that isn’t intended for music?
Steven: Yes, I wrote my first poem sitting at the top of Dolores Park looking out over the city skyline. I published a small book of poetry many years ago, called Timewhirl.
Whirligig: Is there a favorite poem (that you have written) that isn’t for music that you will share with us?
Steven: Sure, thanks for asking! This is called
Ocean Sung Song
On the surface, splashing surging waves
That crash against the shore.
Sings the ocean its song of rhythm
Life and death forever more.
And as I stand upon the sand
And listen to that ancient call
I catch a sound, the voice of wisdom;
Life and death for one and all.
From each end a new beginning,
Sprouts a bud from beneath the snow.
Love will bloom again in springtime.
Around their stars the planets go.
Spiral cycles, never ending,
Code of life within each cell;
Now extol your cosmic greeting,
Life’s enchantment casts a spell.
I smile to myself,
I guess I might as well.
Life’s just what it is,
I’m just who I am
And only time will tell.
Whirligig: Your songs have a specific aesthetic. What genres do you aim for? How do you classify your music.
Steven: Like all musicians, my work reflects my influences. I am definitely a child of the 70’s. If I had to classify my music, I guess it would be Rock/Pop/Americana. I don’t like to box myself in though, and I have played many different styles of music at different points in my life, from dixieland to samba, from classical to blues to country with some jazz thrown in for good measure. I try to make each song a unique musical journey. I recently wrote a waltz of sorts. I try to bring a modern feel to the music I grew up with.
Whirligig: Do you write all of the instrumental parts or is this collaborative?
Steven: The band collaborates on most of the tunes. Each of the guys brings his own musical genius to the arrangements. We all have interesting ideas and we sort of let the songs evolve. Over time, we’ve developed a sound that’s our own yet reflects our influences. We sometimes try to consciously create a certain feel, but mainly we just let each song go where it needs to go.
Whirligig: How do you decide if you or Trevor will sing lead?
Steven: On Trevor’s songs, it’s up to him. Mainly, if the bass line is really intense, we’ll see if I can pick up what he’s trying to express.
Whirligig: Tell us the story behind A Little Bit of Grace.
Steven: I took a trip to New Orleans, Memphis and Nashville with a good friend. It became sort of a musical pilgrimage although we didn’t feel particularly religious about it. Visiting Graceland was an ambiguous experience for me. In some ways, it’s a cheesy tourist trap, but there is also a special feel to the place, and there is certainly no end of people who journey there to pay their respects to one of America’s most enduring musical icons. This is a good example of a song about an experience that became an allegory.
Whirligig: I find While You Were Asleep most amusing. How did this originate?
Steven: This is one of Trevor’s songs. I still don’t completely understand it, but we’ve talked about it quite extensively. He says it’s about not falling asleep in relationships. The more I think about it, the more I think he was writing about trying to wake someone up.
Whirligig: I thought both. It seemed very Buddhist to me in both amusement and focus on being present v being asleep. Do you and Trevor collaborate on writing songs?
Steven: We actually haven’t as of yet. We both come into rehearsal with songs we’ve written on our own and then arrange them with the other band members’ input. I do however, collaborate with our lead guitarist, Al Bedrosian. He writes some really interesting chord progressions, and then we figure out what the theme of each riff might be and then work together on the lyrics.
Whirligig: How did Phantom City come together?
Steven: After leaving my career in banking, I hired a producer (Roberta Donnay) and released my first CD in 2003. That CD was Dreams and Destiny. We hired some very talented studio musicians for that project and it gave my confidence a real boost to have such highly skilled players working on a project with me.
However, once it was done, I was still on my own as a solo performer and unless I wanted to hire studio musicians for every gig, I figured I’d need to find some musicians I could work with. So I got together with Nathen Banne and Al Bedrosian, two fellow SGI Buddhists, and we kicked around the idea of forming a band. Al, our lead player knew both a bass player and a keyboard player (Trevor Hughes and Peter Vasilev, respectively), and we’ve been Phantom City ever since 2003. We recently brought in Harold Parker, whose drumming has allowed us to broaden our horizons and bring in some funkier, more complex and syncopated rhythms into our music. I don’t think we’ve even begun exploring all the new possibilities open to us.
Whirligig: What are the challenges of managing a band that plays your original creations?
Steven: It’s not the original creations part that’s challenging. We work well together as a band, so creating a feel on a new song is the fun part. The challenging part is all the stuff that takes time and effort but isn’t directly contributing to the actual creation of the music; like booking gigs, copyrighting music, sending out promotional material. That is the challenging part of the music business for me. The part where we get to actually play, record, mix and master music is where I find my joy.
Whirligig: Talk about the differences for you in playing solo acoustic sets and playing with Phantom City.
Steven: When I play solo, I feel the need to fill in the empty spaces, musically. I put a lot more into my guitar work when I play solo. Playing with a band has been an educational process of learning how to play less and let the other instruments fill in the spaces. In a sense, my musical journey is a quest to find more empty space. Both as a solo artist and performing with the band, I find it a struggle to leave open space. But as I’ve learned to do this more, I’ve found other ways to express myself. Sometimes a silent pause can say more than any note you could play or sing. Herbie Hancock calls them the butter notes. When I listen to Jobim, I’m amazed at how many notes that I hear in my head aren’t actually on the recording. I’m striving to get to that place more myself.
Whirligig: It’s similar to other creative forms then where you don’t give it all away and allow the listener/reader/viewer to interpret and imagine.
How did the band get its name, Phantom City?
Steven: It’s a reference to a parable in the Lotus Sutra, where a guide leads a tired group of travelers to a wondrous city where they eat, rest and refresh themselves. The next morning, the city has vanished and they are back on the road to enlightenment. I guess our hope was that we could provide a musical oasis for people.
Whirligig: Do you write for other musicians, as in works that you don’t intend for Phantom City?
Steven: As often as I am asked. I have written show tunes for musicals, music for radio spots, and a couple of sound tracks for the Burning Man Fashion Show. I enjoy the challenge of creating something for a specific purpose. I have also written songs for specific events or to try to convey my outlook on the world, such as a song I wrote for the Earth Charter.
Whirligig: What is the Earth Charter? Tell us about this and the song you wrote?
Steven: The Earth Charter is a set of four major principles for living a sustainable existence while attempting to resolve some of the complex social, ecological and economic issues that we face at the start of the 21st Century. The four areas that the Earth Charter addresses are:
I. Respect and Care for the Community of Life
II. Ecological Integrity
III. Social and Economic Justice
IV. Democracy, Nonviolence, and Peace
If your readers are interested, they can get a more complete picture of the Earth Charter Initiative at www.earthcharterinaction.org
My feeling is that if enough people are aware of and sign onto the principles embodied in the Earth Charter, some of what passes for ‘serving the people’ in our world will be simply unacceptable. The Earth Charter contains no mandates and recognizes the complexity of our global situation vis-a-vis local and individual needs and customs, while attempting to urge people to adopt a more just, sustainable and global perspective.
The song I wrote for the Earth Charter Initiative was called Small Steps. It was my answer to Blowing In the Wind. The first verse and chorus go like this:
A young man asks his father why must there be war
And a mother with a hungry child asks why must I be poor
A song once said the answer is blowing in the wind
But the times they are a-changing and we must all begin
To take small steps to make the world a better place
Small steps can be simple things that anyone can do
Small steps across the bridge between us
Small steps to make our dream of peace come true
Whirligig: What is the residue of your songwriting? Paper scraps? napkins? well organized notebooks?
Steven: Mainly notebooks. Lots of notebooks. Every once in a while I go through them looking for lost fragments. Sometimes I find real nugget of gold. Other times I try to remember what I was thinking or hearing when I wrote down the line but it just isn’t there anymore.
Whirligig: What are the qualities of a song that makes it resonate for you?
Steven: The hook, such as a memorable melody and of course, the story. And I’m a huge fan of good production. Even a simple song can be made to sound better with the right production. But sometimes I like to hear just a single instrument and vocal. As long as something moves me, I’m happy.
Whirligig: What makes a song meaningful v. one that is clever or cute?
Steven: It’s about artistry. And sharing something from inside. I like clever songs as much as the next guy, but songs that make me feel like I know somebody because of what I’ve heard are what I truly admire, respect and enjoy.
Whirligig: Is song writing competitive?
Steven: No. Well maybe a little; we all want to write the greatest song ever written, but often when I hear a really good song, I just think “Wow, I wish I’d written that.” Then, later on, I may take a swipe at my take on something I’ve heard before. But if I do a cover, I”m not afraid to let it sound different than the original, even if it’s just my take on the original idea.
When I hear a really good song or performance, I’m often grabbed by the feeling that I want to run home immediately and write something as good or better.
Whirligig: That’s the inspirational aspect of good art. What percentage of song attempts are abandoned and what percent make it to an album?
Steven: I’m not a volume writer; I haven’t written thousands of songs. I’ve written a fair amount though. I tend to want to record most of the songs I’ve written, so for me, I’d say that while I have left some songs off of projects, I would want to record or release those songs some day. As soon as I write a song, it’s my favorite song ever, at least for a couple of days. The better ones stay favorites for a much longer period of time.
Whirligig: Did/do you have a career or work life outside of music?
Steven: Not any more. I was a banker for 21 years. I worked really hard but always with the goal of being able to live a creative life.
Whirligig: What was it like being a banker?
Steven: It was interesting and became quite challenging as I got into foreign currency trading and kept really long and early hours. Then I took on migrating phone call based transactions into computerized transactions, sort of the early forms of online trading that you see used by eTrade and Charles Schwab. So it was very intense and rewarding, but I always planned on leaving someday to try my hand at music. At a certain point, I was given the choice of sticking with the bank and taking my career in a completely different direction, or taking a package. I chose to take the package and decided that it was time to see what I could do with my music.
Whirligig: How will things change for you if a major musician picks up one of your songs?
Steven: I hope it gives me more opportunities to write with other good songwriters, or to write for other artists or projects, such as a TV show theme, movie soundtrack or even maybe someday an entire musical score.
With so many musicians and songwriters in the world, it’s hard to get that first big break. It’s hard to get heard over the din. I like to say that the good news is that with today’s recording technology, anybody can record a CD. The bad news is that with today’s recording technology, anybody can record a CD.
Other than that, I wouldn’t expect things to change drastically. I don’t think I’ll ever be a big-time touring artist. It’d be nice to have roadies though!
Whirligig: How do you stay real in your practice? What is real?
Steven: I wear so many hats that I have to force myself to set aside time to play or write. Most of my practice time is pretty focused and goal-oriented, like getting ready for a particular gig. I wish I had someone who could help more with the business side of the music business so I could be more free to practice and write.
Whirligig: Do you ever feel disillusioned about being a songwriter?
Steven: Sure, who doesn’t? You spend years playing and writing and practicing and recording and booking and such and you look at what’s popular and you wonder if it’s worth it. But then someone will come up after a performance and tell me that I song I wrote really touched them, or it really encouraged them, or they could really relate to what I had to say, and then I remember that’s why I put myself out there. And in another sense, I really do music for myself. It’s kind of at the core of who I am as a human being so if I didn’t, I wouldn’t be who I am.
Whirligig: The diversity of sound, genre and patterns that can come from a six string instrument is amazing. Talk about this.
Steven: Yes, it is amazing all the different sounds, tones, and feelings you can create with a six-stringed instrument. And when you include the various other forms of stringed instruments, like the mandolin, banjo, sitar, ukelele, 12 string guitar, bass guitar, classical, slide guitar and lute, it seems like just about any genre of music can be expressed by a guitar or one of its close relatives.
And even just talking about the guitar, it can range from the simple strumming of 3 chords and the truth to amazing finger picking, to lightning-fast bluegrass, to the most complex and expressive classical or jazz piece.
Whirligig: Who are your favorite songwriters and why?
Steven: I had a very interesting discussion about this topic recently. I like Cheryl Crowe and John Mayer even though some of my friends don’t agree with me. Going further back, Pete Townsend and of course, Lennon and McCartney and Willie Nelson. The common thread would be a certain polish to their work. They have all written songs that I can hear in my head at any time. They all seem to have a knack for writing memorable melodies, and each in their own way has a unique style of delivering a song that rings true and is also cool.
Whirligig: What anecdotes do you have regarding responses to your music?
Steven: Well, I always love it when someone comes up to me and says a song touched them. It’s happened enough that I’m encouraged to keep writing. I’m also lucky to have some close friends (and my wife) who really listen closely to what I write. This encourages me to keep writing and growing.
Whirligig: What is music?
Steven: Music is the pulse of our being. It’s a way to define the inexorable march of time and to try to convey meaning in a non-verbal form. It’s also the sound-track that keeps running inside my head.
Whirligig Interview by Nanette Wylde.
Phantom City’s Website: www.phantomcity.net
Photos from the top: Steven Andrew Kacsmar; Phantom City in concert; Phantom City