Steve Sieck: Cabaret HotTrax Featured Artist
By: David Sabella
Our Featured Vendor this week is singer-songwriter, Steve Sieck. Following a career as a management consultant, Steve has emerged as a compelling songwriter and pianist/singer whose unique approach blends pop, jazz and R&B styles with urbane lyrics and a soulful delivery. He has performed his music at New York nightspots including The Iridium, The Metropolitan Room, Don’t Tell Mama, The Duplex, and The Bitter End; at Urban Stages in a showcase of his music, “My Side of Town: The Music of Steve Sieck” and as part of a New York Songwriters Alliance showcase; and at East Village culture hubs St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery and Theatre 80 St. Marks, among other venues. His catalog has attracted performances by a wide range of other vocalists.
Steve’s album 21st Century Blues was nominated for a MAC award as “Best Recording” of 2013. TalkinBroadway.com reviewer Rob Lester described it as “Well worth the listen…wry observational humor and the low-key approach remind me of jazz wit stalwart Mose Allison in writing and singing…but seriousness is only inches below the surface, making this CD deepen with repeated listening…a feel- good experience with some gratifying grit.” His material was described by nightlife reviewer Alix Cohen (in WomanAroundTown.com) as “smart, deft, and truthful,” and that of “an artist of whom to keep track.” In a BroadwayWorld.com review, Jenna Esposito commented that “His songs are catchy, easy to listen to, and reminiscent of the jazzy standards written in the ’40s and ’50s Steve was also praised by New York Times chief classical music critic Anthony Tomassini for his 2009 performance as Harry Druggist in Downtown Music Productions’ mounting of Marc Blitzstein’s 1930s agit-prop musical The Cradle Will Rock. He is very pleased to be among the first songwriters to be featured on HotTrax.
I interviewed Steve about his music, and process. The answers may surprise you, they did me.
Hi Steve, thanks for doing this. Let’s start with the basics. What drew you to become a songwriter? Did you know as a young child that you wanted to do this? And if so, did your parents or family support your artistic desires?
I grew up in white-bread Des Moines, Iowa, in a not particularly musical family. I did have the benefit of a hipper branch of the family in Kansas City, including an uncle who leased jukeboxes and gave me a huge collection of “45s,” from Hank Williams to Spike Jones, and a cousin who introduced me to Ray Charles and “Little” Stevie Wonder. At 8, I was drafted for the clarinet by the elementary school band director, and I took to it. I really don’t remember how a console piano arrived in our house a year later, but I was fortunate that my neighborhood piano teacher, Mrs. Anderson, agreed to split each lesson into classical and pop segments. She wrote out the melodies and chords of the pop songs of the day, and that’s an underpinning of what I do today.
What was the first song you ever wrote, and how old were you when you wrote it?
There wasn’t much demand for original songs until later in high school and early college when rock bands were getting more artistically ambitious. The earliest title I can remember is “Flowers of Evil,” not coincidentally written while I was a freshman dabbling in Baudelaire. I wrote some humorous blues tunes, but nothing with any serious intent until I got to New York.
Who are your musical influences, both writing and performing?
As a song composer, I’ve probably been most directly influenced by the writers of the Motown and other R&B hits of my youth, by Donald Fagen, Bob Dorough, Tom Waits, and other jazz-savvy writers, and Kurt Weil, who somewhat ironically was my gateway drug into the American Songbook and a song-led perspective on the jazz standards. I learned a lot about the marriage of jazz and the Songbook just by reading frequently through the tunes in the Real Book series. I’m also influenced by pop writers drawing on more European traditions, in which I would include Brian Wilson, Jimmy Webb, and Gabriel Kahane. As a jazz/pop singer and pianist, if influence can include inspiration, I would point to Shirley Horn, and the duos of Bill Evans and Tony Bennett, Tedd Firth and Tony DeSare, and Sullivan Fortner and Cecile McLorin Salvant.
Do you have a favorite song or a project?
Favorite songs are hard. It’s usually the last one I’ve written and performed, and I’m still basking in the glow of “You Are Everything to Me,” which was sung shortly after I wrote it by the wonderful Karen Mason as part of Urban Stages’ recent Winter Rhythms festival presentation of my music. And there were a lot of great things about that project, including the creative team of Sue Matsuki, Gregory Toroian and my long-time friend and inspiration Lina Koutrakos, a fantastic cast of singers that included Mary Sue Daniels, Bobby Harden, Tanya Holt and Robert Fowler, Lina Koutrakos, Susan Mack, Karen Mason, Katie Dunne McGrath, Jeannine Otis and Larry Marshall, Erli Perez, Doug Sheppard, Dorian Woodruff, and Lisa Yaeger, and the opportunity to mount a show with a cast like that “live on stage” in the midst of the pandemic. Of course, I’m also excited about the project I’ve been working on with you, and being one of the first composers featured on Cabaret HotTrax!
Tell us about your process, even your daily schedule when working. Do you write every day? Are you inspired by current events or things around you?
Ha! Maybe having been a professional consultant for so long, I’m more oriented to unforeseeable projects and deadlines, and not that good at establishing routines (though I keep trying!). But although I may not be directly engaged in song work every day, the alertness to possible song ideas, and seeking and appreciating new songs and songwriters, is always active in the background. Sources of inspiration can be hard to isolate, but I would say that, while I’m pretty engaged with current events, it doesn’t usually translate into songs. “21st Century Blues” would be the major exception.
What has been the hardest song or project to finish and why? How did you finally get out of this songwriter’s block?
I’ve been married for 2 ½ years, and while I wrote a somewhat tongue-in-cheek love song for Frannie when we began dating, we both felt that a more serious declaration-of-love song was in order, and perhaps the “should” of that notion tended to hold back creativity. This last fall, I finally conjured a title that could bear the responsibility, thought of an approach to exploring what that title could contain lyrically, and “You Are Everything to Me” was born.
What songs are you featuring on HotTrax, and what else can we expect you to offer in the future?
I’m taking advantage of many of the options provided by Cabaret HotTrax by offering charts, CD tracks, CD backing tracks without vocals, and a piano-vocal score and chart using the impressive SuperScore technology. I’m also putting the finishing touches on another original song (otherwise unpublished and unrecorded) in piano-vocal score format for SuperScore. The songs available in my HotTrax “storefront” include many from my MAC-nominated album (“21st Century Blues) as well as several newer songs, running the gamut from romantic ballads to humorous “special material,” uptempo jazz, bossa, and gospel-tinged numbers. Songs that in the past have generated the most requests from singers include “My Side of Town,” “Complaint Letters to God,” “Better Late Than Never,” and “Amelie,” but I’m looking forward to seeing the response to rest of the catalog that’s now readily available to singers and music directors. While I’ll continue to sell CDs and full audio tracks on other venues as well, HotTrax will be my exclusive venue for charts, scores, and backing tracks. I’m hoping that many other composers will join in creating a thriving marketplace for material of interest to the cabaret community and beyond.
What’s next? Are you currently working on a new project?
I’ve tried to use the pandemic as an opportunity for more woodshedding on several of the skills and tools the songwriter/performer of today has to draw upon, and I’m just now beginning to think again about in-real-life projects for when we return to a semblance of normal. Having recently worked with a variety of artists performing my material, I’m intrigued by the idea of producing more projects with my music and other artists. Mainly, I hope to just continue to write better songs, as a means of self-expression and self-surveillance, and for the satisfaction that comes from successful craftsmanship. As someone once said, “who could ask for anything more?”
Thank you Steve for taking the time to answer our questions and for being a valued member of the Cabaret HotTrax Vendor family.
In case you missed it, last week’s featured vendor was Seth Bisen-Hersh. And, next week’s Featured Artist is Dan Furman.
Are you a Singer, Composer, Lyricist, Arranger? Find out how to become a Cabaret HotTrax Featured Artist.