Steve Yanek is an Americana singer/songwriter hailing from Pennsylvania who recently unveiled one of my favourite albums of the year. Serving as the follow-up to his critically acclaimed album ‘Long Overdue’, ‘September’ is a collection of tracks written over an eighteen-month period during the pandemic and the lockdown.
Inspired by some of my very own musical heroes; Paul McCartney, James Taylor, and Neil Young to name just a few, I really wanted to get to know Steve better. Thrilled that he agreed to an interview, we dive deep into his musical journey, his thoughts on the current state of the industry, and who he’s been listening to lately. Please give a big welcome to our new friend Steve Yanek!
Hello and welcome Steve! It’s awesome to be able to introduce you to our ever-growing audience today! Your first release came all the way back in 2005, so could you give our readers a brief overview of what has led you to where you are today?
I’ll try to give you the short answer here (which is never easy for me lol). My musical journey has been quite a circuitous one, to say the least. I can break it up into three decades of my life: my 20s, 40s, and now my 60s which coincides with the decades of the 80s, the aughts (00s), and the 20s. It was nothing but music for me up until my mid-20s. I moved out to LA and had a lot of good things happen, but not what I really wanted. Left California behind and went on to a totally different adventure. Met a girl, fell in love and to quote a Jimmy Buffett song, “He liked the clean country living and twenty more years slipped away.”
In 2002 my wife and I went to see the John Lennon Exhibit at the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame that Yoko so brilliantly had put together. And something happened upstairs in that little round room that paralyzed me. Yoko had framed all of his original lyric sheets of these songs that my entire generation had grown up on. And as each of those songs came on the sound system the manuscripts were backlit. You could see these lightning bursts of inspiration from songs written on paper bags and hotel stationery. It was like a musical spiritual awakening. It took a while to set in, but music has taken on a different meaning in my life ever since that moment. I went into the studio in 2003 and began working on what would eventually become 2005’s album, ‘Across The Landscape.’
I was all set to follow that up with another album in 2007. I began tracking songs for the ‘Long Overdue’ then the financial collapse of 2008 happened and twelve more years slipped away. I re-released ‘Across The Landscape’ in Europe with Hemifran out of Sweden at the end of 2020 to try and lay the groundwork for my personal goal of releasing five albums over the next five years. ‘Long Overdue’ morphed into a different version with some newer songs sprinkled in the mix, while ‘September’ captures a more reflective screenshot of my life in the midst of the lockdown.
My heart has been captured by your brand new album ‘September’. It’s just incredible! I know that the songs on the record were written during the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns, and I’m wondering what that experience was like for you.
Thank you so much, Jeremy, that really means a lot! This album is like ten photographs from that period of time. I was turning 60 that September and New York State had recently opened back up, my wife suggested we go to Cooperstown – the Baseball Hall of Fame was a bucket list item for me for a long time. Everyone was masked up and everything seemed very delicate, but everywhere we went people were happy and extremely polite. It just felt so good to be out eating in restaurants again, and the vibe was really cool. That’s a birthday that can be pretty traumatic for some folks, but not for me though, I just love life way too much! It felt like this was the beginning of the next phase of my life and I really want to commit to my music again. I had gotten back in touch with Jeff Pevar right when the lockdown happened and had resurrected the ‘Long Overdue’ album and we were about halfway through the remote recording process with everyone involved in the making of that record.
All the while I’m writing these new, stripped-down, super personal songs. Then I wrote the song ‘Carousel’ right after we got back from that New York trip and I remember looking over the new songs I’d been writing and saw this common lyrical theme running through each of them. I wrote ‘Summer Days’ that winter and that kinda glued it all in place, then ‘Come Back In’ came right after that. A couple of months later I’m in my studio looking through the photos on my phone and I stumble on a bunch of pictures I took from a hike my wife and I did on the Appalachian Trail back in September of 2020, and thought that would make a cool album cover. Then, an hour later, I have this new song ‘September’ that pretty much summed up every emotion I had over the past 18 months.
I must admit that Emitt Rhodes is a name that I’m not familiar with, but you’ve dedicated ‘September’ to the late singer/songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and engineer. Tell us more 🙂
Another critical element of inspiration for this album. He was this legendary artist from the 1960s that I’d heard of but didn’t know much about. He had passed away in July of 2020 and I looked him up and began to read everything about him and listen to everything he’d ever recorded. I was both fascinated and inspired at the same time. I had been upgrading my studio over the past decade with lots of pro gear and collecting some great studio mics, all with the thought of being able to record my own stuff, as well as being able to bring other musicians here rather than spending money laying tracks at other studios. I bought a drum set a couple of weeks before the lockdown and before I could get Nick (drummer in my band The Woodies) to come over and dial them in, bam we’re in the lockdown.
At the time I could screw around on the drums, and always wanted a set just to bang around on, but like most things I do – I got pretty obsessed with them and got up to being “mediocre” pretty quick! Necessity is the true mother of invention! Anyway, I started tracking a bunch of stuff for fun à la Paul McCartney playing all the instruments myself. And when Emmit Rhodes dies and I start reading about him, turns out he was doing the McCartney thing at 19 in his garage before McCartney did that first solo album! He was an amazingly gifted musician and singer/songwriter who started out as a drummer. He also got beat up really badly by the music industry and went over 40 years without making an album then made this amazing record (with other musicians) in 2016. Very bittersweet story, and I highly recommend you check out his music!
OK, the last question on ‘September’ I promise! In less than a month, tracks from the album have received over 130,000 plays on Spotify! How does it feel to know that so many people are listening to and resonating with your music?
It feels great! And that does look impressive, but it’s a little bit deceiving. I’ve actually been releasing these songs in a “waterful” format over the past two years. ‘September’ was originally going to be a solely digital album that I had intended to release simultaneously with the ‘Long Overdue’ album and I started off by releasing ‘Summer Days’ as the lead-off single and it came out in August 2021. ‘You Know It’s Right’ followed in December. I had such great reactions to these songs, and earlier versions of two other songs (‘I Could Use A Little Rain’ and ‘Count Every Moment’) that I actually released in early 2022, plus earlier versions of the other songs that I had posted on my website at the time. I made the decision to hold this album back and concentrate on the ‘Long Overdue’ release. In doing so, this allowed me some time to really dig into these songs and I’m glad that I did because I’m very proud of how everything came out. I also learned an invaluable lesson as well – I am NEVER going to make an album that way again LOL!
The bulk of these tracks were recorded and mixed as they were written, which wound up being a bit of a nightmare when I decided to press CDs and try to match levels and sonics up. The best albums have a sonic continuity that glues everything together because they’re typically mixed at the same time. I wound up remixing all but two of the songs and then rebooted the waterfalling with the release of ‘Begin Again’ and ‘Carousel’ in March.
So, long story short, the bulk of those streams have come over a five-month campaign leading up to the CD release!
What are your thoughts regarding the music industry of today? And, if you were able to, what changes would you make to it?
I love the fact that artists no longer need record labels to release their music into the world and all of the old gatekeepers are irrelevant. That being said, they’ve only been replaced by new gatekeepers, tastemakers and influencers. The new gatekeepers are the editorial playlists at Spotify and good luck getting on one of those playlists if you’re an indie artist – and I don’t mean having your own “indie” label with major distribution deals in place where label reps wine and dine Spotify editorial tastemakers. It’s just like the old days of major label promotion departments schmoozing radio programmers. The more things change – the more they stay the same!
If I could change one thing it would be to get everyone with a Spotify subscription to move over to Qobuz! If an artist were to get 130,000 streams there it would equate to $5,590 of earned revenue as opposed to one-tenth of that from Spotify and the quality of streaming is ten times better there as well! To me, that’s fair compensation and we need artists to start promoting them everywhere. Remember the name Qobuz! Download the app and try it out. It’s only $1 more per month for a family plan and you would actually be able to help your favorite artists actually make money from streaming.
What aspects of being a musician do you cherish most? And on the flip side of that, what would you say have been some of the biggest challenges you’ve encountered?
Creating a new song is something I truly cherish. It’s a cosmic thing for me. When I’m in the “song zone” they usually come in bursts, and very fast. And almost always in one sitting. It’s like a high, especially when I know it’s a good song. I never try to write songs and I never spend time on an idea unless it’s worth spending time on. I’m an album guy, it’s the way I like to listen to music. I used to write all the time when I was younger, and it would take twenty or thirty songs to get ten good ones. It was like a contest to see how fast I could fill up a spiral notebook. I stopped doing that in 2000. No more notebooks. No more quotas. No longer trying to force it. The songs come when they’re ready to come, and it only takes writing ten songs to get ten good songs! And I’ve been incredibly prolific over the past five or six years. I dream of songs a lot, and that’s when I know the window is opening up. In fact, I just dreamt a song the other night. At three o’clock in the morning, I’m strumming a guitar and singing it into my cellphone. And it’s a keeper! So, I’m looking forward to what’s lurking out there ready to come out!
The flip side for me is balance. Time management can be a real challenge for me because when I’m in the “song zone” that is literally all I want to do. And that can often clash with the delicate balance of a marriage no matter how supportive your spouse may be! My wife is not a musician, so she will never understand how anyone could ever shutter themselves in a studio for ten hours straight when it’s a beautiful, sunny day. Especially when there are house projects that need my attention!
If I stole your cell phone and opened your streaming service of choice, who would I see under your recently played section?
Jimmy Buffett for starters. Losing him really hurts.
Mustangs Of The West. They have an amazing album called ‘Sea of Heartbreak’.
Fairhazel. A new artist I just discovered.
Tess Stevens. Another new artist that I recently discovered.
Thanks a lot for chatting with us Steve! It’s been great having you here! Do you have any words of wisdom that you’d like to leave us with?
For the music lovers out there – please try streaming with Qobuz! For the artists out there, don’t ever stop creating! Songwriting is some of the best therapy there is, and with today’s technology and the reach of the internet, it’s never been easier to find your tribe than it is at this moment. If I had access to all of this when I was in my 20s it would’ve been like heaven.