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Singing in the First-Person Universal

Steve Seskin’s recipe for compassion

By Toby Bielawski

From Radiance Summer 1999

I.gif (1058 bytes)T’S A CLEAR COUNTRY CROON that wails from the stage: there’s no mistaking it. A big guy with a beard and a guitar is giving it all he’s got, which is plenty. But wait: he’s not wearing a cowboy hat, and that’s an acoustic guitar he’s playing, and he’s not singing about losing his girl and his truck—he’s singing about fat people! Well, let me rephrase that: he’s including fat people; he’s singing about all people.

Although a Bay Area resident and a folksinger at heart, songwriter Steve Seskin’s music bridges that sometimes narrow, sometimes enormous, gap between country and folk: country ballads blend with folk’s social conscience in much of his work. But then, blending and bringing together seem to be what Seskin is really about, from his collaborative songwriting method, to the group performances  he

Alice and Steve
Radiance pub. Alice with Steve

gives with other songwriter friends, to the messages of acceptance and empathy in his songs. And happily, his philosophy seems to be in tune with current Nashville trends: Seskin’s songs have achieved great commercial success on country radio, and his latest hit, "Don’t Laugh at Me," has crossed over to pop, folk, and New Age audiences. It is now being performed by the 1960s legendary group Peter, Paul, and Mary.

When I met Seskin recently at a neighborhood café, it was this idea of performing and working together with others that was foremost in his mind. Seskin’s shows are often group shows: instead of the usual opening act followed by a main act, all the singers are onstage together. Each musician takes turns performing his or her own songs, and in between provides backup harmonies on the others’ tunes.

"I like to do those songwriter shows. It’s a concept that was born in Nashville," Seskin began as we sat down with our cappuccinos. Seskin describes Nashville’s famous songwriter hangout with a wistful note in his voice: "There’s a place called The Bluebird Café, where they do what’s called songwriters in the round. The audience sits all around you, and it’s a casual sort of we-just-invited-you-over-to-our-living-room kind of thing. It works really well there, so I started doing it here."

rad0034.jpg (42262 bytes)Sounds like fun, singing together—but writing together? What about that romantic idea of the writer alone, starving in a garret, sustained by only his or her muse? Contrary to this popular image, most of Seskin’s songs are cowritten with at least one other songwriter. In fact, writing together, like performing together, is common practice in the town many call Music City. "In Nashville," says Seskin, "you’ll be sitting in a café, and you’ll overhear a conversation going on about the second verse or the refrain or the bridge. Every day, there are thousands of groups of two or three people writing songs. Every day. Cowriting can be terrible or it can be wonderful. It’s sort of like dating, like finding a mate. You have some sort of initial attraction to someone’s music: you hear their songs, they hear your songs, and you think, Huh, that person’s got an interesting way of looking at things, or melodically, They took a turn here that I wouldn’t do, but, hey, I like that!, and that’s a good basis to start, but it doesn’t mean you’ll work well together, because your process might be so different. You can’t tell that until you get in a room together."

In a few cases, Seskin’s "dates" have been blind ones, set up by somebody else, through the "Nashville political machinery." "I try to stay out of that as much as possible, but sometimes I’ll get a call—‘you should write with so-and-so,’ and usually the reason is because it would be advantageous for my career. Well, that’s not good enough for me, so I usually say, ‘Let me meet them, let’s go to lunch!’ I don’t like to write with someone unless I’ve first spent some time with them not writing. At its best, collaboration can be an incredibly intimate process.

"When it’s not good, it’s terrible: like being on a bad date. I’ve cowritten songs with a hundred people, and there’s only maybe ten or fifteen I’ve written more than a few songs with. Like Allen Shamblin: we’ve written thirty-five or forty songs, and we just can’t wait to get together again. So in that sense, it’s like a love affair of creativity. Collaboration takes a total trust of each other: being able to be yourself, say whatever you want, or act stupid. It takes going out on a limb, and sometimes going out on your cowriter’s limb. And sometimes you just need to know when to shut up and let your cowriter-on-a-roll keep rolling!"

With Allen Shamblin, Seskin penned his current hit, an anthem of acceptance called "Don’t Laugh at Me," sung by country star Mark Wills. He explains the genesis of the song, which he and Shamblin wrote in three or four hours. "Allen keeps titles in a book, words that go well together. One of the things he does is to read me a bunch of these titles. That’s what happened that day. I said, ‘Don’t Laugh at Me’: that’s interesting. Any thoughts about that?’ And Allen said that his daughter had come home from school one day in tears. She’d gotten glasses and kids were laughing at her because she suddenly looked different.

"Then we started talking about our own growing up. I was always overweight, and Allen was kind of short. Everybody is something. That’s what the bridge of the song ends up saying: Aren’t we all? We were talking about how cruel kids can be without realizing it. And then we admitted we’d both felt the pain of cruelty and inflicted it ourselves. And that was the key to the song for me. When you write songs like ‘Don’t Laugh at Me,’ you have to do it in a way that doesn’t come off sounding like you’re better than everybody else. First of all, because you’re not. Second, just because you have the notion of telling the world how it should be doesn’t mean you can come off like you know better than everyone else. People don’t want to hear that. So when we began, we started writing in the first person: ‘When I was a kid, I remember in school . . .’ But when you do that, it gets a little whiny, and it also limits the life experience going into the song to one person’s experience.

"I think what made the song work was that we stumbled on the notion of the little boy with glasses and the girl with braces. We were able to use a number of different people in the first verse, and it made it much more potent! I looked at all these stories and thought, Let’s try ‘the first person universal.’ And so we got, ‘I’m a little boy with glasses, I’m a girl who never smiles.’ We took on all these characters. When the chorus comes in and says, ‘Don’t laugh at me,’ they are the little boy, the girl with braces, the teenage mother, and so on, and I think that’s one of the things that really makes the song work."

To "find" the next verse, Seskin and Shamblin began talking about homeless people. "We were talking about looking the other direction or walking away—that you’re not always in the mood to embrace other people, even if you’re a compassionate person. There are many days when you’re just walking to where you’re going, and the last thing you want to do is make eye contact. That’s where we got the line, ‘Don’t think I don’t notice that our eyes never meet.’ Then we went to lunch, and I said to Allen, ‘Maybe we should talk about how this guy got here. Because you see people on the street, and you don’t know their stories. There are so many people on the streets, families, people who were perfectly upstanding citizens two short years ago, and for any number of reasons, they fell through the cracks, and they didn’t have people in their lives to bail them out. Wouldn’t it be ironic if a homeless guy was in a wheelchair because a drunk driver went over the yellow line?’ And Allen said, ‘What if this guy also lost his wife and kid in the same accident?’ We were eating Thai food at the time. I said, ‘Oh, come on, seriously!’ I thought he was over the top. But he said that was what we needed, that it had to nail people to the wall. When the song says, ‘Don’t laugh at me,’ you want people to go, I won’t!"

This hit song has now been nominated for single of the year by the TNN Music City Awards. Although Seskin has a solid record of successful songs, he emphasizes that he doesn’t focus on writing hits as many writers in Nashville do. The overwhelming response to "Don’t Laugh at Me" was, he says, unexpected.

"I have no problem with my songs being on the radio, but I don’t want to try to write a commercial song, because that poisons the process. You would never think that ‘Don’t Laugh at Me’ would be a number-one country record and video. But it is. How did that hit come about? It came about from Allen and me being true to ourselves and saying something that meant something to us. And people responded. So I’d rather stick with that as a modus operandi. I’ve managed to have a lot of success and keep my integrity."

Seskin notes that the most rewarding thing about the song has been the responses from listeners that have appeared at Mark Wills’s web site. "Out of about three hundred letters sent to his web site, two hundred are about that song. It’s amazing to hear all these incredible stories, stories of a lot of pain—many of them from people who’ve been laughed at, people who have disabilities. The letters would tear your heart out. One woman wrote that ‘Don’t Laugh at Me’ should be required listening for everyone every morning: that before they go out into the world, they should listen to this song so they’ll treat people better. The notion that someone feels that way means everything to me."

Seskin’s ability to see and sympathize with different types of people and their pain comes in part from his own experiences. "I’ve been overweight all my life, and I’ve felt society’s prejudice in many different ways. I’ve overcome it most of the time, partly because I’ve always had a lot of my self-esteem wrapped up in my music and the acceptance of it, and I’ve always gotten kudos for it. On the other hand, the music industry is the classic example of prejudice: if you don’t look a certain way . . . well, I’ve certainly felt the sting of that.

"I support anything that helps people feel comfortable with who they are, and Radiance tries really hard to do that. This is something that’s not done in society very much. Instead, everybody’s trying to change you into what you ‘should’ be rather than being supportive. If people are comfortable with who they are, then they ought to be applauded and made to feel good about themselves. I know what it’s like to feel that thing of people judging you by your appearance and to run into the notion that if people are overweight, they obviously don’t care about themselves. Hello! There’s a lot more to it."

The topic turns to food and health, and Seskin describes his lifelong "emotional connection to food" and his efforts at trying to gain awareness of "all that goes into that whole dynamic." Awareness is essential right now, he tells me. "I had a blocked artery in December. I had an angioplasty. In fact, today I had to get a stress test. I’ve been going to the gym every day and eating really well. I feel better than I’ve felt in years. But it’s been interesting trying to look at food in a different way. For forty-six years I lived to eat, and now I’m trying to eat to live. I’m not saying I can’t derive any pleasure from eating, but people who have a problem with food, like myself, could eat anytime. In other words, you’re happy, things are going well: Let’s celebrate, let’s eat! You’re sad, you’re miserable, things are terrible: I must eat."

Seskin’s fascination with people’s stories and his compassion also come from his early interest in psychology. Even though he studied music from a young age, psychology was his intended career path. "There was this New York Jewish ‘my son the doctor’ leaning in my family. So I was going to become a psychologist, and I came out to the Bay Area to study. Away from the roost, I decided that what I really wanted to do was music. For me, writing music is sort of like being a psychologist in a different way."

Being away from the roost also meant being away from his Jewish roots. Seskin left religion behind as he found his musical career path, but now, after twenty-eight years, he has returned to Judaism. Together with his wife of twelve years, Ellen, and eleven-year-old adoptive son, David, he attends services regularly. "It was really because of our son that we decided to go back," he says. "Our feeling was that David should have the choice of whether to embrace or reject organized religion. He took to it. We found a temple that we loved, and it’s everything it should be: its community includes mixed marriages, several gay couples; everybody’s welcome, and there’s total respect."

Seskin’s personal experiences, his interest in the experiences of others, and his spiritual journey: all these themes are expressed in his music. Whether he is singing about a dying father ("Use Mine"), a dying relationship ("Holding On"), the adoption of his son ("Everybody Wins," written with his wife), or violence against women ("I Think about You"), his lyrics are woven from the threads of human experiences, emotions, and spiritual searching. Songs such as the 1991 hit "Life’s a Dance" and the title track from his latest album, "Something Real," explore Seskin’s philosophies of life and life’s meaning. Others, those Seskin calls story songs—such as "New Orleans" and "Chance to Shine"—take us through intricate narratives that lead to an ultimate message.

Seskin is currently working on an album of more story songs. The stories, he says, often come from the newspaper, or a piece of fiction, or, as in the case with "New Orleans," from people he knows. That song’s chorus cries out the name of a city Seskin has never seen. He explains, "A friend and I started talking about a woman we knew who was in an abusive relationship, and all of a sudden we were in the middle of her story. New Orleans, the city, became just a location for the story. To me, what’s important is the emotional truth, not the facts. It also doesn’t matter whether the story happened to me: the point is that what I wanted to say in the song came out. It’s a commentary on how I feel about people who are trapped in bad relationships, that they should find a way out. Any of us is able to appreciate a story about something that didn’t happen to us, but the vibrant, fresh thing we can bring to it is our take on the story, our opinion. I think a songwriter is allowed to do that. Allen Shamblin always says, ‘A good songwriter never lets the facts get in the way of the truth.’"

The conviction in Seskin’s voice makes me wonder how it feels for him to be the songwriter, not the singer, to hear his truths sung on the radio by someone else. Seskin points out that being a songwriter has its advantages. "A lot of these guys who have recorded my songs live on a bus 240 days of the year. I don’t want to do that. I spend about sixty days a year in Nashville, where I do about 75 percent of my writing. The rest I do at home. Yeah, there’s a little pang of, I could sing that as well as him, but the thing I really love is that without my having to go live that life on the road, some of my songs have reached millions of people. This is very gratifying—especially with songs like ‘I Think about You’ or ‘Don’t Laugh at Me,’ songs about things I’ve always wanted to say something about, songs that might have some benefit to the world. Each one of those songs is heard by millions of people, whereas, in my little camp here, maybe five or ten thousand people in the Bay Area are familiar with my work. So if you write something you’re proud of and you feel says something, it’s kind of cool, whatever the vehicle, that many, many people can hear it."

Not all of Seskin’s tunes "say something." He jokes about a "rowdy" hit called "Daddy’s Money" that he found himself "in the middle of" during a collaborative songwriting session. "It’s a fun song. It’s not going to change the world at all. My friend Bob, who I wrote that song with, is a master of writing three-minute, fun, put-the-top-down-and-drive-to-the-beach radio songs. I had a couple of philosophical discussions with him, because he feels that music is about making you forget your troubles, and I say music is to move people, make them think, make them feel. And you know what? We’re both right. Two summers ago, I went to see the group that recorded the song, Ricochet, at the Santa Clara County Fair. I’m sitting there going, Oh, God, I can’t believe I wrote this thing! They start doing the song, and I look down and see four hundred teenagers doing a line dance. And they’re having a ball! So I thought to myself, This isn’t so bad: have a little fun! These songs do have a place in the world. And that’s the beauty of cowriting with various people. Allen and I could never have written ‘Daddy’s Money.’ We’d have rejected it as too light. I guess one reason he’s my main cowriter is that we both come at it the same way. We both feel like we have some sort of mission in life, as creative people, to try to make the world an easier place to be in."

Although there are many more songs to be written, many more stories to be told, anyone who hears the harmonies and honesty filling Steve Seskin’s music will agree: mission accomplished. ©


TOBY BIELAWSKI is a writer and community college writing teacher living in the San Francisco Bay Area. She plays rhythm guitar for 3 Hour Tour, an all-female rock band based in San Francisco.

To be put on Steve’s mailing list, write to Steve Seskin, P.O. Box 2362, Richmond, CA 94802-1362, or e-mail seskinmuse@aol.com.   To order his CDs, send a check for $16.50 each, which includes tax and shipping, to that same address. The CDs are titled Life’s a Dance, To Be Who I Am, Something Real, and the new one, which is simply called Steve Seskin. Check out his web page (http://www.songs.com/seskin), and listen to excerpts from the CDs. Steve also teaches songwriting workshops. Call the Northern California Songwriters’ Association at 650-654-3966 and ask for Ian Crombie.

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