Review Fix chats with singer songwriter, multi-instrumentalist Steve McCormick, who discusses his new EP, The Trippin’ Years, as well as his creative process, goals for the future and origins in music.
About Steve McCormick:
Rooted firmly in the modern heartland, veteran singer-songwriter Steve McCormick is gearing up for the release of his new EP, The Tripping Years, on May 19. Kicking off the expedition, his sixth release overall is the oscillating horn-driven shuffle of “Say A Prayer for New York City,” which segues into the honeyed melancholy of “Hello Hello” before sauntering into the reverberating expanse of “Say the Word.” Rounding out the 5-track excursion is the swampy New Orleans stroll of “Lying on the Bottom,” and the blossoming joy of “My Oh My,” which showcases subtle elegance by vocalist Heather Donavon (Keb’ Mo’).
Carrying the influence of iconic American artists like Townes van Zandt, Ry Cooder, John Hiatt, and Little Feat, McCormick’s soulful guitar playing and raspy voice on The Tripping Years is pure grade Americana. Throughout the journey, McCormick’s deft slide guitar is in the driver seat, though he expertly augments it with acoustic finger-picking, blistering Santana-style leads, and a spacious layering of Hammond B3, Rhodes piano, mandolins and banjo. With two decades as an audio engineering guru, Steve lent his vast array of production skills to the recording, and utilized his own custom McCormick Audio recording gear which includes tube microphones, tube pre-amplifiers, tube compressors and passive summing arrays to combine old-school analog sound with a pristine clean signal path. The meticulous results are bound to appeal to the casual listener and the audiophile.
Review Fix: How did you get involved in music?
Steve McCormick: Piano lessons at 6, then guitar at 11. Dad was an audiophile, music was constantly playing through awesome stereos growing up.
Review Fix: How would you describe your sound to someone who has never heard you?
Neo-Vintage Americana is the two word answer. My music is all organic, ie no pre-recorded loops or midi, just real instruments, often vintage American instruments, Fenders, Gibsons, Rickenbackers, Hammonds, Wurlitzers, etc exquisitely recorded. This makes it feel timeless. I am an audiophile and build a lot of my own gear, ie tube (vacuum tube) pre-amps, compressors and EQs, again vintage circuitry, but built in this century. The songwriting and singing also bears resemblances to music from the 60’s and 70’s, the heyday of American Rock and Roll, before it splintered off into various genres, which is really now brought back together brilliantly under the genre of Americana. Blues, Bluegrass, Jazz, Soul, New Orleans R&B, it’s all in there in the “melting pot” that is Americana.
Review Fix: Why is your new EP entitled The Tripping Years?
McCormick: I pull album titles from my song lyrics, but steer away from the song titles. This keeps it organic and holistic. I look for lyrics that, in the abstract, reflect a certain light onto the project. This lyric, from my song Hello, Hello, about lost love refound, speaks to the stretches of time we often endure in a lifetime before being reunited with past loved ones.
Review Fix: What makes “My Oh My” a special track?
McCormick: It’s a great song for one. It starts off low and sweet and then has a powerful chorus. The second verse is sung an octave higher and almost sounds like a completely different song. The title “My Oh My” comes from a common phrase of uncommon meaning, something uttered when one is truly amazed by something, in this case the love of an amazing person, something we can hopefully all relate to, if not aspire to. The recording is also killer, with performances by Daryl Johnson (Neville Brothers, Daniel Lanois) and Eric Heywood (Ray Lamontagne, Calexico, Jayhawks), Amilia K Spicer and Heather Donavon.
Review Fix: Why is this EP a must for music fans?
McCormick: We need, ie must, get back to real music. In the digital and video age we are losing touch with how great music can sound, and with bubble-gum image driven pop, losing sight of killer songwriting with meaningful lyrics. This EP will remind folks of all that. I’ve been amazed to watch people listen to the full 18+ minutes in one sitting…it actually holds attention and works as a singular piece…pretty rare these days.
Review Fix: What was it like to work with Heather Donovan?
McCormick: What a great question! She is a consummate pro. Her vocals just add that special sauce. She has amazing range and can find ways to blend in any vocal arrangement. I wanted her to sing on the whole album, and finally got her on the last five songs. Now that we are “officially releasing” the record by re-issuing the 3 EPs, I was able to get her on My Oh My. The original plan was to get Emmylou Harris, and she had agreed to do it, but schedules and illnesses kept pushing it back and I had a deadline. Once I was tight with Heather, I never looked back, because I knew she could add the high breathy silk Emmylou would have brought. How’s that for high praise? And wait until you hear what we’re writing together, because as great as she is to work with in studio or onstage, she simply kills in the writing room…she will come up with the million dollar hooks to put your song over the top.
Review Fix: You’ve had a lot of incredible musicians appear on your recordings, including the late Richie Hayward from Little Feat, Stan Behrens from War and Daryl Johnson from The Neville Brothers. How did these guest spots come together?
McCormick: Another great one! Playing the kind of music I play, in combination with running a recording studio and living in Los Angeles, puts me in many situations with great players. I call all three of those guys close friends and I believe they played on my records as labors of true love.
Review Fix: How do you want your music to affect people?
McCormick: My hope and intention is that my music is a lighthouse, a shiny inspirational beacon in the darkness. I have already seen how it affects people based on the responses I get. It moves people. Sometimes it moves them to dance. Sometimes it inspires them based on my guitar tones, or the sound of my recordings, something I take great pride in. Lately people have been responding to the lyrics, the fact that they paint pictures and tell stories and spirit people away, if only for a few minutes. This is almost the highest praise I can imagine.
Review Fix: What have you learned from all of the exposure you’ve gotten from TV over the years?
McCormick: TV is a constantly changing landscape, at least the ways to access it change constantly. At first I gained exposure through my publishers, then as a session guitar player working at jingle houses. Now TV is actually involved “breaking” new artists so the stakes are much higher. There is so much great TV out there too, especially with HBO and Netflix and Showtime etc. But it’s competitive and you have to work many different angles to stay relevant, even with experience.
Review Fix: Who are some of the people you’ve worked with as a producer?
McCormick: Some of the finest songwriters in Los Angeles, Michael Sherwood, Phil Cody, Amilia K Spicer to name a few.
Review Fix: What are your end goals in music?
McCormick: Another good one. I guess I’d say I want to continue to bring high quality music to people, in order to enhance people’s lives. That may sound trite, but everything I do is centered around that. I want music to inspire people, and I believe a lot of music’s power to do that is getting lost in an increasingly modern world. Music doesn’t sound as good on iPhones in earbuds or through computer speakers, as it does through tubes and hi-fi sound. I can (and do) lecture on this topic all the time (see blogs on mccormickaudio website). Audiophile terms like headroom and “soundstage,” and by soundstage I don’t mean a bandstand, I mean the acoustic image…these are things you need to close your eyes and listen for…music is aural, not visual, first and foremost, which is a fact we are “losing sight” of, pun intended…haha
This same goal exists in my production and songwriting, or arranging. I do many things to hold attention and carefully craft things like vocal phrasing and lyrics so they are better than the average song. For me it has to work on multiple levels.
Review Fix: What’s next?
McCormick: Maplewood, my project with Heather Donavon, slated for release in 2018, will follow closely this year’s efforts to officially release my Stars and Chandeliers record, a three part, or three chapter if you will, record, with The Tripping Years EP first, then The Laws of Love EP then We Speak in Tongues EP all bundled into the Stars and Chandeliers record, which will be fully released by December 2017.