Steff Mahan has forged a career out of more that just solid songcraft and a smooth vocal delivery, though she has both of those in spades. She has also been one of those rare artists who has never forgotten that music is, at its heart, a vehicle for relationships and two-way communication.
And it shows, with fans all across the country who turn out faithfully when she rolls into town and who consider her a friend as much as a performer they love to hear. House concerts are still a favorite venue option and Steff is perfectly suited to the intimacy and interaction that they offer. Couch surfing and long drives to reach fans in places where other artists do not deign to venture are just part of the routine. In a recent conversation, she said that she wanted to play to anyone who wanted to hear her, even if it wasn’t always the biggest money gig. It’s that internal guiding light, that desire to share the sheer joy of music with others, that has stayed her course over the many years of struggle that is the music business. It’s also been one of the traits that has made her stand out from the pack in a crowded world of music artists, both indie and major label.
At an age where most acts have given up and moved on, Mahan is cranking up to one of the high points of her career, with prestigious opening acts and double bills, a new record label, and not one, but two CDs in production with release dates scheduled before year’s end. For an artist who falls in the category of making music because she can’t not make music, this is a sweet victory moment in a long career that has included nudists, rodeos, Stephen King (who attended two of her shows and bought a CD, though he never said hello), and an amazing fanbase that just keeps growing.
You are getting ready to release a new album on the new CMG label in Nashville. How is that process going?
It is going great but I think I am still in shock. We just finished tracking the CD and I am headed into the studio in a few weeks to lay down the vocals. It is so exciting to watch these songs come to life and have the support of a label behind me, [one] that I feel really gets me as both a songwriter and an artist, it’s has been an amazing ride so far. This album is really a combination of lots of people coming together at the right time… my fans, Century Music Group, and the songs. I have some of the most incredible fans who believe in me and my music and have funded part of this project and then Century Music Group came my way and they were exactly what I was looking for and what I needed to keep doing what I love. We have been working really well together, picking the songs, figuring out the direction of the album, and I am lucky enough to benefit from two brilliant minds, Jamie Tate and Art Ward, who have a wealth of talent and knowledge in this industry.
You’ve been in the music business for a long time now and have defied the odds by keeping a career going at an age where lots of artists have let it go or hit a brick wall. What has kept you going and what have you learned along the way?
Well, I’ve learned that wrinkle cream is a really good investment, but in all honesty, I promised myself a long time ago that when music no longer gave me joy I would quit. So far, I still love what I do and when I feel tired and want to give up, it’s odd, but that is when I most often find the people who keep me going, plus I’m really stubborn. I’ve learned that most people are really nice and want to help you. Not everyone is going to believe in your music or “get you” as a writer but you have to keep pushing through because there is someone out there who will get it and sometimes that is all you need. I have also learned that it is important to surround yourself with good, hard working people and to work hard yourself. This is a fun job, but it is hard job and you have to be willing to work hard and pull your weight and show up for the gig where you are singing to two people just as much for the gig where you are singing for 2,000 people.
How do you approach your career in terms of commitment, strategy, keeping your momentum, and support from others?
Again, I think that comes down to loving what I do and being excited about every show I play. I think commitment comes from having an intense passion for my craft and an energy for pushing forward that fuels me. It can get lonely on the road and there are days where I want to point my car toward home and just hide out in my house, but I have made some of my best friends traveling across the country playing my music, and so it often feels like I have these pieces of home everywhere I go. I have also learned where my strengths and weaknesses lie and that has made a huge difference in momentum and strategy for me. For example, I know I have horrible ADD and if it were up to me to book myself and advertise my shows and keep that aspect of my career going, well then I would be playing on a street corner or to whatever kindergarten class would let me come sing “wheels on the bus.” I’m good at showing up at the gig (when I’m told where to be) and performing, but I know that in order to keep this “Steff Mahan” career moving forward, I have to keep smart people around me that I trust and I am so grateful for those folks!!!
How are things different now for you compared to when you were first starting out as a writer and artist?
Wow, some things are so different for me now and then some things really haven’t changed much at all. I think my writing is different now. I have lived more, you know? I have more scars to show, more wrinkles, more heartbreak, more grief, more laugh lines, more moments of awe and inspiration. I think my writing has matured, hopefully, and that I look at the world and my life differently then I did twenty years ago. As an artist, I think things are better in some ways and harder in others. Of course, there are moments where I wish I were 20 years younger, but I also feel a tiny bit cool when I can get up on a stage and hold my own with an artist that is half my age. I also have found a new energy in being an artist with Century Music Group. From the beginning of working together, they have said to me that they want me to focus on being an artist and I have never had a label stand behind me like that. I have always thought of myself as a songwriter who sings her own songs in order to keep writing, but this label wants me to focus on the artist side of things and that feels nice and challenging at the same time. While I have been doing that for many years, it also feels new in some way, new and exciting.
Did you have other jobs along the way?
Oh sure, I don’t know many independent artists who don’t have other jobs along the way. In fact, I still have other jobs when things are tight. Even though I have ADD, I am a really good house painter and can focus on painting for long hours at a time, so when I am off the road and need extra money, I do painting work or other house repair projects. I enjoy the work and actually have written some of my best songs while painting houses. It engages my mind in a different way
What are some of the best and worst gigs you’ve had?
I recently played a show at Eddie Owen’s (of iconic venue Eddie’s Attic in Decatur, GA) new venue The Red Clay Theatre and I have to say that I would probably count that as one of my best, or at least most favorite, gigs. The space is amazing and the audience that night was just electric. It was one of those gigs that just felt right from the moment that I walked on the stage. Everything just clicked and I knew that my voice was going to be there and that the audience was with me and time slowed down and I just felt the energy of it. It was magical. CMG has actually decided to release a LIVE CD recording of that show, which I’m really excited about and I am headed back to Red Clay on July 12th with my pal Jennifer Knapp. I’ve been lucky to have some really wonderful opportunities opening for some great artists like Patty Griffin and The Indigo Girls and those are always wonderful shows because the audience is so happy to be there.
In terms of worst gigs, well there have been a few that took some teeth gritting to get through. There was one gig where my manager had to run the sound and lights because the venue had forgotten to hire someone to do either—that gig was a bit of a disaster. Although, I think the worst gig I have ever played was in North Dakota when my former booking agent-note former here-sent me to a nudist colony in the middle of winter to play a show at a hot springs where everyone at the show was completely naked and she told me a I would make a ton of money off of tips from the crowd. The show was packed with folks but I made no money and encountered a blizzard on the way there and I remember screaming on the phone to my agent, “How are these people supposed to tip me when they are completely naked! They don’t have any pants on, much less pockets to hold their money!!!!” Yeah, that was a rough night.
You’ve built a huge, loyal fan base from doing a lot of house concerts. What is it that you like about those home venues?
Gosh, I love house concerts and am so grateful for the fans who have hosted them and come to see me play at them. House concerts are so special because you get to really experience the show with your audience in a different way. There are no stage lights and sometimes you don’t even need a microphone, depending on the room size and setup. You get to see how your songs impact folks immediately and you get to have so much interaction with your audience. I love telling stories and hearing from my audience, so house concerts are often my favorite shows. I get to sit with all these wonderful people and sing songs and swap stories and by the end of it there is this bond that is created between the artist and the audience that is different from being at a club or a theater; it is a different intimacy.
You have a tattoo for inspiration on the inside of your right wrist. What does it symbolize for you?
I have a fairly new tattoo of a bumblebee on the inside of my right wrist. I got it recently while I was in Texas with my best friend. My dad is an aeronautical engineer and he worked for Mercer Douglas when I was growing up, building airplanes and jets, etc. I remember as a child him saying to me, “You know Steff, bumblebees are not supposed to fly. They have big fat bodies and tiny little wings but nobody has told them that they are not supposed to fly, so they do.” I have always loved the idea of bumblebees pumping those tiny little wings to fly those chubby bodies around the air, oblivious to the fact that they should not be flying. So, I decided that I must have a bumblebee on my wrist to remind me to keep flying no matter what.
Who are some of your musical influences?
I would say one of my biggest musical influences is Bobbie Gentry. She is not as well known as some of my other influences, but when I was four years old and I saw Bobbie Gentry on television wearing jeans, playing a guitar and singing “Ode to Billy Joe” I knew I wanted to be a musician. At that time women weren’t wearing jeans and playing guitars on television, but Bobbie Gentry was and to me she was the very definition of cool. The next Christmas Santa brought me a guitar and the rest is history! I love the way Mary Chapin Carpenter weaves words together, everything Cheryl Wheeler writes makes me jealous as a songwriter, I am always in awe of Bonnie Raitt with a guitar in her hands, I think Stevie Nicks is, well, Stevie Nicks, and Tom Petty is a genius with melodies among other things.
Who of the new generation of artists, are you currently into?
I’m really digging The Alternate Roots, Augustina, and Rosie Thomas. I think there are so many great artists right now on the indie scene who are making their own music and using Kickstarter and other forms of social media to get their music out there to their fans.
Tell us a little about your new CD
I think what Century Music Group is trying to do is find the best part of me musically and really make it shine, so this album is going to be a little bit different. It’s not necessarily more rock ‘n’ roll, but I think it will have an edge to it that will surprise my fans in a good way. I have never had two producers on a project with such good ears and so much creative vision, so it has been really wonderful to step back and watch them take on these songs from a completely different perspective. I am really excited for people to hear this music and I think, while it will definitely sound like me, my hope is that it will sound like a me people have never heard before and a me people want to hear more of!
What’s next in terms of career?
We are working on the 4th CD, which will come out in September but we are also getting ready to release a LIVE CD mid-July from my show at the Red Clay Theatre this past March and I’m really excited about that! Since signing with CMG in January, we have been moving really quickly into new projects and it feels good to be building momentum with new songs and new releases. I think, like any independent artist, you never really know what will happen next long term, but I am looking forward to touring the 4th CD and, hopefully, pushing my music to the next level. As an artist, I always want to grow my fan base and take on larger venues and bigger challenges, and as a writer I want to continue to hone my craft. I am thrilled to have this awesome label behind me and can honestly say that I can’t wait to see what happens next. Who knows, maybe one day someone will list me in their musical influences, ha!
In addition to the July 12 date at The Red Clay Theater, Steff Mahan will be playing The Walnut Room in Denver on July 19. Tickets can be purchased for both shows at http://www.steffmahan.com.
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