Steven Blane is a New York-based singer who writes his songs in a vintage jazz chanteur style, accompanying himself on the acoustic guitar, ukulele, and piano. He’s written an off-off-Broadway rock opera, acted in a Broadway show, and produced audio-books, among numerous other adventures. His sixth album, So New York, has just been released, and its laid-back charm is enchanting critics all over the continent. Blane also serves as a Cantor and a Rabbi. He recently took the time to answer my questions about his fascinating life and unusual musical career.
What kind of childhood did you have?
I had a wonderful childhood. I always felt safe and loved.
What role did music play in it?
When I was about 10 or so, my mother let me have drum lessons, but I never got past the practice pad. It was a while later — I was about 13 or so — that I took voice lessons from a vocal coach who had a small space in the Ed Sullivan Theatre. They were 15-minute lessons, I recall, and an hour was $50. Big money for those days and my family.
Were you trained in music or did you teach yourself?
I started playing chords and writing songs on nylon guitar at about 15. But I was singing years before. I majored in music in college; that was a total blast for me. All the pieces came together. By the way, all these years later I’ve come back to the nylon guitar!
You’re apparently familiar with the style of jazz standards. Were they in your life from the beginning or did you discover them later on?
You know, I was always interested in more than the three basic chords, one, four, and five. Even songs from my earliest days and then in my 20’s had more interesting melodies and harmonies. I just never associated them with jazz.
The jazz thing really only hit me about six years ago when we moved to Manhattan officially and I started truly listening to musicians and tunes at the local clubs. It just felt natural to write and sing in that style. I took vocal performance classes with this amazing jazz Singer, Marion Cowings, and he helped inspire me.
I started writing songs for his classes and the fire was lit again after many years of inactivity. My lyrics also tend to aspire to cleverness (not sure I achieve it all the time), and I have totally come to love the great songbook writers — Van Heusen, Styne, Gershwin, Berlin — basically the guys who wrote all the classics for Crosby, Sinatra, Bennett, and Ella.
Who — or what — has been the best influence on you as an artist?
Well I know I loved Elvis as a kid. Still do. And I have come to really appreciate the performance artistry of Sinatra and Fitzgerald. So much so that I imagine them singing my songs. I actually think they might have cut some of them if I were alive in their era. There are many great singers today as well who inspire me. Bublé comes to mind.
But as influences for my songwriting, it comes down to so many writers. Again Jimmy Van Heusen was simply a songwriter g-d. The Gershwins and Berlin. I also love Tom Waits. Joni of course. I dig Orbison and Petty too. And ah — Leonard Cohen! Sondheim has also crept into my writing consciousness. I’m always listing for great writers. I love Laura Marling as well.
As a human being?
As a human being they have all influenced me. Particularly their struggles and their process. Their commitment to the craft.
How do your songs come to you?
My songs come to me in different ways. Sometimes it’s a lyric, an observation. Sometimes it’s a melody or a rhythmic groove. Titles are the easiest way I think. A good title will write itself. I don’t write best coming from some emotional crisis. I really do think of myself as a dedicated craftsman. I relish being an artist who’s exploring stories and situations.
What do you like best so far about So New York?
You know, I really do love this album. First of all, I love NYC! Writing about her is a pretty constant theme. I visit her streets, her people, her rhythms. I recorded all the vocal and guitar tracks on a cheap Shure mic, then brought in my band for overdubs. Had a wonderful engineer named Josh, and we did it all in my apartment. I love the fact that it’s imperfect. It’s organic and raw and true.
Did anything funny or weird happen while you were making it?
Well, I honestly didn’t think it was going to work. You see, I hadn’t used a click track when I’d recorded the guitar and vocal. The band had a tough time, since my tempos drifted. But Josh, the recording engineer, and the band and I made some magic and pulled it all together.
I understand that you’re also a Rabbi, but certainly not a conventional one. And a Cantor. And an audio books producer. How were you able to cobble together such a disparate — but essentially connected — set of occupations?
Ha. Good question. Here’s a short answer: It wasn’t up to me. I have been guided all along by a power much greater than myself. That being said, the journey has been awesome, and I wouldn’t have been as ready as I am now for whatever unfolds in my artistic career without living the life I’ve lived.
How do you regenerate after giving yourself heavily to your art?
I could do the art all day, every day. In fact, I do. I write, perform, record, write, perform, record … no regeneration needed. But I do try to pace myself and take care of myself. I bike 10-12 miles a day or walk 4-6 miles. I eat well and healthily. I want to keep doing what I love as long as I possibly can.
To your pastoral work?
Well you know I do not have a traditional pulpit, one in which I must serve a particular community 24/7. My community is online, and it’s the world! My basic contribution these days is officiating at online Services every Friday and conducting sold-out High Holiday Services at the Bitter End. I mean the regeneration is at my schedule and kind of built-in at this stage of my Rabbinic career!
What conditions do you need in your life in order to maintain your creative flow?
Health, gigs, and time. Sometimes life gets in the way of art and takes me away from my rhythm. You know a trip away or a busy High Holiday season takes me off my writing schedule. But I always know I’ll be back to it soon.
Are there any books, albums, or films that have influenced your work?
Everything I read, watch, and do has an influence on my work. Sadly, I’m not a big fiction reader. I’m a daily NY Times, Washington Post cover to cover reader. I guess that gives away my politics too. I’m a big fan of foreign films, sci-fi, and old black and white films, too. Anything with Steve Martin and Meryl. And Alec Baldwin!
What do you think Donald Trump would say about your music?
I don’t know. I guess he might like it. But please, don’t get me started…
If you had an artistic mission statement, what would it be?
Like every other songwriter, I want to write songs that connect with people. I greatly respect the craft and poetry of constructing lyrics and applying melody. I am also proud to represent the viewpoint from my age and vantage point in life.
What’s next for you?
Why, another album of course! I’ve got the tunes ready to go. We’re going to do this one live with a rhythm section in my living room!
Do you have anything to add?
I want to thank you for the interview. It’s an honor to be asked about my work. Blessings to you and your readers.