Sung Snapshots: An Interview With Michael Stegner

I recently sat down with Michael Stegner, the songwriter, piano player and singer of the Seattle-based band Fascination Nation, to discuss the roots of his songwriting and the release of the band’s upcoming album.  Below is a small impression of my time with Michael, as well as several videos of him discussing and performing his music.

Michael Stegner

Michael Stegner creates songs as a photographer captures images: lens ever at the ready in search of a contrast of light, a falling shadow, a weathered smile.  His eye shifts across the human landscape and finds a jealous lover, a self-absorbed banker, a fleeing father.  With dignity he gives each the light they themselves cast, and then SNAP, the whirling click captures a moment and impresses it in the silver halide of memory.  Then its off to the darkroom of his imagination to churn and trundle, out of whose recesses later – a day, two months, four years (there is, as in most good art, little confident predictability) – it comes, an image sung raucous, sepia-toned with insights dark and discomforting.

Stegner himself, caught in the frozen Polaroid moment of a pen’s flash, cuts an unlikely scene.  He stands narrow, bird-boned and lanky; so rice-paper thin one wonders if a strong wind wouldn’t dislodge him and, Dorothy-style, carry him elsewhere.  His physicality is the sort of skinny shadow that hangs like a coat-tree in the corner of a party, at the end of which, when he thanks you for your hospitality and says goodnight (and he always will, he has the formality of an antediluvian  southern gentleman), in surprise you search your brain and try to remember having earlier noticed him at the party.

His face is high-cheekboned and broad-lipped and half-hidden by an ever-present hat and narrow plastic glasses, while his jaw is covered by a beard, deep amber red and thick as a pelt.  Kentucky-bred his voice belies its roots more in the slowness of his speech than any obvious drawl; his speaks in a low baritone that is oddly soothing, with a gravely underside that catches and scrapes like a rasp.  From habit he often repeats the first words of sentences, as if he weren’t entirely certain how to begin, and he has long-standing sinus problems that make him frequently sound congested and ever recovering from a head cold.

His laugh comes often and easily, rippling and skipping from his mouth like a stone across water.  When he laughs you are reminded of a slightly nerdy teenage boy giggling in satisfaction with his successes.  Laughs tumble from him in dribbling hiccups that are welcome most of all for their un-self-awareness, their simple present-tense enjoyment.

From the externals he is not your typical Seattle rock musician — he doesn’t drink, doesn’t eat meat, rarely curses, displays no obvious tattoos or piercings or jagged hipster hairstyles.  Instead he dresses in worn jeans and too-big t-shirts and pads about in grubby running shoes.  Often, in tribute to his extended family in Kansas, he sports a rather large dark wool Stetson, which sits like a fiesta platter atop his head and only further emphasizes the fencepost thinness of his physique.

Peering deeper into the image you see that, unlike many musicians he is terribly humble, on the quiet side of things without being shy.  He discusses himself and his music in a tone rich with assurance and confidence; absent is the hungry neediness that so many, especially younger, artists display.  He is more articulate than most, disavowing the normally vacuous musician-speak of yeahs and whatevers and desultory uhs for a more literary style full of references ranging from Mark Twain to the Buddha to Miles Davis.  What strikes one with a startling clarity is his willingness to listen: where many, especially in the arts, are tone-deaf to any frequencies other than their own, he presents an engaged intentionality, an active listening.

In the shadows of this picture you see the sources of his lyrics.  Barren barrooms, lonely bed spaces, dressing rooms with cracked mirrors and exposed lightbulbs.  The dark unlit alleys of the soul.  He writes in snapshots and his snapshots are possessions.

He inhabits characters whose surface are easily distasteful — obnoxious bankers, preening narcissists, comfortably fat Americans — but his possession isn’t mockery, for such would eventually turn boring, stilted and dry.  Rather his is the view from within, between the heart’s eyes in those spaces below the externals where the prickly universals – jealousy, anger, self-absorption, loss – reside in the tumultuous darks and make null the shallowness of any externals.

His music is a patois of sound that belongs elsewhere.  Sounds deep from the marrow of America.  Music from and for the south, the lower middle west, the empty open plains, the muddy deltas of oil spat lands.  It cries of jazz, honky-tonk, church hymnals, rhythm and blues; the sounds of Leon Russell and Randy Newman and Willie Nelson.  There are no oceans or mountains or skyscrapers; no fields of emerald evergreens or saltwater skies; no electronic blurbs or hip-hop beats.  His is music for anywhere other than Seattle.

He is, to put it simplest, unique.  When seated before his piano his face, which usually displays the passive calmness of someone reading a telephone book, becomes animated; he smiles at the other players, nodding and connecting as the songs structure themselves and the band screams along behind him.  Atop his piano bench he is, you sense, most comfortable.  He plays with a sneakiness that belies his genteel demeanor: what can seem like a lounge player’s easy casualness can on a moment’s notice become a jazz-virtuoso’s screaming intensity, his fingers skipping and popping across the keys like a hummingbird’s wings.  He smiles.

This is a music of character, of originality and singularity in a marketplace of ever dwindling difference.  He is an outlier, a photographer of the insides who resides outside the usual in the downturned corners of the bell-curve of normal.

Sung Snapshots: Michael Stegner discusses songwriting:

Michael Stegner discusses and performs the song, I Love You A Little Bit (I Love My TV A Lot):

Michael Stegner discusses and performs the song, Friday Night:

Michael Stegner discusses and performs the song, Prayers For Highly Successful People:

Michael Stegner discusses and performs the song, Fascination Nation: A Brief Autobiography of a Fallen CEO:

Michael Stegner and Fascination Nation play at the Seamonster Lounge in Seattle the 1st and 3rd Thursdays of every month. They will be releasing their first album this fall and can be followed on Facebook or Myspace. A copy of this interview was also posted on the very cool website NWmainstage, which is a great resource for music goings-ons here in the Northwest and across land.

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