BRATTLEBORO—By day, Steve West earns his living as a computer consultant, making house-calls to individuals and businesses with machines in need of maintenance and repair.
When he’s not doing that, West is a songwriter and musician.
“If I had no concern for income, I’d spend 24 hours a day recording music,” he said.
West recently emerged from the recording studio with a new album, Holding On, which he self-released on the CD Baby website.
When West went into the studio, he brought with him an array of seasoned musicians and producers. Many of them are familiar to local music fans, and a few have experience that extends onto the national and global stage.
The six tracks on Holding On, with lyrics and music credited to West, feature locals such as Tyler Gibbons of Red Heart the Ticker, Dan DeWalt of Simba, and The Miles Band’s Sean McLoughlin, Tim Thrasher, and John Sherer.
Producer, engineer, musician, and sound mixer Julian McBrowne lent his talents to one track, “Beating on the Water.” McBrowne has worked with a variety of musicians, including Nona Hendryx, Kid Creole & The Coconuts, Lionel Hampton, and Peter Tosh, and locally, Samirah Evans & Her Handsome Devils and Lisa McCormick.
Sean Altman sings back-up on three tracks. Locals may know Altman from “Jewmongous,” his “unkosher comedy song” concerts at Next Stage Arts and the Hooker-Dunham Theater. For five seasons, Altman’s group Rockapella was the house band for the PBS children’s game show, “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?"
Billy Straus engineered, produced, and played guitar on three of the album’s songs. Straus, co-founder of Next Stage Arts, has won an Emmy Award, and was nominated for two Grammy Awards, for his producing and mixing work. Musicians Straus has worked with include Joni Mitchell, Bruce Springsteen, George Jones, Miles Davis, and the Grateful Dead.
“Billy deserves a lot of props” for his work on Holding On, West said. “He put a lot into it, and it really fleshed out a lot of this album.”
A variety of styles
Working with musicians and producers who bring a variety of musical styles appeals to West and his sensibilities. Although West describes himself as “a pop guy,” his interest in music spans multiple styles of American and international music.
“Mean Time,” the first track on Holding On, has production reminiscent of Electric Light Orchestra. Other songs have more of what West calls “heart-felt folky stuff, and funky stuff,” and elements of power-pop appear throughout the album.
During a conversation with The Commons, West mentioned The Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, and The Mamas & the Papas as early influences.
As a child, listening to his parents’ hi-fi, “I’d lean in against the gold-velvet-covered speakers,” listening for “that magical thing: the third harmony,” he said. At the age of 16, West began playing the 12-string guitar, and that’s still his instrument of choice because, he said, “there’s more possibility for harmony” than on the more common six-string.
A formative event in West’s musical life occurred when he was about 10 years old. He won an AM/FM radio in a contest and found himself hooked. “I went to sleep every night with the radio on. The Spinners, The O’Jays, and The Dramatics went deep into my alpha wavelength,” West said.
Later, West gathered inspiration from Elvis Costello, ska music, and punk rock. The latter didn’t inform his musical style as much as it taught West that “anyone can do it,” without classical training.
“My songwriting starts with music I like — the chords and melodies in my head,” West said. “Then, the words and phrases start to percolate. They become discernible, then comes the concepts, then the beating heart of the song.”
West likened songwriting to sculpting: “It starts out as a big block of granite that becomes a beautiful statue."
Although West notes some of his lyrics end up including “political agitation, or things happening in my life,” he admits, “I don’t know how to write a song about a ‘thing.’ I only finish songs that give me some sort of palpable sensation."
‘Floors covered in beer’
At this stage of his life — West is 56 — he would like to be in a band for “that communal, collective thing,” but his days of touring are long over. He’s already been there.
In the mid-1980s, West, who grew up in Connecticut, was doing research in clinical psychology at Yale. He was a fan of Miracle Legion, a New Haven band that achieved popularity outside the region and with national music critics. Their 1984 EP The Backyard, released on Rough Trade records, “was one of the best albums of the 1980s. I learned the whole thing on guitar,” said West.
At the time, West wanted to start a ska band in New Haven. He and a friend were driving around town one day and West recognized a doorway pictured on one of Miracle Legion’s albums. West jumped out of his friend’s car and knocked on the door, hoping to ask some of the band’s members if they knew anyone who wanted to join his ska group.
“I was met by this barking Doberman pinscher,” said West, then by Miracle Legion singer and guitarist Mark Mulcahy.
In response to West’s query, Mulcahy said he had no idea if anyone in the area wanted to join a ska band. He also said it was too bad West didn’t play bass because their bassist had just quit.
“I have a bass!” West told Mulcahy. “I learned their songs over the weekend and passed the audition,” he said.
“I quit a pretty lucrative, chichi career to sleep on floors covered in beer,” said West. “But I was in heaven."
West was a member of Miracle Legion until the late-1980s. He played in a Boston band, Wadi Trip, in the early-1990s, and in the late-1990s/early-2000s, he was in Relative Strangers with Rose Gerber and Clayton Sabine.
These days, West is working on selling songs for television and film scores and soundtracks. “I’ve always wanted to do that,” he said.
“If someone sends me six figures, great, but 56 years into it, I just want to keep making music,” West said.
Of Holding On, West said “it’s a pretty good chronicle of where I’m at right now, and I just hope the songs provoke some thinking."