The fiercely independent troubadour is having a breakthrough moment, grappling with the modern music industry, Trump’s America, and the shadow of the Vietnam war
The singer-songwriter Steve Gunn is too low-key for anything as gauche as a personal brand, but if his ruminative music espouses one idea, it can be found in Ancient Jules, a song from his 2016 album Eyes on the Lines: “Take your time, ease up, look around and waste the day.”
It’s an inviting outlook in an era where it’s easy to feel squeezed for every last drop of human efficiency. But the financial realities of operating at Gunn’s level – feted as a successor to Jerry Garcia and John Fahey, gigging modestly – have made his ethos near impossible for him to live by.
He used to try to cram in writing while he was travelling, or in the studio. He would “go on autopilot and rush without having time to think,” he says, calling from his New York home. “And I think that sorta shows. To have five or six people in a studio for a week … we gotta get this done or I’m gonna be completely broke with no album.” As well as his solo work he’s played on at least 20 releases in the past 12 years, including collaborations with Kurt Vile, Sun City Girls and British cult folk hero Mike Cooper. But Gunn’s new album, The Unseen in Between (technically his fifth “proper” album), comes after a period of relative quiet.
It’s his best album, balancing a shimmering quality – one that recalls Johnny Marr at his most transcendent – with Gunn’s backing band’s reassuring depth; moments of compelling rigour dissolve into wilderness. His label, Matador, encouraged him to take his time, giving him space to dig deep into the arrangements, but that slowing down also follows a period of introspection that prompted Gunn, now 41, to spend time figuring out what he wanted the record to say.
He had previously denounced personal writing as something that can be “a shallow and selfish undertaking”. This time, he felt he had something worth sharing. His father died of cancer two weeks after he released Eyes on the Lines. Five months later, Trump was elected. “I think when you experience certain levels of shock, it can be a really isolating feeling,” he says, haltingly, seeming uncomfortable talking about himself. “And I think there’s hope in knowing that almost everyone around you is going through similar things. A lot of the songs are addressing that.” New Familiar details post-Trump paranoia. “After it happened, you’d stand in the train station, look around and think, ‘Who the fuck made this happen?’ You feel so separated from the general consensus.”
But the songs are rarely that explicit. The starkest, Stonehurst Cowboy, reveals the necessity of community and empathy. The first verses are sung from the perspective of Gunn’s late father, a Vietnam veteran, and describe the psychological effects of war on a generation never taught to process it: “Found ways to hide the pain / Stole your car / Drove real far / No one can explain.” Gunn’s uncles also fought in Vietnam. “It was a nightmare that I think continues to haunt them,” he says. “And, as a friend of my father’s, rather than