Troubadour Steve Poltz (poltz.com) has been a mainstay of the San Diego music scene for the better part of two decades, starting with the Rugburns (“Hitchhiker Joe,” “Me and Eddie Vedder”), later collaborations with Jewel (including her monster hit, “You Were Meant for Me”), and a successful solo career. He also is a fellow USD alum, diehard Padres fan, and faithful reader of Ducksnorts.
Poltz currently is working on two CDs and touring like a madman. He recently took time out of his busy schedule to meet with me at his Starlite club (Poltz is co-owner with Tim Mays of Casbah and Turf Supper Club fame), where we discussed music, baseball, and life over pork chops and steak.
Ducksnorts: You’re originally from Nova Scotia, Canada. When did you first come to California?
Steve Poltz: We came out to Pasadena when I was a toddler. My dad woke up one morning and we were snowed in, and he seriously said, I’m out of here. He was sick of it. All our relatives are Canadians. My grandparents came from Hungary to Canada. My mom’s mom came from Italy, and her dad came from Ireland. They moved to Halifax, which is really Celtic. I was born in Halifax, and one day my dad just drove all the way across the country with us.
In fact, I have a song coming out on my new CD that’s called “A Brief History of My Life.” It starts off with us moving to Pasadena from Halifax and taking an oath that we wouldn’t join the Communist party. That’s the first thing I remember — standing next to my dad, and him becoming an American citizen.
Then later in the song, the chorus goes:
We talked Hollywood and baseball in the car
The voice of Vin Scully will travel real far
The next chorus says, “The voice of Jack Buck”; the third one says, “The voice of Ernie Harwell”; and the last one says, “The voice of Jerry Coleman still travels really far.”
DS: You still have family back in Nova Scotia?
SP: Yeah, I was just playing there a few weeks ago, and all my relatives were there. We were the only ones that moved out. When I go back it’s kind of funny because all my relatives are scattered across Canada and I’m this weird experiment who knows nothing about hockey. For some reason, I never took to the game, so when I go back — it’s like religion back there — they look at me with shame and disgust. I can talk baseball with them, but when it comes to hockey, I look like a blank slate. I don’t even know what they’re talking about.
DS: I’m a fan of Ashley MacIsaac. Are you familiar with him?
SP: Yes, he’s a fiddler from Cape Breton. In fact, I was just up there, playing with all these Cape Breton musicians, doing a showcase for Music Nova Scotia — they still claim me as one of their own.
DS: How long have you been performing?
SP: I started playing guitar when I was six. My uncle Louie is a classically trained piano player and he plays in bars up in Pasadena still — he’s 60 something years old now. He took me to the Hollywood Bowl to see a classical guitarist named Julian Bream when I was about six, and I said, “I want to do that.” That was what I loved, that was all I’d listen to; then I discovered the Monkees, and that kind of changed everything.
As for performing, after I graduated from USD, I took a job in sales. I left USD in ’85 and took a job selling pipe nipples. I was a nipple salesman. It was such a weird time in my life. I was out of money after USD — I was there on a scholarship — and I really needed a job. I worked there for seven years, and it was fun; however, it wasn’t my call, so in ’92, I walked away from the job — my illustrious career as sales manager for pipe nipples — and I decided to pursue music full time.
DS: You were playing before then. You used to come and play at the Crossroads, on the USD campus, and I used to see you there.
SP: Yeah, we played there a lot. You know, you’ve got to play a thousand gigs to learn who you are, to find your voice — and that was the beginning. Even though I’d always played guitar, I would be so nervous. I knew a zillion cover songs and only had probably written three songs. I used to want to vomit before a show; I’d be so scared, I couldn’t sleep the week prior to it, and now I do it for a living. Now I only get nervous if I do the national anthem at the ballpark. When I do that, I don’t sleep the night before. But now to play a gig, I get up for that.
When I was a kid, my uncle had me play the part of Oliver. He would do recitals, and I’d do songs from Fiddler on the Roof. I was raised on musicals, and it’s no coincidence that my uncle is gay [laughs]. To this day, I love going to his gigs because all his Broadway show tune people come out. I still love to go to this place — the Stoney Point in Pasadena. I’ll stay there for hours watching him do show tunes because I was raised on those.
DS: Speaking of cover songs, what were some of your favorites to play?
SP: We were so lame. I look back on what I liked, and I’m still a geek; I always will be. What I liked was never cool — I know what cool is, and I know what I’m supposed to like, and I do like “cool,” don’t get me wrong, but I can tell you something right now — today I was learning three cover songs, and here it is, the year 2007. The three songs I’m learning are “The Way We Were,” by Barbra Streisand (which Marvin Hamlisch wrote); “Close to You,” by the Carpenters…
DS: “Close to You” — Burt Bacharach…
SP: The other one I’m learning is, “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” because I’m a big Jimmy Webb fan. I do “Wichita Lineman” already. We used to do a Beatles medley — not one Beatles song, but a Beatles medley that we put together, which is sort of prescient now if you think about it, with Across the Universe and all these Broadway shows that have come out. I was really into Jesus Christ, Superstar and Godspell. I would act out the parts of Jesus and Judas. I was raised very Catholic, so all that stuff really affected me. [We also played] Earth, Wind, and Fire. I have a good falsetto even though my voice is low.
DS: You do the Philip Bailey?
SP: Yeah, I do the Philip Bailey. I would like to sit here and tell you I do Tom Waits, who I love, and Randy Newman, who I love — I know that stuff; I do love all that and I have an ear for it — but I still love Barbra Streisand.
In Part 2, we’ll talk about Celine Dion’s over-the-top sincerity, Steve’s favorite places to play music, and the impact James Taylor had on his love life back in ninth grade…