On his debut album, South Texas Homecoming, Austin-based singer/songwriter James Steinle stuck close to the region where he was born and (intermittently) raised, but the scope of his experience stretches far beyond that corner of the world, and he’s built up the lyrical chops to prove it. That broader perspective starts to unfold in earnest on his recently-released sophomore record, What I Came Here For.
The opening track, “Black & White Blues,” sets a local enough scene, as a desperate oilfield welder turned dope dealer speeds down Highway 16 on the run from a deal gone south. But by the end of the song, he’s met his maker, and Steinle turns to more open-ended stories that transcend geography as they weave through deep, drawling ballads, dive-bar ragers, and a statement of purpose in the form of a spoken interlude.
Recorded with prolific singer/songwriter and producer Bruce Robison, What I Came Here For sees Steinle tackle universal tales of dislocation and displacement, whether it’s through the factory worker who’s losing his job to automation on “Blue Collar Martyr” or the straining couple on “In Love Again (Two Different Languages),” a classic-styled country duet co-written and performed with San Marcos’ Juliet McConkey.
Along with Steinle’s down-home acoustic guitar picking, the songs are sold on the strength of his clever wordplay and a subtle sense of critical distance from his characters–something that’s only grown as he’s started to shift his focus from personal reflections on his own character. Shortly after the release, he spoke to The All Scene Eye about his international upbringing and telling the truth without getting into trouble.
You’ve said in the past this is an album about self-analysis and why people end up where they end up. When did you first start working on these songs?
Well, I’m always writing, so as soon as I went into the studio for the last record, I had written a couple of these songs that are on the latest record–probably the week of. I was really tempted to try and squeeze one or two on there, but I was like, “No, they need to be played a lot more before I commit to what it’s going to sound like recorded,” so some of them are really old–it’s any time from when I cut that record back in early 2018 up until just last May.
I think I’m done writing those self-critical, self-analysis songs. [laughs] It takes a lot out of you, so I’ve been writing more about other people–fictional characters, nonfictional characters, stuff like that.
How did your concept of those songs change over time?
The way I came up doing this is I did a lot of what you call song-swapping. I had a buddy here in town that would do this thing where every Tuesday, this bar-slash-coffee shop called The Buzz Mill over on the east side of Austin, he had these Tuesdays with Tater. He’d have people get up–songwriters he dug or songwriters someone else had recommended–and they’d take turns playing songs, soloing with each other, stuff like that. Sometimes it was good, sometimes it was bad, but that’s the way I learned to reprogram my mind–as opposed to, “Oh, no one’s here except for me and the bartender, this sucks,” more like, “Hell yeah, this is practice time, and it’s a lot better than sitting around wherever I’m living and my roommate having to listen to that.”
It’s a formal setting to develop the phrasing of the song and the cadence–those are kind of the important things for me. For my kind of songwriters that I like, I always notice they have a very nuanced way they deliver. Sometimes they can pack more syllables in but still make it sound right if they say it right, and that only comes from repetition. It slowly unfolds the way it’s supposed to. “What I Came Here For” was one that I’d written right then, and I think that’s why it has a little–the last record was very South-Texas-centric, and this was more big picture, could apply to any urban setting I had experienced. That song was in-between ground where I was coming out of writing all these Texas-centric songs and more just, you know, what’s going on, where am I right now. That was one that really developed. Initially, I sang that whole song as opposed to doing a spoken-word delivery in the verses, and over time, I decided that’s more dynamic and it makes the chorus impact more than if I’m singing the entirety, so, things like that.
Tell me about the spoken prelude to that song. Why did you structure it that way?
It’s funny because someone else Twitter messaged me the other day–I guess they had reviewed the record, and they were like, “Man, great record. I just am very confused by the prelude. Can you explain it to me?”
I was like, “Well, this conversation right here is why I stuck it in there.” I always have enjoyed these jarring moments. I used to be more of a track-by-track person, and then I really got into people like Terry Allen, who have this running narrative-slash-concept throughout the whole thing–everything matters. They can have a 15-second interlude that might just be noise or something, but it wakes you up from the monotony, so I wanted to stick something in there that was very compulsive.
It’s not even a poem. It’s just prose, almost. I’m just describing something. It’s a lot of things, but I wanted it to be a wake-up call, since I had just read this Rolling Stone article with Jim Lauderdale talking about people trying to re-learn how to listen to records, and just listen in general. I wanted something jarring, which is why I put–that was my girlfriend’s voice that says “Good morning.” I intentionally used the words “good morning” to wake the listener up and then unfold into the next song, but also, in the previous song, “Black and White Blues,” the dude who the song is about dies at the end and goes to heaven, so that’s kind of a carryover, like, “Wake up. Next chapter.”
I wrote that in the studio the day we cut it. I pitched it to Bruce, and he was like, “Dude, you already have some weird stuff on here, so whatever. Just go for it.” [laughs] I knew even if it wasn’t the most concise or it lacked poeticism, it served more as a thesis to a paper, you know? Like the way we all learn to write essays, where you have your intro, your thesis, your three bodies, and your conclusion with your thesis restated. “Well, So Long” is essentially the thesis restated, and that prelude is the thesis. It can mean whatever people want it to mean, but it all comes down to listening.
As somebody who’s trying to listen, do you have any practices? How do you wake up and be more present?
I’ve been recently trying to just strip back all the excess layers in my life. For example, I just traded my truck that wasn’t fancy per se, but it did have bells and whistles. I traded it in for an old, like, 2012 Chevy van with no power doors, no power windows, no cruise control, and it took me back ten years in terms of my mental state.
I always think about this stuff when I drive. A lot of people do, I know that, and a lot of people say that, but driving is when I get into this almost meditative thing. It’s a million miles per hour, my mind is bouncing all over the place, but just being in a place like that–you know, I don’t want to talk on the phone while I’m driving anymore. In my last car, I had a bluetooth setup, and I was always talking on the phone. I didn’t even know where I was driving because sometimes you just punch it into your nav and you’re there. Now, it’s back to what I remember life being like a little while back, where my internal compass was strong and I could figure out where I needed to go even if I didn’t know where I was going.
And that [laughs] could all be taken metaphorically, but it’s more just real. It changes my personal mental DNA. I felt like just driving that van, I could have a better conversation with someone. I could look back in their eyes, where there were times in the past year where I felt like I’d be twitching around and I couldn’t maintain eye contact. I think that’s just a byproduct of cell phones and things like that reprogramming how we operate in society; awareness is important for me. Sometimes I feel like I’m babysitting some of my buds, you know? [laughs] like, “Hey, don’t say this right now,” or, “Hey, you see that car coming? You should probably stop and wait,” where they’re on their phone. They’re connected into this thing that–I don’t know, I think it leeches into our life.
You talk about reaching more outside of your own experience, and “Black & White Blues” is a place on this album where you do that. How did that narrative develop?
I guess that’s a segue from what we just talked about. I think being able to write quasi-fictional stories based on other people’s lives–A, they’re really hard, because you have to have your facts straight, especially if it’s based on a true story. At least for me, because a lot of these people and things I’m writing about are still either my friends, people who know me, or stories that people that I know know. If I mess them up and old rancher Nixon from down in Poteet, Texas catches wind that I wrote a song about his son’s buddy who got shot by a bunch of meth-head oilfield guys [laughs] it’s going to reflect poorly on me and open up a whole can of worms. I’m not afraid to do that because it’s the truth, but also, you have to be 100% right if it’s something true.
That’s why I was always hesitant to do it. I’d gotten in trouble with the kinfolk; like, five years ago, I wrote this song about this guy named Vicente, who was a hand on my mom’s family’s ranch ever since I could remember. He passed away, and I tried to write this song about him, and I mentioned that he was a bit of an alcoholic in one way or another. My grandma got really bent out of shape and said “His family’s still alive,” and that was a real big learning experience for me. I learned how to conceal names but still convey the person so you can write yourself out of some trouble. [laughs]
It’s a hard thing for me to do just because–I compare it to debate. I’m more of a Lincoln-Douglas debater than I am a CX, where it’s based off morals and principles, not as much about the facts. That’s what these last two records have been for me: self-deprecating, introspective, looking at the world around me, blah blah blah. Now I’m starting to have this swing where I’m getting confident enough in the mechanics of my writing that I know I can do the research–I can make it work and not sound cheesy.
That song was based off a story that a lot of my high school friends–when we graduated, they went into the oilfields down in South Texas, and I always heard stories about these dudes. They were getting paid six figures and they’d blow it on trucks, meth, cocaine, whatever they could get their hands on [laughs] and get into these crazy scenarios when the oil field would crash intermittently. I had heard a story along the lines of, this dude had been dealing while the oilfield was slow, got cross-ways with some big, wealthy dudes in Houston, and disappeared. There was some creative justice in that song, but I had seen so many people like that–acquaintances from high school–that I had a very vivid image of what this person looked like.
A lot of writers say they hate writer’s block, but I’m in the school of thought that it’s not writer’s block. It’s your brain and your subconscious telling you it’s time to observe. Then, when it’s time to write, the product might not be better, but it’ll definitely be more genuine. I think it allows you in those songs to better inhabit that character. I’ve seen that person so many times, so it really wasn’t hard to write.
When you get into the flow of it–“There’s some boys from Harris County / tall and mean / 4×4 in their designer jeans / .357s and amphetamines.” That’s a complete picture. It’s very sharp.
Yeah, and you can tell I had a lot of pent-up animosity toward those characters. [laughs] Plenty of adjectives and whatnot to use to describe them. Also, for example, I used “acetylene” in the next line, and that’s, like, a stabilizing catalyst gas that you use when you’re welding. The only reason I know that is because I grew up building fence. If I wouldn’t have been just working and observing stuff around me instead of trying to write a song, I wouldn’t have known what acetylene is, which is funny too because welders, as a class of people–they don’t like posers. I wanted to make sure I knew what it was, not just a word that rhymes. Things like that are pretty important when you start building those quasi-fictional narrative songs.
What’s been the biggest takeaway for you from this time of self-reflection and of putting these songs together?
It definitely felt like a good release. I’ve been playing that stuff for two, three years now, and it was good closure in that regard, in terms of the chapter. I grew up a lot of different places. I was born in San Antonio, then I was raised in a ranching family in South Texas, and then my dad, who’s actually a dentist, got a job in Saudi Arabia, so we moved there when I was six. We were there for nine years, we were in Germany for a year, back here for high school, and then college in Austin, but the thing is, until Austin, all those places I lived–in Germany, we lived off-base in a rural farmer village just south of Frankfurt, and in Saudi, we were in the middle of the desert on a compound. Before that, we were on a ranch outside of town, so I didn’t realize I’d been exposed to a lot of cities. I’d never lived in one, so when I came to UT–from 2011 until now, I’ve been in this weird push-pull where I want to be out of the city so bad because it’s not where I feel like I belong, yet it’s where I need to be. This record was the final nail in the coffin of rectifying that and being like, “Okay, there’s a balance.”
That’s also what I’ve been trying to use my writing voice to do: tell the people that live outside of the urban sphere that not everyone’s bad in the city–not everyone’s the devil–and on the flip side, not everyone out in the sticks is something out of True Detective. I feel like I’ve been given these lemons to squeeze where I can use my voice to try and mediate a little bit, and this record was, I think, the final straw in that thing. I’ve moved on, so now I’m like, “Fine.” I’m not going to sit here and let it eat at me that I can’t not be here, and I’m not going to flip-side be like, “I don’t want to go out there.” That was kind of the purpose of it, and it feels good to have it, have it be a complete body of work, it exists, and that’s it. Now it’s kind of separate from me, which is nice.
You worked with Bruce Robison on recording this album–what was that like?
It was great, man. I’ve known about Bruce for a long time, and his brother Charlie, just because they’re from a town called Bandera, Texas, which is pretty close to my hometown, Pleasanton, so–I grew up on a healthy dose of alt-country, country folk, very regional folk music, and I always knew who Bruce was because he did kind of a similar vein.
Years ago, when I was first starting to play open mics, song swaps, and all that crap, I was trying to think, “Okay, I need to make a record at some point because I need to book better shows,” and he was the first one that popped in my head. He’s from the same place, he wrote similar stuff, but I had no contact to him, so that got back-burnered. Then six years, seven years down the road of just gigging, one of my friends here in town, Carson McHone, did one of those Next Waltz things and she invited me to the show and introduced us. We were pretty close friends in terms of respecting each other’s songs, so she stuck her neck out, like, “Hey, this guy writes really good songs. You should listen to them.” Bruce was talking to someone else, he wasn’t even looking, and he was like, “Yeah, sure.” He gave me his email. I’ve emailed tons of people and never heard back, so I’ve got thick skin in that regard–I was like, “Whatever, what do I have to lose?” So I sent him songs, and he emailed me back, like, three days later. He was like, “Alright, man, let’s get a beer and talk about it. I want to bring you out to the studio and demo stuff.” Initially, he was going to push my songs to other artists, and then he told me in passing, “If you ever want to make a record, let’s do it.” I was like, “Yeah, let’s make a record.”
I like Bruce because he’s an introvert, but he speaks up when it needs to be done. I told him initially, I’m very passive. I don’t like making people upset or having to confront people, so I told him, “If you wouldn’t mind, if there’s something that’s really glaringly a wrong direction, would you do it?” And he was like, “Sure.” He’ll sit there with his arms crossed for three hours, but then if someone plays something that’s not the right thing, he’ll say, “Hey, not that,” you know? That’ll be his input. But he does it, and that’s the cool thing because there are a lot of producers everywhere, down here especially, that–we say “take your money, make your record.” They put together the players, they get you the studio space, and they sit there and watch you play. They don’t really do anything. They attach their name to it to bolster it.
But he was very active in the arranging. “Low and Slow,” that was a super simple derpy song I had written that’s just kind of that Lightnin’ Hopkins one-chord E-riff, and it didn’t have any movement. He was like, “Alright, let’s modulate a couple times.” At the end of that song, it’s actually a really weird, like, circle of sevenths is what they call it, not a circle of fifths, where we hit these odd chords that somehow work together and then resolve, and that was Bruce and the guys. I had no idea what was going on. [laughs] I was like, “You just tell me which chords to play there.” But it really added this dynamic. Even though that was the first day the band had heard the songs, it allowed us to sound a lot tighter than we actually were, and that’s the byproduct of Bruce being proactive and understanding you don’t want monotony and that’s how you combat it. All in all, really, it was a cool experience. Cool dude.
You were working at his studio, The Bunker. What was the atmosphere of that space?
It felt like home, honestly, which was [laughs] the best thing about it. He used to have a studio up here, North Austin, in Hyde Park. After he got some of his big cuts in the 2000s–when he got, like, Dixie Chicks’ “Travelin’ Soldier”–he got the studio with all the bells and whistles, state of the art, Pro Tools, all that, and he told me he absolutely hated it and didn’t know why he did it, so he liquidated and bought this place out there in Lockhart. I don’t know if he owned it before, but it’s just a little goat farm off this dirt road back there, and it’s one building, like an old bunk house. He bought all these old analog tape machines, a giant plate reverb chamber, all these things that people don’t use anymore, found guys that could work on them, and got it going. It was like my mom’s family’s ranch, is what it felt like. Saltillo tile and old raggedy carpet, black sheets hanging up everywhere to deaden the room, and that’s it. One big room, a control room, and a kitchen.
It was intimidating, in a way, because there’s no polishing it up out there; whatever you play is what you play. It’s all one room, one take, which was a challenge I didn’t anticipate just because you had to deal with bleed into everyone’s microphones. On my last record, with Pro Tools and stuff, you could punch in if you messed up or redo the take, but because of the bleed, it starts getting weird if you do that too much–what you hear is what happened. That was definitely a different style of recording that I think can be good or bad for people, depending on how you adapt, but the space is cool.
Would you do another album in that style?
I would, but I would do a different kind of album. I’m already working on my next one; it’s going to be a concept record and it’s going to be recorded, all the tracks, in one take. It’s going to be, like, nine tracks, with poetry, with a more cinematic band than a standard studio tracking band, and it’s going to be one running thing like a movie. I think in that situation, it would be awesome because it’s just like, set the mics up, set the room up how you want it, get the levels, and run. That’s a really good way to capture a performance, which is what Bruce would always say. He’s like, “Recordings that I like of songs are all about the performance, and this is how you get it.” It gives you this adrenaline rush, like, “Alright, I’d better not screw up because everyone’s going to be mad at me,” or whatever. But when I do standard records going forward where it’s just a collection of songs, I would definitely not do it there. With that kind of thing, you have more control over each individual song, adding and changing things.
When you say “cinematic,” what does that arrangement look like for you?
So, for example, it’d be percussion, not drums. It would be how you build your kit. We haven’t really done anything, but I’ve talked to the guys I want on it. Things like, as the record progresses, being aware of what era of instruments you’re using. I want it to start with old instruments and then, as time moves on, move into Mellotron or synth, more modern things, and have that subconsciously reflect time passing–or go from the future to the past, if that’s how the narrative develops. So when I say cinematic, it’s not, “Alright, let’s get the band together and get the groove going.” It’ll be more of a person and their guitar with stuff built around it. It’s like scoring a film versus tracking a record, so have the musicians adding to a wall of sound, not playing solo sections. That would be something I would consider doing in a space like [The Bunker] just because the make or break is the performance. It’s not going to be a lot of going back in and doctoring things.
What has it been like taking these songs out on the road, playing them around other places than Texas?
Oh, it’s always fun. I haven’t been doing that for very long, but because I’ve grown up in this–sociologically, they call it third culture kids. It’s not as strong for me because I wasn’t born in Saudi Arabia or born abroad; Texas is home, and that’s where my roots are, but I have grown up trying to adapt to other people’s cultures and customs. We were taught that in my school system over there, so, back to the awareness thing, it’s fun for me to go to different places, gauge what people are into, and pick songs that I think might resonate with them. It’s like a game figuring out where to place them in the set, figuring out if I need to change a word or something–I’m not going to go down to South Texas to Max’s Cafe and Bar in Tilden, which is like, population of 100 people, and play “Blue Collar Martyr.” There’s no point in playing this aggressive, rowdy song that kind of denounces Christianity [laughs] and things like that, you know? That’s my opinion, but I have enough awareness that that’s not going to be productive.
But if I go somewhere like Mercury Lounge in Tulsa, this kind of edgy dive bar, it’s awesome to play that song. All these dudes that just got off work and are tired of the hypocrisy and two-facedness in town, they want some grit. They want someone to say something. It’s cool to go places where I didn’t realize I wrote something that works perfect for that exact moment in time. I put out that first single, “Without You,” at the beginning of December because the first line of it is, “December’s here again,” and I thought listening to that song at that point in time, if someone’s getting out of their car and the cold front’s blowing in, it impacts a lot more than if you’re listening to it on a 102 degree day in the middle of summer. That kind of stuff has been fun–it makes the songs exciting again because I can re-approach them from a different angle, as opposed to me just sitting up every night and playing a set.