New Music from Owen Steel

Category: music 910

Micah O’Donnell chats with Steel about his return to writing and recording and learns the story behind his new single, ‘I Am Lost’.

Micah O’Donnell
Owne Steel photo by Tim Isaac
Owne Steel photo by Tim Isaac

One of St. Andrews most iconic heritage sites, Cottage Craft, burned down this past summer. At the time, I had been living with Owen just down the street. Shortly after smelling the smoke of the fire, we both became obsessed with the hope of discovering who the arsonist was. We knew we would never get to the bottom of it; however, the idea of being the two snoops who figured it out infatuated us. Our mutual obsession–an obsession that kept us up late at night drinking whisky with notebooks–sits parallel to our need to understand who obscured our creative ability. While we may never discover who set the fire, Owen makes it obvious who impeded his creative output: himself.

I went to the Shiretown Pub, more popularly known as the Kennedy, to talk to Owen about why it’s been four years since his last studio album. He sat over a smoked meat sandwich, waiting for the server to bring him a glass of water. He didn’t grow impatient. Instead, O—as he is commonly known–politely asked for a glass when the server dropped by to ask if everything was okay. About that moment, our conversation fell into a lament over our own inability to produce.

“I use to rush out material because I wanted to be prolific, but now, I shouldn’t even be singing because of my fucked up jaw.” It hit me that maybe Owen just didn’t want to create, or, if he did, he had a legitimate excuse not to. The months since I’d moved to Saint Andrews, he’d been plagued by a mouth splint he was rarely able to remove, even during performances. Two more bites from his sandwich, by now falling onto the plate from his mouth, he said, “but honestly, I’m a lazy person.”

Owen’s single, I am Lost, is the first we’ve heard from the St. Andrews Scoundrel since 2013, save for a softly released live album in 2015. It’s disappointing to think that he’s escaped us because of laziness. He’s found an opponent for his laziness though. “I’m learning to embrace the community I’m a part of. Learning that when I am involved with other artists, I’m pushed to keep writing.”

It’s hard to know when to believe O when he talks about his music. His own song betrays him. The moment he sings “I’m not lonely” you don’t believe him. He is lonely and it’s maybe that loneliness, more than the laziness, that keeps him from offering his music.

Owen insists on explaining the story behind the lyrics. Described by Scott Mallory, the frail lap-steel guitar on the track, as a twisted Walt Disney ballad, Owen thinks of the track as a collection of references to his time travelling in Latin America: the man squirming at his own guts is a worker he saw torn open by a grinder who desperately tries to hush his injury to stave off a possible firing. The song was inspired by riding a freight train with a poor, desperate Mexican family. The engine struck a bus and Owen and the family were close enough to feel their car rattled by the impact. The song was started shortly after on a boat from Panama to South Carolina. The boat, not unexpectedly, once belonged to the original writer of Achey Breaky heart. Finally, the song was finished in a graveyard in Norfolk, Virginia. The ultimate space of trauma.

And the core of the song is trauma. Yet, the song isn’t about experiencing trauma, but trying to cover it up. I am Lost isn’t void of hope, but instead, filled with ignorance. Filled with the ignorance every one of us employs to cover up hurt. If you believe him when he sings “I’m not lonely,” you’re not listening closely enough.

I finished my coffee and realized that the same distrust that haunts the chorus of O’s new track also haunts him. O isn’t lazy so much as he is afraid of fresh pain. He’s not hoping his train won’t crash; he isn’t getting on the train.

Until now. In the coming weeks, new tracks will be posted from Owen. I’ve been lucky enough to hear some scraps of these lo-fi recordings he is putting together. No doubt, Owen has grown darker, maybe even more cynical. But alongside his trauma is a new honesty. Owen is no longer depicting happy waterfront towns, but honest and sincere fears of trainwrecks.

Our conversation ended with discussing a reality we agree on: “laziness isn’t a symptom of an unwilling person, but a scared human.”

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