Q&A with true songwriter’s songwriter, Steven Keene honed his music in the neighborhoods of Brooklyn and Greenwich Village

"The most important lesson I've learned is not to be married to any belief. We change; it's in our DNA to."

Steven Keene: New York Troubadour

A true songwriter’s songwriter, Steven Keene honed both his music style and songwriting craft in the neighborhoods of Brooklyn and Greenwich Village, while playing many of New York's most legendary clubs. Steven Keene grew up in Brooklyn New York and got his start playing the folk clubs and cafes of the Greenwich Village scene in the late ’80s and early ’90s alongside contemporaries Beck, Susanne Vega, Shawn Colvin, and others. Heavily inspired by the songwriting of Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie and Leonard Cohen, he began performing his earliest material at The Speakeasy, the now-closed folk club that was a singer-songwriter staple in the ’90s. Keene played regularly at joints like Sun Mountain Cafe and the Chameleon, and for years would crisscross the streets of McDougal and Bleecker, playing well-known clubs including the Bottom Line, Lone Star Cafe, the Mercury Lounge, the Bitter End, Arlene’s Grocery, and the legendary CBGB’s.

(Photo: Steven Keene)

But for Keene, it was always about the music, and never about the fame. Maybe that’s why he surrounded himself with only the best players, focused only on the music, and became obsessed with honing his craft as he gigged his way from one smoke-filled Village club to the next. Indie singer-songwriter and recording artist, Steven Keene, released his latest studio recording, THEM & US (2020). The 8-track collection spotlights signature originals written and produced by Keene and recorded at Shore Fire Recording Studios (Long Branch, NJ). The CD release follows early sneak peeks as part of Keene’s 2020 Single Release Series showcasing the sociopolitical hard-hitters “Them & Us” and “Save Yourself,” along with his most recent, the lovelorn ballad “Cause I Can’t Have You.”

Interview by Michael Limnios

How has the Folk and Roots Counterculture influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

Folk & Roots music always seemed to have the purest of songwriting. A message that transcends the average song. That's what always attracted me to folk & roots music...

How do you describe your sound, music philosophy and songbook? Where does your creative drive come from?

My music is a mixed bowl. Rock, protest, folk, blues, sometimes even jazz. At the core what drives my creative process is probably observational and sometimes the relationships I encounter. I've always been into message songwriting.

Which meetings have been the most important experiences? What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?

Playing with Bob Dylan's band members was definitely inspiring. Best advice I've ever heard is find your peace somewhere in between, not in extremes.

"I'm not much of a historian but I believe the best poets of the time hung out there, the Beat generation. This was the draw for folk musicians to start hanging and playing in Greenwich Village. I too got my start playing gigs there, up and down McDougal & Bleecker & West 3rd. I met Allan Ginsberg many times.  My violin player was his violin player. He used to play the St. Marks Church and we would all hang out after the show." (Photo: Steven Keene)

Are there any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

We played some great shows from the Bottom Line & CBGB's in NYC to gigs in London and Manchester. When I first started out, I played all the opened mikes I could find from NYC to Maine. Regarding studio sessions it was great playing with Rob Stoner and Howie Wyeth from Dylan's Desire album and Rolling Thunder Tour as well as John Johnson and Bucky Baxter. Tony Garnier too from Dylan's current touring band. I also played with Danny Kalb from the Blues Project. He played on a tune of mine called "Only Homeless" of the No Alternative album in the mid 90's.

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of the past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

I'm not too focused on the past. I'm just thinking about writing my next song. The song I'm currently working on is really all that I'm truly focused on.

What were the reasons that made Greenwich Village to be the center of Folk researches and experiments?

I'm not much of a historian but I believe the best poets of the time hung out there, the Beat generation. This was the draw for folk musicians to start hanging and playing in Greenwich Village. I too got my start playing gigs there, up and down McDougal & Bleecker & West 3rd. I met Allan Ginsberg many times. My violin player was his violin player. He used to play the St. Marks Church and we would all hang out after the show.

Are there any memories with Allen Ginsberg which you’d like to share with us?

Allen was an interesting guy... his demeanor and delivery was soft and cerebral more like a college professor than what you would imagine a Beat poet to be… he always had a smile; he was a good soul...

"My music is a mixed bowl. Rock, protest, folk, blues, sometimes even jazz. At the core what drives my creative process is probably observational and sometimes the relationships I encounter. I've always been into message songwriting."

(Photo: Steven Keene at Lower west side - shoot for “Keene on Dylan”, early 90s)

What is the impact of music on the socio-cultural implications? How do you want it to affect people?

Not my bag...

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your experience in the music paths?

The most important lesson I've learned is not to be married to any belief. We change; it's in our DNA to.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really want to go for a whole day?

Probably back to Greenwich Village in 1962. Checking out all the folkies.

Steven Keene - Home

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