Jeff Stewart can’t sit still: Local music staple is preparing new album of original materialWritten by Jeff McGinnis | | firstname.lastname@example.org
In late August, a new project popped up on Kickstarter titled, “New studio album by Jeff Stewart!” The text accompanying the listing noted that “this album is the proper follow-up to my 2006 EP Mix Tape Blues.”
The new project — “Can’t Sit Still” — is much more than that. It is the culmination of years of work that “Mix Tape Blues” began. It’s the latest step on a musical journey that began in Stewart’s childhood. And it’s the mission statement of a man — one of the most beloved figures in the Toledo music scene — who has only ever wanted to do one thing with his life.
“I think I was always going to be either a fireman or a rock singer,” Stewart said in an interview with Toledo Free Press. “I think you just always know, even if your life goes in a different direction, you realize after that fact it just wasn’t what you are.”
What cool was
Stewart has always been hard-pressed to describe his musical style. His explanations run the gamut from rock, pop, country, British, American, you name it. And if there’s a reason it’s hard for the singer-songwriter to pin down what his sound is, that may be because his musical influences have been just as broad throughout his life.
“My mom would play records on her big record player — Bobby Vinton, Elvis — and I always just remember having the TV shows you had, like had The Beatles or the Stones on it. I remember just seeing the Stones and just — I didn’t know what ‘cool’ was when I was 6 or 7, but I think I did understand it by seeing those guys,” Stewart said.
An album by the Stones was the first cassette tape he bought, and the first time he picked up an instrument was in emulation of the group’s legendary guitarist, Keith Richards. He began playing when he was 11, taking lessons, but he said he learned the most from just hanging around and jamming with his brother and friends every day after school.
“You grow, you get older, and then you go for different things. College brought R.E.M. and their massive influence through the ’90s,” he said. “And getting to play with different players through the years, and introduced to the John Prines and the singer-songwriters and that whole situation. The Grateful Dead, just so many different styles, Miles Davis — everything came in, you know? And I just think I tried to write a song, and my style is kind of a mish-mash of that.”
Stewart first began to make a name for himself in the Toledo music scene during his college years, joining groups like The Flecks and The Starlings. Each stop helped him grow musically.
“A couple of my buddies were older, so they would turn us onto … all the new, modern rock ’n’ roll, and we got into the new wave stuff, too, so there was all kinds of things,” Stewart said. “And then, I went onto the Rust Belt of American music with The Starlings, and really enjoying the ‘Blue Rodeo’ country — the Canadian country, if you will.”
“I was a supporter early on, when he made the leap to full-time musician,” said Larry Meyer of local music group Old State Line. “When I was doing JT & the Clouds shows at Mickey Finn’s Pub, it was a delight to have Jeff open, and to give him a forum to play nothing but his own compositions. He never let us down, and he has only improved.”
“It’s a beautiful thing when you can make music with your friends,” said Kyle White, another staple of the Toledo music scene. “Jeff and I have been friends for many years. He is one of my favorite people to sing with. I love the honesty in his voice and in his songwriting. When we get the chance to work together the studio, we have so much fun. His spirit and creativity inspire me.”
Stewart reciprocates the appreciation his fellow musicians have shown him over the years.
“The support is great for you here. You’re working, and the musicians’ support is amazing,” he said. “Just such a massive amount of talented players and songwriters and drummers and keyboard players and bass players and guitarists and singers — we’re just really loaded with great people, and so many of those people are my friends. And we care about each other.”
Mix tape blues
The seeds that would blossom into “Can’t Sit Still” were sown more than seven years ago, a time Stewart refers to as a “defining moment” in his life.
“I went through a divorce at 30; it turned my world upside down. Everything changed, and everything had to change at that point in my world. It was the country song — lost the job, the dogs, the day job situation. And in the band, we were kind of on our last ropes anyways, The Starlings.
“I needed to branch out, and I think that was just the perfect time. And I just left everything behind.”
He poured himself into his work, writing songs that reflected the loss and renewal he felt at that time of his life. At the same time, the process was “a bear,” he said. He faced challenges with everything from “cash flow, and studio time to Gregg Leonard, my friend, my guitar player and producer — he’s producing this record for me — he was going through his own situation. And those situations just multiplied.”
“He is one of my dearest friends and we have played a lot of music together and had quite a few late nights in recording studios,” said Leonard, who is working in Los Angeles.
“He is an authentic artist in every sense of the word and I’ve watched him do the hard work of building his audience and craft the old fashioned way of countless gigs and dedication to carrying on this art form. Our belief all along is that there is no such thing as a local album or artists anymore and that anything we would present to the world would have to take its place next to any album.”
Wanting to get something out to the public, Stewart quickly recorded the songs that made up “Mix Tape Blues.” But the desire to make something that really stood out made him hold off on releasing his next full-length EP. Stewart wanted — needed — to make something special. But now, he said, the muse is hitting hard and heavy.
“It’s a lot of lost time that I didn’t put records out, and they’re all coming together,” Stewart said. “I could probably put six records out right now, with all the songs I’ve cut. So that process — it’ll never be done again like this.”
Even so, it takes money to produce an album that can, on a production level, stand against the biggest-budget labels in the music stratosphere. So to raise the capital, Stewart was convinced to take his case to his fans directly — through Kickstarter.
“I was really against it at first. I thought it was a charity case,” Stewart said. “I didn’t raise any money for this before. People have offered me money over the years. They were adamant that they wanted to help me get this s— finished. And my pride, or whatever, got the best of me and I never took it.
“And I thought it was the same thing with Kickstarter. I got a lot of talking-tos by my friends, and I changed my mind about it, you know? I realized it’s not a charity, you’re getting something — you’re just helping and being part of the process. And it’s pretty exciting watching the support coming to you from it.”
On Sept. 25, it happened. “Can’t Sit Still” was officially backed with a total of $13,760 in pledges — more than $1,000 more than its goal. The album that has been in the works for over seven years — or a lifetime, depending on your point of view — is officially a go. Now, the final work begins.
Times have changed
“Jeff and I would track parts such as vocals, guitar, bass, percussion, etc., and then send a rough mix to Gregg in LA who then sent back his thoughts and we would go from there,” producer Chuck Mauk said of the recording process. “The same process is occurring right now as we are for the most part done recording and now Gregg is mixing the CD from LA and sending the mixes back to us for input. Naturally, Jeff has the final say, but it is still a process of bouncing ideas off of one another via the telephone and Internet. Times have changed.”
And for Stewart, seeing the support of hundreds of friends and fans leading to him realizing his latest dream has been the most wonderful of conclusions to a roller coaster of emotions.
“I was scared, man. I tried to keep the balance of positive and negative, and try to ride the balance of that middle line sometimes, but I was pretty scared going into it, thinking I wasn’t going to get a buck,” Stewart said. “But we put it out there, and it’s pretty exciting, man. It’s pretty overwhelming, the response, you know? I can’t wait for these people who are helping out and pre-ordering — they’re gonna get some cool stuff. And get the record.
“And that’s what I care about, that’s all I care about. I just want my friends to get the songs, and hear ’em the way I hear ’em.”
Tags: Beatles, Bobby Vinton, Chuck Mauk, Elvis, Gregg in LA, JT & the Clouds, Kickstarter, Larry Meyer, Mickey Finn's Pub, Miles Davis, Old State Line, R.E.M., Rolling Stones, Stones, The Flecks, The Grateful Dead, The Starlings