Essential 8: Steve Hartsoe

Former AP journalist and college pitcher turned husband and father, veteran rocker Steve Hartsoe goes all in with The Big Fix-Deluxe Edition. The Raleigh, N.C., artist’s latest finds him singing about the experiences of daily life from its troubles to its joys and everything in-between. Here, Hartsoe answers his Essential 8 and talks about the album, songwriting, his favorite concerts, and more! 
With “Said and Done,” what was the “a-ha” moment when you knew the song was completed and perfect? 
My best songs almost always come to me the quickest. “Said and Done,” the first single from my new album, happened this way. I was just sitting on my bed playing my acoustic guitar and the chords came, then the melody and most of the lyrics. I listened to my rough iPhone recording over and over for days. You just know when you’ve got a good song. Lyrically the tune helped me express something I was thinking about a lot at the time, and that’s how my words impact my kids, now and later in life, and how that awesome responsibility can’t be taken lightly. I’m fortunate that my son, Eli, who’s 17, plays drums with me, so I can bounce ideas off a very good drummer to work out arrangements. 

What’s the story behind your album’s title, “The Big Fix-Deluxe Edition”? 
I was talking to a coworker about some hardened criminal, and he said, “That guy needs the big fix.” I started thinking about that: Don’t we all need fixing to some degree? I had the music to the title track, “The Big Fix,” for a while, but that conversation sparked the theme for the lyrics. For me, the term “big fix” describes the completeness I’ve experienced through marrying my wife, Shannon. It also describes my Christian faith. Hopefully the song is open-ended enough for someone to see their own “fix.” 

Where do you draw inspiration from when writing? 
I don’t think a song has ever come to me when I wasn’t playing the guitar. I almost always write a song, or at least start one, while strumming chords, sometimes to a drum loop, and something clicks -- a chord progression, a riff, melody, an idea for a lyric. On rare occasions, almost all of that  comes together immediately. That happened with a few songs on my new album -- “Said and Done,” “If I Had One Song” and “Seven Miles to Wilmington.” Usually this happens when I am in the midst of a difficult time, which has been the case more often than not during the past few years. I don’t know if the struggle is worth it, but what I think are my best songs typically come out of emotional and situational ash heaps. Then there are times when I think guitars already have songs in them and I just follow along as they flow out. 

Do you write about personal experience, the experience of others, observations, made-up stories, something else or a combination? 
A combination, but mostly from personal experience. For this album I went back through about 20 years of song ideas I had on my iPhone and on assorted cassette tapes. “Salt and Wine” actually started in the early 1990s after my first band broke up. I found a 4-track demo I recorded back then. I was listening to a lot of Replacements at the time, which influenced the guitar style. It’s a mysterious one to me -- I started it in the wake of my band’s demise, then it collected dust on a cassette tape for some two decades before I rediscovered it and wrote the lyrics. Oddly enough, it’s about looking back on that band experience and wondering whether it was worth it, and the effect it has had on the course of my life. That’s one of our favorites to play live and we often open with it. 

“Side of the Road” was another cassette demo from years ago. I had the chords and melody on tape. I found it as the recession was ending in the late 2000s, and so many people had to take jobs for which they were extremely overqualified, like engineers working at Target. The lyrics, about how people were being cast aside during that time, came very fast. 

Which song of yours gets the best crowd response? 
“The Big Fix.” It’s got a great groove and the band just shreds it every time. I need to write more Americana dance music, I guess. On that note, I have to give a nod to the talented musicians who help my songs come to life as Steve Hartsoe and The Beacon Souls. Along with Eli, musical Swiss army knife Wahba co-produced the album with me and played guitar, bass and keyboards, while our newest member, Russ Bullock, is just an amazing guitarist, though he joined after we recorded the album. 

Favorite (or first) concert you have ever attended? 
Favorite concert is Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers at the Cow Palace in San Francisco in 1983. I’d seen mega bands including the Eagles and Queen but they were so out of reach musically. Petty just came off as a regular guy who loved rock ‘n roll and performing. The band seemed to be having such a great time playing off each other, and he made an arena of 18,000 feel like we were in his garage back in Gainesville, and they were going to play and have  a great time whether we were there or not. The next night, TP and The Heartbreakers plus opening act Nick Lowe performed in a small club in San Francisco. I was there and only 10 feet from the stage. That experience inspired me to start a band and write songs. And I covered his song “Trailer” on my new album. 

Do you have a favorite gift from a fan? 
Yes, song lyrics. One of the pledges for supporting my Kickstarter campaign for the new album was co-writing a song. With only 30 minutes before the deadline to donate, it looked like I would not make it. Then a final donation came in that put me over the $1,800 goal. I don’t even know this guy but we’ve become friends. He’s always wanted to write a song, so he sent me some lyrics and I’ve come up with the music for it. I am really excited about finishing and recording the song for the next album or as a single in early 2018. This is the first time I’ve co-written a song, and it’s a really cool way to begin that experience. 

Current release you cannot stop listening to? 
“Sticks and Stones” by (Foo Fighters guitarist) Chris Shiflett, from his solo album “West Coast Town.” One of my favorite sounds is a pedal steel alongside distorted electric guitars, and this song features both in a perfect blend of twang and crunch.

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