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Much has been written recently about the long and colourful life and late-developing career of Seasick Steve, not all of it accurate. The facts, so far as he remembers them, are as follows.
Steve Wold was born in Oakland, in the San Francisco Bay Area around the post-war period when white folks started paying serious attention to the music of black America.
His father Gene played boogie-woogie piano in a local band. Steve tried the piano as a kid ‘but my fingers weren’t big enough to get anywhere.’ Instead, aged 7, he fell in love with a guitar he came across at summer camp. ‘It just gobsmacked me, the way the thing looked. It was as big as I was but the moment I saw it, I knew I was gonna play guitar.’ That was fine with his dad who arranged for him to have lessons with his buddy KC Douglas, once a sideman with the Mississippi bluesman Tommy Johnson.
After his parents split up, Steve went to live with his mother. When relations between her and her psychotically violent new partner ‘got to the point where I knew I was gonna kill that guy, for real’ the 13 year old Steve ran away from home. He spent the rest of his adolescence living rough: working as and when on farms, funfairs, anything that would pay cash without asking to see his paperwork. He got around by jumping freight trains, spent some time in a little place called jail, or -juvenile detention centre’ as the cops preferred to call it. ‘I wasn’t tryin’ to be no hobo,’ Steve explains. ‘I know a lot of people have written books about this, thinkin’ it’s cool, but I was just tryin’ to escape. And that was the only route open to me at the time.’
Well, not quite the only one. At 16 Steve began busking. ‘It was hard to make good money playin’ on the streets, but the more I played the less I found I wanted to live under a bridge.’ Trouble was, he was playing music that was rapidly going out of style. ‘The country blues was getting to be a dead issue in America. It had a brief revival in the early 60’s when they dug up those old Mississippi guys. But pretty soon they was back workin’ in the train station, or deliverin’ the laundry.’
By the time the 1980s rolled around, Steve had settled down with a Norwegian waitress he met in a bar in Oslo during one of his stints in a touring band. Moving to rural Tennessee he built a small
recording studio, but when that didn’t work out ‘because there was this whole country and western, Christian bullshit thing goin’ on down there,’ the Wolds eventually had to pack up and leave again. This time, on account of the fact that Mrs Wold was pining for the fjords – ‘she just wanted to live someplace that looked like Norway’ – they chose to head north to Washington State, on the North Western seaboard.
Steve took the plunge in 2003 when he finally recorded an album of his own country blues variations with a couple of Swedish musicians. -Cheap’ by Seasick Steve and the Level Devils did surprisingly well. It was picked up and played in the UK by a couple of influential tastemaker DJs, Charlie Gillett and Resonance FM’s Joe Cushley who encouraged him to come to London.
In 2006 Seasick Steve’s Dog House Music (now 200,000 plus and counting) was released on the independent Bronzerat label. Tongues wagged in the media village and a high profile appearance on Jools Holland’s Hootenanny – Later’s big New Year’s Eve shindig – was booked. Steve being Steve ‘thought it was shit and that the audience was gonna boo,’ but he was wrong again. The Later performance confirmed him as the hot new not-kid on the block. It also made him the must-see act on the European festival circuit in the summer of 2007. At that year’s Mojo Awards, Seasick Steve won the gong for Best Breakthrough Act.
He remains modestly bemused by all the attention. ‘Every time I walk out in front of these thousands of people, I think -Goddamn, how can someone who’s not young, and didn’t used to be famous already have all this success out of the blue?’ My belief is I’ve come at the right time. People are tired of everythin’ bein’ so fancy. I guess they kinda like hearin’ me with an acoustic guitar stompin’ on a box.’
-I Started Out With Nothing’¦’ debuted in the Top 10 of the album chart and sold over 250,000 copies, making Seasick Steve one of the hottest -new’ artists around. Since then, he’s sold-out major shows including a prestigious Royal Albert Hall date, charmed every festival from Glastonbury to Latitude and became the oldest Brit Award nominee in history.
Now Seasick Steve returns with -Man From Another Time,’ a resolutely organic album that eschews modern studio trickery in favour of the warm style of -live’ analogue recording. Everything on the album was performed by Seasick Steve, aside from drums which are again credited to his longstanding Swedish sticksman Dan Magnusson.
“I hope by making records like this, that it’ll make people want to hear music that’s recorded without the use of digital equipment, and that people’s ears can get a little rest from all that shit,’ he explained. ‘But if not, at least it was nice for me. Me and computers do not see eye to eye.’