Steve Gunn says he doesn’t make visual art, but that’s only true in the most literal sense.
In reality, songs from the Lansdowne-born musician’s new album, The Unseen in Between, evoke more than just a sense of auditory stimulation. Gunn might not realize it, but his record’s prodding lyricism evokes imagery in a way that’s not so different than how a painter might tell a story through illustrations.
His one single, “Vagabond,” for instance, paints an impressionistic picture of how a drifter spends his life – gazing off into pastoral fields aboard a train moving along to nowhere in particular, starting and ending relationships as they come and go. “Luciano,” a song sung from the perspective of a deli owner’s cat who watches his owner prepare for the workday, elicits visions of a feline curiously studying the small businessman as he rolls up the gate to his city bodega, turns the keylock and begins his morning.
“Stonehurst Cowboy,” however, feels more like a photograph in time. The song is about Gunn’s recently departed father, who grew up as a street fighting kid in Stonehurst, an area in Delco not far from SEPTA 69th Street Transit Station. The song summons images of the suburban house Gunn’s father grew up in, and it speaks to how the trees and streets still look the same as they did during his formative years.
“I don’t make visual art, but I’m certainly informed by it,” Gunn said from a cafe in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Gunn earned his bachelor’s degree in film and media arts at Temple University in 2001, citing Professor Peter D’Agostino, an experimental video artist, as a mentor. He subsequently moved to New York the following year, worked at some art galleries, and eventually ended up working for a Connecticut-born, minimalist artist named Sol LeWitt.
“I got really into certain kinds of art and artists, their stories and their philosophies,” Gunn said from a cafe in Park Slope, Brooklyn. “Particularly with a lot of minimalist artists, and there’s definitely a correlation with music.”
The visual influence makes sense given the imagery evoked in Gunn’s writing. But that’s not new. On virtually every album Gunn has released, he showcases imagined characters within a plotline. It’s entirely fictional. But on Unseen, “Stonehurst Cowboy” is just one bit of evidence that Gunn has taken his art in a more personal direction than in years past.
“I think my opinions change about songwriting,” he postulates. “It’s such a weird predicament and position to be in when you’re singing songs [about] yourself, and it creates this ego-driven kind of thing. I was always battling against that.”
But Gunn’s opinion has evolved, now addressing his personal struggles as a “universal topic” and not as an egotistical platform. He’s come along way since his days at Temple, where he’d see shows and sometimes perform at an underground venue called the Astrocade, located in the Callowhill section of the city, a place that’s since been turned into residential apartments.
“It was kind of house show style,” he said. “A lot of experimental jazz people and bands were coming through.”
During those days, Gunn’s music wasn’t quite as mellow as it is now. He performed completely improvised “experimental concerts” with just himself, a bassist and a drummer. The shows were more “funny” than they were artistic, but probably not on purpose.
“There was nothing planned,” Gunn said. “It was total improv.”
On one particular night, Gunn played a show with a local band called Pelt, which featured the late Jack Rose, a local folk-influenced bluesman who died of a heart attack in 2009. During their time in Philly, Rose and Gunn both worked at Reading Terminal Market, where Gunn was employed at Bassetts Ice Cream. Rose was employed about 30 or 40 feet away at Old City Coffee. Throughout their workdays, Gunn would find ways to pick Rose’s brain.
“I was always asking him and other people, just picking their brains and taking notes about music in general, but also about guitar playing,” he said. “I started meeting players who were pretty benevolent with their knowledge, and I’d just ask what tricks and little theoretical things you could take and practice and figure out.”
As it turned out, Gunn learned well and The Unseen in Between is proof. The album is a culmination of all Gunn’s influences over the years, whether it be in music, art or even film.
Tickets to the show are going for $16. You can gram ‘em at utphilly.com.
Steve Gunn | Feb. 2. 8:30. $16. Union Transfer, 1026 Spring Garden St. utphilly.com/events/steve-gunn/