‘The Small Hours’: Stephen Clair Discusses Influences, Songwriting, And the Strength of a Trio

Stephen Clair discusses his latest LP, 'The Small Hours,' influences, and being an "eternal, emerging artist."

I’m specifically drawn to your style of writing. Your style of writing, it’s colorful, it’s very organic, because you pull from everything around you. When you’re writing a song, is that something that you put first: lyrics? Or do the lyrics follow a specific sound in mind?

If I was to answer it, either or, lyrics are at the top of my list, even though I’m a lifelong guitar player. Lyrics are incredibly important to me. I have lots of lots of friends, people who I respect, who listen to music, and they love music, and they don’t necessarily know what’s being sung. And I can’t I can’t approach songs that way.

Stephen Clair (Photo: Tony Cenicola)

Have you always been like that?

Yeah, yeah. In addition to being a songwriter, I’ve done a lot of creative writing, like I’ve always been a writer. I’m very, very invested in thinking about songwriting and analyzing songs. And I’ve, well, I can pat myself on the back and say I’m a pretty effective teacher when it comes to teaching songwriting. I love it.

And my students, both kids and adults, definitely get something out of it. I’m kind of addicted to writing songs and getting really– I just love it. I get way into it. So much of it is editing and being willing to throw things away and allow things to develop and morph. But yeah, words are super important to me.

Yeah, likewise, that’s why it just stuck out to me.

Yeah. And that’s why I think that comes back– that’s probably at the heart of my, you know, so-called issue when I was starting out, because I was drawn to the Guy Clark’s and the John Prine’s and the Tom Waits, you know…. People like Patti Smith, definitely managed to straddle that line, they can rock and be poetic. I’m less interested in being, most of the time, I’m less interested in being terribly indirect, you know? Most of the time, I’m interested in some kind of narrative thread.

Yeah, there’s a lot on this album, which I really love. There’s a couple that I feel that are just kind of like these weird bookends, the first one is Marie

That was really fun. You know, that’s a total exercise.

That was an exercise?

Well, in a way, you know, it’s like an exercise—

In regards to the narrative?

Yeah. Painting a picture of, you know, choosing a noble scientist to write about and then to write about her from her husband’s perspective in a way, and he’s also a scientist, you know, and renowned physicist. And obviously with poetic license, you get to go where you want to go with it, and dig up. Let’s say the thing that’s fun with a song like that is like doing the research. Reading up on her, finding this thin connection to Jack Dempsey [laughs].

And then you go to this other song that just makes me laugh, and it makes me smile: “Fixing to Fly.” I’m pretty sure you know what I’m going to ask but why the chickens?

[laughs] “Why the chickens?” Yeah, that actually was given to me as a songwriting assignment

Really? What’s the story behind that?

Well, I teach songwriting and to, I don’t know, to further my own songwriting and to make me a better songwriter, make me a better teacher of songwriting, I have taken a couple songwriting classes with a friend who’s a Nashville songwriter. And he gave an assignment to write a chicken song.

That line “no teeth, no lips, but she’s got them egg-layin’ hips” I love that. I want that on a T shirt.

Yeah. And I also love, obviously I can be verbose like in a song like “Marie.” I love it when something can happen where you’re writing lines like ‘no teeth, no lips,’ like that kind of brevity that is leading you somewhere and you don’t quite know where you are until you get the punchline. 

Jim Jarmusch made a documentary on Iggy Pop, and I was watching that a few years ago, and you know all those early Iggy songs, a whole song will only have like 24 words in it or something, like it’s just so, so, concise. And I think Jim Jarmusch asked him like, why that, and Iggy Pop said something about a teacher he had in school… I’m trying to remember, but it was basically an assignment that was given to him as this kid in school. Try to write a poem with as few words as possible. And I just love that because that’s, that’s resisting the urge to say too much [which] is a really, really good exercise.

Stephen Clair (Photo: Tony Cenicola)

Yeah. And sometimes less is more. But there’s also a great deal of introspection, not to just say everything is so light. Can you tell us more about “I’m in It,” that’s also a personal favorite track.

That’s so much about the atmosphere of it. You know, the vibe of that track. I think what I’m just saying is that the sonic atmosphere of that song is part of what makes it. And that starts out with that very kind of, that oscillating tremolo swirling kind of guitar and has that sort of minor key kind of melody. And it’s like the narrator is kind of in a dark place like, it’s your song about being wrapped up in something that you shouldn’t be wrapped up in, you know, “I’m in it, I’m in it, I’m in it.” 

And even with that sort of darkness, it’s that darkness and something like a song like “Fate” and a couple of the other songs that all led me like, I was trying to think of where do all these songs happen? You know, and what holds them together? And I was thinking, Oh, it’s kind of like, it’s a little bit dark out, you know, it’s like, it’s the middle of the night, and that’s how I got to the small hours for like an album title. [It] can hold it together because it all kind of takes place, either in the world or in the person’s head; in that in-between state.

Stream The Small Hours on all streaming platforms plus grab a limited edition 12″ vinyl.

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