Can you talk to us more about your latest single “Out of Blue”?
It’s the title track from my new record, coming out February 15. This album — and this song, in particular — has more rock n’ roll than my previous output. I’m generally known for my quiet, contemplative music. My songwriting reflects my mind state and I suppose I’ve been in a contemplative mood for a few years. This song reflects a shift in me: more playful, more joyful, more embracing of the inherent sexiness of being alive.
Did any event in particular inspire you to write this song?
I wrote a lot of the song while traveling in Asia, in particular while trekking high up in the Everest region of the Himalayas. There was something about the freedom of moving through immense, desolate valleys, often the only human in sight, that made me reflect on the bliss of loving on the edge; when you don’t know where something is going, you’re enthralled by a person or a purpose or an idea, and you feel the vital energy of life flowing into you, calling you to dance with it. It’s the bliss of uncertainty coupled with faith, of total freedom coupled with the knowledge that it could end any moment. You’re in free fall.
Why naming the record after this song in particular?
The phrase holds multiple meanings for me that go beyond the single song, meanings that stand for my whole creative vision as a songwriter. First is the primordial creativity of the universe itself — the Big Bang and the great mystery of being appearing out of the void. Second is the personal creative act of songwriting — also a total mystery to me, as songs appear out of the blue like gifts from my Muse. (The first line of the first song on the album, ‘Pine Needles’, is “I dedicate this to the Muse / turning up out of blue / singing to me all the things / I ever sang to you”.) Lastly, there’s the process of healing from loss — coming ‘out of the blues’ and into the light. (The second half of the record is a song cycle about this, ending with the final track, ‘Into the Light’.) These meanings are all different ways of connecting to the album.
How was the recording and writing process?
This is my first professionally-recorded album and first full-length record. I’ve always been confident in my role as a songwriter — mostly because the Muse does the hard work and my job is to be receptive. But I knew next to nothing about the nitty gritty of album production. I’ve learned so much this year about producing, arranging, and recording. It took so long to finish the record because I took the time to learn as I went. For instance, I learned Pro Tools from scratch in the course of making this record. More importantly, I developed a much keener sense for arranging instrumentation, adapting a song I wrote for solo voice and guitar to a multi-instrumental form. I’m a minimalist at heart, so for me, it’s all about paring things down to essentials. What is the fewest number of instruments I can use to fully communicate the heart of the song?
How Iron & Wine and Mason Jennings has influence your writing?
The lyric is the most important element of a song to me. Those are two of my favorite lyricists in the industry, for different reasons. Sam Beam (Iron & Wine) paints stories through vivid, concrete imagery. I tend towards the abstract so I learn a lot from him how to make feelings concrete through imagery. But on the other hand, his songs generally don’t come across as autobiographical. Mason Jennings songs always feel autobiographical. He is such an open-hearted songwriter and a real mystic. I take inspiration from him on brutally-honest, personal songwriting.
From all the religions, what was it about Buddhism that you find so fitting for this record?
The Buddha taught that there’s a way to live your everyday life without constant struggle and stress. The way requires that we embrace the precious impermanence of being alive, knowing that we will die one day. There’s a freedom that comes when you really fall in love with your own mortality, because all the things you stress about really don’t matter. That’s my aspiration and the songs speak to my own journey in trying to make that aspiration my lived reality. They also ask everyone listening to come along for the ride. Not to become Buddhists, necessarily, but to spend more of our waking hours awake and grateful and kind, because we’re all in the same boat.
What role does the Bay Area play in your music?
I was born in Boonville, CA, in the coastal mountains a couple of hours north of San Francisco. I grew up playing in the woods and sailing with my parents on the sea. I think the comfort and sanity I feel in natural places mirrors my love for natural sounds and the acoustic instruments I primarily employ in my recordings. The land and sea, woods and rivers, show up a lot in my lyrics, as visible stand-ins for emotions that are otherwise too immense to describe literally.
How did tragedy serve as a source of inspiration?
My favorite part of the song is the stellar backing vocals by the Rainbow Girls — who, like me, are based in Sonoma County, California, about an hour north of San Francisco. In contrast to the beauty of their performance, those vocals were actually recorded under some pretty dire circumstances.
While we were recording in a studio a few hours east of Sonoma County, we got the news that the most destructive wildfire in California history had hit our homeland, burning down whole neighborhoods. We were totally spooked. We had to make a decision, weighing the importance of recording this long-planned session versus our fears that our homes were under threat. In the end, we decided to quickly record one song — “Out of Blue” — and then the Girls high-tailed it back home. I stayed for a couple more nights, following the news closely, before cutting the session short and heading home to help out with the recovery. In the end, our own homes were safe but so many friends’ and their families lost everything but their lives to that fire. You’d never know any of this listening to the song. You just hear the Rainbow Girls singing their beautiful hearts out — as artists do in the very best and very worst of times.
Where else did you find the inspiration for the songs and lyrics?
One reading of the record is that it’s a break-up album. The first side is about falling into love and the second side is about falling out of it, and the healing that comes beyond. The second side songs are all about one relationship I was in for many years and my journey through break-up, loss, anger, grief, healing, forgiveness. It was cathartic to record these songs. I sense that in releasing them I’m turning the page on a sad chapter in my life and making space for all the goodness coming down the line.
Any plans to hit the road?
I’ll tour this Spring in support of the record and hope to play some West Coast festivals in the US come summertime. I hope to see y’all out there.
What else is happening next in Daniel Steinbock’s world?
Putting out this record is making a whole lot of room for new songs. I’ve been writing up a storm lately and already scheming about the next album, including picking up the electric guitar. I feel like things are gonna get more rockin’ next time around.