Knoxville icon Todd Steed’s new album, Songs on a Stick, is a collaboration between Steed and his old friend Owen Davis. The songs were all written while Steed and Davis were in China, where they taught last summer.
I sense that this is one of those “concept albums” we often hear about, if perhaps not quite a rock opera. Tell us: What is the concept?
It actually had rules. All songs had to be written in a one-month period while Owen Davis and I were working in China. The songs could be about China or not, but they had to be written there. I finished one as the airplane was leaving Chinese airspace because Owen was out-writing me. So I may have broken the rule a bit, but I’m not sure as nobody on the plane could tell me when we left Chinese airspace. I did ask.
Wait a sec—didn’t you already put out a record with songs inspired by a trip to China? What’s the deal with you and China?
That record, Eskimo Hair, was really more about post-Katrina America. The Beijing photo cover was a bit of bait and switch. Even the song “Stuck in Asia” was really about the U.S. of A. This time, though, there can be no question.
What is Tsinghua University?
It’s the Harvard and MIT of China. I lucked into a summer teaching job there that I’ve been doing fairly often since 2005. The students are considered the best in a country of over a billion people. However, they are more humble than the average Bearden High mid-level performer. The first thing I do is confess my 1979 SAT score to my students—and then we go from there. They are forgiving in addition to being humble. And they love the Carpenters.
Your voice sounds very different on some of the songs. Or you are not the one who’s actually singing on them. Who is this “Owen Davis”? Is he one of your Bowie-like alter egos, or a whole separate person?
When Smokin’ Dave was touring back in 1986 we ran into Owen and his band in Morgantown, W.Va. Some people you like immediately and forever. Owen Davis is one such person. We seem to have a similar view of the world and always wanted to record more together. So we did, finally. He worked at Tsinghua last summer, so we had plenty of time to co-write nine songs. I figure, what the heck, write what you like. Following the muse is more interesting to me than ever.
How did this collaboration come about? Does Owen Davis like China, too?
He does, and Asia in general. He was in the Peace Corps in the Philippines and had been itching to get back to Asia for years. I got promoted enough in the summer program where I was able to draft him. Like a lot of people who work at Tsinghua, we fell in love with the university and city of Beijing. The people are wonderful and welcoming, guitars are 40 bucks, you can ride bikes everywhere, and the food is nirvana. I hope we captured at least some of that in the record.
Is this a download-only album? Have you given up on physical media? Is this the wave of the future?
You and Olivia Newton-John will be happy to know that it is also PHYSICAL. We definitely print less of them, though. I hope the next recording is on LP so we can bring this thing full circle. LPs will conquer all in the end. Just watch.
Is pineapple beer (which inspired the song “Pineapple Beer”) something you can buy in Knoxville?
I hope not. There was a vending machine in the dorm at Tsinghua that had lots of exotic packaged products. I tried them all, but the pineapple beer was the only one I couldn’t finish. I tried some “boutique” version of it in Hawaii and it was every bit as bad. Some concepts just don’t work. I feel the same way about boiled peanuts.