Singer-songwriter and New York poet-folkie Steven Keene holds up an unflattering yet hopeful creative mirror with his latest album Woke

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Between his finely tuned pop-culture sensibility and an uncanny gift for executing an eloquent turn of phrase, New York poet-folkie and veteran singer-songwriter, Steven Keene has earned a solid reputation for consistently powerful and timely songwriting with the capacity to articulate the modern world’s collective psychic ills through the more palatable context of art.

Keene’s latest album Woke (to be released Feb 3, 2023 via Reviver Records)  pays homage to some of the artist’s major creative influences while chronicling the evolution of Keene’s own sound as he saunters deeper into the ether to explore musical and lyrical motifs around love, loss, social responsibility/transformation, and political resistance.

At the forefront of the album is Keene’s powerful and timely anti-war anthem “Soon,” a track that seamlessly melds a James Agee-styled social critique with the ardent defiance of the best in American protest music. Once again leveling the sights of Keene’s masterful compositional craft dead-center on the faltering heart of the matter, “Soon” holds an unflattering yet hopeful creative mirror up to the great lumbering leviathan of a numb world sleepwalking into yet another World War. 

“Soon’s” atypical chord changes, moving from a major progression into the unexpected somber of A flat, set an unanswered anthem adrift the winds blowing across a dreamscape of uneasy beauty, while Keene’s meditative Cohen-esque vocals and evocative lyrics are punctuated with almost prophetic proclamations of hope.

Says Keene, “Everybody can interpret the song in their own way. But I think it’s a pretty easy read because it’s really just about hope. I believe strongly that it’s going to happen; it’s just not happening right now. It may not be tomorrow, but it’s gonna happen, so look what we have to look forward to on this planet. Everybody’s gonna align one day and feel the same way about helping, about not discriminating against race, religion,  or sexual preference. One day we’re gonna get there.”

Like a doomsday balladeer, narrating the strange set and setting for the bad trip that has been the last couple of years, Keene once again taps into the universal mind to conjure cinematic images of our psychic journey through a dystopian Coney Island Noir on the cover track “Wicked Messenger”. Originally released in 1967 on Dylan’s John Wesley Harding album  “Wicked Messenger” has been covered by a handful of notable artists over the years, including Patti Smith, Rod Stewart, and The Black Keys. Yet, the song feels oddly relevant and at home in the particular chaos of the present. Expressed through the unique, spectral lens of a post-Covid society teetering on the cusp of collapse, the original track’s foreboding undercurrent is brought to bloom in the context of a new time.

Keene explores the fine line between creativity and excess on “Somewhere In Between,” a darkly introspective track that, coincidentally, came to the artist in nearly full form on a dream-time radio station. “Somewhere In Between” provides a disquietingly raw case study for the dual Kali-nature of creativity: With the gift comes the curse, in that those same creatives, blessed with the ability to make profoundly beautiful art, are also, all-too-often, prone to falling prey to their own darker inclinations.

The writing on “Somewhere In Between” is representative of an ambitious body of new material Keene has had in the works since the release of his recent comeback album Them And Us in November of 2020. The consistent flow and range of the new material being churned out foreshadow the broad stylistic eclecticism and bold subject matter that can be expected on Woke. It is also indicative of a deeply personal renaissance Keene has been undergoing as an artist. 

A true songwriter’s songwriter, Keene, has focussed himself for most of his career on honing the craft of songwriting and collaboration with other musicians, more so than chasing record deals and fame. But after working for years in the industry as a well-respected musician and songwriter – collaborating with an impressive roster of musicians and achieving more than a few notable successes in the 90s and early 2000s – life and love lost took Keene down a road of heavy heartache that put his songwriting on an extended hiatus. 

“I’ll tell you what happened,” reflects Keene. “I went through a lot of tragedy in my life. It took a while, seven years, for me to get over it. And then one day, like a switch,  I just was …and I started a new life for myself and put that ache in the past.”

True to his belief that the story is best left open to the listener’s interpretation, Keene doesn’t go into too much detail in the telling of it. But the clues and characters are littered throughout the flood of songs that followed the sudden breaking of a years-long writer’s block. No stranger to music’s strange ability to nullify the ache of loss, Keene harnessed his pain to fuel a creative rebirth.

The songs on Woke run the gamut from the overtly political to the starkly anti-political, from rock and blues to folk, and maybe even some old-school country. Keene gives nods to his primary influences, which range in genre and style from folk song-crafting icons like Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, and Tom Waits to the blues mavericks like Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, and Elmore James, and then, further afield to include the likes of composer/pianist Henry Mancini and country iconoclast Hank Williams.

“I’m very lucky, at this stage in my life, that I’m writing and producing more songs than I ever have …at a faster rate. The bad news is the songs keep me up at night, and they haunt my dreams. And I’m constantly reaching for paper.”

Keene’s newly rising star is a sign that there are listeners out there hungry for his straightforward style of empathy and human connection. Rediscovered by industry veteran Jason Jordan just prior to ONErpm poaching the exec from a position as SVP of Republic Records, Keene has been in no hurry to sign to a major label or conform his sound. When Jordan left Republic, sensing a seismic shift in the industry, one of his first moves as Senior A&R at Symphonic was to sign Keene and release a series of singles and two albums. Now Keene has moved on to sign with Reviver Records for the upcoming release and has taken on new management with Jason Spiewack of Noble Steed Music.

All of the upcoming album’s tracks will be produced by Keene himself, and recorded and mixed by Joseph DeMaio (who also plays mandolin on” Somewhere In Between” ) just blocks from the Atlantic Ocean in Long Branch, New Jersey’s Shorefire Recording Studios, using the last analog Helios console ever built. Having found a classic analog sound and collaborative dynamic that works for him, Keene is keeping on the same roster of musicians for the new album, including Rich Scannella and Steve Holley on drums, Joseph Chiarolanza on bass, Matt O’Ree on guitar, Joseph Napolitano on pedal steel,  Arne Wendt and Jeff Levine on keys, and with Michele Weir, Layonne Holmes, or Lisa Testa often contributing background vocals. 

by Benji Michaels

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