Los Angeles singer-songwriter Stew is a throwback to the heyday of Jimmy Webb and Randy Newman
Mischievous like Orson Welles and as visually compelling, cabaret-pop-folk singer-songwriter Stew complements his name somewhat nicely, though these days, the entertaining provocateur who makes intelligent music is finding his stride in some rather lofty places. In less than a month after two Sacramento dates, Stew will command the stage at Lincoln Center in Manhattan as part of a writer-performer series celebrating the great American Songbook.
“I’m the resident freak this year,” Stew said, chuckling. “This legitimizes my ranting about edgy adult music. I am amazed and happy that folks at the Lincoln picked up on this.”
It is a departure, even in tony Manhattan, where cabaret still means dusting off Irving Berlin and Stephen Sondheim standards with a tuxedo or turtleneck. Stew credits a New York Times feature for turning attention his way. For several years, he has been writing and performing more “quiet, quirky songs” with his musical partner, Heidi Rodewald. Last year’s unbeatable The Naked Dutch Painter and Other Songs (Smile/Image) is full of lovely piano; nuanced narrative; and painterly observations on women, drug habits and afternoon tea. Recently, that album was deemed the No. 1 Album of 2002 by the very mainstream Entertainment Weekly.
“When we do songs like ‘Ken’ [wherein the Ken doll reveals he prefers G.I. Joe over Barbie] or ‘Rehab’—songs that you would think might put people off—we found interestingly that mainstream audiences love this weird shit,” Stew said. “We played in Jamaica recently, in front of people who have no idea who we are. These people got it—they were laughing and applauding and shouting at all the right places.”
It could be that Stew’s other, larger ensemble, which plays a shimmery, funky California orchestral pop sound oft compared to Jimmy Webb, the Beatles and Burt Bacharach, might have put the unwashed masses reading the group’s name on marquees off balance. He named that group The Negro Problem and released an album in 1997 titled Post Minstrel Syndrome. It was just one more tease, a way for him to raise the bar a bit higher for his audience of pop-music intelligentsia.
“I’ve been reading about the 1950s recently,” Stew mused. “There was a really vital adult entertainment scene in America then. It used to be OK to be 30 or 50 years old and go to nightclubs, sit down, order a cocktail and listen to Lenny Bruce or Maya Angelou in a cabaret act. Let’s face it—it was rock ’n’ roll that made it not cool to be an adult.”
Stew is a native of Los Angeles, a place not famous for championing, uh, heritage. Youth at all costs drives Hollywood. So, for a few years now, he has been surrounded by “musician and producer types.” They have tried to give him hints about making his music more accessible, more ways to make things “fit.” His conclusion? “The lesson is you can compromise so much that you just end up disappearing right into the woodwork. Just be your weird self and wait for people to catch up.”
So, as Stew now travels the country and finds more pockets of those who get it, he and bassist, singer and melodica player Rodewald contemplate a time when they can play shows at 8 p.m. to a sit-down audience of listeners, be it at a cabaret nightclub, Lincoln Center or a folk club. It makes sense, with personal and provocative storytelling being the prime objective. To wit: “The naked Dutch painter in the kitchen / Does not want to fuck you. / She’s got 17 boyfriends and an eight o’ clock class to get to. / She’s smoking hash all night with some coffee amaretto, and she’s asking stupid questions / ’Bout my groovy black ghetto. / And the naked Dutch painter in the kitchen does not want to fuck you.”
“On Top of Old Smokey” it’s not. But the world can use a few more Cole Porters and Randy Newmans.