Stephen Clair’s grandfather was always singing from behind the wheel while occasionally opening the car door to spit. It was Grandpap who played young Stephen a Johnny Cash record when he was five years old, and that’s everything Stephen remembers from his youth.
Best known for his wry humor and guitar stylings, the Beacon, NY musician has been a fixture on the Americana, alt-country, and dorky independent rock scene since his 1997 debut, Altoona Hotel, named for the town his grandfather called home.
He’s released many more albums over the years and toured and done all the things, experiencing all the near misses of life in the biz. Critics and his family love him first. Everyone else has come around in their own sweet time.
Rawboned, his latest effort, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, features only Clair and a guitar, except when it’s Clair and a rickety piano. The songs are miniature stories, the essence of emotion, and the arrangements and performances fit accordingly. “Every note, every part —including the air around it—is intentional,” says Clair. “I recorded it alone, in a room, over months, guitar in my lap, mousing with one hand, groping through the microphones surrounding me. I recorded take after take of each song. What you hear are complete, intact performances of each song. No punching in, no edits, no cutting and pasting. Each track on the record is a complete performance.”
There’s air in these songs, for sure. Every melody counts, as does each breath, word, and the space in between. Repetition is another device Clair takes full advantage of. Repeating words or lines can show longing, anticipation, and even obsession. The singer in “Watering the Flowers” and “Pizza and Fairy Tales” uses this to full effect. The sanguine narrator provides the play-by-play as they incessantly water the flowers, waiting, wondering, attempting to keep their shit together.
Clair first came to prominence when the late Rita Houston pronounced her love for “Jen in Her Underwear,” adding it to regular rotation on WFUV, thereby putting Clair on the map and the road. His next effort was Under the Bed, followed by What Luck (2007.) In 2019, Clair teamed up with celebrated producer Malcolm Burn (U2 and Emmylou Harris), the result, an epic garage album, Strange Perfume.
Paste Magazine declared”Clair’s lyrics are everyman poetry with a dash of self-deprecation and gallows humor to go with his otherwise uncluttered views of the world around and within him.” With an album so bare is this new one, it’s as if we are in the room with Stephen Clair, knee to knee. Just listen.