A talented songwriter with uplifting stories and melodies to tell, backed by full-band arrangements and heartfelt sentiments – Robert Stefans released his debut album at 80 years old, and it’s a fine collection of timeless originals.
His story is simple yet inspiring, and will hopefully act as a reminder to all creatives that it’s never too late to pursue your passions in life.
We were blessed with the opportunity to interview Robert to find out more about his journey. Here’s the conversation in full.
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Hi Robert – what a pleasure to talk with you, thanks for your time. For those new to your music, when did you first learn to play and write songs?
I have been writing poetry for 30+ years… every so often a poem came out sounding more like a song. So I picked up the guitar and found the right chords… voila! A song was born!
To new songwriters, I would suggest getting into poetry, for it helps you with the song lyrics.
Congratulations for the new album – What does Ecclectic Menagerie represent?
If you look up the definitions, both suggest a heterogeneous grouping of songs, all quite different but all within what might be called an Americana genre of songs. the album cover, a picture painted by my wife, Emilie Robertson, captures some aspect of eclectic shapes…
What’s your songwriting process like, and was this an entirely solo project or was there a band helping bring it all to life?
It’s a process simple to describe, but exacting in practice. It starts with a line from a poem, a conversation or something read that triggers a larger set of ideas. i then write the lyrics that are about a theme, whether it is love won, love lost, anomalies in the world, the basics of life… keeping in mind that a song is not a poem! For you want the listener to remember the song and thus rhythm and rhyming are important.
I then work out a tune on my guitar or a keyboard which is a challenge. once done, i take this draft of a song to my team in a studio session where we work on it (eg. right key, guitar/piano lines, change lyrics etc. ) until we are satisfied with it. We then record a first take.
There’s a strange kind of comfort in stories of people finding success or happiness later in life. To know that our dreams and desires are always there for the taking. You’re an inspiration to be starting this musical journey at eighty years old. What prevented you from releasing your music or performing in the past? And what has suddenly changed?
In my earlier years I was always hesitant to share a poem and absolutely fearful of sending a poem to be published! I guess it was what they call “ fear of success”… What if my poem was really appreciated?
Sometime as you get older, you realize it does not matter what other people in general think! I read Professor Richard Feynman of Caltech’s book, “what do you care what other people think!”… great book for the fearful and funny…
I might add that being an academic at UCLA was very competitive with regards to publication and where rejection of a researched and painfully written article was too common.
“Rejection tends to shape your attitude toward future publications. When a poem or a song is being judged by someone who can make or break you, you get skittish…”
So only 3 years ago i sent my first poem into the California state society for poetry annual contest… I won first prize (three men in a boat) and $100!! I still have the check! That was when I realized there is little cost to having a poem not accepted.
The opening track of the new album seems to explore the reasons behind the shift to creative production. Did you write songs all your life, just quietly, or is this a completely new endeavor?
Well, like you, and everyone, I too am getting older every day – or as the song sings,”I ain’t no longer young!” It’s when you reach some midpoint in your life, you realize that life is half over. It’s then you begin to question and reassess all your former decisions and where you are in life…and maybe where you are going or hope to be going. that’s the theme of the song.
No I did not write songs all of my life. Poetry yes, songs, no! So this is a new endeavor for me. However, I have been performing music all of my life from attending concerts, singing folks songs on a guitar, or singing serious classical music (eg. brahms requiem, beethoven’s 9th) in a large choirs with orchestras in large venues. So public performance of music is part of my DNA.
I have always dared myself to write a symphony but songs turned out to be a lot easier. Recently I watched the ken burns special on country music which is a fantastic lesson on Americana country music and how it developed. Hank Williams et al then inspired me more to keep writing songs!
Who inspires you to make music, and who do you hope to inspire with yours?
Since childhood, I have always had a beat or some rhyme going on in my head. Taking piano lessons showed me the formality of music as an art. Now, like Eminem, I have lyrics/poems going on in my head constantly. Also my mother loved to have music in our house all day long.
My main purpose is to create songs with very singable lines that will buzz around people’s heads all day and bring them a smile. I do not see myself as a budding star, just somebody who wants to share his songs with everybody.
What does the song Hugging Love represent, and what do you hope people take away from it?
Hugging Love recognizes the powerful need all of us have, men and women alike, for physical touching. the hug is the major form for that longing to be touched. social psychology has researched this need quite a bit and established it as a scientific fact.
“Now American men, because of machismo, have generally avoided hugging as not manly behavior. For the female it is the opposite, they hug children, their parents & friends , dogs and more!!”
So the song is from the female’s point of view (maybe best sung by a women with a strong alto voice) where she is confronting her male friend with the fact that we all need hugging…so she assures him “it’s not a plague or a disease this wanting to be hugged!” So here’s a hug to you!
How did your friends and family react to the new project, and will you be touring or performing these songs live in the coming months?
Old friends were quite surprised and supporting…as well as complimenting, which makes me feel good. those left in my family react positively as well… nice to have that support.
As for performing, I would perform in a small venue, stage setting where someone else has to set up the gig. I can’t do that anymore. maybe a video of some selection of my songs is possible. Right now we are recording a second album of 10 new songs and that is keeping me occupied.
Which song from your collection would you recommend to new listeners, and why?
Goodbye Amy is my first song and a nice smooth song with a good story and easy to understand.
Tango-Bango is a fun song that is essentially about cooperation and working with other people.
Code of Love is about a cocky code breaker who meets his match in love.
Picture in My Wallet is a quiet personal song about loss and regret.
She Keeps on a Talking is a rock and roll song that is a faux complaint in exaggeration.
True Lies is a story about an event where the singer is not sure of the truth of what they are told by a partner. There is lots of doubt and a decision has to be made.
Given that you’ve seen 8 decades now of music and industry changes, what has been the main thing you’ve learned or observed about popular music?
My popular music education started in grade school with Fats Domino, Elvis and Little Richard. I watched Philadelphia Bandstand (later to become American Bandstand) every day after school, which included dancing with my older system in mom’s living room, a forbidden museum in our house!! So I loved old Rock and Roll.
Once making music became a democratically accessible to all, open and very available, complexity entered the scene and it was hard to keep up with garage bands et al., both national and international. so beyond the late 70’s and early 80’s I lost touch with pop music except for The Beatles. Then in the late 80’s, a friend introduced me to The Talking Heads, Tom Waits, Blood Sweat and Tears, Chicago et al… I was again interested in the sophistication and quality of production up to the 90’s. Somewhere in the 90’s up to 2010, I was into classical music performance and pop music went on the back burner. But today, thanks to snl, I am being introduced to some music (eg Billy Eilish) that I again like.
So there is no easy answer to your question. In general, if the music insists on being immature ranting and more, I have no interest in what they do.
I can add that the music of Dylan, James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Gordon Lightfoot, Glenn Campbell – all are the kind of music i hope to do in the future.
What’s your biggest ambition?
Produce good, singable, memorable songs until I am 95!
What’s the best piece of advice you could give about life or creative pursuit?
My songs are full of advice for many aspects of life.
As for being creative, don’t worry about what other people say you should be or do (social pressure), stay away from time wasters like gaming or social media if you can, experiment with multiple instruments until you find the one you love. start reading the better poets to see how difficult ideas can be expressed in words.
Write something every day, records of events, thoughts about anything interesting, fill notebooks with your thoughts and your poems and songs. harvest them later…
Remain curious about life in all its forms and activities; laugh easily and lots, be forgiving, be kind and generous, be respectful to what deserves respect,
“BE THE LIGHT, NOT THE DARKNESS – PEOPLE AVOID DARKNESS, THEY COME TO THE LIGHT.”
Is there anything else we should know?
Nope, this is enough… thanks for the interview and go on Spotify et. al and listen to my songs.