American troubadour Steve Gunn strengthens connection with Ireland

New York-based guitarist and songwriter Steve Gunn is making a comeback to Ireland this spring. With a career spanning nearly fifteen years, the prolific musician has produced volumes of critically acclaimed solo, duo, and ensemble recordings, working with the likes of pianist and composer David Moore, Sonic Youth bassist and singer Kim Gordon, experimental guitarist Bill Nace, and more recently with Navan native Oisin Leech. His guitar-driven material is most definitely contemporary, at times drawing on improvisation, other times on folk and blues with subtle fingerpicking and slide. 

Gunn grew up in Landsdowne, Pennsylvania, a suburb on the outskirts of Philadelphia. His parents were into music, collecting vinyl and often attending gigs in the city, so there were no questions asked when young Steve expressed wanting to play an instrument. Thanks to a great guitar teacher, playing the instrument became like second nature, and he fell in love with it. “It just fit my personality and into how I wanted to relate to myself and to the world,” he says. “It was like this placeholder for me where I knew that I wanted to travel and be an explorer per se.” His love for playing guitar continued when he moved to Philadelphia to study art history. He found the city to be a deeply rich environment for culture and music, and this is where he bounced off different music communities, meeting people he was able to learn from, such as American primitive guitarist Jack Rose. 

After college he moved to New York with $50 in his pocket and worked in various jobs to sustain his music career, including construction work, and handling artworks for a gallery. New York was only a two hour drive from home, but it almost felt like a different country. Now based in Brooklyn, Steve feels somewhat embedded in the city because he has a community to draw from and a studio that he uses, but he admits that things are changing economically, and he’s unsure if he will stay there forever. “I’m constantly trying to think about where to go and how to cultivate this creative life and not feel like I need to give up,” he explains. “There’s a certain level of decision making and protectivity with being a creative person, particularly in the US and for musicians,” he continues. “It’s a different world now, and most of us make money by playing gigs and it’s hard work, but luckily I’m able to do it, and New York was always a place where I could leave and come back if I needed a break from it.”

And travelling he does, having gigged in Ireland and most of Europe for the last ten years. He is currently on a tour that will see him play festivals in Portugal, Spain, and France with composer David Moore. Together, they collaborated on the ‘Let The Moon Be a Planet’ album which was a project of improvisation, a sort of call and response where Gunn plays a nylon string guitar through some effects and Moore responds on the piano. The album was released in March last year, and a ‘Live in London’ just came out at the end of February. “It’s a different world for me because it’s very open music and it’s really nice to shift a little bit and try different things,” he explains. “Being on the road with David is a different experience too – he plays piano, so he doesn’t travel with any gear, which fascinates me because I have just been lugging my guitar around forever and I’m kind of jealous that he just has a little backpack,” he laughs.

In early April, Steve will travel to Ireland from Brooklyn to perform with Navan musician Oisin Leech for three very special performances in Dublin, Galway, and Letterkenny to mark Leech’s debut Irish headline to promote the release of his album ‘Cold Sea’ produced by Steve. The two musicians first met after Leech contacted Gunn following the release of his rather beautiful 2019 album ‘The Unseen in Between’ written in the wake of his father’s passing. “Oisin ended up recording at the same studio, so I went and said hello and we became friends,” he recalls. “Oisin is such a generous guy that the next time I came to Dublin we hung out and I went up to Navan where he lives, and played at this folk club that he plays at. We’re both busy musicians, so we had a lot of crossover with people we knew.”

Meeting Oisin Leech further strengthened the connection between Steve Gunn and Ireland. Oisin’s innate Irish welcoming is the reason why Steve decided to travel to Ireland and produce his album. “We rented this house in Donegal and built a studio there and really got to sink in and absorb the landscape. And to me, that’s something I’ve been wanting to do forever so I value meeting him and his friendship”, he confesses. The video for ‘October Sun’, the debut track from Leech’s forthcoming album (out March 8) gives us a glimpse into the recording process, where the musicians are seen playing the guitar in the garden of the studio they set-up near Malin. “We went swimming twice a day, it was really cold hence the title ‘Cold Sea’”, he explains. “The way that we worked, we’d wake up and go swimming and then we’d work, and then we go for another swim and then we’d work more. And it was this way to recharge ourselves. It was incredible”. Of the process of producing an album for someone else, he says: “Oisin is a very talented, smart poet and musician so it wasn’t a hard job per say because he did all the work, but it was really rewarding to help somebody make a record that sounds great. And I learned from it too, so it was something that I look forward to doing again.”

A versatile musician and now a music producer, Steve Gunn is a superb guitar player who is more about evoking a feeling than showing off the technique. He was formerly a guitarist in Kurt Vile’s live band The Violators and he collaborated with so many musicians that he sometimes finds it hard to keep track of all the albums he’s worked on. Notable recordings include the many releases he has made with John Truscinski with whom he has collaborated for over a decade and a half, making improvised music and “exploring the fiery conjunctions between experimental drone and rock and roll”. The Gunn Truscinski Nace album entitled ‘Glass Band’ was issued on Three Lobed Recordings in July 2023. Matador Records released his albums ‘Eyes on the Line’ in 2016, ‘The Unseen in Between’ in 2019, as well as the more recent ‘Other You’, recorded during two visits to Los Angeles in late 2020 and early 2021.

Currently touring the Iberian Peninsula and France with David Moore, Steve Gunn will play in Ireland as part of Oisin Leech’s band along with Donal Lunny and fiddle player Roisin McGrory in early April, and then embark on a solo tour of Europe throughout the month of April. He will then be back in Ireland for a co-headline tour with American indie-rocker Cass McCombs that will see the two musicians perform across the island for seven dates from the end of April to early May. “I’m looking forward to going back in April with Cass,” Steve enthuses. “I never really get a chance to take long vacations or holidays, so I sometimes try to fit things in, but I’ve always been wanting to visit Ireland as a somewhat normal person”, he continues. “I think it’s going to be really great. We’re both really excited to travel through Ireland and play these different places that I’ve only heard of.”

Steve Gunn and Cass McCombs play at DeBarra’s on April 26 and Live at St Luke’s on April 27.

Lauren Guillery

Lauren Guillery is a rock musician and music lover. Her album ‘Disaster in La La Land’ is available on all music platforms.

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