When we last talked to Toledo musician Jeff Stewart, he was a “man on the move.” His 2014 release, Can’t Sit Still, was a reflection of the songwriter’s inability to stay put, creatively, temporally or physically. Last month Stewart, a popular performer on the local music circuit, released his third solo studio album, The Cold and the Beautiful. He’s proud of its stripped-down, to-the-point approach, offering pared-down sentiments while retaining the songwriter’s classic Springsteen-esque writing and familiar themes of love and loss.
Stewart has shared stages with Heart’s Ann Wilson and Sheryl Crow over the years and has been involved in Toledo’s music scene since he was 19 years old. The Cold and the Beautiful is not a solo album, he says, but a collaborative effort of seasoned players who are “all on the same page” musically.
As songwriting goes, it’s not easy to “get your ego out of the way,” Stewart explains. But that’s exactly the path he took to the studio for this record. Tracks on the album come across as straight-up pop hooks, with catchy rhymes and pleasing harmonies; the kind that sounds familiar even when hearing them for the first time. Other songs, like “There Goes Someone’s Heart Again,” recall the classic-rock rawness that has earned the artist regional acclaim. Think dark sentiments with lyrics like, “An empty heart don’t make no sound,” accompanied by rolling piano and blues organ, and you have a sample of Stewart’s creative versatility.
‘A real in-the-moment record’
He describes his audiences as “anyone that has ever walked into the sunshine of a new future, however uncertain,” and, certainly, that comes through on The Cold and the Beautiful. It feels vulnerable at times, but not in a silly way. You can tell that he’s writing from the heart, about very real, universal experiences. “Dreaming in the Night,” a tightly crafted tune, uses a twist on ’80s drum-and-vocal-harmony soundscapes to create a mood of love and doubt. And almost every song on the record has its own unique flavor, with a little something there for any listener.
The recording process was different for this album, less focused on what he calls “ear candy”—production play—and more focused on simple emotional conveyance, Stewart explains. He also references the recording’s “band” feel: with longtime friend, Chuck Mauk ( who owns Perrysburg’s Happy Hands Recording Studio, where the album was recorded) backing on drums; Dave Johnson and Gregg Leonard on guitar (“my Mike Campbells,” Stewart remarked, referencing Tom Petty’s longtime wingman); Kurt Wolak and Kyle Turner on keys; and Pat Prouty and Dan Stewart on bass.
With this stripped-down approach, Stewart said he knew exactly what he wanted to do in the studio. “[The Cold and the Beautiful] was definitely focused,” he said. “The title, like our moods, it’s like our Ohio weather, like our relationships, both beautiful and cold at times . . . The biggest difference is that this was a real snapshot in time, a real in-the-moment record. . . . We’re not chasing some kind of trend,” Stewart said. “We’re just making songs the best we can.”
Pick up The Cold and the Beautiful at Culture Clash Records in Toledo, Finders Records in Bowling Green, online at CDBaby, or streaming on Spotify, iTunes, YouTube, and iHeart Radio. jeffstewart.bandcamp.com. See upcoming live show dates at facebook.com/jeffstewartmusic.