They say life is a journey, and for Americana singer-songwriter Stewart Eastham, that voyage has recently taken him from the fast-paced sprawl of Los Angeles clear across the country to new digs in Nashville, TN. His songs span the breadth of the Americana realm: from the old school country sounds of “The Lights of Tennessee” and “Livin’ With Bad Decisions,” to the funky southern rock of “Broken Hearted Lovers” and “Crawl Up In Your Bottle,” to the lush, layered arrangements of “It’s Understood” and “The Man I Once Was.” Stewart is both a prolific and poetic writer with a deep love of storytelling, honed not only through music but also via a deep passion for literature and art films (and their less “noble” counterparts: genre fiction and genre movies.)
After a lifetime on the West Coast, Stewart recently found himself at both a personal and artistic crossroads. He found respite from the darkness of his final L.A. years in the change of pace and peace of mind he discovered in Nashville. This allowed him to turn inward and write his most personal album yet: The Man I Once Was—his first solo album since fronting country-rock band Day of the Outlaw. The album is a sincere, unflinching portrait of one man’s travels down a rough and rocky road and eventually finding a place of redemption (as outlined in his song “The Lights of Tennessee.”)
“It’s my ‘L.A. to Nashville’ album,” explains Stewart. “As the song ‘Born In California’ exemplifies, my life has always been based around a series of dichotomies: city vs. country, intellectualism vs. street smarts, freedom vs. security. With the move to Nashville, that dichotomy became literal, snaking its way through many of my songs as well as determining the album’s title and cover art.”
Stewart was born and raised in the Butte County region of rural Northern California. He grew up on the sounds of classic country, outlaw country, and California country. (Merle Haggard is a constant inspiration.) This was supplemented with a love of rock ‘n’ roll, starting with the very first time he placed one of his mom's old Beatles records on his plastic Fisher Price record player. Forays into The Beach Boys and The Rolling Stones were other early influences. This led to a lifelong love of classic rock, and he also developed an appreciation for hip-hop and heavy metal.
Stewart’s early days of creating his own music revolved around a beat up old guitar inherited from his grandfather and a raggedy, shag carpet-lined, flea market drum kit his grandmother bought for him. During his first year at UC Davis, Stewart answered a music store ad placed by a satirical thrash metal band looking for a drummer. That fateful day kicked off a lifelong passion for creating and performing music.
After graduating with a degree in Computer Engineering, Stewart switched gears and moved to Los Angeles to attend film school. There he developed his skills as a storyteller through writing, directing, and acting in films, while continuing to play music as a drummer. He also became an acolyte of country music—starting back with guys like Hank Sr., Jimmie Rodgers, and Lefty Frizzell, and then working his way up to the country-flavored singer-songwriters of the ’70s like John Prine, Townes Van Zandt, Mickey Newbury, and Terry Allen.
After playing drums for a few years in the Los Angeles outfit Minibike, the band morphed to the point where Stewart was the frontman. He explains, “Once I started writing and singing my own songs, I finally found my true calling in life.” Minibike transformed into Day of the Outlaw, which released two albums: 2009’s Black Mountain Majesty and 2012’s The Retribution Waltz. Opting to move forward as a solo artist, Stewart teamed up with producer (and former bandmate) Burke Ericson to begin work on what would become The Man I Once Was. Ironically, he traveled back to Los Angeles to record this album using a group of incredibly talented musicians he’d met during his tenure there, including bassist Ted Russell Kamp and pedal steel player extraordinaire John McClung.
“Through the course of production, Burke ended up building a studio in his house which afforded us the opportunity to really hone the specific sound we wanted for this album,” says Stewart. “We talked a lot about the early Neil Young records where he had big, funky drums over country-tinged songs. Burke has such a great ear and I really trust him. He understands me as a songwriter and always made my ideas better. To me, that’s a sign of a kickass producer.”
Stewart’s latest endeavor captures some of his most honest and personal lyricism to date, especially moments like “Idyllwild, CA,” “Crawl Up In Your Bottle,” “It’s Understood,” and “The Lights of Tennessee.” Since The Man I Once Was is so deeply rooted in his own first-hand experience, the songs often take on the feel of a diary spanning an incredibly transformative time in his life. Regarding the powerful, gospel-tinged album opener “Let It Go” Stewart said, “It’s funny, someone asked what girl I wrote that song about. When I wrote that song, I wasn’t singing to a girl, I was singing to myself! I think that was the very first song I wrote after the Nashville move.”
Stewart continues: “As a storyteller, I always come at songwriting from the character’s perspective: ‘Who is this character? Every song I write is personal to me in some way, but on this album I was the actual character more so than any other record I’ve done before. The layer between me and the character I was writing about became very transparent.”
Currently, Stewart happily resides in Nashville. He’s an avid vinyl collector and continues to work in film: writing, directing and composing. In late 2012, he traveled to the Middle East, filming a documentary on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. With his solo career kicking off, Stewart plans to tour soon with the new band he’s put together. He also continues crafting new songs branded with his unique perspective. “I always like to have an album’s worth of new songs in my pocket. Just in case,” he says with a wink and a smile.
“As my audience has grown over the years and I get more feedback from the fans, it inspires me more and more. Ultimately, I’m a storyteller and I feel it’s my responsibility to tell the stories I find moving, entertaining, and enlightening, and, in doing so, bring together folks from all different walks of life. Music is the ultimate equalizer and, hell, maybe it’s the way we bridge the gaps to bring peace and love to this world.”