Steve Kazee talks songwriting, keeping his mother’s memory alive, ‘Once’ and Internet rumors

Steve Kazee

Steve Kazee

Steve Kazee will take the stage at Birdland tonight for an intimate concert in which he’ll perform some of the original music he wrote following his departure from Once in February. In part one of his interview with Stage Door Dish, the Tony and Grammy winning actor opened up about songwriting, keeping his mother’s memory alive, and his unexpected early departure from his role as Guy in Once.

SDD: Is there a question that you seem to be asked the most?

Kazee: Not really. I get this question a lot lately, which is ‘are you going to do an album?’ That’s a good question that people are asking.

SDD: Is that something you’re thinking about doing?

Kazee: Yeah, I’m thinking about it. I don’t really know. Primarily, I’m an actor first and a musician as a hobby and sort of as a pastime, so it’s not something I really have intentions of making a career at right now, but I would not shy away from it if it became another part of my career options. I definitely enjoy playing music.

SDD: You went from playing in Once, which is such a heartfelt, intimate show, to now doing concerts in small venues like 54 Below where it’s a very intimate space. Was that coincidental or is it intentional that you’re working in these very intimate environments?

Kazee: No, I just think it’s coincidental. When you have a show like Once, you have 1,100 people in the audience every night and you can’t get 1,100 people into 54 Below. For me, it’s more about playing the music right now and keeping myself busy until another acting job comes along. I try not to think too much about creative decisions. I’m not that calculating when it comes to that sort of thing. It’s mostly about do I enjoy doing what I’m doing and where I’m doing it and if both of those answers are yes, then most likely, I have no problem performing at any venue.

SDD: I know you’re performing at Birdland coming up. Is that going to be similar or a little bit different than your 54 Below engagement?

Kazee: It’s going to be a lot different. It will be just myself and a guitar player and a percussionist and we’re going to be doing some of the songs that I’ve written but in a much different way. We actually just had rehearsal yesterday. I think as a creator of music, you just write a song and you play that song the same way over and over again. After a while, it loses meaning and it loses the key to why you wrote it. So what we decided to do yesterday was sit around in a room and have the same lyrics, of course, but to not worry about playing in the exact same way and just see where we would go with the songs and actually, they’re like children in a way, the more they grow, the more well-rounded they become and you start to see a personality develop within the songs. We had an interesting day yesterday of just freeing ourselves of the shackles of the time signatures we had played in before or the keys that we had played in before and the melodies we had locked into and found a new path. It’s going to be a completely new show. Actually, as much as I loved doing the 54 Below gigs, I’m really excited to do the show at Birdland because it’s going to be a completely unique experience for me than anything we’ve done so far.

SDD: Where does your inspiration get drawn from for your original music?

Kazee: I would say I’m an autobiographical songwriter. I write about things that have either happened in my life or emotions that I’m feeling and I think that it can come across as bitter or it can come across as regretful in some way but I like to think of it as a catharsis. It’s a way of dealing with the emotions that come up. I think a lot of times, you go through tough times in your life and a lot of people will just swallow it down and lash out at those around them and become mean or nasty people and take on the personality of negativity. For me, I write these songs so that I can live a clean and healthy life. It’s my way of exercising a demon inside. I just try to think about whatever emotion I’m having, try to understand what that emotion and coming and then start to put it into lyrics or music. And honestly, I’m still learning. I’ve only been writing songs since February and you don’t just sit down and write a hit song, not that I’m looking for a hit, but you don’t just sit down and write a great song or even a good song. It takes a lot of time. Admittedly, early on, my songs are not where I think I’ll be in five years as a songwriter. I’m learning more everyday.

SDD: I’m going to draw from your word ‘catharsis’ because I actually had that written down. Your personal story is just so inspiring. You’ve had these ups and downs. What keeps you motivated? That interests me so much, because you’re just always so happy and you seem so friendly and it just blows my mind that someone can be so strong.

Kazee: Honestly, it’s a lot easier than you would think. It’s harder to do, but the answer is very simple. You have two choices. You can either be a victim in life or you can be someone who brings about change from pain or from sadness. I’ve had tough times, there’s no doubt about it, but there are people who suffer everyday in many different ways. No one among us is without suffering. You have to make a choice at some point and you have to realize that you have a life that’s on an average of 75 or 80 years and you have that amount of time to experience this world that we all live in. If you’re sitting around and ‘woe is me’ all the time, then you’re not taking full advantage of this gift you’ve been given, which is the gift to be able to live in this world that we live in today, as bleak as it may seem sometimes. There is real beauty all around and you just have to be able to clear out the cobwebs and clear out the darkness in order to see the light sometimes. I just try to stay focused and try to stay positive. Nothing is forever. Very few mistakes are fatal. You just have to keep learning. I hope that I never stop learning from all of the things that I go through in my life because I think that once you stop learning, and you get to a point where you stop questioning everything or stop trying to find meaning, you just become forgotten about in the world. You’re not having a contribution to society, positive or negative.

SDD: The other thing I really wanted to mention and talk about, if you’re willing, is your mom. Have you worked on any music with her in mind? How do you keep her alive with you?

Kazee: It’s been a year and a half and it never gets easy. Just this morning, I remember I sat down and thought to myself, ‘Man, I would just love to call my mom today and just have a conversation.’ I saw a kid on the subway, probably like 13 years old, and he had just leaned his head over on his mom’s shoulder and her head was bent over onto his and they were both taking a little subway nap, like we all do. I just thought to myself, ‘I’d really like to be able to call my mom today just to say hi or to check in.’ It was a great barometer for me to understand where I was in the real world because sometimes this business that you’re in, you get focused on your career and focused on life and you miss what’s actually going on. My mom was such a great mile marker for me. I could look at her and remember where I was and remember who I was and where I was from and once that’s gone, it’s a very difficult thing to deal with. So I do, in my music, try to find things. I wrote a song called ‘Be On Your Way’ and it’s all about her and it’s about her last days when I was at her bedside and just holding her hand. I held my mom’s hand for about four days in a row it felt like and stayed right near her, slept very near her, refused to leave her side while she was passing away because she allowed me the gift of life and she was my home for nine months and my emotional home for the next 36 years of my life. I try my best to pay tribute to her and that song was all about that moment of letting her know that at some point, she doesn’t have to hold on for me anymore. It’s time to let go and move on and I’ve got a life that I have to live here and she has equipped me with the means to live that life. In the song, I tell her that it’s okay, be on your way. You don’t have to worry about me anymore. I’m going to be okay because of the job that you did raising me. Your work here is done. It’s never easy, it’s never been easy and still to this day, it is a very difficult emotion to deal with. People say it’ll get easier with time and I don’t think it will. Hopefully, in some other sphere where we find each other in this plane that we all exist on after this life is over, then maybe the pain goes away then. Until then, I think it’s just a matter of figuring out how to deal with it while you’re going through it.

SDD: Do you feel like you have closure from Once because you didn’t get the final performance and you didn’t have the opportunity to stay as long as you wanted to?

Kazee: It’s funny that you asked that, actually, because I just saw Once for the first time the night before last. I went to see the show on Broadway and I hadn’t really been around the theatre since I was forced to leave because of my injury. I do think that there was a time where I was really struggling with the fact that there was no closure and that I didn’t get a closing night and I didn’t get to leave on the terms that I wanted to leave on, especially having been a part of building that show from the ground up. I was very nervous about going to see the show and seeing someone else play that part. I had met Arthur and Joanna before, they had come to one of my 54 Below shows, and they were both wonderful and I really wanted to make a point of going out to support them but getting there was a task. I had to really realize that this was something that was necessary. It wasn’t just like, ‘Oh, I’m going to see Once,’ it was a necessary part of the healing process for me and when I got there, it was immediate. I felt so at home and I saw so many people that I had loved for so long and still love. I immediately fell back into that feeling of being home and being where I belong and seeing all the people who work at the Jacobs and all of the house staff and I made sure that I went around and said hello to everyone because I just hadn’t seen anyone in such a long time. It was actually really beautiful to watch the show. The show, in my opinion, is sort of actor-proof and as long as you get talented people in there, it doesn’t matter that Cristin and I are gone. It’s still a beautiful show. The creative team, John Tiffany and Steven Hoggett and Martin Lowe, really built a show that is powerful piece of art. It was very moving for me to see it done for the first time and I never once felt uncomfortable watching it because first of all, Arthur and I are so completely different as human beings that there’s no sort of comparison between the performances. He’s got a great voice and is a great actor and took the character to places that I’d never thought about. It was really impressive to watch him work, same with Joanna. I just had a great time and I think after that, I realized that that was what I needed. That was my closure. That was my moment of being able to say goodbye in the way I needed to say goodbye. I’ve actually felt much lighter since having seen the show.

SDD: Would you ever want to reprise your role as Guy?

Kazee: Oh yeah, I’d love to at some point. Listen, that’s the best job I’ve ever had. To play those songs and to be with a bunch of musicians and to just be playing music every night, it’s such a way to commune with your soul and it’s just a beautiful experience. I would absolutely love to go back and I didn’t want to leave to begin with, but much like athletes who get injured, you have take a break. Because the vocal chords are a muscle, and most muscles it’s six to eight weeks, and I was out for just about eight weeks before I was back to full strength. Now, I’m clearly back to where I needed to be. I would love to go back at some point. If the time was right and if they wanted me back, then yeah, it would be something that I would definitely consider.

SDD: Are you enjoying your current break from being on a Broadway stage or are you looking and aching to get back to it?

Kazee: I enjoyed the break for a little while and now I’m getting very itchy. I don’t do well sitting at home and that’s why I started working on the music. I need things to keep me occupied. I’m definitely at this point, I would say, ready to get to get back to work but at the same time, I’m not looking to jump into a show just to be in a show. I want it to be the right thing and I want to be able to know that I feel passionately about what I’m working on because if you’re doing a show to just do a show then you’re doing it for the wrong reasons. I’m auditioning and waiting and seeing what happens and continuing to work on music and auditioning for film and television and something’s going to break at some point.

SDD: I have to ask because I saw this on Twitter and I was like, ‘Well, he can’t leave New York.’ What’s going on with Nashville? Are you looking to move there or spend some time there? What’s going on?

Kazee: Well, that’s a good question. I wish I had a good, clear answer for you. My lease in my apartment is up in September and I’m facing the decision of, ‘Okay, I’ve go to move somewhere. If I’m going to stay in New York, I’m going to move out of this apartment.’ I’m like, ‘Where am I going to go?’ I’m thinking, ‘Well, I guess I don’t have to stay in New York. I could go back to Los Angeles where I lived for about four years or I could go really crazy and do something completely different.’ I’ve done theatre now, I’ve done television, and maybe I should work on music for a little while. I’m from Kentucky anyway and the idea of going back in that direction, toward the South where I grew up, is sort of appealing. The rent is cheaper, the lifestyle is much more easy on the mind and on the spirit. Nashville is such a wonderful city, really, and if you check any magazine or travel, they’ll tell you that Nashville is a city on the rise. It’s just been nominated for a LEED Award, which is a very high distinction for neighborhoods that are up-and-coming. There’s a whole investment issue going on in Nashville where a lot of people are starting to invest in the city itself, not just in the businesses there, but in the actual stake of the city. It just seems like it might be an exciting change for me. I’m just looking into the options and, as I do with everything, carefully considering my options and objectives before I make any sort of big decision. I was looking at apartments and I felt like should shoot a little tweet out about how much I was loving Nashville.

SDD: How do you find your path and projects? When I heard that you were going to do concerts, I was like, ‘Oh my god, his voice. I don’t want anything to happen to his voice.’ Was there any hesitation or do you just embrace what comes up?

Kazee: No, the whole thing with the voice is hard because I think to everyone else, it sounds so scary and to me, quite frankly, it was really scary. What you begin to realize, as I said before, actors are athletes. We do eight shows a week on Broadway, two shows on a Wednesday and a Saturday. Some people do five show weekends, two Saturday, two Sunday and a Friday night. Just like any other athlete, when you’re working hard and you’re working muscles hard, you’re going to get injured from time to time. In Once, we were all injured quite a bit of the time and we just played through it. The body is not meant to play instruments like that for two hours eight times a week. Your shoulders get hurt, your wrists hurt, your fingers hurt, your back hurts from holding a guitar the whole time, and you just keep going because you love what you’re doing so much. With the case of my vocal chords, I’d just had an injury and I had gone almost two years in that show without ever having any vocal problems whatsoever. You just get to a point where your body says, ‘Okay, that last song was my last song for a little while.’ My chords started to swell up a little bit, I went to see the doctor and there was some concern about a blood vessel. They just wanted to make sure I took good care of myself so I was put on three weeks vocal rest which then turned into four which then turned into five. At that point, the decision was made that maybe continuing on with Once right now might not be the best decision for me health-wise. I took some time off and like I said, I’m back to 150% now. I’ve been feeling great at these concerts. I did six shows at 54 Below, sang eleven songs, I did two-show days and I felt very strong after that. With each passing day, I feel stronger and stronger. Don’t worry about me. Everything is going to be okay. Nowadays especially, the treatments that are available for people and the help that is available for people is so much better than it was even ten years ago. I’m not sure that there’s not anything that you can’t through these days. I’m not a steroid taker, I don’t really take Prednisone or old-school remedies. There’s nothing that does the job quite like rest. It was a hard decision but I just took some rest.

SDD: When you were gone, did you keep up with what people were saying and wondering where you were? Nobody knew what was going on.

Kazee: I don’t want to get into too much of the details of that. It was a difficult situation on all sides. Once was left with a decision that had to be made, I was left with a decision that had to be made and we were both trying to make the best decision in the best possible way. Quite frankly, my medical health or my vocal health, is my own personal business and out of respect to the casting process, while they were trying to find someone to take over for me, I chose to not talk about my injury. That’s on me and whether wires were crossed or people felt like they deserved to know, I can’t say. It’s sort of all in retrospect at this point. I appreciated all of the love I was getting from some people and I respected all the nastiness that I would get from people. This business is interesting. People will champion you one day and tear you down the next. Not everyone but there’s a certain amount of people and they like to find drama where there is none. The reality of the time period between February and March was that I was at home, quiet, panicking about whether I was ever going to be able to sing again and watching television and dying to get back on my feet. Anything else that was put out there was just speculation and people being people. Unfortunately, everyone wants more of dramatic story than there actually is.

SDD: I heard some weird things and I was like, ‘I don’t think he’s in rehab or a mental ward.’

Kazee: Of course, because people read those blogs like the BroadwayWorlds and All That Chat and those sort of places and they contact me and tell me these things. They’ll write me emails on Facebook, ‘I heard you’re in rehab,’ which is just hilarious to me. As you see in the news these days, with real-life tragedies like what just happened with Cory [Monteith], is that rehab is not just something to throw around and to make fun of or to pick at. The idea that just because I was on vocal rest and that something was wrong with me and I have to go to rehab is just a sad state of the world that we live in, this sort of gossipy, TMZ-based world where, like I said, everyone wants a much more dramatic story where they’re not satisfied with the fact I’ve just injured my vocal chord. They’re like ‘It’s got to be something bigger than that.’ I’ve never understood actors who rail about paparazzi. To a certain extent, there are some people I really feel bad for but for the most part, know that you’re in a business where you’re putting yourself out there everyday and people are going to say things about you and some of it is going to be negative because there are people, that’s how they exist, they just say negative things about people. You see it on Twitter. Someone will tweet something and the first five or six tweets are always something negative or someone being smart-alecky or being snarky. We live in such a sarcasm-y, crappy humor-filled world that everyone thinks they’re right to comment on someone else’s life. To a certain extent, I put myself in the public eye. I tweet a lot and Instagram a lot and I’m very much involved. I like to have an open dialogue with my fans. I like for people who enjoy watching me in shows to talk to me. I like to get to know them and know their experiences in life. I’m never going to stop doing that just because a handful of people, like six people on BroadwayWorld, like to just get nasty and say awful things.

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About Samantha S.

"I found the theatre and I found my home.” ― Audra McDonald

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