Emerging from his homeland in Connecticut (“Memoirs of Grey”), the titular troubadour takes a chance on a dream (“The Lottery”), rises to the top (“Sweet Salvation”) and meets with disillusionment (“Bitter Bug”) before coming to terms with and moving past his meteoric fling with fame (“The Art of Forgetting”).
It’s a a “Ziggy Stardust”-inspired, existential narrative confronting the roller coaster existence of a professional entertainer. The story is in ways biographical: The Stepkids left lucrative jobs as session and touring musicians several years ago to take a gamble on their own independent project. For the Bridgeport trio — guitarist Jeff Gitelman, bassist-keyboardist Dan Edinberg and drummer Tim Walsh — insecurity is always in season.
But this lingering uncertainty has been far from stifling, instead catapulting The Stepkids toward grandiose heights of ambition — both in terms of their round-the-clock work ethic and boundary-pushing artistry. Now, as they enjoy their fifth and most fruitful year together, The Stepkids have settled into a comfortable groove.
“We’re making paper,” Gitelman said before The Stepkids performance at the Mercury Lounge in New York City on Tuesday. “We are surviving . . . what that did to our confidence is amazing.”
That confidence was on display earlier this summer, when The Stepkids returned to the Park City for an early evening set at Downtown Thursdays. The band was at ease as they dove into a ZZ Top-style choreographed routine that punctuated their rendition of the funkdafied “Troubadour” single “Sweet Salvation.” The band had spent the year raising their profile, appearing on “Last Call With Carson Daly” and major festival stages, and attracting hoards of fresh followers via their popular jazz covers of hit pop songs.
As Gitelman explained, a lot has changed since The Stepkids recorded “Troubadour” in early February.
“Six months is a long time,” he said. “We haven’t experienced overnight success. We don’t want that. But a lot of things have turned around very quickly.”
“Troubadour” (out Tuesday on Stones Throw Records) captures The Stepkids at a different, more precarious point in their career: it is meditative, wistful — a 10-track album that documents the travails of life on the road, the arbitrary demands of the music industry, the self-doubt that defines the life of a professional entertainer. “Insecure Troubadour,” the spiritual nucleus of the LP, encapsulates the latter feeling.
“It’s about traveling the world and telling stories, but then having to convince yourself that you’re nothing special for your own ego to survive,” Gitelman told Spin recently.
As is The Stepkids M.O., those themes are cloaked in a dazzling patchwork of musical styles: funk, jazz, psychedelia, R&B, hip hop, soul, soft rock. It is characterized by the same dusty-fingered, crate-digging tendencies that propelled The Stepkids’ self-titled debut. But, as Gitelman explained, the band is beginning to find a balance between the past and the present.
“On the last record, we were all about being a part of a movement that was retro,” he said. “Now, we’ve used a lot of modern production elements — hip hop, house, electronic music — while still maintaining that old school sound. We’re trying to combine both worlds perfectly.”
“We grew up playing jazz, but we also grew up on Nirvana,” he added. “It’s exciting to be able to incorporate so many different sounds.”
Listening to “Troubadour,” one can’t help but wonder which direction the band might go in next. Given their newfound embrace of success, how about bombastic hip hop? Gitelman, who “used to look down on the excessive lyrics” that suffuse the world of mainstream rap, came to realize that he has “a lot in common, philosophically,” with artists like Rick Ross, Lil Wayne and Drake (“Started From the Bottom” certainly resonates with The Stepkids’ experience).
That all being said, The Stepkids, like the troubadour, will always carry the weight of insecurity on their shoulders. And that’s OK, just as long as it keeps the band grounded, and more importantly, ambitious.
“We’re embracing success,” Gitelman said, “But we’ll always have that vulnerability.”
The Stepkids perform at The Spaceland Ballroom in Hamden on Friday, Sept. 13 at 10:15 p.m. Tickets are available here.
Check out the videos for “The Lottery” and a live performance of “The Art of Forgetting” in the Red Bull Studio, below: