For an individual who declares, “I took no music in grade or high school and wasn’t particularly drawn to it,” singer, songwriter, guitarist, recording artist and music teacher …
For an individual who declares, “I took no music in grade or high school and wasn’t particularly drawn to it,” singer, songwriter, guitarist, recording artist and music teacher Steve Allain has carved out, and is absorbed by, a life and career in music.
Over lunch at the lively, colorful Blue Kangaroo, the Barrington resident regaled me with an account of his life’s artistic crossings, which took him from Massachusetts to Canada, and back to the most Northern, Southern, Eastern and Western points in the continental United states.
”My parents migrated from New Brunswick, Canada, to Marlboro, Massachusetts, where I was born. We lived there until I was 9. It was around that time that my parents split up, so my Mom, with my sister and I in tow, decided to move back to Canada to be closer to her people,” said Allain.
“My Mom comes from a very large clan. She was one of 16 kids, so I have tons of uncles, aunts and cousins, and they used to get together quite often. We would go to my uncle’s cottage, and everyone would sing and play,” said Allain. “I would sit in the middle of the floor with a little portable tape recorder and record the fun. I still wasn’t playing music but for some reason I wanted to capture the entertainment on tape. I would then take it home and listen back to it. It was like listening to records in a way. That kind of sparked my first serious awakening in music.”
Allain’s progression towards a life of music, however, was a slow burn. He didn’t purchase a guitar until well after he graduated high school. But the music bug was beginning to hover and preparing to sting.
“After high school I moved back to Massachusetts, where I was working. Me and a friend of mine were walking down Main Street one summer night and we heard this really loud music. When we got to the park where it was coming from, we saw a stage set up and a live band playing. It was 1987 and they were playing Aerosmith and Bon Jovi, and my friend and I noticed that all these girls were fawning over the band and we said, ‘this is amazing, we want to do this.’ ”
Months later, when spring break rolled around, non-students Allain and his friend followed the hordes of college kids to Florida to witness and partake in the revelry firsthand. Subsequently, Allain chose to stay, while his friend returned home.
“I got a job in Key Largo, saved some money and bought my first guitar — a fire-engine-red, electric Peavey Nitro. I took it home, bought a guitar instruction book and became obsessed with it. I practiced day and night wheneverI could,” said Allain. “I met some people at work that played and taught me some stuff for about a year. I then decided I wanted to go to school for music and guitar. I applied at Musicians Institute in Los Angles. I got accepted and moved to LA.”
While studying in LA, Allain started networking and gigging. He met a musician from Missouri named Eric Wilson (who years later did work for Steven King). Allain and Wilson hit it off and started writing music together. When Wilson’s dad fell ill, he was forced to move back to Missouri and Allain (who had by then graduated from the Musicians Institute) decided to follow Wilson to St. Louis, where they formed a band and kept writing.
“I eventually split with Eric and did lots of different projects, from solo gigs to bands. Musicians Institute was a performance school, and only that so in Missouri I decided to enroll in Webster University to pursue a Bachelor of Music in classical guitar. In those days you couldn’t go to university for rock music.”
While in St Louis, Allain got his bachelor’s degree, got married and starting teaching and playing. He went on to further his musical education at the Cleveland Institute of music, where he earned his master’s in composition.
“In 2005 I was gigging classical guitar at wine tastings, weddings and events while teaching at the Michael Burke conservatory of music, as well as giving private lessons at my home. Then my daughter was born,” said Allain. “We knew we didn’t want to stay in St. Louis. My wife’s sister worked at St. Andrews School and got her a job there, so we picked up and moved to Barrington with a one-year-old baby. My wife started working and I started gigging and teaching. I got involved in the local music scene with RISA (Rhode Island Songwriters Association) while doing lots of solo stuff, coffee houses and at AS220 playing original music.”
Musician and storyteller
In Rhode Island, Allain has produced a handful of “singles” recordings as well as a full CD, entitled “Thirteen,” in which he displays his trademark fingerpicking style and his storytelling delivery, which is reminiscent of Harry Chapin and John Cale. These 12 songs are organic – while intense and calming at the same time. Listening to it may go best with a log on the fire and a libation in hand.
One of his singles in particular, “The Fisherman,” showcases what Allain is made of. Here, cold steel guitar strings become mellow and rich, submitting to his warm touch as he conveys a New Englander’s hard life story of toil and deep loss. At one point, under the weight of draining emotion, Allain’s voice quivers but he somehow keeps his chin up long enough to deliver the unhappy ending.
I wondered if Allain employed a specific methodology to his songwriting.
“I learned the how-to of writing songs by listening to the Beatles. They were the seed for me. If you listen and study their technique and approach, the structure and production information to create a song is all there. Most modern-day songwriters beg, borrow and steal from the Beatles.”
I asked Allain, aside from the nuts and bolts of drawing up the blueprint to a song, how does the creative process work?
“Song construction is universal, but the creative process is personal and solitary,” said Allain. “I can see something – a random event or a person’s face, hear someone speak or a baby cry – and somehow it gets translated to a lyric or a chord progression in my head, but that phenomenon is a mystery which can’t be, and shouldn’t be, dissected and analyzed. Kind of like a magic trick, where if you explain it, it takes the wow out of it.”
These days Allain’s plate is full. Along with teaching private lessons at his home, he’s booked, as a performer, well into December of 2023. He primarily plays solo gigs but also performs with singer, songwriter, mandolinist, guitarist Tracie Potochnik in the popular local duo, Cardboard Ox. In his “spare time”, he hosts two separate singer, songwriter series, one at the Foolproof Brewing Company in Pawtucket, R.I., and the other at Graduate Providence Hotel in Providence, R.I. These series were created to afford songwriters and performers a locale and opportunity to showcase their wares and to interact with other musicians to further and promote original music locally.
Making music a profession
Music is Allain’s livelihood. He doesn’t hold a day job, so I asked, what is life like as a full-time musician.
“I have to get paid, obviously, to play gigs and teach, because it’s what I do for a living, although it doesn’t feel like work. The 9-5 thing is not for me. It never was, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong for others,” said Allain.
“Traditionally, most musicians are under-payed, under loved and under-appreciated. But they truly are an important part of society, and they should be compensated in kind like any other profession. But sometimes it’s viewed as a hobby, where folks have actually said to me, ‘it’s nice that you’re a musician, but you should go get a real job.’ ”
Conversely, many feel that, in society, the artist is just as important as the laborer. Imagine, for instance, what a plumber might charge if called to one’s home for 3 or 4 hours on a Saturday Night, so why wouldn’t the same standard apply for a musician or an artist who has spent their whole life honing and perfecting their craft.
“In some ways Covid has rejuvenated the interest in live music. I think when people were isolated and not having live music readily available, it made them realize how important art and music was to their daily lives,” said Allain. “Before Covid, folks may have taken live music for granted. They could go out anytime and hear music when they pleased, but when Covid hit, they felt the void – what was missing from their life’s. Online concerts and all were just not the same as going to a live show and experiencing the thrill of the in-person moment. So now I’m seeing an upswing in live music. More opportunities, more venues.”
I asked Allain what kind of advice he could give to novices or even veterans in the business.
“Be genuine, be real, don’t try to fit in some kind of box,” Allain advised. “It has to be fun and passionate. Forget about the struggle, because it is a struggle. When you love it and live it and it’s in you, it’s a fire deep in your soul and there’s nothing that can extinguish it.”
Learn more about the musician at steveallain.com.
Michael Khouri is a Barrington resident writing occasionally about the Rhode Island music scene. Reach him at email@example.com.