Steven McKeller of Civil Twilight on Nashville & Story of an Immigrant

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When you think Nashville, in regards to music especially, you think southern drawls, Dolly Parton, and the Grand Ole Opry. But the Tennessee city is much more than the country genre it’s famous for. Nashville is a musical epicenter filled with diverse musicians and songwriters.

In the middle of that laid-back atmosphere, sits Civil Twilight. The Cape Town native band has been living and touring in America for years now, making this their chosen home. Story of an Immigrant, the band’s third and newest studio released album has departed from the sounds of the first two records.

Where their self-titled album and their sophomore album Holy Weather stayed in lane with their main influences, Story of an Immigrant creates its own path. Story of an Immigrant is a beautiful, well crafted album that pulsates with feeling.

Pop-Break was fortunate enough to talk to Steven McKeller, lead singer of Civil Twilight, to discuss the new album, growing up in Cape Town, and the influences of Nashville.

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What are some the long standing influences of your band that kind of go into everything that you do?

Hmm, good question. We’ve been around for a very long time actually and we’ve been through a lot of changes. The ones that we drew from very far back when we were teens and just starting, were a lot of the British bands  like the Verve, Oasis, Radiohead, Blur. Those bands were huge for us growing up, those bands set the course for us. And then we got into other stuff later on, but that was foundational for us.

What would you say inspired the sound of your new album?

Well, aesthetically, it’s not really on par with the stuff I just mentioned. In terms of songwriting craft, we wanted to simplify stuff. The last record we made was experimental, and it was good for us to make that record. But, it was kind of a reaction to the things we always clung onto and so we were trying to recreate ourselves and do something different. On this record we wanted to be completely unconcerned about where it sits in the world, like where it was going to be put, genre-wise. We just wanted to make something that was simple and straightforward, like trying to get to the heart of things as much as possible. We focused on melody, lyric and rhythm – so I think that simple music is actually the thing we really like. Learned to play simply, learn to write simply. Kind of a hard thing to do when you’ve come full circle and you tend to complicate stuff.

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Which song did you write, or record first? Did one song lead to the rest or did you have everything ready to go heading into the studio?

Well, we wrote about 50 demos for this, so we had a lot to draw from. The song that actually started off the feel of this record was “Story of an Immigrant.” I remember sitting in my room and just playing around with that idea and that riff. That was the first song, after writing so many songs before that, trying to search for this new direction, and that song came up and it was like, ‘Wow this is it.’ Then songs like “Oh Daniel” and “When, When,” “Holy Dove” – they all kind of followed after that song. We started to see a direction, see something forming through those songs. And that kind of thing is really impossible to control, you just have to run with it. You can try to decide what you want to do but eventually it’s like it’s not really in your control, it can be very liberating how this record actually came about, the sound of it, the feel of it, we had no idea it was going in that direction, but it just wanted to.

I know that you and your brother and Richard all grew up together, but you met Kevin here (in America). So how did that come about? Were you looking for another person to add, or did you meet him and say, “Hey, you should join us”?

We moved to Nashville and moved into a house with a bunch of guys and Kevin was one of the roommates. They became really close, I wasn’t that close with him but over the years we’d hang out and play music together. Then we made the second record and just thought, “We need somebody to help us play these songs.” So I sat down with him and just asked him, “So, I think you should be part of this band, what do you think?” I didn’t want a hired gun, I needed somebody who was going to be involved, invested. I think that’s made all the difference – he’s joined the band, signed the papers, he’s an official member. I think that really encouraged him to write songs and get more involved and now we’re best of mates.  We all get along really well, it was quite a miracle actually. You ask somebody to join a band that’s been around this long, you don’t know what you’re going to get, the guy could go mental on you, you never know.

So you said you moved to Nashville – has it rubbed off on you at all, like on your sound, or just the general air of Nashville?

Civil Twilight - Photo by Saidy Lopez
Civil Twilight – Photo by Saidy Lopez

I think, for me personally, I’m surrounded by music all the time. All my friends are involved in it to some degree. I’m surrounded by a bunch of brilliant songwriters, and I think that has pushed me personally. The craft of songwriting is just in the air there, so present, so that was definitely something that rubbed off on me. After moving there I’ve become more intrigued with the art of songwriting.  I think the air there, the relaxed atmosphere as well, definitely rubbed off. We came from Cape Town, which is super relaxed and Nashville is as laid back. The air, the people, the music, it definitely has rubbed off on me. I fall more in love with American music and the South, I’ve become more intrigued with that stuff.

So you said Cape Town was very laid back. Growing up there, did you always know you were going to come to America, or tour here? Was this your end game or did it just happen naturally?

For me, ever since I was about twelve, I wanted to move to America. My Mom was American and she lit the fire in me when I was young. I wanted to be in America playing music since I was about 13, and the band, eventually, we decided that was the best thing for us. You know, to expand. America was just the place we wanted to go to tour and build our career. So yeah, its always been. Cape Town was a beautiful place to grow up, it was very sleepy, the little town I grew up in, not a lot of music going on. It’s slow

The cover art for the album is really cool.  Was there a reason behind it, or did you just want a pretty, eclectic looking cover?

Once we put together the songs I was talking about, once we sort of made the record. I think we wanted to- all of our past records and past projects seemed kind of dark and the covers we’d seen previous were speaking to certain themes. I think we just wanted to do something a little more colorful and something that has an element of that childlike creativity where do don’t really care not trying to say something, just paints thrown together. That’s why I wanted to make the vinyl colorful, with hand written lyrics, kind of make it a look like [we’re] not taking ourselves too seriously. If anything, just trying to have fun.

Civil Twilight - Photo by Saidy Lopez
Civil Twilight – Photo by Saidy Lopez

“When, When” is one of my favorite songs off the new album. Is that written about a person or a place? Or both?

Ah, ha ha, good question. Well, for me, actually, it’s kind of both. A lot of the record is about that, people and place, melded into one. I write a lot of lyrics about home, about where I grew up. At this time in life I happened to be looking back at where I come from, so yeah, those two things are mixed together

The album seems like a wistful goodbye to where you came from but also looking for where you belong. What do you see the album as?

I think you hit the nail on the head there – the idea of where we come from, the idea of where we’re going – that all of us are actually immigrants of some kind trying to find a home. A home is often not a physical feeling, a physical place, it’s something within us, and it’s finding love; longing for love and finding it. Finding it in something or someone or you’re always going to be looking for them. And I think when you come to peace with that, then we can sort of live anywhere, until then you’re going to be wandering like immigrants and I think the record is touching on that in a lot of ways.

Story of an Immigrant by Civil Twilight is available on iTunes.

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Marley Ghizzone is the Breaking News Editor for Pop-Break. Aside from writing news, Marley reviews television shows and the odd film. She is currently a senior at Rowan University studying Radio/Television/Film as well as Creative Writing. Marley also writes an opinion column dedicated to feminism for her student run university newspaper, The Whit. Pop culture is her drug of choice and her talents include binge watching entire seasons of TV shows obsessively fast and crying over fictional characters. Follow her on Twitter: @marleyveee
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