by Dana Schwartz
In the words of Rolling Stone Magazine, “David Poe gives the singer-songwriter genre a much-needed jolt.” Returning to our upstairs stage on July 2, this talented musician is ready to show Philly what he’s got. We were lucky enough to conduct an interview with Poe to learn a bit more about who he is and what he does:
WCL: You have toured with many established artists, from Bob Dylan to Joan Baez. What have been some of the highlights of these tours, and who would be your dream tour partner?
David: To work with the best, with legends and virtuosos, is inspirational and humbling and one of the great honors of my life. Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and T Bone Burnett are seers. Where would music and culture be without their contributions?
But I’ve also learned so much from creatives whose names most people don’t know, and from the great singers and players with whom I’ve written and collaborated: Sim Cain, Grace Potter, John Abbey, Grace Kelly, Curtis Stigers, Oh Land, Thomas Dybdahl, Steve Rosenthal, CC White, Brendan Hines, Regina Spektor, Kraig Jarret Johnson, Amy Raasch, Jack Ashford, Jay Bellerose, Gabe Witcher, Philip Krohnengold, Tori Amos, Duncan Sheik, Ben Peeler, Matt Johnson, John “Scrapper” Sneider, Marc Ribot, to name a very few.
Most artists don’t get too famous, but each passes a torch to another generation, illuminating common themes, conventions, methodology, rules to learn and to break, what has been done before them and how. Innovation requires some understanding of tradition, whether you absorb it through a school arts program or by learning an instrument or listening to cool radio.
It will be fun to play there with Brendan Hines on Sunday. He’s a killer writer who also does a little acting on the side, and he and I have written songs and made two records together. But I guess my “dream tour partner” is really my old acoustic guitar, a relic of the last century.
Musical guests often join me onstage and that brings me great joy, but I’m most interested in the fundaments of songwriting, in words and music. That box of wood and wire allows me to convey both, and it fits in the overhead compartment so long as I make nice with the flight attendant.
I see that you have composed the scores of more than seven films! Could you describe your process for coming up with the music for these films?
Each project is different. I’ve scored a wide variety of films and written songs for big movies, like Triple-9, but also intimate indie things like Diary Of A Teenage Girl. It’s just a lot of fun to see someone like Kristen Wiig doing her thing over a song.
I like putting music to picture. When it works, everyone knows it.
It’s been particularly fun to have songs in TV shows like Dexter, or on Nashville, in which an actor sings it as if they wrote it themselves and the lyrics are woven into the plot and dialogue. A song I wrote called No One Cares About Your Dreams is on the July 13 episode, and they’ve also put Gun For A Mouth and The Most Beautiful Girl in the World into the show.
When someone else sings a song I wrote, I get the same feeling as when people sing “Happy Birthday,” to you, this strange mix of humility and glee. And they always sing it better than I ever could.
How has your experience working with the Sundance Institute helped you as a musician, and what are some of the most significant takeaways you’ve gained from your time there?
Sundance is such an important part of the culture in that it supports independent creative forces and develops films about topics we wouldn’t likely see otherwise. The roots of some of our most venerated investigative documentaries, like Amy Berg’sDeliver Us From Evil or Ondi Timoner’s Dig! Even pioneering narrative projects like The Wire or Orange Is The New Black can be traced in part to the Sundance ethos, which is to amplify less-heard voices. Redford and his colleagues saw the need for this a long time ago, and they have made a significant, artistically-responsible contribution to the culture, broken down boundaries.
Beyond film and TV, one of my favorite projects of the last decade has been making music for Shadowland 1 and 2, two dance theater pieces by the American dance company Pilobolus. Those shows have been on the road since 2009, toured every continent, won awards, appeared on a lot of TV, even been performed for the Queen.
The composition process in dance is like scoring a film, writing a musical and making a record all at once. These scores are part pop song, part sweeping orchestral music, part electronic music, all based on narrative and the characters’ inner dialogue, so I write a lot of stuff for centaurs and gods and robots that I probably wouldn’t have otherwise written.
Your last album, God and the Girl, was released in 2014. How have listeners responded to this album, and can they expect any new music in the future?
Of course it’s thrilling and humbling when people indicate they like the songs, but when a song is done I move on to the next and rarely listen to it again.
I’ve always got new music, both my own and things I’ve written with and for others. For me, the hardest part is releasing it effectively and making listeners aware. Anyone interested can join my mailing list at davidpoemusic.com.
I’m just not particularly adept at marketing or interested in wading into the clamor of social media to sell music. And I’ve been playing since I was a teenager, when wheatpasting posters for gigs was a thing. So now, when a song is done, I nudge it out of the nest and hope it flies.
What have been some of your favorite places to perform, and why?
I’ve always enjoyed playing at World Cafe Live. Great crew, awesome sound, and Philadelphians are one of the best audiences in the world.
One of the shows I played there was recorded for a PBS series.
Have you ever tried a Philly cheesesteak?