By: Tim Newby / Photos by: Tim Newby
A glass of whiskey sat in front of me, directly next to it a typewriter with a blank sheet of paper loaded into the carriage. Try it out, implored Baltimore singer/songwriter Caleb Stine.
The typewriter sat on the table in Stine’s kitchen and he had just finished telling me how, in a very Dylan-esque way, he likes to type out all of the lyrics to his songs. He explained, “When it is typed it is real, it is much easier to see what lines work in each song. It is like having a demo recording”.
Following his advice I began to type. Despite the non-nonsensical sentences I put on the paper, the clacking of typewriter keys is a distinct sound, one long forgotten with the comparatively silent sound that emits from computer keyboards. And this intoxicating sound soon got me into the steady rhythm of writing. While I was typing away, Stine grabbed his guitar and took the seat across the table from me.
When my typing slowed, he announced, “Here is the new one.”
The new one was a song Stine had started writing Saturday night backstage at the 8×10, at a show he played with fellow Baltimore residents The Bridge, and was now playing for me in his kitchen.
As Baltimore gains more and more attention for its steadily growing music scene (bands such as Animal Collective, Dan Deacon, Wye Oak, The Bridge, and Beach House lead a wave of widely-diverse musicians onto the national scene), it is the bearded, lanky songwriter across the table who best seems to sum up the city with his music, a city he calls, “vibrant, troubled, and passionate.”
Stine further elaborated,”I don’t think there are too many major cities in America that are this interesting and alive right now. We’re dealing with huge problems, but also experiencing a multitude of rebirths.”
The song Stine was playing for me in his kitchen, as with all of his work, reflected those qualities the Colorado native finds so appealing in his adopted hometown, and is a deeply personal look at the life around him, about relationships and people, deftly delivered with an outlaw storytellers touch. His music falls somewhere between the renegade cowboy-poetry of Townes Van Zandt and the sweet rough and tumble sound of Neil Young’s Harvest. The power in his music comes not from overwhelming volume or violent guitars, but from simple strums and carefully measured words that together carry an army of unmatched strength.
For Stine, it is simply what he does, finding those moments in life that define a moment for each person.
“That’s what life is, right?” he asks. “It is yours. You have to see it in your own way, like listening to Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy when you’re 15 and stoned. But so much of it comes though other people giving you little tidbits as well.”
And since he first picked up a guitar and made a choice to live his life through music, Stine has strove to share those tidbits in every song he writes.
“It was like it was preordained,” remembers Stine about his musical start. “My parents are sort of hippies, they are out in the woods, doing their thing. They are lovers of ideas and life. There was a classical guitar around the house they borrowed from some people. My Dad loved music and had a great voice, and he would play songs to us.”
After a pause and a smile, Stine continues, “One summer day when I was 12 I saw the guitar case in my parent’s room and I asked if I could get it out. My mom, who played a bit of guitar, showed me four chords. She left to go to the grocery store and I just kept playing and it just seemed natural to me that I was going to write a song. It wasn’t even a thought; I just wrote a song with those four chords the way she showed me. I was just very lucky, it was just there.”
As a young developing songwriter, Stine began honing his storyteller’s eye to a sharpened, honest edge at open-mic shows at a local coffee shop that slowly transformed into happening events that found more and more people coming each time he played. This connection to people and the music Stine developed was a deep one and still informs his life to this day.
Stine thinks “that is what resonates with people – the idea of music being something real and human, and a craft and an art that is tied to that human experience.”
For occasional music partner Kenny Liner from The Bridge, this quality is something he admires. Liner states Stine’s music “is so true and real, so honest.” When their schedules allow, the two musicians team for rare intimate shows that feature nothing more than the two songwriters, a couple of acoustic instruments, and sometimes a pair of stools. Liner admits to being awed at times when playing with Stine, being caught up just enjoying the hushed power and lyrical strength of Stine’s tunes.
“He believes everything he sings,” Liner says, “every note is an extension of his soul, there is no filler.”
Stine, who is an almost compulsive songwriter – continually writing new songs, and tinkering with old ones, is getting set to start work on his fifth album.The as of yet untitled album follows 2006’s October 29th and 2008’s I’ll Head West Again, both of which were collaborations with Americana roots-rockers The Brakemen.
His third album, also released in 2008 was an out-of-nowhere collaboration that grew from a simple challenge into a full-length album. Influential independent Baltimore radio station WTMD had the idea to pair together musicians from different genres who had never met and challenged them to write and record four songs in six weeks. Stine was paired with hip-hop MC Saleem. Despite their widely divergent backgrounds, the two found an instant rapport and the original four songs grew into an album. Outgrow These Walls is a love song to the city they both call home, and a genre blurring mix of simple ruminations and observations of life in Baltimore. Stine returned to his roots on last year’s Eyes So Strong and Clear, a mix of simple rocking-folky-rootsy-Americana tunes that stay true to Stine’s highly personal songwriting.
As Stine prepares his new album he recognizes what is ahead as he enters the studio saying, “Working on the record is a very solitary and personal project.” But he looks forward to getting back on the road into what calls, “the rough and tumble real world of folks.” It is there that he gains some of his greatest joy from playing music.
“That is the coolest thing possible,” he says, “to meet and play for even just one person who says, your music resonates with me and I want to buy your album.'”
The grind of recording and touring is not lost on Stine, who, through the course of conversation, mentioned numerous times how music is life for him. It pains him to see fellow musicians who have seemingly lost their way and love for their craft.
“Don’t play music if you are going to hate it, it is way too precious. Please stop for awhile and find something else. It doesn’t always have to be just for the ‘performance’.Play with your friends for the joy of it.”
This potential loss of joy in something held so dearly made Stine’s path clear for him.
“I have built my life on playing music – all the time.” The bearded songwriter paused, and fingered the glass of whiskey in front of him before finishing both it and his thought.
“I am never going to sacrifice that.”