The BLT Q&A: Stephan Said By Kaitlin Fontana
The great tradition of the folk music hero is one that has, over the last few decades, diminished. Or, if not diminished, then dispersed—parts of it fleeing to hip hop, parts to literature, parts to the internet and the global uprising. But there is still a strong through line from the Woodie Guthries of our past to the truth-telling, peace activist singer songwriters of our present and future, and that’s where Stephan Said—activist, organizer and folk hero—comes in. Born one of four kids in Cleveland to a Muslim Iraqi father and a Catholic Viennese mother, his story is one of self-discovery and examination of peace not just in the world but within himself. Along the path of a long and incredible career Stephan has played in punk bands alongside SST records legends like Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr., he’s traveled the country playing everything from thrash to folk, and—oh yeah—he has a Masters in International Affairs from the New School. So he’s knows a thing or two about what he sings. His new album, difrent, is out now. We sat Stephan down for a Q&A in advance of his appearance at BLT.
Tell us something you think is beautiful.
A pure voice singing the truth, that is love. The child in each of us that sees the world the way that it could be.
Tell us a lyric of yours that includes the word love.
“We don’t need a revolution. All we really need is evolution. And we don’t need a new messiah, we all got the answer down inside us. We don’t need a new distraction. We just need to get to action. All we need is love.”
What’s your first memory of something beautiful?
Nature. I grew up in Appalachia as a little kid, in far western Pennsylvania, in the country. I remember distinctly the joy of being surrounded by trees, swimming, sweet air, rivers, breezes, mountains, birdsongs, blue skies.
What’s one thing in your life that is beautiful, you love and is true?
My most beautiful wife and friend in the world, and a daughter, both of whom lighten every day and keep me moving ahead.
How did you become a musician? Why do you keep doing it?
I never became a musician. I was sort of born one, I started writing songs by the time I was three years old on the piano and could pick up any instrument and teach myself how to produce melody on it quickly. So I guess music sort of chose me, and I’ve never been able to get away from it.
Have you ever played during a live theatre show before? What are you expecting?
I acted as a kid, and my first acting role with a professional theater company was playing the son of a mad scientist in Dürrenmatt’s The Physicists, when I was twelve. In one scene, I played a Bartok piece on recorder, swaying back and forth in tears standing on a couch swirling in the madness surrounding me visiting my father in the sanatorium. I was swept up in it, probably also because there were at least partial similarities to my own life. I was swept up in it just as when I play music.
What do you love most about making music?
I don’t have to think or try when I’m making music. It takes me away. In music, I can construct my own reality, surround myself with my dreams, perspectives. I think most artists would say the same thing regardless of their medium.
When did the truth get you in trouble?
When I was a kid, visiting family friends for Thanksgiving, the much-older kids locked me in the garage. The only way out was through a window that I had to remove. The father later found the window had been removed, and having just repaired it and put it in place, he was pissed. He came into the house, angrily raising his voice, and said, “Who took the damn window out?!” I couldn’t have been more than 7 or 8, maybe younger, but said, “I did,” explaining why and what had happened, afraid of his response. Well, of course, the parents around all remarked how wonderful it was that this kid was so honest. My mom used to tell that story over and over. My cherry tree moment.
You are well known as a peace activist and as a musician. Which role do you feel more comfortable in? Are they easily combined?
They cannot be separated for me, because I would only make music in service to the highest aspirations of humankind, that’s how I look at it. This is why I won’t sell out to make a quick buck from a system that perpetuates inequality, for example. I sing to unite people and to build that great movement humankind has talked of and waited for for thousands of years. I have no other goal. There is no other goal, so my music and activism are one and the same, whether I sing a love song, lay down an Afro-reggae dance groove, or sing an anthem to global unity.
Your new album, difrent, includes songs in Arabic, French and Spanish as well as English. How is songwriting and singing different in these languages? Do you write more easily in one language than another?
Songwriting and performing in different languages involves the entire cultural psychology of the language, so it’s a real challenge, but an extremely rewarding one. I studied many years of Latin when I was younger, and lived in France and Italy in my late teens as a migrant worker, so my grasp of Romantic languages is without a doubt the best. French in particular, which I studied for years, and also because I speak French with my daughter.