Though many of us amble through life thinking somehow that the Universe is supposed to cooperate with our hard-wired need for happy endings, sometimes the greatest enlightenment – and the most inspiring works of art - emerge from those places inside where problems and relationships stay Unresolved. It’s the perfect title for Stephen Winston’s highly anticipated fourth album, considering the emotional upheaval that the insightful, wisdom-rich singer-songwriter has experienced since the release of his critically acclaimed 2014 set Grayling. On the epic, symphonically textured title track, he sings, “Just pulled back the curtain/Something’s quite uncertain/It’s not what it seems/It’s not what we dreamed…” Though it’s a personal reflection about the darker secrets of a beloved family member, it’s something we can all collectively relate to.
Winston’s efforts as an independent, self-funded artist in the years since the release of his 2010 debut album The Overlook Sessions have been driven by just that – lyrical and thematic relatability, couched in compelling melodies and expressed through vocals of breezy resonance that harken back to one of his greatest influences –Dan Fogelberg. Though not a formal tribute, Grayling was titled after the middle name of the iconic 70s singer/songwriter, whose appearance in a dream of Winston’s led him to pen the words, “Grayling haunts me and I don’t know why” on the title track.
To create the ideal vibe for that 13-song set, the singer left his comfort zone of his home studios in Southern California and Colorado to work with award winning composer, engineer and producer Joel Jaffe (Bonnie Raitt, Bruce Hornsby, Ray Manzarek, Carlos Santana) at Studio D Recording in Sausalito, CA. For Unresolved, true to the album’s more deeply personal songwriting, Winston gets back to his roots, collaborating with Michael Pfeifer, who also co-produced, engineered, mixed and mastered The Overlook Sessions and its follow-up Gradient Nights (2011).
While some of the songs on those early albums included orchestration by members of the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, Unresolved marks the launch of a new relationship between Winston and veteran composer, arranger and multi-instrumentalist Steven Cooper, whose glorious string arrangements on “Sun on the Boats,” “Unresolved,” “Maybe It’s For James” call to mind the legendary work that the late Grammy Award winning arranger Paul Buckmaster did in Elton John’s early days. Cooper also contributes unique sonic textures like banjo, bouzouki, charanga and accordion.
Winston is up front about all of the personal and family challenges he has faced which kept him from recording and releasing a quicker follow-up to Grayling. Among them, both of his parents passed away and one of his adult daughters gave birth to a premature baby, resulting in months of Neo-natal ICU care and many sleepless nights wondering if the boy would survive. Winston, ever the insightful and emotional musical storyteller, found life affirming ways to chronicle some of these traumatic episodes in song. The months he spent as a near full time caretaker to his mother as her Alzheimer’s worsened inspired the poignant, rootsy mid-tempo pop/rocker “For What Purpose,” in which he imagines seeing the world from her perspective. Winston counters that song with the lilting piano-vocal driven “Remember,” in which he reflects sunnily on his childhood memories with her – encapsulated by the line “I hear you tell me that life will be grand, my son.”
Spending a few months of sleepless nights with his family in Hawaii after his grandson James was born, Winston knew that that situation was touch and go – and that many preemies don’t make it. One night on the balcony of his “concrete jungle” hotel in Waikiki , he heard laughter from a party down below and felt the Universe was giving him a sign that the tide was about to turn. That epiphany resulted in “Maybe It’s for James,” a string-enhanced ballad where the darker feelings of wondering how they got there give way to the sky lighting up like the 4th of July, offering just enough hope to get through. The singer is happy to report that James is now a healthy five year old boy.
Drawing on his poetic wit as a lyricist, Winston artfully balances the heavier themes on Unresolved with spirited observational tunes that tap into his pop-country leanings. “Maidens” is a tongue in cheek, Eagles-Neil Youngesque look at women in Southern California who put too much thought into their appearance and are always after a perfection they never should have looked for to begin with. The jangling pop-rocker “Rainbow County” is a story song about a once thriving farming town in Nevada that’s seen better days – the perfect metaphor for what time steals when we’re looking the other way. “Talk of the Town” is a plucky, fiddle laced country folk gem about rumors, gossip and the tendency of people to whisper about others in the background and for innocent conversations to turn into opportunities to backbite – a phenomenon that’s run amok in the social media age. The most optimistic song on the album is the beautiful and vibrant opener “Sun on the Boats,” which finds Winston softly reflecting upon the gifts of a Southern California morning as he watches from a distance as early rising lobstermen catch their fresh bounty.
Unlike so many artists who pursue their dreams and later abandon them to go the straight and narrow route, Winston admittedly set his musical dreams aside for years, working in the corporate world and later for a communications start-up during the 90s dot com boom – all of which has helped lay the foundation to enable his passion for songwriting. “I taught myself to play piano and guitar in college at the University of Idaho, then the University of Arizona,” he says. “I would sneak into the auditorium on campus and play the Steinway concert piano for hours on end, learning to play, to sing and write. Then I graduated, pursued the American dream and did well enough to now spend all my time making music.” For Winston, one of the great advantages to shaping the timeline of his life this way was having the financial wherewithal to retire from corporate life and build a state of the art studio at his longtime home in Littleton, Colorado. After moving to California, he built a studio at his home in Rancho Santa Fe where all of the songs from Unresolved were written.
“I always remind myself that music is the one thing that can take me many different places and discover things about myself I might not otherwise be in tune with,” he says. “It is an incredible blessing to have the opportunity to write songs and make music, knowing that when I do that, it will be there forever. Even though I am often tapping into difficult circumstances of life to compose the most honest and heartfelt songs I can, I feel so much pleasure in creating music and hearing how it touches people’s lives”.