One True Story
Perhaps the most upbeat, whimsical way we can spin the origin of Stephen Winston’s latest soulful, heartfelt and insightful, mostly retrospective sixth album One True Story is to mention the critically acclaimed singer/songwriter’s admiration for the ongoing release of the Neil Young Archives and the drop of 60 previously unreleased Elton John songs via the new Jewel Box collection. With the exception of the hard-hitting first single title track, Winston’s highly anticipated follow-up to Unresolved – and sixth album overall – showcases the artist’s early evolution as a songwriter from an era long before he released his debut album The Overlook Sessions in 2009.
In line with its thought-provoking title, the truth is a little different, but no less inspiring. Steeped in the unique individual ways independent artists are responding to the reality of making music during the pandemic, Stephen’s decision to share tracks he created at his personal home studio in Littleton, Colorado with guitarist/producer Michael Pfeifer from 2003 to 2007 is a hopeful silver lining in the collective craziness of 2020. Winston had penned and recorded “One True Story,” a mid-tempo, acoustic guitar driven reflection on his sorrow about unrealized promises, false expectations and delusional hopes from a rehab facility in the desert. He was just gathering a body of fresh material to flesh out an album of original material when COVID-19 lockdown happened.
Thinking about the Neil Young and Elton John projects, he decided that maybe it was time to share some of the hidden gems from that innocent age when releasing an album project was still far from his mind. Some of the songs Winston and Pfeifer recorded during this period (2003-2007) ended up on The Overlook Sessions, but others had long been set aside.
“I was just learning how to write songs then, and there was no specific structure to them or plans to share them commercially,” he says. “I hadn’t thought about those old songs in years, but I reached out to Michael to see if our recordings were still viable. A week later, he called me up and said he found five songs with perfect mixes that he could remaster. He then found and sent me five others. When I heard them, they brought back a lot of memories of when I was a new, fairly naïve songwriter. I never attempted to write songs until I built my studio.”
Winston illuminates further in his liner notes: “Each of the songs on the album have a unique and distinct backstory. It has been interesting to listen to music recorded so long ago and trying to remember the sessions and how Michael and I actually came up with the finished product. While not written as an entire album, which is what I usually do, I like the variation in subject and tonality and feel it could have been accomplished in the traditional fashion.”
From the edgy yet haunting mid-tempo pop rocker “All Quiet in the Bronx” through the forward thinking ballad “Something’s Gotta Give,” we’re treated to early glimpses of Winston’s trademark pop/folk/soul influenced vocals and the seamless integration between his piano and electric piano, Pfeifer’s guitars, their solid rhythm section (bassist Blake Eberhard and drummers Christian Teele and Don Newby) and the occasional sax vibe of Bob Rebholtz. Though written from 13-17 years ago, a few tracks immediately catch our ears with their immediacy and relevance to our current moment.
Winston penned “All Quiet in the Bronx” based on his memory of an extraordinary post 9/11 New York Yankees game, when President Bush threw out the first pitch and Irish tenor Ronan Tynan sang “God Bless America.” But he could easily be singing about our priorities now: “It’s all about today, and what’s the deal for me/It’s all about the rush/for the cell phones, the instant messages. . .It’s all about the fight and the left and the right/it’s all about the victory at any price.” Another song that seems remarkably prescient considering this year of pandemic quarantine is the more up-tempo, somewhat sad yet slightly whimsical “Days on End.” It was written about a completely different personal situation, and Winston insists he will never consciously write a COVID-specific song. Yet from the mid-2000s, he sings, “And hold my head and break this chain of endless hours/and look within and find a way to carry on/and hold my breath and break this chain of endless sorrow/and look within and find a way to start tomorrow.”
Between the release of his 2014 album Grayling and Unresolved, Winston experienced some intense emotional upheaval in his personal life, including the passing of both his parents and the complicated premature birth of his grandson James (who is now a healthy young boy). As a result, Unresolved offered a balance of some deeply personal outpourings among the wry, observational songs. The tracks on One True Story prove that even in his more primitive writing days, Winston always struck that balance as a storyteller and chronicler of life and its tragedies and injustices.
The thoughtfully reflective “Winter” touches on the fate of a friend and good man who was derailed by trumped up accusations by an overeager District Attorney who wanted to become a federal judge. The man died from the stress and Winston’s song was played at his funeral. The personal yet socially conscious narrative “Lavington Hill” is about the unjust treatment given to the Winston family’ African tour guide David by the wealthy Indian owners of the Safari company in Kenya that arranged their trip. Winston signs off with the repetition of the phrase: “You shouldn’t take it anymore.” The tragic lyrical narrative of “Jami” (the lone song featuring the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, which played a dominant epic role on his first album) is a forerunner of “One True Story.” It’s about the downward cycle of a life of a once vibrant young girl who succumbs to the ravages of alcohol, drugs and paranoid schizophrenia.
Along the way, Winston taps into a series of unusual quirky topics brought to compelling life by his warm voice and colorful lyrics. He ruminates playfully about nightmares on “Behold This Sturdy Bed,” the one song on One True Story to feature accordion and harmonica. In a very Colorado centric tale, on “Another Side to the Story,” he ruminates on the downfall of a Colorado Megachurch pastor whose misdeeds were exposed. Rolling over the feisty up-tempo grooves of “Outside the Ring,” he snaps incisively at a chronic underachiever who stayed that way because he never stopped complaining. Winston also shares his humorous side on “Noise,” a tune we can all relate to because many of us have been in his shoes, surrounded and annoyed by a bombardment of piped in blasting aural stimulation at football, basketball and baseball games.
Winston’s success as an independent, self-funded artist in the years since the release of The Overlook Sessions have been driven by this kind of 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 got 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). In time for the 2020 holiday season, he re-released his well-received 2018 seasonal single “Winter’s Breath Warms the Heart,” an intimate piano-vocal ballad inspired by the imagery of ranches in the winter on his way to his dad’s home in the mountains near Steamboat Springs, CO.
Unlike many artists who pursue their dreams and later abandon them to go the straight and narrow route, Winston set his musical dreams aside for years, achieving corporate success with AT&T and a later communications start-up during the 90s dot com boom – all of which has helped lay the foundation for a now thriving DIY career. “I taught myself to play piano and guitar in college at the University of Idaho, then the University of Arizona,” says Winston, who has bounced between California and Colorado since these songs were written and currently lives in Pasadena.
“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,” he says. “Then I graduated, pursued the American dream and did well enough to now spend all my time making music and fly fishing in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. Re-visiting the songs that we chose for One True Story brought back all the memories of making music in my old studio in Colorado, exploring my newfound craft, learning to write - and the elation that happened when a track came together. It was a magical time for me and, while it wasn’t my first intention for this album, I’m excited to have the chance to share this part of my musical evolution with an audience for the first time.”