UW Arts Institute
Stew: 'Artistically, I love the climate in Madison. It's got a cool, underground vibe that's genuine.'
"Am I late?" Stew asks as we meet outside his office on the sixth floor of Vilas Hall. Rushing from a class, his arms are filled to the brim with folders while a free hand grips the handle of a guitar case. As he fishes for keys in his pocket, a stack of papers held together by a rubber band falls on the ground next to his red sneakers. Picking up the papers, I look at the clock above his office door. Considering his class let out just three minutes before, I tell him he's right on time.
As the plaque on his office door indicates, Mark Stewart hasn't been called Mark Stewart since he took on the moniker "Stew". It's a name that embodies the mixture of artistic roles he's explored throughout his career.
In the field of music: Several albums with his band Stew & The Negro Problem as well as solo albums, including 2000's Guest Host and 2003's The Naked Dutch Painter and Other Songs which both earned "Album of the Year" status from Entertainment Weekly.
In theater: The Broadway rock musical Passing Strange, a Tony-award winning play for which he wrote the book, lyrics and co-wrote the music along with partner Heidi Rodewald. (Watch a video of show's cast perform the song "Amsterdam.")
In Film: The same play filmed for a live documentary by director Spike Lee.
In Television: Wrote and performed a song for SpongeBob Squarepants.
Now: The title of artist in residence at the University of Wisconsin-Madison has been thrown into the pot. He's teaching an undergraduate class for the fall semester called "Stew's Song Factory" and hosts a free weekly lecture series titled Stew & Friends, all sponsored by the Arts Institute, Office of Multicultural Arts Initiatives, and the Theater and Drama Department at UW-Madison.
The normally sterile quality of a college professor's den takes on a vibrant energy as we enter his office, an atmosphere not unlike the fast-paced city of New York where Stew spends the rest of his working time. Phones are ringing. An email needs to be sent out. His next class begins in less than an hour. "But I want to give you everything you need for your article, so please forgive all this craziness," Stew says.
I turn the tape recorder on. If he writes the email, then it's yet another example of his multi-tasking abilities.
The Daily Page: You've had a successful career as a singer, songwriter and playwright. What prompted you to take up teaching again, this time at the University of Wisconsin?
Stew: It basically came about because I was invited. I don't actively seek out teaching jobs and never have. I only go when I'm invited, because I feel like the people who are inviting me know what they're gonna get, and that makes me comfortable. It means I don't need to fit into a particular departmental paradigm.
The first time I was hired to teach, I barely had theater experience. I just had experience in a rock band. But I generally get invited by people who feel like their students will appreciate talking to an artist who has a disparate background and who can tell them some real world things, quite frankly, because my background is not academic at all.
I never went to a major university, I only went to two years of junior college. But I have had a lot of experience, which I think the people in charge at U.W. felt was important for students to come in contact with.
Who was it in particular that reached out to you and invited you to take up residency?
Willie Ney in the Multicultural Arts Initiative office. He was the spearhead behind it. He had to of course introduce my work to various people in various departments. One guy doesn't get you into a school, and obviously departments have to look into these matters. It's one thing to just come and talk or do a Master's class, but its quite another thing to become temporary faculty. There's more red tape and hoops [laughs]. But it's been totally worth it.
This has been a real transformative experience for me. I've been looking for the opportunity to create a curriculum and create a course that really reflects accurately what I know about popular music and theater, about how those two connect, how they disconnect, what they have in common, what they don't. So I consider myself very lucky to be in the position I'm in.
The name of your class is "Stew's Song Factory." Could you talk a little bit about the class and the students involved?
It's funny, because the class has changed from what I thought it was going to be into something much more exciting. I kinda thought I was just going to be up there lecturing a lot about these various topics in popular music, but its turned more into a songwriting class. And the "Song Factory" title kinda points to how I want the class to be, which is a factory of songs with all the students constantly writing and constantly producing.
It's a "factory" as opposed to a "workshop" because I like the idea of producing and continual work, not waiting for inspiration. I'm very process oriented in that way. But the class has become more of a factory than I would have imagined, because even though I still lecture, we're really getting down to the nuts and bolts of songwriting. The students bring instruments and we jam a lot. These upcoming four or five weeks left I think are going to be more intense than the first few weeks because I also know who my students are now as people.
The thing I hate about creating a syllabus is that to me, if it's too strict, it treats the students like they're not individuals. I feel like the class is like this symbiotic animal. Every one of my classes has hip hop people, traditional rock and roll songwriting people, musical theater people, actors, people who have never written a song literally all the way up to people who've been writing songs for half their lives. So there's no way I could have thrown some one-size-fits-all class on all those people. It wouldn't have been possible.
Now, I had to write a syllabus, so I did, because those are the rules. [Laughs] And while I of course draw from that, the class has really been modeled after these people. I try and serve their particular needs. I mean, look: the way my syllabus stood going in, it would have been quite frankly pretty Draconian. It would have been pretty rough. I found out I was asking a little too much in terms of the amount of stuff I wanted to cover. So I had to make an adjustment. I was happy to make that adjustment, but if someone walks out of class without understanding basic song structure, then I feel like I failed. So that's my main focus, making sure we as a class understand structure.
Is it interesting watching such an eclectic group of individuals interact with each other?
Yeah yeah, especially now that we know each other and are interacting more. I'm excited for all of them, but I'm really excited about the people that I've been able to get to push themselves. You'd be surprised, everybody says us old folks are set in our ways, but I've met some 20-year-olds who are pretty set in their ways, too. They have ideas about their identities as artists and say, "This is what I do, this is what I'm doing, this is what I'm studying in school and this is what I'm gonna be." And I'm like, "Well...you know..."
When they offered me a theater career, I originally said no. I literally said no to this big public theater in New York because I said the same thing they say. "What would I do that for? I don't know how to do that." And I tell them every single time we meet, there's no reason for an artist to ever really say no. I mean, if someone asks you to do brain surgery, say no [laughs]. But if you're a singer and someone asks you to write a song, write a song. Why not?
Why not creatively push yourself to explore different facets of your craft.
Exactly. Because they're close enough, you know? If someone asked a journalist to write a novel, don't say no. Give it a shot. Even if you trained all your life in journalism, you write, so try it. I keep telling them about how in my mind all the arts are interconnected, so I was stupid when I originally told my theater no. Because the truth is, if I was a songwriter, sure, that doesn't mean I'm a theater expert, but its close enough where you can adapt and learn. They're what I call "adjacent art forms".
You tell a poet to be a songwriter, it's possible. You tell a songwriter to be a poet, it's possible. You're not going to make the leap from rock and roll guitar player to classical musician necessarily, or a jazz musician. I tell them, "You're not going to wake up one morning and be Bach. But the good news is that you can wake up one morning and be John Lennon."
I do believe that. I do believe that rock and roll is folk music, i.e. music made by regular folks. Classical and Jazz music you need to study [laughs]. It's like brain surgery. But I do actually think that you could write a pop song. Some of the greatest pop song artists in history were written by guys who were like, "Oh, I guess I need to write a song" and then they do it and boom.
So is a large component of your class getting your students to produce a lot so that you can better steer them in finding their own artistic voices?
That's interesting you should say that, because I don't get so much into finding their own voice. I get more into the basic craft of songwriting at this level. If anything, I think one of the problems is that some of them have their own voice, but they don't have the structure to make that voice heard clearly.
I have some very advanced and compelling people in class who I already consider artists, but just because you have the raw material doesn't mean you know the craft. Everyone thinks that it's easy because it's fun. And I always tell them that easy and fun aren't always connected. People say it looks like the greatest job in the world to be a musician, and I think that it is, but don't buy into the movies where people wake up and all of a sudden inspiration comes to you. [Laughs]
Just to relate it to something you do, I remember in the '70s when I was growing up, All the Presidents Men was cool. Woodward and Bernstein were rock stars. I remember joining a high school newspaper because of that movie. And then when I got on the newspaper, I realized how hard it is. To seek out the story, quote people properly, do the leg work, the consistency of sticking with an article so it reads well from the first paragraph to the last, etc. And it was cool, but it wasn't easy.
Chances are if it's too fun and easy, you probably aren't pushing yourself hard enough.
Yeah, and I remember growing up feeling like I was this young, irresponsible guy that played in a rock band. I remember thinking: "Oh, my father has a real job because he works in a bank. I do a fake job because I'm in this band." But what I realized is that artists are working all the time. It's not the kind of job where you can go home at 5 p.m.
And leave the office behind.
It's not possible. You can't do that as a musician. And I think the reason that people like Willie want me to come out here is that I do bring real world stories to my classroom. I can tell them about the times that I didn't have any cash. And the musical skills that I want them to develop that they may think are unnecessary, I've used the same skills to make money in songwriting.
It may not have been my cool, hip band or whatever, but music doesn't always have to be this touchy, feely, cool, fun thing. Writing songs for other people and doing work can economically serve you if you have craft. The total rock star who is just doing their own thing, they can do that well, and they can potentially make millions of dollars doing it, but look at the odds. It'd be a lot wiser to say to yourself, "Okay, I want to be a rock star, but just in case, I also want to know how to be able to write songs for anyone."
I tell the students that they should be able to write a song for anyone. They should be able to write a rap for someone, and they should be able to write a song for Barbra Streisand, too. There's no reason not to be able to do both. Prince can, you know? Someone tried to tell me, "Oh, well some people have their own individual thing, and we're not all the same." And I say: Why not be Prince? You could be other people, but why not be Prince? He can write a song literally for anybody. He can write a song for a movie, whatever. Give me the argument for only doing one thing. And that's when the class goes quiet, [laughs], because there is no argument for it. It's like, come on. You're twenty. Don't be so set in your ways.
Do you consider yourself first and foremost a performer as opposed to a teacher, or have you found a connection between the two?
I still think I'm a performer even when I'm teaching [Laughs]. Between Monday classes, I went out of town and I think I gave something like nine lectures at different departments in different schools. This was during this last week. And it felt like I was on tour, like when we'd get in a van and drive everywhere, and we'd be so tired and not want to do a gig, and then we get in front of a crowd and the adrenaline kicks in, and it's the exact same thing! [Laughs] It's like, "Give me a coffee, OK, fuck, I can't believe this, and then boom!"
I actually emailed my collaborator Heidi Rodewald who is the co-creator of Passing Strange, and I said how this all is exactly like touring. The adrenaline, the exhaustion, thinking you can't do another show and then doing one and feeling afterwards like you could do five more. It's still performing, but it's harder. Because if I'm performing a concert, I can just decide not to talk and play an hour's worth of songs straight, but I can't do that in a classroom. [Laughs]
You'd have a room full of students looking at you like, "What the hell's this guy doing?"
With your Stew & Friends lecture series, was the series and its line-up a predetermined part of your residency, or was it decided upon after you got to Madison?
I think there had been an artist who was here and had a class like me. He was more of a spoken word, hip-hop, dance kind of guy, but he had a Monday night series, and I think they said it worked, so they wanted me to try the structure. And I was totally thrilled.
All I did was literally call the first twelve or so people that came to my mind, and every one of them said yeah, and the order of their appearance in this series is almost in the same order that I called them. I didn't want to make it band heavy, with only singers and songwriters who normally come to Madison anyway. So I asked artists with particular things that they do like Justin Vivian Bond or Taylor Mac who may not come to Madison as regularly as a band might. I've only had Vernon Reid cancel unfortunately, because he was in a bike accident, but he's okay.
Admittedly, I'd never heard of Vernon Reid before it was announced that he'd speak at your series. Editors at the Isthmus office were talking about how good Living Colour was back in the early '90s, but I was three when Vivid came out so I had no idea. After seeing his name, though, I checked them out and really liked them. Have you heard similar experiences regarding your series, how you've exposed students to artists they may have never heard of otherwise?
Yeah, people seem to be really thrilled. I think one of the more interesting reasons people are thrilled is quite frankly because it wasn't expected of me. I don't mean this as a criticism at all, but I think that it was only natural for them to assume with me being a rock musician who transitioned into a Broadway artist, they probably thought I was going to bring in a bunch of rock bands and Broadway singers. That's what a lot of people said, at least.
So for me to be this black, musician, hetero guy who's bringing out transgender performers or openly gay performers and filmmakers, I know a lot of people were surprised, although not in a negative way by any means. And I wanted people like the ones I invited because I wanted my students more than anything to see these people, because both of my classes come to these presentations, so I knew that the stuff I talked about in class was going to in some way relate to the course. Even if it wasn't directly. They're all just incredible performers, and they're the kind of people I wish I'd seen when I was nineteen or twenty.
Your residency ends at the end of the semester. Do you have any future plans of staying in Madison or continuing to teach?
I won't be staying in Madison, but I feel like I'm definitely adding Madison to the list of cool places that I know now, places that I'd want to hang out and come back to. I've already met cool enough people here where I feel like it's a part of my life now, as opposed to this place I just go to work. I live in New York because I have work there, but it's not the end-all-be-all place for me.
I'm a bit of a vagabond, so I always knew I was going to spend some time here in Madison, because I've heard a lot of cool things about it. Madison has a great reputation around the United States, and even in Europe. I mean, people saw those recent demonstrations that happened here all around the world. And it really did have an effect.
When I told people in Berlin I was going to Madison, they were like, "Oh! That's where the protests happened!" And artistically, I love the climate here. It's got a cool, underground vibe that's genuine. In New York, everything gets mainstreamed so fast. Even underground stuff seems a little bit commercial in New York sometimes [Laughs]. But here it seems like people are more doing stuff because they like it and not because they're trying to be discovered.
It sounds like it's been a worthwhile experience for you
I think working here and interacting with my students has really changed me as an artist and a person. It made me realize how important education is. It makes me feel like I want to do this more, that I want to teach more. Madison gave me the opportunity to see that. And I never felt that way after my previous teaching jobs.
I've felt a connection here between my performing life and teaching life, and I think that's in large part due to the amount of support I've received. So I'm definitely adding Madison to my list of places to come back to. Plus, there's also the mac and cheese at The Old Fashioned [Laughs].
And the 40 kinds of home brew you can order in restaurants.
There's a little bit of that, yeah yeah, but for me it comes down to some sharp cheddar cheese at the end of the day.