Charm and wit have always come easy for Steve Poltz, dating back to his days fronting the '80s comedy-rock band the Rugburns. But Poltz admits there's a dimension of songwriting he's typically shied away from because it makes him uncomfortable.
"I haven't been introspective a lot," says the 48-year-old singer-songwriter from San Diego. "There was an old Rugburns song called 'Single Life' in which single life wasn't so great. I was scared of that song because it was me. But the more I played it, the more I liked it."
Poltz says he's recently been on a "weird journey" toward expressing himself more in his music. With the release of a new CD, Traveling, his newfound emotional transparency has arrived.
Traveling is the most compelling collection of songs Poltz has ever assembled. And that's no small statement, considering he and Jewel co-wrote the longest-charting single ("You Were Meant for Me") in the history of Billboard.
What's inspired his breakthrough?
"A crazy breakup about three years ago," says Poltz. "And I quit drinking about the same time. I think getting sober has been a big part of what's changed my songwriting. It's letting me see things more clearly."
Just a few years ago, Poltz's drinking had become a drag for his fans.
"It had definitely reached a point where it was a problem. I was doing shows and getting anonymous emails afterward that said, 'I liked your show, but when you fell off your stool, I was really worried about you.'"
The musician lifestyle didn't make it easy to quit.
"I remember smelling whiskey on the waitress' tray when she would come around and ask me what I wanted to drink," says Poltz. "It was hard to give up."
So Poltz threw himself into songwriting.
"I went down to Austin and stayed with my friend Billy Harvey. I wrote 80 or 90 songs, and we spent a lot of time deciding which ones to put on this album."
A second set of those songs have been burned to a companion CD, Unraveling. That disc is only available at Poltz's shows.
Not all the folk-pop on Traveling is directly personal. Poltz creates vivid characters in songs like "Street Fighter's Face," an up-tempo, tragic story about a disfigured Iraq war veteran.
But indirectly, those songs are personal, too.
"The first memory I have is political," Poltz says. "It was of John Kennedy getting shot. I can remember being in my crib and seeing my mom cry while she was watching TV and ironing. I remember watching his funeral."
Most of Poltz's new songs reflect on his first 48 years of living, especially the early years of his childhood.
On "A Brief History of My Life" he recounts his family's move from Nova Scotia to Southern California in the 1960s. His rhythmic acoustic guitar embraces memories of trick-or-treating at Liberace's house, soaking up the voice of L.A. Dodgers announcer Vin Scully and crying when he was sworn into American citizenship.
The best songs on the album - including "What Would Gandhi Do?" and "Rains" - beautifully evoke a gentle and bittersweet nostalgia.
Of course, there's still a Steve Poltz who's got his eye on the future, especially the future of music. He released Traveling on his own label, though he claims he's no indie purist.
"If I had some serious bites from a major label, I probably would have gone in that direction," he says.
"Music is so different now. In terms of the biz, it's like the Wild West. Everybody's doing their own thing."
But getting personal again, Poltz considers another way music culture has changed.
"I remember being in record stores and falling in love with an album just because I saw a beautiful girl holding it. If she liked it, it had to be cool. And I'd live for the approval of the record store clerk. I'd be on a high if he looked at what I was buying and said, 'Great album, man.'"
Maybe music isn't personal like that anymore, but for 40 fantastic minutes, Traveling lets you journey back to the day.