Breaking the Silence: Once Tony Award Winner Steve Kazee is Off Vocal Rest and Performing at 54 Below
A candid chat with the actor/singer about songwriting, throat problems, and the beauty of just saying "yes."
2012 was a year of high highs and low lows for Steve Kazee. Just months after the musical Once, in which he starred, took Broadway by storm, Kazee lost his mother, Kathy, following a long and valiant fight with breast cancer. At the same time, he was a Tony Award nominee, eventually winning the trophy and presenting a heartfelt, thoroughly heartbreaking acceptance speech.
Months later, Kazee was rendered voiceless, felled by swelling on his vocal cord, running the risk of a hemorrhage. Weeks of silence ensued, enough that he couldn't even complete his contracted run in the Broadway hit. But time changes everything and now Kazee is on the mend, writing his own songs, and getting ready to perform them at 54 Below on May 10, 11, and 13. At a press preview for the concert, TheaterMania chatted with Kazee about musical influences, his upcoming CD, and his love of doing something "different."
How would you characterize your music?
I don't write happy songs. [Laughs] I mean, I've got a couple, not much; they're all pretty dark.
It goes without saying that it's been a tough year, but also, the past couple of months, being home-bound with no voice, I didn't have anything else to do except play my guitar around the house. It gave me a unique opportunity to hear the guitar first and write words to it later, which has never really been my thing. I usually write words first. So I allowed the guitar to influence the emotion of it. I tried to allow myself to feel what was going on, and it just happened to be…it's not really bleak, but they're definitely melancholy.
You're feeling better these days?
I'm feeling much better. It's still a struggle. No one ever tells you what the grieving process is going to be like. The process of losing a parent or ending a show or vocal injuries. They all bring on their own special breed of dismay…You just have to ride the wave. You don't have any other choice. You have two choices: You keep living or you lay down and quit. And I've never been a lay-down-and-quit kind of guy. I find different ways of getting through things and feeling things.
Can we talk about your vocal injury during Once? What happened?
I'd been on vacation, and my second show back, which was a Wednesday matinee, I felt a little bit of a — it's hard to even explain — I just went from having a voice to being really hoarse during the course of one song, and it was on a big high note. So we finish the show, and I decided I should go see an ENT, and we noticed that I had some swelling developing on my right vocal cord. The biggest problem was there was a blood vessel that was sort of stretched across the swelling, so if you continue to sing on something like that, you run the risk of vocal hemorrhage. The decision was made to put me on four weeks of vocal rest, but then the decision came up of whether to extend or not. Ultimately, I could have vocally done the show, but I really would have run the risk of doing serious damage, doing that particular role eight times a week. I did it for a year and a half and had zero vocal problems. It just so happens that it's a muscle like everything else and it gets tired and overworked. It just happened right towards the end of my contract, which just mucked everything up.
And everything's okay now?
Yeah. Clearly. Clearly.
What are your musical influences?
This guy Damien Jurado, who's not only a musical influence but a life influence. He's an amazing human being. I went to see him in concert and we spent some time talking and he was just so gracious and open. He shared with me thoughts about loss and his life and how to write songs and how to get out of your own way. He taught me this little trick: If you ever mess up, just smile. Think a smile when you mess up and it actually takes away a lot of the pressure of feeling like you flubbed something. He's just a good guy. I've been digging this band Night Beds a lot lately. Even some country influences; the storytelling aspects, the melancholia — because I'm from Kentucky, from Appalachia, so it's sort of in my bones like that.
I hear you're recording a CD as well?
I'm going to do an EP over the summer. I'm doing it for fun; it's not a career choice. I'm not getting this in my head that I'm going to be a musician. I just always wanted to write my own album and play my own music. And I've just been saying yes to a lot of things lately, which is why I said yes to this before I was even really ready. I've got songs ready to go; everything's coming together. It's funny to see what happens when you just say yes sometimes. Everything sort of falls into place.
Do you have any future roles on the horizon that you'd like to play?
I'm dying to do a Sam Shepard play. Curse of the Starving Class, Buried Child, True West, Cowboy Mouth, Fool for Love, I'll do any of them. I just feel the need to get into some real deep gritty drama. I'd like to do something that's a little more active than Once was. Once gave me the chance to play the melancholy person and I'd rather...I've done Spamalot, and I've done some different things. Each time I do something, I try to do something completely different. I'm hoping the next thing is even more different than this last one.