Even though he grew up in New York about a good hour’s drive away from Woodstock, Stephen Clair says as a youth he basically ignored the acts associated with the namesake 1969 music festival.
Finding the music that spoke to him, he explains, came from “the first college radio station I discovered, which was out of Skidmore College [in Sarasota Springs, N.Y.]. My mind was blown by things like Elvis Costello and Talking Heads — what they were singing about, the way they put words together.”
Simultaneously, Clair was interested in songs “that told you something or took you somewhere,” and he connected with Texas songwriters such as Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark.
Those influences and musical diversity have carried over into Clair’s professional life, as a well-traveled singer-guitarist (five solo albums from 1997 to 2013) and as the head of the Beacon Music Factory in Beacon, N.Y.
Clair conducted rock camps for children when he lived in Brooklyn, N.Y., and after he moved to Beacon a decade ago, he decided to continue doing them. In 2012, he took the endeavor to the next level by founding the Beacon Music Factory, which he describes as “a recreation music school for kids and adults” that goes “way deeper than what School of Rock does.”
One of his school’s offerings is an album boot camp, in which students are paired with a teacher to learn an entire collection of songs from start to finish. (Clair cites The Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers and Prince’s Purple Rain as examples.) Then the students perform the full work as a group in a real venue.
“It is such a rush for them,” says Clair. “We have a lot of adults who are becoming good musicians and discovering all of this good music. It’s really cathartic and powerful for people.”
Some of the teachers who have passed through the Beacon Music Factory join Clair on his latest album, the first one that’s credited to him and his backing band, the Pushbacks.
“At first it was, ‘Let’s try it out and see what happens,’ ” Clair says about working with past and present staff members. “I never would have thought to have a baritone sax player in my band out of the blue, but only because Brad Hubbard, a teacher at the school, is a fun guy to be around, one day I asked him to come to a rehearsal. And [afterward] I thought, ‘That’s a pretty cool thing to have going on.’ [That instrument is] so warm and big and low, and it’s wonderful to have that sound in there.”
Clair is also pleased with the overall reaction to the album’s front cover that’s resulted in an alternate name for the self-titled eight-song collection (highlights include “My Crime”). The cover photo shows a beat-up electric utility box decorated with a square black sticker; his name and the band’s are in small red type in the middle of the sticker, surrounded by the words ‘Push Back’ in large white print.
“People are referring to it as the ‘Push Back’ album, which I love,” he says.
— By Chris M. Junior
Stephen Clair on tour (schedule subject to change):
• 6:15 p.m. March 14: Guero’s Bar — Austin, Texas
• 9 p.m. March 14: Opa! Wine and Coffee Bar — Austin, Texas
• March 15: G&S Lounge — Austin, Texas
• March 17: Giddy Ups — Austin, Texas (Spring Fling Music Festival)
• April 12: Berlin — New York, New York
• April 20: Snug Harbor — New Paltz, New York
Stephen Clair (center) and the Pushbacks. Photo by Tony Senicola