When he was getting started, 15 years ago, it would have been strange to guess that the dividing line between a good Steve Gunn song and a great one would ever be drawn by his voice rather than his guitar. But that’s arguably where things have stood since he released last year’s Other You, a dreamy California postcard that shares more wavelengths with Gram Parsons than John Fahey. The case gains further credence from the way Gunn’s collaborators treat his voice on Nakama, an EP of five deep reinterpretations that sometimes rival the excellent originals.
Gunn’s fortunes once seemed inseparable from his guitar playing for the simple reason that he hardly ever sang. In his early psychedelic blues and cosmic ragas, he’s too busy working a lot of heavy influences—such as Michael Chapman, La Monte Young, and Bardo Pond, the Philly scene elders he grew up admiring before moving to Brooklyn—into the whorled grain of his own soft-spoken guitar virtuosity. Sometimes electric, often acoustic, it always has an intricate momentum and a sort of scarred lyricism, as if gouged from hard bark with a dull knife.
When he did start singing, it was with something between shyness and wariness. In 2009, on Boerum Palace, his voice appears on a single song, a far-off moan reverberating in a scrubby canyon of guitar. As his singing grew more prominent and expressive, it retained a trace of those modest, hesitant origins. He said as much to Amanda Petrusich in The New Yorker in 2016, when his quiet rise from Kurt Vile sideman to headliner was well underway. “I came into songwriting a little bit late; I always thought of it as a selfish endeavor—playing live and having people hear us is such a privilege,” he said. “I don’t want to be like, ‘I’m a guy living in Brooklyn, and I love this girl who works at the bagel shop!’ I mean, who cares.”
As Gunn developed his identity as a singer-songwriter—one who tenders grave observations with almost superstitious caution, cladding them in harmonically interesting yet effortlessly melodic runs—it’s not that his guitar playing stagnated. It’s more like it became as good a tool for its purpose as it could be, and it took its rightful place behind the increasingly distinctive songcraft. The collaborators Gunn chose and worked with closely to rewire Other You songs on Nakama seem to recognize this. Though they employ very different settings, which are responsive to their own idioms and the respective songs’, they all find ways to make Gunn’s voice stand out in sculpted isolation.
The original “Protection” is a bright, brittle electric blues that imperceptibly shades into a kosmiche jam (genres don’t really govern Gunn’s music; they kind of just flow in and out). Mikey Coltun and Ahmoudou Madassane, from the band of the Tuareg guitar hero Mdou Moctar, frame Gunn’s voice with a lean, warm acoustic arrangement, ingeniously recasting the original’s dubby effects with tweaked field recordings of Tende drums and chants in Niger.