- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 22, 2003

From private jets to trailer parks: So has gone the career trajectory of Steve Poltz, a singer-songwriter who will open for Marshall Crenshaw tonight at the Birchmere.

The Canadian-born Mr. Poltz discovered a certain blond yodeling folk singer working at a coffee shop in his adopted hometown of San Diego. The two began dating and writing songs together. One of their collaborations became a big hit in 1996.

The song was “You Were Meant for Me,” and the gal-pal was, of course, Jewel. The pair subsequently toured together, and Mr. Poltz remembers fondly the luxury of chartered planes and backstage hairdressers.

Today, Jewel is still famous but has jettisoned her folky granola image for that of a sexy young tart. Mr. Poltz, ex-frontman of the cult band the Rugburns, is still very much himself and tours the country alone in a Volkswagen van.

Recently, he rolled his van-slash-camper into a trailer park to spend the night. “I talked them down from 10 bucks to five bucks,” he says via phone. “I thought, ‘Where did it all go wrong?’” he adds, thinking of the palmy days with Jewel.

The hairdressers and jets may be history, but Mr. Poltz emerged with a meaty chunk of royalty cash. He used his “You Were Meant for Me” earnings to start his own label, 98 Pounder Records, and finance his latest album, “Chinese Vacation,” the follow-up to 1998’s “One Left Shoe.”

“It’s me and Justin Timberlake fighting for the number-one spot,” he quips.

If only.

Mr. Poltz is playing modest solo acoustic shows in support of “Vacation,” a winning collection of folk-pop with lots of satirical humor. The jokiness masks the pain and second-guessing of a long recording process.

While he was writing the album, a friend was murdered in San Diego. “He was one of my best friends,” Mr. Poltz says. “I was a witness in the trial. … It was very painful to do. I still miss him so much.”

Then came the September 11 terrorist attacks, culminating in the perfect storm of personal and national tragedy.

“I did one version of the record and scrapped the whole thing,” he says. “It didn’t have enough life to it. I just wasn’t happy with it.”

Relocating to Austin, Texas, and working with a new producer, Billy Harvey, did the trick. “It was one of those things where it came so easy,” he says. “The record just made itself.”

The ebullience of the Austin music scene helped, too. “There were more radio stations playing weirder music — not the typical MTV crap,” Mr. Poltz says. “I started laughing really hard again. Time heals everything. It gets easier, and you’re able to find humor in things.”

The inspirational recharge was akin to the time his sister, a radio disc jockey in San Diego, handed him a copy of Elvis Costello’s “My Aim Is True,” a corrective to the Jackson Browne- and James Taylor-style soft-rock of his youth. “My mind was blown,” the 42-year-old singer says of the Costello introduction.

Eerily, when asked in an interview last week about the younger songwriters he has been listening to, Mr. Poltz cited Elliott Smith, in particular his song “Independence Day,” which he sometimes plays on a perpetual loop.

Mr. Smith, an indie-rock singer-songwriter with a devoted cult following who won brief celebrity in 1997 with his Academy Award-nominated song “Miss Misery” (from the movie “Good Will Hunting”), was found dead in his Los Angeles apartment Tuesday. The knife wound, authorities said, was self-inflicted.

Look, then, for Mr. Poltz to pay tribute to Mr. Smith tonight.

WHAT: Steve Poltz, opening for Marshall Crenshaw

WHERE: Birchmere Music Hall, 3701 Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria

WHEN: Tonight at 7:30

TICKETS: $19.50

PHONE: 703/549-7500 for information

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