'Can I get some of that sauce?" grumbles a nearby patron, all greasy-spooned and loud in the Jersey chrome confines of some Denny's diner.
As if on cue, raven-haired local troubadour Amy Steinberg enters the building, a veritable ray of light shining through the smoke and coffee stench.
"I'm very disappointed that we're not in a booth," she graces, and at once her desire is realized in a shiny corner-cushion seat cleared seemingly just for her. Amy Steinberg gets what she wants.
And why shouldn't she? Long a staple of uncommon genius on the Orlando music scene ("A staple? Meat is a staple," she jokes), Steinberg must be tiring of her position just beneath that fateful moment that will rocket her to the rock-star moon. Or maybe not. Her new record, "Raw Material From the Ethereal," her third studio full-length, shows no signs of wear whatsoever. A potent blend of spoken word and stream-of-consciousness musical wordplay, "Raw Material" is nothing short of a joyous, bold, unstoppable tour de force of personal realization.
"My knees are bruised a bluish grey from kneeling down to pray" she mantras on the opening track, "Praylude," before laying into a frantic sermon laced with messages of learning and letting go. Dearly beloved, we are gathered here to get through this thing called life ...
And what a life, indeed. With five recordings under her belt (three studio, one live, one EP), Steinberg is finding herself at a creative peak. Blame it on poetry, perhaps, which provides her with another outlet (she's one quarter of an Orlando slam team that's headed for the nationals this month), a forum in which her free-form lyricism runs amuck in the absence of careful arrangement.
But, more likely, blame it on Steinberg herself, who, like many creative folk in the wake of 9/11, has taken the time to redefine her life and her newly band-less solo career. ("I'm chain smoking and guzzling coffee, she laughs. "That hasn't changed.") Her redirection started with a monthlong residency under seasoned slam poet Saul Williams, which kicked in, perhaps fatefully, last Sept. 14. There at New Smyrna's Atlantic Center for the Arts, Steinberg -- along with three other verbal visionaries (including DJ Spooky) -- spent a month in apprenticeship to the master in search of an artistic statement, with only room, board and inspiration as payment. It couldn't have happened at a better time.
"I call that my emotional bottom. I think a lot of people hit a bottom then," she says, of the post-9/11 mental trauma. "The experience that I had there was about really looking at why I do this. And if I'm going to do this, then I've got to have an action behind it. That was the bouncing-off point for this new album and these new songs -- that I've got to fucking say something."
Something, perhaps, more than "fuck." Prior to the present record, Steinberg had become notorious for her free use of relative obscenities in her shows, rallying crowds into uproars with explicit talk of her sexual forays.
"I'll tell you why I started writing things like, 'If I suck yours, will you lick mine?'" she explains. "When you're starting out in a town like this, you have to get a foot in the door with the audience. Your esoteric views on Buddhism? They're just not interested. They want to drink and party and talk about sex. And I like sex."
Looking back, though, she does have regrets.
"If I could turn back the clock -- I mean who wants to do a piece while the audience is screaming, 'Fuck All Night!' when you're thinking, 'I just wrote this piece that I'm really proud of?'"
So it is that "Raw Material," recorded earlier this year with producer/collaborator Justin Beckler in Atlanta, is just that: something to be proud of and something quite raw. For those who know her music, it's a grand representation of her peculiar, consistent magic. Virtuoso guitar fingerings give way to a Janis Joplin-fed wail of emotional purity, all rooted in (but not limited by) the vast musical history that informs it.
"My other two records, I restrained myself. I was trying to fit into that Sarah McLachlan 'chick' thing, like polishing it off," she says. "I started thinking, why people come back to my shows is that I'm so exposed, like on this album. This is who I am, y'know. What am I going to do, put on a mask and pretend to be somebody else? And how long can I hold that up?"
Sans disguises, then, Steinberg digs directly to her core throughout "New Material," often drifting into spirituality but never to the point of saccharine religious subservience.
"I've always sort of felt like God is an issue," she says. "I've been agnostic most of my life, truly, but I think that I've found God ... goddess or whatever -- that spirituality doesn't have to be this stale thing."
"Jackie She Found It in Jesus," a rolling roll call of acquaintances and their personal searches, begs, simply, for "peace of mind." It's a song about gazes through bottoms of cocktail glasses and hazes of bong smoke, all looking for the same thing. Heavy stuff, to be sure, but as cast through the winsome glow of Steinberg's engaging populism, it soars.
"I was teaching and this lady came in named Jackie," says Steinberg, who supplements her career by offering lessons at Mars Music. "She was just this beautiful soul, and she told me that she was a re-formed crackhead and that she had found God, and that I should find Jesus. She wasn't the Bible-beating kind. She was just a joyful, delicious woman who wanted to give me the Lord. I know I had always looked for it in my writing or men."
After this, Steinberg smiles.
"But I don't think peace of mind is something that works really well as a writer. I'm much happier when things are fucked up."
In some ways, they've appeared more fucked up than they really have been. Despite popular belief, Steinberg has not left Orlando officially in the past to pursue her musical career. She's toured extensively, sure. And she recorded "New Material" in Atlanta, too.
"Really, I've never left before," she says.
Until now. This fall, with representation secured and an impressive record in hand, Steinberg is finally heading west in search of the big time. Or at least an attempt at such.
"I never wanted to be a local hero. I can even remember thinking of certain people that have been around [Orlando] 10 or 15 years and thinking, I'll never do that," she says. "You play the same bars 8,000 times and it starts to drain you."
But, she adds, "This town has really become my home. I don't want to leave. When I think of leaving I get sad."
So why leave, then?
"The dream, of course, is to have somebody throw a bunch of money at you and go, 'Here, go travel the world,'" she says, leaning in. "I mean, I don't like to downplay myself, and say, 'I can only be on an independent label' or 'I can only be underground.' I want to be in this business and use the gift that I've been given by God or goddess or whatever."
At this, Amy winks, her study in contradictions drained into the last drop of coffee and the final puff of nicotine. It's a shame to see her go. Nobody makes sauce like Amy Steinberg.