Long before Steve Poltz co-wrote Jewel's 1997 hit, "You Were Meant for Me," he honed his talents the old-fashioned way. The singer-songwriter plied his craft as a musician on the streets of Morocco, Barcelona, Paris, Portugal and Amsterdam. He busked his way across Europe, playing Tracy Chapman and Elvis Presley covers -- and originals for anyone who would listen.
"It really teaches you to be an entertainer," says Poltz, 38, a native of Halifax, Nova Scotia. "It's so organic. There's no contracts to be filled out, no lawyers, no booking agents. Just you and your guitar and some street corner and hopefully some people who would want to buy a CD or offer to take you to their house." He returned to the U.S., and in 1984 assembled a cross-dressing band of goof rockers called the Rugburns.
Poltz, now racking up acclaim for his debut solo album, "One Left Shoe," is doing the one-man-band thing again, sharing a triple bill with Lisa Loeb and Rufus Wainwright at theaters and nightclubs across the country. He recently played a concert in Chicago that was videotaped for an upcoming VH1 special.
He arrived at this point thanks in part to a fateful encounter several years ago with the then-unknown Jewel Kilcher at a San Diego coffeehouse. She was a waitress. He was a regular performer at the venue with a sore throat from too-many gigs. "I said, ‘Make me some special blend.' She came back and said, ‘I write songs, too.' We started hanging out. We went surfing. We would go down to Mexico and write songs."
Jewel subsequently co-wrote a Rugburns' song and appeared in a band video. Two of the songs on her debut album are collaborations with Poltz, who also plays guitar on the disc and was Jewel's love interest in the clip for "You Were Meant for Me."
Jewel, in turn, helped out on Poltz's disc, co-writing "Silver Lining" and "I Thought I Saw You Last Night," and adding background vocals on the latter track and "Impala." She's one of several guests -- including legendary songsmith Van Dyke Parks, the Mighty Mighty Bosstones' horns, Heartbreakers' keyboardist Benmont Tench and drummer Jim Keltner -- who provide a richly textured fabric upon which Poltz spills his songs of cheer and melancholy.
The catchy "Everything About You," written for a friend who has since died, exemplifies Poltz's new songwriting strategy. "That was the direction I was going in, which was so different than what I was doing with the Rugburns. I just wanted to simplify -- you know, three chords and the real simple lyrics. But I wanted to have a lot of feeling and soul."