Steven C. on how his divorce and the restoration of St. Paul inspired his new album, 'Emotive'

Steven C.

Steven C. Scott Stillman

St. Paul pianist and composer Steven C. is a celebrity in the classical music community.

He’s sold more than two million copies of his recordings and has singles boasting more than 13 million streams on services like Pandora. His compositions have been featured far and wide, from The Oprah Winfrey Show to the Baby Genius series. Whether playing pipe organ at church services, keyboards at Timberwolves games, or performing with Mannheim Steamroller on The Today Show, he’s constantly finding new ways to use his talents. After producing hundreds of recordings for others, he founded his own label, Steven C. Music, in 2007.

Steven C. recorded his latest release, Emotive, at the Cathedral of St. Paul over two days in September. Violins, cello, and vocalization enhance 12 of his passionate, original songs. Next he’s gearing up for the holiday season with a series of Christmas concerts around the Twin Cities.

City Pages: When you were a little boy, you took piano lessons “reluctantly.” How did you come to love playing the piano?

Steven C.: My mom was a piano teacher and a pianist, too. She did a good job of child psychology, convincing me to keep going on the lessons. I always joke in concert that I wanted to be a baseball player, but who won? Mom did. I have to thank her every time I get to play gigs or concerts or a royalty report comes in.

CP: It seems like classical musicians keep to themselves and don’t mingle with artists of other genres. Is that true?

SC: Maybe a little bit, but there’s been things like that Liquid Music Series where they’re getting a lot more innovative programming. But I think if you’re talking the big orchestras, Orchestra Hall, SPCO [Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra], yeah, they’re in their own world.

CP: Some of the songs on your new album, Emotive, were composed during a dark period following your divorce. What happened and how did you translate that experience into music?

SC: It was kind of the end of the chapter of the divorce, spending a lot of time sitting in the Cathedral reflecting on things and hearing things. There was a long time, years, where I was not really not composing, but I didn’t finish anything. I just had these little fragments. Then all of a sudden, in this last year, it was like the veil opened up and all these songs came through and the Emotive CD is out doing its thing. It was a tough chapter, but the album ends with “Restored,” which is both personal and also about all the beautiful buildings that have been restored – the Cathedral, the Capitol, houses on Summit.

CP: A lot of the tracks on Emotive have spiritual origins or titles. How did you arrive at using classical music to express spirituality?

SC: It’s definitely a new chapter for me. A lot of it is inviting people to share in an experience, not to be preaching or saying, “I know the answers.” If I say a song’s called “Communion,” I think of it in a simple sense: a bunch of people out walking on a beautiful day, that’s their communion, versus what it is for the Catholic church. There’s a lot of invitation through this music to be emotive, to share.

CP: You play a lot of Christmas concerts. What is it about Christmas music that you enjoy or that speaks to you?

SC: As a professional recording artist, I’ve recorded over 100 Christmas tracks, but there’s something so magical about performing that music live. I went from playing for 80 people in my house on Summit to thousands in the Cathedral. It was like a quantum leap. Every year, I just get so excited to perform Christmas music. We call it “Christmas Together” because I invite musicians to play with me, which makes it more special, but then also to have the audience there, together. I think the music really reflects the season.

CP: How does it feel to play in the Cathedral as opposed to any other venue?

SC: I’m one of those artists that really likes to correlate the space and what you create. At the Cathedral, where you have an 8-second reverb and thousands of people, it’s a space where you walk in there and you just feel. It’s beautiful and huge, versus the Aster River Room, which is a lot more intimate. There’s definitely a difference between the venues, and hence the performances will be hopefully good, but they’ll feel differently.

CP: What is the most unusual place you’ve performed?

SC: It has to be the Cathedral because it’s one of those things where I’m not Catholic but they’re so welcoming of the music that I do there. Whether it’s recording, doing a video in front of the Cathedral or up on the altar. I kind of stop and go, “How did this happen? Pinch me.”

CP: You’ve done such a wide variety of things with your musical talents. What has been the highlight of your career so far?

SC: I think the highlight is to be able to step out of playing house concerts and being able to draw a larger crowd, say at the Cathedral or the Chanhassen Dinner Theater, and [have] people actually spend $40 a ticket to see me. In terms of the Christmas concerts, there’s always the Blenders, Billy [McLaughlin] and SimpleGifts, Lorie Line. I feel like the new kid on the block, doing something that’s kind of a crossover between classical and new age.

CP: Given that your instrument is a piano, how does that work logistically? Do you have a particular piano delivered to each venue?

SC: We’re doing something special with a new piano that I just picked up. It’s a 1922 Hamburg Steinway that’s being restored. That will be at the Aster River Room. For the other performances, it’s my nine-foot Bösendorfer which I’ve had for 21 years. I have a moving company that thinks I’m crazy, but I trust them to move the piano to the right locations. It’s 1,200 pounds.

Christmas Together with Steven C.
Where: Church of St. Joseph, 1154 Seminole Avenue, West St. Paul
When: 7 p.m. Mon. Dec. 18
Tickets: Free; more info here