Music Interview: James Stewart & Stephen “Sugar” Segerman – Getting Sweet On Songcraft, Or An Un-Usual Combination

February 4, 2019

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In A Spoonful Of Sugar And James (3pm on 9 February at Franschoek Cellars and 7.30pm on 28 February at Café Roux in Noordhoek), singer-songwriter James Stewart joins Stephen “Sugar” Segerman, the man behind the rediscovery of Sixto Rodriguez and Searching For Sugar Man, the Oscar-winning documentary about that story. The pair will share their respective stories and play and sing some great Rodriguez and South African classic songs. Contact for details.

How did you two meet? What was your first impression of each other, and why did you feel – then or later – that you were important guys to get to know?

James Stewart: So far back…. Sugar started, which was an online mp3 music site, and The SA Rock Digest, which was an email fanzine. I’m not exactly sure how I found my way into his ‘office’ – which was wall to wall and floor to ceiling music, albums and memorabilia. There was so much to talk about as we navigated the the digital storm that had hit the music industry at that time. The conversation was always lateral and stimulating. He’s an old-school music fan who enjoys listening to music as much as I do making it.

Stephen “Sugar” Segerman: I moved to Cape Town from Johannesburg in the mid-Nineties and it was an exciting time for SA music, with the epicentre also moving from Johannesburg to Cape Town – no link between the two events whatsoever! – with acts like Springbok Nude Girls, Karen Zoid, Prophets Of The City, Brasse van Die Kaap, Hog Hoggidy Hogg, Godessa and The Usual starting to make their mark on the SA music scene. I met James through a Street Level Studios mentoring program for young Cape Town bands that he set up with Richard Black. Back then, I wrote for The SA Rock Digest, and we helped spread the word about all these musicians and what they were doing, so I got to know James well. We always had a good connection.


James, for you as a songwriter, how important is storytelling in music?

JS: I’m just not ambitious or energetic enough to rely on gadgetry and tricks to maintain interest. A decent melody and story are, in my view, essential to a rewarding piece of music.


Sugar’, your Rodriguez exploits underline the value of telling stories about music as well. How does that differ from songwriting, and how does each fit into A Spoonful Of Sugar And James?

JS: The show describes both a linear and lateral chat we’ve been having for years – essentially talking about the soundtracks of our earlier lives. Rodriguez’s Cold Fact just seemed to be everywhere while I was waking up musically. It’s part of that tapestry.

SS: Searching For Sugar Man brought Rodriguez’s crazy story and wonderful music to many people around the world. But there is still a lot of interesting stuff that we had to leave out of the movie. So, since the film was released, I have given a lot of talks about this, but always in a formal setting. This show with James allows us to both tell that story as well as incorporate Rodriguez’s music into the story of two South African music fans growing up in SA – what we listened to and how it affected us.


In the light of the above question, what are your definitions or ideas about music as culture versus music as entertainment?

JS: It’s probably a little to much pressure to expect any equating of popular music with culture – it’s only rock ’n roll, right? There’s all the room in the world for entertainment for entertainment’s sake,’ but that being said, we’re probably all looking for something which connects on a slightly deeper level – like a truly great pop song that captures a moment in time in a cerebral and visceral way.

SS: I think the awarding of the Nobel Prize for Literature to Bob Dylan kind of settled that “music as culture versus music as entertainment” debate once and for all. Music is both an art form and a way of making a living for musicians. Rodriguez is an interesting case in point because he experienced both but not at the same time. First, his music became art with no money or recognition or awareness of his fame coming to him. Then the same songs brought him world-wide fame and fortune. How did he respond to both situations?


Rodriguez’ career certainly hasn’t followed a traditional path, and neither has yours, Sugar. James, you have had great radio and chart success, but have also chosen to follow a different route post The Usual. What was some of the thinking behind that? Do you have regrets about what you might’ve missed, and what would you regret having achieved that you could not have had you done the standard write, record, tour, repeat cycle?

JS: I never really had much of a desire to become some kind of superstar. What I set out to do I feel satisfied I managed to achieve, which was to have a shot at making people feel the way I felt when I heard a song that really affected me; to fashion a sound out of nothing with fine musicians.


The choice of songs for this set – your own, James; some Rodriguez tunes and some ‘South African classics’: what influenced the selection, and can you elaborate a little on the lasting significance or value of one or two of the songs in particular?

JS: Each one of the songs selected needed to fulfil two criteria: I had to be able to bring something to them from a creative perspective and also be able to speak to a specific memory association.

SS: We took a while to choose which songs to include as they will all be different versions by James, and as James said, they had to have some strong relevance to what we will be talking about as well as being songs that James likes and feels he can bring something new to in his interpretations. But we’re keeping their names under wraps till the show…

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