Feature Interview

Stelth Ulvang: A troubadour captivated

I remember very clearly the first time I noticed multi-instrumentalist Stelth Ulvang. It was at The Lumineers’ first show in the country at Kirstenbosch, when he respectfully draped the South African flag over his piano halfway through the gig. “It was the anniversary of Mandela’s death and I said something on the mic as I did that, but the perk of being only the piano player, my mic was not turned on,” he shrugs, taking a small sip of his peach ice tea.

“I said something to the effect of, it’s a cool honour to be here on this day and we as Americans have a lot to hope for – but now all’s gone to shit. On record, Trump sucks.”

Ulvang, decked in a well-worn Black Lives Matter tee, leans back in his chair and shakes his head – clearly the year-and-a-bit that The Big Cheeto has been in office has taken its toll. Barack Obama was still President of the United States when Ulvang first visited SA back in 2014. “When we first came here it was just after that documentary came out about Rodriguez, that was quite fresh on everyone’s mind. And we went to Mabu Vinyl and we were like – THIS IS THE PLACE!”

In the four years since, the love that Ulvang has cultivated for South Africa is one that he wears proudly on his sleeve.

Born in Fort Collins, Colorado, which he likens to Stellenbosch in terms of its mountains and vegetation, Ulvang started in the choir before picking up a saxophone, working his way through various woodwinds and then trying his hand at piano – all before the age of 18.

I ask him when he started playing accordion and the tells me he got his hands on one while he was travelling so he could use it to busk. This was also around the time he started riding trains across the country. “You can’t throw a piano onto a train,” he smiles.

There was a period that Ulvang admits he drifted from music but was reeled back in by a series of misadventures that involved a famous old boat called The Dove. After being stranded at a harbor for two days with nothing but a few instruments, Ulvang and his bandmate and wrote an album of “joke songs” which became the first release for their band, Dovekins.

“Through Dovekins we met these two dudes that came from Nu Jersey that were starting this band called The Lumineers. Then when they showed up in Denver I started working and playing with them and when Dovekins crumbled upon itself, after too much ego and adventure, The Lumineers swooped me up and I started playing bass with them and then moved to piano. That was all before the big rise,” Ulvang explains.

The Lumineers aside, Ulvang’s been back to South Africa on his own stream three times, performing all around the country to sold-out audiences that literally cannot get enough of the punk-rooted troubadour.

On his current nationwide tour he’s performing tracks off his new 5-track EP, “Greetings from Perputual Summer”, that he recorded at Cape Town’s Popsicle Studios, featuring an entirely local band. The EP is a glorious mixture of folk guitar stylings, full orchestral melodies and punk-tinged lyrics and was engineered by Raiven Hansmann who’s been churning out some impressive work as of late – namely Southern Wild, Brynn and The Steezies upcoming album.

“This EP is almost entirely political, subtly,” Ulvang states. “The opening track is called ‘You Go Girl’ and it’s about the constant experiential debate in my head about how to involve myself in feminism. One is a story about domestic violence. Then there’s one called ‘Through Honey’ that I did with Jon Shaban and that’s entirely trash-talking, political in the primest folk-punk way possible.”

Another figure central to the creation of Ulvang’s EP and his musical wellbeing is multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Dorota Szuza, who he’s also engaged to. “She’s a tour de force not to be reckoned with yet I constantly do,” he smirks. “She’s so creative, she plays every instrument under the sun and she keeps learning more instruments. Whenever we lose a member or someone can’t make a gig she goes – oh I’ll learn bass or that guitar part. She also designed the EP with me and handprinted the whole thing herself. She’s far cooler than I could ever strive to be, but unfortunately my ego hasn’t figured that out yet so we do but heads at times, which I think is only natural in an industrial working relationship.”

It appears as though this EP has sparked a desire for future collaborations as well as Ulvang admits that he’d love to record a full-length record here too. “I write songs totally differently with these guys. I really like changing the songs with their talents and all these songs are different to the versions that I started writing in the States.”

I’m interested to know what releases shaped his musical consciousness growing up and he doesn’t hesitate a second as he answers, Paul Simon’s “Graceland”. “I’m such a sucker for the record, so much so that I though if I ever have a child, which someday I hope I do, I want to buy that record for them the day that they’re born because I feel like it’s a worthy record for someone to grow up to. I felt really shaped by having it on all the time.”

However, Ulvang confesses that it’s a bit difficult for him to talk about the record because it’s become somewhat of a point of contention for him, and others, over the years. “I have held a bit of judgment on Paul Simon’s interactions around ‘Graceland’ and how it played out and I want to tread lightly about how I come in here and make music with South Africans because as much as I love Paul Simon there are ways that they album played out that feels exploitative.”

I ask him which SA artist he’d love to collaborate with and again he doesn’t skip a beat as he answers, BCUC. “Their stage performance is what I strive for, not there yet, but I’m in awe of the ferocity that comes with that music. Similar to Kendrick Lamar, who everyone knows and loves, it’s really difficult to make music that makes people dance that also has an important message. Most music you either get one of the other, with BCUC you get both.”

Talk soon turns to wedding plans and Ulvang excitedly admits that Szuza bought a wedding dress from a shop in the CBD a day or two ago. And even though they got engaged on Sunset Beach and the topic of getting married in SA has likely been broached, Ulvang is hesitant to piss off everyone in the family by making it official here. “I’m pretty sure it’s the furthest flight from California, I don’t think there’s a further place you can fly than down here. It’s frustrating to like this place so much because the flight here sucks so bad.”

Follow Tecla on Twitter.

Listen to “Greetings from Perpetual Summer” on Bandcamp.

Catch Stelth at Sit the Folk Down in Cape Town and Cafe Roux in Shortmarket Street, Cape Town.

Check out our exclusive gallery from Stelth Ulvang’s Railway Café Show.