There's no simple way to define the work of Stew. As a rock-and-pop songwriter (under the name Stew and with his band The Negro Problem) and playwright, his discography is full of beautiful melodies, distinctive vocals and, most of all, the incisive and humorous lyrics that give him such a memorable voice in both the pop-music and theater worlds. His songs can be gentle and acoustic, edgily aggressive or jazzily cabaret-like -- sometimes, somehow, all at the same time.
Stew, the moniker of Los Angeles born-and-raised artist Mark Stewart, is probably best known as the creator of the semi-autobiographical musical "Passing Strange," which won a Tony Award for Best Book of a Musical in 2008. Some readers may recall that "Passing Strange" has local ties, as Stew and his collaborators workshopped the show during a Stanford Institute for Creativity in the Arts residency back in 2006. He's also taught songwriting courses at the university.
Stew is returning to Stanford this weekend for three performances of "Notes of a Native Song," inspired by the work of noted novelist and social critic James Baldwin. Baldwin, an icon of the civil rights and LGBTQ rights movements, is a hero of Stew's, but don't expect "Notes of a Native Song" to be a straight-forward tribute.
"It's what we call a narrative concert. It's really about the effect an artist can have on a person's life and how his life is this really cool example of how sensitive you can be to the world, how you can use your alienation in your art and how you can change your mind," Stew said. "Baldwin was always changing his mind and always thinking things and always arguing with people. I like that."
The show presents Baldwin as a "rock 'n' roll figure," he said, likening him to Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones.
"There are these noble black novelists we all put on stone pedestals," he continued, mimicking a serious, scholarly tone, "but Baldwin was just this wonderfully messy human being. We don't treat him like a god; we treat him with an irreverence. Sometimes we have this blind fawning over those we claim as our heroes, and we don't want them to be messy, when the very thing we're celebrating them for is their messiness. The reason they changed our lives is because they're so messy."
The show was originally commissioned by Harlem Stage for an audience that included members of Baldwin's family and legendary writer Toni Morrison, and its "punk-rock, confrontational" take was not universally beloved by those who may have been expecting a more traditional tribute.
"We tend to want our heroes to be clean and antiseptic -- well, no. My heroes are f---ed. My heroes like to do weird things in their beds. ... My heroes do drugs. My heroes, they do all kinds of things that you, Mr. Person out there reading, may not like, and I'm proud of them," he said.
Never one to shy away from poking fun at either himself or others, Stew's song "Klown Wit Da Nuclear Code," which was released last summer and covers the election of Donald Trump, is nevertheless, he said, a departure from his usual style.
"I don't really like writing topical songs because they get dated quickly, and I didn't want to add to all the Trump static," he said. It was written at the behest of filmmaker and friend Spike Lee (who turned the final Broadway performance of "Passing Strange" into a feature film). "He sent me a text that just said, 'A clown's got the nuclear code,'" Stew said. Lee wanted him to write a song on that subject, which was later used in conjunction with his new television show, "She's Gotta Have It."
"I resisted for a pretty long time, but he just kept texting me: 'A clown's got the nuclear code.' Everyday it would show up on my phone."
Finally, Stew gave in and wrote the scathing track, which describes Trump, among other things, as an "unreal estate orange agent."
"It was the hardest thing I ever had to write," he said, adding that, for the world's sake, he hopes it's one that doesn't stand the test of time. "That's the song you hope you don't have to sing again."
He's gearing up for two new record releases -- the soundtrack to "Notes of a Native Song" as well as "The Total Bent," another musical -- and will perform at Lincoln Center in New York on Feb. 7. In the meantime, "Passing Strange" lives on as communities across the country embark on their own productions. Though that show originally featured Stew as a narrator commenting on the experiences of his younger self, he said the project has a life of its own that's not dependent on his presence in the cast.
"It's really not as personal as people think. We always call it 'autobiographical fiction,'" he said. "So many people have told me how they relate to it that I can't feel like I own it." He recalled running into a man in the subway who told him that he'd taken his ex-wife to see the play so that she could finally understand him. The two then rekindled their romance. Stew was profoundly touched by the encounter.
"That's way better than a Tony Award," he said.
And despite that Tony, Stew is not a big fan of traditional theater.
"Not at all. I don't go to it. I don't appreciate a well-made play. I'm a simpleton," he said, laughing. "I like theater in Berlin, like where they're doing Shakespeare but then a guy comes out playing a Velvet Underground song on acoustic guitar, or there's blood and people screaming, nudity -- I'm the heterosexual who's really into full frontal male nudity. But I'd much rather see a Tuesday night rock band."
Rock music, too, he conceded, "is a branch of theater. Everything, actually, is theater. I do respect what theater is about."
Any interview with Stew would be remiss not to mention his musical soulmate and frequent collaborator, Heidi Rodewald, whose infectious bass guitar lines and sweet harmonies are essential to The Negro Problem's sound and who's been Stew's co-composer throughout his career. Though they're no longer romantically involved, their fruitful songwriting partnership continues.
"You just get lucky if you find that person who's there through thick and thin -- and it hasn't all been pretty, by any means," he said, reflecting on their bond. The key to collaboration, as he tells his songwriting students, is not to find someone who loves your music but rather "someone who gets your music." He and Rodewald, he said, grew up listening to the same L.A. radio stations and shared a mutual love of '70s soul and hard-edged punk. And despite the fact that they're now based in Brooklyn, their music retains a distinctly West Coast vibe. It's one of the reasons they're looking forward to their upcoming Stanford shows.
"We're thrilled just to be in California," he said. "Even though it's not my home-home anymore, it's my spiritual home."
What: "Notes of a Native Song" by Stew and The Negro Problem.
Where: Bing Studio, 327 Lasuen St., Stanford.
When: Friday, Feb. 2, at 8 p.m. and Saturday, Feb. 3, at 2:30 and 8 p.m.
Cost: $15/students; $45-55 general admission.
Info: Go to Stanford Live.