One moment two decades ago changed Steve Poltz's life. He was sitting on a beach in Mexico with his barista girlfriend/songwriter-to-be Jewel Kilcher, when he came up with a little ditty he quickly tossed away as unworthy. He told her she could have it, as you would handing someone the backwash-laden remnants of your beer, and Jewel turned that song into "You Were Meant for Me." But don't look for any regrets.
"I've been on a major label. I've done it all, and I still love it," he says. "It's like being a pirate. You come into town, shake things up and are on your way, always on the move."
In the early '90s, Poltz had a band, the Rugburns, who became a local favorite in San Diego with spunky, acoustic-y college rock reminiscent of They Might Be Giants. Their two albums reflected Poltz's wry and offbeat humor, with songs about pot and the music business ("Me and Eddie Vedder") and modern day anomie ("My Car Phone's on the Pill"), and emotional reticence ("Lockjaw"). He took Jewel, then an unknown singer-songwriter, out on the road with his band.
"I brought her out onstage to sing and nobody's listening and they're saying, 'Show us your tits,' because it's drunk Cleveland. And I'm like, 'Shut up, be nice to her, she's going to be famous one day, you wait and see.'"
Then again, Poltz thought he was going to be famous one day, too. He went on to appear shirtless in the ubiquitous video for "You Were Meant for Me," the song that propelled Jewel's debut album to multi-platinum status. In the aftermath, the Rugburns broke up and Poltz scored a major label deal for his 1998 solo debut, One Left Shoe. Jewel sang and contributed to it, as did Beach Boys collaborator Van Dyke Parks and Tom Petty keyboardist Benmont Tench.
Unfortunately, it was downhill from there. The album didn't sell, Poltz left the label, and Jewel dumped him for a rodeo star. It would be five years before he returned with a new studio album, 2003's Chinese Vacation.
In the years since, he's regained his footing and grown more prolific. Subsequent releases include an odds and sods collection, a covers disc, and Noineen Noiny Noin, which he's described as "the most absurdly named, pulchritudinous, foot-stomping party of 2012."
Most recently, he did the soundtrack for the film Running Wild, the life of Dayton O. Hyde. "They'd go, 'We need 53 seconds here, and 45 seconds here,'" says Poltz of the filmmakers "I have a lot of experience with that, I put out an album called Answering Machine, which had 56 songs, all 45 seconds long. So I was a natural fit. I can shave time off. For whatever reason, I'm not precious about it."
With his loyal core following, and new directions opening up, Poltz is appreciative of where he is, rather than bitter over what might have been. "This is the perfect time to be me, right now. I feel like I landed in a field on a parachute," he says. "Everything's going really good. I'm sure it will all get fucked up, but right now it's a really good time."