He sings. He writes song. He has created a series of comic books featuring gay teenage superheroes. Steven Gellman does it all, cranking out personally charged songs reminiscent of John Denver or Kate Wolf. He can play standards like “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” and “A Bicycle Built for Two” at nursing homes and retirement parties. But he also has his own songs, crafted from life experiences and his view of the world — songs he performs at coffeehouses and bookstores across the region.
“I like writing about real things because it just seems like I connect with the song and it resonates more,” said Gellman as he was driving from a gig in Gaithersburg, Md., to another performance in Gainesville, Va., last week. “I suppose it’s typical singer-songwriter fare. They’re personal and meaningful.”
One of his songs, titled “A Little Bit Fine,” was inspired by an encounter he had as a journeyman musician. While performing in a Maryland bookstore, he met a blind woman in a wheelchair who quickly became a fan. The 22-year-old woman came to several shows, and the two got to know each other. Despite having countless surgeries and enduring constant pain, she had resolved to make the most of her life. When people would ask her how she was doing, she would respond, “Oh, I’m a little bit fine.” Gellman’s song about her indomitable spirit has a universally appealing message.
“I was playing in at an adult day-care center in Greenbelt, and they asked me to sing something that I had written. So I played ‘A Little Bit Fine,’” said Gellman, a native of Germantown, Md. “When I came back a couple of months later to play again, they had a huge banner on the wall that said ‘I’m a little bit fine today.’ And they said that they had adopted it as their theme song.”
ST. ELMO’S is the perfect venue for Gellman’s brand of singer-songwriter storytelling. Although he does not live in Alexandria, he describes the Del Ray institution as “my own neighborhood coffeehouse” — the kind of place where people want to hear what he has to say every third Saturday.
“I’ve been playing there for several years now,” said Gellman. “People know I’ll be there, so I’ve built up a certain following.”
He doesn’t make a point of marketing his comic books during his musical performances, though. After trying it several times, he discovered that it was too confusing for audiences to balance the two genres. But he always keeps copies of “The Enchanters,” his six-part series, in his car.
“I’ve been collecting comic books my whole life, and when I was younger there were no gay characters in comic books,” said Gellman. “And so I wanted to draw a book of gay superheroes.”
The plot of the series is mostly set in the 1980s, when the five main characters are in high school. At some point, they are put in stasis — although Gellman won’t share more than that because he doesn’t want to give the ending away. As the characters are struggling with personal issues, they go undercover to thwart evil and become engaged in a series of events that leads them through the arc of the storyline.
“The first issue begins when they wake up and it’s present day and they’ve been in a coma for 20 years,” said Gellman said. “So as the story unfolds, you find out what happened back in the ’80s and how they got to that point.”
HIS FIFTH ALBUM, which he plans to record in January, is somewhat of a departure for Gellman. He has abandoned the typical storytelling style in favor of an approach that wrestles with much broader themes of society and politics. The album, which is titled “A Peaceful World,” includes songs that oppose hunting and decry warfare.
“One of the songs is inspired by a newspaper article I read about this 8-year-old girl whose father took her out of school to hunt a bear,” said Gellman. “The whole story was upsetting to me, and I was upset with the governor of Maryland for reinstituting the bear hunt after 51 years. The whole things was upsetting.”
Although he tried to write about other things, the state of the world was such a pressing concern for him that he felt compelled to put together an album full of songs about it. He said that he decided to stop resisting the forces that were inside of them and instead channel them into musical creations.
“Some people aren’t happy with them,” said Gellman. “But I feel like this is what I’ve got to do.”