An Ear for Music and a Mind for Investments

On the evening of Thursday August 16 pianist, songwriter, investor, and restaurateur Steve Karan played two and a half hours of British Invasion music on the piano, including music by The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, and The Who, on the front steps of Santa Barbara’s Museum of Art as part of the monthly summer event series called Nights. The event sold out to 1,100 art, music, and martini-loving guests. Most of those partygoers wouldn’t have guessed that earlier that day, they could have found Steve searching the globe for his next investment opportunity.

During a recent interview at his beachfront Montecito home, Steve says, “I took piano lessons, but they weren’t the central part of my learning experience. I’ve always just played by ear.” Steve’s father, Paul, and sister Jennifer, visiting Steve the weekend of his Nights performance, recalled how in 1972 at the age of two, Steve climbed up onto a piano bench and pounded out the theme song to the Olympic Games on the family piano simply after hearing it on television.

Gesturing toward the Steinway grand piano across his living room, Steve says, “When I play the piano, I’m hearing every instrument, including the vocals, that one would hear from the original recorded version of the music. I try to make the sound I create on the piano as full and expressive as possible, trying to render as much of the power of the song as I can…the vocal line, the energy of the beat, the bass line, even the guitar solo. I’m trying to create the whole band with ten fingers.”

Steve grew up in Scarsdale, a suburb of New York City, and says he had involved parents who emphasized education and encouraged his other activities including competitive tennis. He recalls their support and inspiration: “I always loved learning. My mother [Susan] passed away when I was sixteen. I’ve always believed the surest way to achieve immortality is to leave as much of yourself as you can with your family and she certainly did that.”

He started entertaining at parties at the age of twelve. He attended college at Harvard, pursued music in New York, took a job as a management consultant, and then received his MBA from Harvard Business School.

“During college, I started playing at piano bars around Boston. You know, sing-along music – Elton John, Billy Joel, Beatles. I would play fourteen-hour shifts doing that, and leave with crushed fingernails and a backpack full of dollar bills; it was about as much fun as I’d ever had.”

From Harvard to McDonald’s

After graduating from college magna cum laude, Steve says he decided to pursue songwriting and entertaining. While looking for opportunities, he spent a month living on the floor of his sister’s apartment in New York City. “I walked up and down almost every avenue and block on the island of Manhattan dropping off flyers and offering to audition for any place that had a piano or looked like it might ever have had a piano.” It took a whole month for him to work his way from uptown all the way to the southern tip of the island, and he’d had almost no luck.

“Dejected, walking to the subway to come back uptown, thinking about what I would do next in life, I wandered into a McDonalds and heard this echoing piano music cascading all over the place. At first I figured it was piped in, but as I looked around I noticed there was a short, white-haired, bearded guy in a tuxedo with white gloves playing a grand piano on a ledge suspended above the front door of the restaurant.

“It was an odd situation because the only way to get there was on a ladder up from the dining area that he pulled up while he was playing. In my desperation, I asked the manager whether that position would ever be open, and he told me under his breath that in fact the musician who had been with them for many years was considering giving up the breakfast shift.

“I told him how interested I was and set up an audition for six-thirty the next morning. I raced off and took the train out to my father’s house in Connecticut to grab my tuxedo, took the train back in, woke up early the next morning and took the subway down alongside New Yorkers, Wall Street types reading their Wall Street Journals who I imagine must have been thinking I was vastly overdressed for my first day at work.

“I got there, climbed the ladder up to the ledge, and started playing. By the end of my shift I had gotten a job working for twelve dollars an hour – so yes, my first job after graduating from Harvard was at McDonalds. After a week or so, as my tuxedo smelled more and more like tater tots and Egg McMuffins, I realized I had to move on.”

Over the next year, while developing his songwriting, he eventually succeeded in getting frequent opportunities to play in bars and clubs throughout the city.

“Both sides of my brain are active all the time,” says Steve, noting that after a while he also missed some of the intellectual sides of business. “Eventually I took a job as a management consultant and went to business school, and to this day I’ve always tried to keep both sides of my life as active as possible.”

Going to California

Steve says he was dazzled by California on a trip he took with his family when he was seven. “I was amazed there was a wide-open place with sunshine, mountains, ocean, trees, no winter, and less than half as many bugs in the summer. It just seemed like everything was better and nothing was worse."

In 1998, as a recent graduate of Harvard Business School, Steve moved to Montecito. A business school professor had introduced him to a group of people who had built a successful private investment partnership called the Investment Group of Santa Barbara. “I liked them on a personal level, respected their integrity, and admired the quality of the lives they had built for themselves here in Montecito,” Steve says.

A year after his graduation, the Investment Group began to interview for a new member of their partnership, and Steve moved out here to join the group. “Most people probably aren’t aware there is an investment operation of this scale in Upper Village Montecito,” he notes.

Steve is part owner of Restaurant Sevilla in Santa Barbara, where he frequently entertains on the piano, and he also maintains his ties to New York City and keeps an apartment on the Upper West Side. “New York has friends and family as well as cultural elements I enjoy,” he says, before adding, “Santa Barbara is absolutely my home. It took about a week of living out here before I totally fell in love with the area and decided I would never leave.”