Heartstrings Interview

Part I: An Interview with Anthony D’Amato

By Arran Fagan/KDUP

In the recent weeks, we’ve interviewed Anthony D’Amato not once, but twice. We consider ourselves quite fortunate to have had the opportunities to catch up with this talented man and the heavy-hearted folk songs he’s sharing with the world in bi-coastal settings — first, in Ashland, Oregon and second, the place he calls home, in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Today, we bring you Part I, as a prequel to his performance this Thursday at City Winery NYC.

D’Amato arrive in Ashland this Mother’s Day with his guitar in hand and several stories to share with the audience at the Southern Oregon Roots Festival. At first glance Anthony’s appearance is deceiving, with leather boots, dark jeans, worn collared shirt, Stetson hat, and a leather belt with a big good ole boy belt buckle. Anthony resembled more cowboy than that of a man who lives in the heart of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Stepping on stage, D’Amato brought his stories to life with his enthusiasm and virtuosity, spinning tails about growing up, moving on, and awkwardly breaking up, but stuck living with an ex-girlfriend until the lease was up on their apartment. D’Amato brought more than just his songs to Oregon, he brought a story exemplifying how his mother helped shaped his life.

The promoter of the music festival had asked each artist to prepare a song appropriate for Mothers Day. On stage, Anthony joked, “If you have listened to the whole set, or even one song, you can probably tell that I don’t have any songs appropriate for Mothers day, let alone any situation. So I have story which will paint a picture of how truly incredible my mother is.” Lightly fingerpicking the guitar, the music fluttering in our ears, Anthony painted the tale of how his mother told him to quit his day job as a music publicist and use all of his life savings to record an album, all because she knew it would make him happy and knew he would regret it if he didn’t. Anthony had been going back and forth for weeks with his idea of cashing in all of his earnings to work with his favorite producer of all time, Sam Kassirer. After hearing his mother’s advice, he went for it, which lead to a record deal, a massive tour, an incredible album, and one of the best years of his life. Without his mother’s advice, Anthony may have never followed his dreams and we would never have been able to hear The Shipwreck From the Shore in its truest and most beautiful form. The album doesn’t focus only on breakup, rather it emphasizes moving on; never dragging in misery, instead, growing and reflecting with newfound wisdom.

Arran Fagan: So how did it all start? When did you pick up the guitar?

Anthony D’Amato: I started playing the guitar when I was about twelve or thirteen I guess, I had been playing piano for a while before that. I started that when I was about five or six maybe, and it was mostly classical piano. I started feeling like I kind of hit a wall with that where I wasn’t as interested in practicing and going to lessons for that anymore because it wasn’t the music that I was really interested in, and when the guitar came along that kind of opened up a lot of new worlds of being able to play songs that I cared about, learning how those songs were put together, and realizing that I could write my own using those same chords and structures and stuff. So that is kind of how it started.

Did you start playing gigs just for fun? How did that come about?

I started a band in high school with some friends and we were terrible, we would play some shows because that’s what you do when you are in a band in high school, you play some shows around your school. It was fun, even though we weren’t very good I could tell it was something I wanted to be doing and when I got to college it was the first time I was doing stuff by myself as a solo artist and that was just kind of out of necessity. I got a good microphone, a little pre-amp, and I started recording demos in my dorm room because there was really no one else for me to play with at the time. I got them to this artist Jesse Malin, who I was a huge fan of and he invited me to come and play at this bar he owned in New York called Niagara and that was my first solo show and Jesse took me to open forum in Philadelphia and things started happening from there.

Those demos were from the album Down Wires, correct? Did you record all of it in your dorm room, or was that just the demos then? Even the drums?

That was Down Wires yeah, that was the first record. Yeah pretty much all of it, a lot of the drums are on the keyboard, like synthesized yeah, and then for the electric guitar I would take the train into New York with my laptop in a bag and my microphone stuff and I would go to my friend Gabriel Gordon’s apartment, he is this amazing guitarist, he plays with Natalie merchant and lots of people. He would play the electric guitar parts and then I’d bring it back to my dorm room and I’d mix it and do it all myself. I still had a lot to learn at that point but I think going out and just doing it generally is the best way to learn how to do stuff, you know, trial and error and figure it out.

So was it always a dream to become a touring musician, or was it just something you were doing?

Yeah, no it was always what I wanted to do and from probably the time I got a guitar on, I realized that was what would make me happy, or I hoped and I still hope it makes me happy. I loved playing songs, I loved traveling and meeting new people and this job kind of involves all three of those.

NPR wrote a great synopsis of your music and they talked about how you write sad songs but they aren’t left “moping.”

Yeah, the lyrics tend to come out that way, and this album in particular came out of a kind of difficult period but I wanted it to be an album about moving past that, I didn’t want it to be an album about “This is what it is like to feel sad,” I wanted it to be an album about like “This is what it feels like to get happy after you’ve been sad for a while”, So I purposely made the music as bright and propulsive as I could, and it counteracts the lyrics a bit, it keeps things from getting too dark, and also I just wanted it to be the kind of record that you want to put on in the car or when you have friends around. I didn’t want it to be like, you know I love Elliot Smith and I love Keaton Henson but I can only listen to those guys at very specific times when I am that sad and I wanted it to be something like depending on when you listened to it, if you listened to it when you are happy you could take something from it, and if you listened to it when you are sad you could take something from it.

What was the experience like of writing these songs during your breakup? Did you share them?

I didn’t want to share them with anybody at the time because I didn’t know, as I was writing them they were just for me. There were songs, I wrote a lot of songs in that period and some of them are like way too sad to ever get release and some of them are way too dark, and some of them are mean and some of them are dumb. But I was messing around in that zone; I was listening to a lot of Bob Dylan, trying to figure out “how does he get away with being a jerk sometimes?” If you listen to “blood on the tracks” and there are some lines in there where he is being very childish and almost obnoxious sometimes, but it is done so poetically and so tongue and cheek, there is a humor to it, there is a self awareness that, it walks a very fine line and you hear those songs and you identify yourself in there and he makes you identify with characters you don’t necessarily want to identify with sometimes. So I really wanted to make sure I was walking that line, and as you said before, not fall down on that moping side of it, or not fall down on the mean side of it, or not fall down on the self absorbed side of it. It was a lot about trying to make songs that people could hear and see themselves in that wouldn’t just apply to one situation. But as I was writing them, I was really writing them just as exercises for myself, purging a lot of the stuff that was going on inside me at the time.

When I first found the record it was actually right after a breakup, which was awful, but listening to it now, the record still works in both lights.

Yeah, you know if you’re in that moment, which I was when I was writing them, it was a lot of you know, “Chin up, move forward.” If I listened to it now, it is just a reminder of ups and downs, and that good times come and go, and to think about all the amazing stuff that has come about since then that you could never have foreseen — that kind of low point, the dip in the valley, and it turns out it is this gateway to all of these new things that you didn’t even anticipate. It’s like learning to find the up side and opportunities in difficult times.

How did you intend “There Was a Time” to come off?

You know, I never intended it in a negative kind of a sense, I always intended it as more of a matter of fact kind of thing, and you know these times come and they go, it’s not that “I don’t love you” means that I hate you, it’s just that there was a time that I loved you and I don’t love you anymore, you know? I am on to other things at this point in my life and that is why the rest of the song is all of these images of things that come and go, and times change. It’s not necessarily bad or good, it’s just the way of the world.

You throw a lot of religious symbolism into your songs. Is it from your upbringing?

This album was a record that was a lot about loss of faith and doubt, and it was on a personal level it was between two people, but for me the biblical imagery and stuff seemed like a really appropriate language for talking about those things, so I try to draw a lot of imagery and metaphors from that because those are stories that everybody knows whether you believe them or not. They are stories and images that a lot of people understand and can relate to, and in this case like I said, because I was talking about these kind of bigger ideas of doubt and loss and faith and perseverance and redemption and all that sort of stuff, it seemed like an appropriate vocabulary to pull from for this.

When you go into songwriting, do you sit down and scope out a song? I know you studied under the famous poet Paul Muldoon, how does that work? Or is it just a feeling and comes out in one way?

I wish I could sit down and say “here’s what I am going to do right now” but it tends to be chance, and I don’t know where they come from necessarily but it’s like I will sit down and I will start playing the guitar for a bit and I will come along a chord progression or a melody that I like and I will start singing just gibberish over it, just sounds until I get a melody that I really feel like I am hooked on, and slowly that will transform just through doing it over and over again, and then some word will plant itself in my brain and then another word will go along with that and at that point then I will try and start to step away from it and think about those words that came to me and say “well ok what do they mean? What is it about?” I don’t lock myself in one hundred percent like those have to be the words, but a lot of the times they end up being the words because those words came there for a reason, they fit, they sound right, and I try and figure out the song based around whatever that kernel of a lyric is. Other times, sometimes I will see a phrase written down somewhere that I really like and say “that sounds like a song title”. I keep this notebook document on my phone that has a running list of song titles, songs I hope to write just because the title sounds cool, it sounds like a cool song, I would listen to that song if I saw it on an album track listing. So yeah, it can come from a variety of directions but usually it’s just that something plants itself in there and then I try and just work on it until it blossoms into an actual something that people can understand.


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