Concert Heartstrings Interview Review

A True Gentlemen of the Road: An Interview with Anthony D’Amato Part II

By pure circumstance, May 2015,  turned out to be “Anthony D’Amato month” for Heartstrings, and happily so. First, we ran into each other for a chance meeting at Joe Pug’s show at the Bowery Ballroom, NYC. Then we caught Anthony’s show at the Rogue Valley Roots Festival in Oregon.  A few short weeks later, we met for a scheduled, afternoon interview at the Atlas Cafe in Williamsburg, NY. To close out the month, we watched and listened again, as Anthony wowed the audience with his musical artistry and witty stories, at City Winery NYC,  just last Thursday. The serendipitous, recurrent joining of our busy schedules and paths, can be largely attributed to a thread that runs through each of the stories Anthony told during our interviews. That common thread is, his inspiring attention to, and desire for connection to his fans…before, when and after he meets them. What I mean by that can be best explained by the anecdote he told of a fan he had met at a show some four years ago. They became close friends and hang together often.

Anthony is approachable and forthcoming (even about being a control freak at times). He’s intelligent too,  and has a firm grip on the promises of the road ahead–starting with The Gentlemen of the Road Stopover, in Seaside Heights, New Jersey this weekend (with Mumford & Sons, Alabama Shakes, Dawes, Blake Mills, Jenny Lewis, The Flaming Lips and more),  followed by a full-band summer tour and performance spot at AmericanaFest this September. We’re excited, to say the least! I’m certain that our paths will cross again in the months to come and we at Heartstrings look forward to it. Read on to learn more about the long-anticipated emergence of this artist.

Lauren Jahoda: When did you start playing music?

Anthony D’Amato: When I was 5 or 6 I started taking piano lessons, and that was the only instrument for a long time. It was classical piano. I wasn’t super excited about classical piano. As I got older and more into my own music taste, I started getting away from that more and more. My parents used to take me to a lot of concerts, they were big music fans. By the time I was in middle school, I’d try to get them to take me down to the Stone Pony…because they were 18 or 21 and up shows, but they would let you in if you were with a parent. Around that time I got a guitar for the first time. Once that happened, I was off and running.

Who are some of the artists your parents were taking you to see?

A lot of rock and roll — both my parents grew up down at the Jersey shore and their parents all live down there, so we’d go see a lot of local artists from there — Bobby Gambiera, Sonny Kenn, Springsteen shows…some folk stuff, like Gordon Lightfoot…blues stuff — BB King. A whole mix.

You must be especially excited to do the Mumford & Sons’ Gentlemen of the Road Stopover in Seaside Heights since you have so much family there.

I’m excited. I’ll be able to stay with my grandparents. They’re about 45 minutes from there. Nicole Atkins is on the bill…we’re all doing the locals stage. It will be fun.

Is there a part of you that still feels stunned being added to certain lineups or bills, even after all the wonderful collaborations you’ve had?

Yeah. Absolutely. I get most excited about play shows that I would go see. Like playing with Joe Pug at the Mercury Lounge…I was going to buy tickets to that show. I was going to be there no matter what. So when I get invited to come play at it, it’s kind of crazy. So wait, you’re going to pay to come play songs I was going to pay to come see?? Ohh, alright! (laughs).

(laughs) How did that collaboration with Joe come about?

I saw Joe for the first time at Newport Folk Festival in 2009, I think. I was totally blown away. It really lit a fire in me to go home and just write a ton of songs. I think Joe was one of the first guys I saw in the new folk movement that’s going on now. Like holy shit, there are still people out there doing amazing stuff with lyrics and there’s an audience for it. I think I had been disillusioned a bit with thinking the audience for lyric-centric music is an exclusively older audience. That’s what I was seeing. I was going to see mostly older artists and that’s why I felt that way. But when I saw Joe, I realized there are a lot of young people here and that it doesn’t so much matter about the age, than the quality of the songs. When Joe came through to New York, I got to the Mercury Lounge early and waited out front, and when he came out, I gave him a copy of this record I made. The one I did in my college dorm room. And he wrote me from the tour, he said they were listening to it in the van, and basically just a “keep at it” kind of thing. So every time he came through NY, I made sure I was at the show, and talk to him. I was just a huge fan and having him as an encouraging presence was great for me. I think I was playing Rockwood that night and I got a text or an email from Joe and he asked what I was doing in February and if I want to come open for the Mercury Lounge show.

What we’re doing, it’s not going to be Taylor Swift billion dollar machines. There’s a very individual connection with the fans, especially when you’re starting out. Joe’s beyond that now, he’s playing Bowery Ballroom and movin’ on up, but he’s still at the merch table shaking hands and talking to people. Every time I’m out at shows, I meet people face-to-face, you meet your fans as human beings and learn about their interaction with your music and where they’re from and how they found you. You see your fans as individuals rather than this faceless group.

You’ve said that you recorded your first album in your dorm room and Katie, who I seen you sing with in several sessions, is a college friend. Where did you go to college? What was it about your college years that influenced you and lead to begin creating your music?

I went to Princeton University and there are a couple of things. The first is that right when I moved away, I had gotten my only microphone and preamp so I could make a little recording station at my computer. There weren’t a ton of other people…ya know, I didn’t know anyone there and I didn’t have a band to start out with so I started recording myself. That was really fun for me. I started experimenting and learning how to fix things, layer things and arrange…all that kind of stuff. Another thing that really pushed me along was in my junior and senior years, I worked out this independent study with Paul Muldoon, a Pulitzer Prize winning poet from Ireland and Poetry Editor for The New Yorker, and he runs the arts department at Princeton. I was doing the music certificate program, which is minoring in music and performance, and as part of that you need to do these classes, like jazz or classical or conducting an orchestra, and none of that interested me. So I thought what if I work with this guy on writing lyrics outside the classroom and get together with him to show him the songs, and they went for it. So every couple of months, I’d send him a batch of songs and we’d get together and talk about them. He’d mark them up and comment…I really like this image because it ties back here…I don’t like this image because it doesn’t fit with the rest. That commentary is really helpful to me because I never thought about it in those terms. I always looked at the songs as that’s how they came out and that’s how they were. They were either good or bad and I’d keep it or not. With him, once you got it out then you can define it to a much deeper and more meaningful place.

With Muldoon, did you examine just the words or the sound as well?

Just the words. Because he’s such a music fan, he knew how important sound was. We would talk about how you can get away with things in songs that you can’t in poems because you have the music there. The music can reinforce what you’re saying, or it can undermine what you’re saying, or it can complete a thought for you, or turn something that sounds serious into a joke. You can use the music to do things that the words can’t. When I worked with him really exclusively on was the lyrical side of things.

Do you have a comfortable setting for writing music?

Totally depends. A lot of times it requires just sitting down with a guitar and playing gibberish until things click into place and that can happen anywhere. But I’ve found that when I’ve got the music done and it’s just the lyrics I’m working on, walking around helps, when I’m in motion. I don’t know if it’s having that rhythm in my body while I’m walking or what but I try to go on walks to work on lyrics. When I had a day job, I’d work on them on the subway or during my lunch break.

I’ve heard you talk about the transition from self-producing your albums to giving it to Sam Kassirer to produce — can you tell me about this experience?

I made that first record in my dorm room, I graduated from school, moved to New York, and took a job working as a publicist for other musicians at Shore Fire. I was working there for about 4 years. I worked with Grizzly Bear, St. Vincent, Bon Iver, Macklemore…across the spectrum. While I was in NY, I recorded another album in my bedroom and released that. Weekends were for playing shows and I’d use up all my vacation to tour. I was doing that kind of stuff and when it was time to make the 3rd record, I reached out to Sam. I felt if I did the next album myself, I knew exactl what it would sound like, I knew how far it would take me. I felt like I was aware of my limitations at that point. I said, well, if I’m going to give this a shot, make it work, I have to go all in, with both feet and just jump. So I reached out to Sam because his name kept turning up on all these albums I love — Josh Ritter, David Wax Museum, Langhorne Slim. I just found his email address on line, sent him some demos and I couldn’t believe it but he wrote back. We talked back and forth for awhile and we figured out the budget that he could make it work for, which was pretty much everything I had saved up the last 4 years working. And I said, let’s do it. We’re going all in. Fortunately, that’s when New West came into the picture. They didn’t sign me until after the album was done, but while we were making the record, we were talking to New West and planning on putting it out through them.

So it was one of those things where I took the leap and the net appeared. I don’t necessarily know if all those pieces would have fallen into place if I wasn’t just going for it.

Was this transition from self-producing to basically giving up control difficult, scary or did you just embrace it fully?

I had never let anyone else produce or mix or anything. Sam and I were on the same wavelength for most things, but there were times when he would have an idea where I would just be like Whaat?  There were some songs that he said he didn’t think we should have acoustic guitar on it, but I write all my songs acoustic guitar, like when I play live, I’m using acoustic guitar…I don’t even know how I would do that. My first instinct was to resist when he said that, but ya know what, there is a reason I decided to work with him. I love everything he’s produced. I have to have a little faith that he hasn’t lost his mind between the last album he did and my album. And I’m glad I did.

When I did the first two records, I probably did them over the course of about 11 months. I would just keep adding over time and I was recording as I was writing the songs. It was so hard to ever feel like you were done because you could always tweak it. This way, you do it, you’re done. In some ways, this was scary because I thought what if I want change it, but in retrospect, if I had more time to think about it I may have second-guessed a lot of great features to the album.

I know the “If It Don’t Work Out” is about a living situation after a serious break-up – when you’re singing this song or any song that is so directly connected to a personal experience, do you re-live that experience? What does that experience mean to you after time and repetition of the song?

Ya know, I wondered about that at the time that I wrote it. That was part of what I was saying about second-guessing stuff — if I had the time to sit with it and think about it, I might say well, I don’t know if I want to go out and play this every night. It turns out that it’s not the case at all, for me. I wrote that song because I was still living the experience of sharing an apartment space with someone that the relationship was over with because we still had 3 months left on the lease. I was out doing shows with Pete Yorn and it was a way for me to process what was waiting for me when I got home. When I was playing those new songs at the shows, without fail, people would come up to me and ask which CD has “If It Don’t Work Out” on it and I had just written it two days ago (laughs). I don’t have it recorded yet, it’s going to be awhile (laughs). It came from such a raw and direct place that it was hitting people in that same raw and direct place. I get so many stories from people. Just two nights ago at the Jason Isbell show, I met a guy who told me a story of going through a breakup and someone gave him that my record and he listened to it at the time. I get those stories from people all the time. That they listened to it over and over while they are going through these things. The reason I wrote the album the way I did was because I wanted it to be positive. I wanted to find the upside of coming out of these difficult times. I didn’t want it to be a sad record about sad things. I wanted it to be a bright sounding record (laughs). And I think because of that, it doesn’t bring me back to a sad place because of it. I think about all the good things that came out of it. It’s a liberating feeling. I had this feeling of sadness and pain and I took ownership of it, and created something that helps me and helps other people. And travel around the world to do what I love to do. What’s funny is we haven’t pushed that song at all. It’s not a single, we have a video coming out soon, but it’s the one that Sirius picked up and plays at least once a day (laughs). That’s the most popular of the tracks. For some reason everyone gravitated towards it.

It’s called human experience (laughs). The “Was a Time” music video looks like it was a lot of fun to shoot. Did you come up with the concept behind the video or was it the directors?

It was really fun, but it was also really stressful (laughs). We could only afford to rent the church for a day and only had the lights for a day. So the first thing that happened was that we got 2 hours behind schedule because one of the big lights didn’t work, so we really had to race to get that done. The same with making the album, I’m the kind of person where giving someone else control of the video — the Cooperman Brothers directed it, I went to college with them — handing over control to them was really scary because I’m a real control freak. Like questioning the best angle for a shot (laughs). It’s really hard for me to just shut my mouth and watch them do it. But I’m so glad I did because they’re awesome and they’re so much fun to work with. They have the vision and if I can, I’ll do all my videos with them. It was a lot of fun to do all that mayhem but it was also a lot of sitting around and waiting to set up a shot. We were worried about the sun going down and losing natural light (laughs). It was crunch time. Everyone who was in it did it as a volunteer. 80% were my friends and their friends from college and other musician friends showed up. Everyone gave up an entire Saturday to put on fancy clothes and have a fight in a church. It was a crazy experience. I met another person at the Joe Pug show at the Mercury Lounge too and she started coming to all my shows after that and we became friends. After that she became really involved in everything. She helped with the album cover and is someone I can count on for all sorts of help. She is only in the beginning of the video because within the first hour of shooting it, her toenail got ripped off in one of the scenes. It was mayhem. There was blood shed (laughs).

Tell me about the paint (laughs).

Again, a person I met at a show (laughs). I played a show with Rhett Miller at City Winery and a girl came up to me who is a photographer. She said she’d love to take photos of me some time and handed me her business card. She had the coolest business card. It was a photograph she had shot of a woman and she was swinging and had a drumstick in her hand. It was out in the desert and the drum set was on fire. It was the coolest fucking thing! We had to work together. I went to her website and she had really great work. I told her the vision I wanted for the album cover — I wanted it to be colorful. People don’t know my name, so I want people to walk past it and pick it up. I want people to look at it twice to know what’s going on. Originally, I was going to be on the beach in a suit and we were going to have smoke bombs going off with all these different colors swirling into clouds. It turns out that’s illegal. She said she had a back-up plan with these powdered paints and to have the swirl all around me. We tried it and it wasn’t showing up on film. So, we took the rest of the packets and they pelted me with them. We just kept doing it and she kept shooting it. The plan was never to have the paint on me at all, so when we’re coming back on the subway, we were getting some pretty crazy looks.

What’s coming next? Can you say anything about the material you’re working on?

It’s kind of all over the place. I have about 5 or 6 songs that I feel confident about that will probably end up on the next record. I probably have about 25 songs in various states of completion. I was just talking to another songwriter about this the other day — this mountain of material that I don’t know how to finish it. I feel like I just need a kick in the ass to lock in and finish. There’s some very folky material and some not folky material, like indie rock stuff and I don’t know what it’s going to be. Maybe it’ll be a mix of those. Maybe it’ll be an indie record or maybe more Americana-focused. It’ll whatever batch of songs I’m the most excited about. In the meantime, in June, I’m going head out on my first full band tour…headlining my own shows with a full band. I’ve never gotten to take the band on the road. I tour solo all the time. In July, I’m going to go to Australia. I think we’re looking to trying to record the next album in the fall and put it out next year. It’s dictated by when the songs come together.

This mountain of songs you have — do you feel like you have to keep them to yourself until they are complete?

Yeah. I think part of it is that control thing. I’ve been thinking about trying to collaborate with other songwriters. I like the idea of writing for other people, because in my head I’m doing all the writing still (laughs). I get kind of weird about showing stuff before it’s finished because it feels weird to play a song and…once I start playing it for people, it gets locked in that way, in my head. Once you start performing it, it feels harder to go back and make changes to it. It feels like it’s finished. I tend to sit on them before I feel really good about them. With that being said though, some of the songs on the last record I performed live at least once or twice with completely different lyrics.

If you could give one piece of advice to a large group of people, what would it be?

I’ve been to this coffee shop before and other coffee shops in NY because people who want to be musicians will reach out to me and say would you be willing to get together and talk. The advice I always give them is go out there and do it. And someone will ask how do I get started. Well, book a show and go play it. Or write a song and record it, or post it online. I think people tend to be really afraid to take that first step to actually doing it because it can be a really blow to the ego when you post something and no one likes it. Or when you play a show at an internet cafe to six people. I’ve done so many weird, shitty and embaressing shows, but that’s part of it. The advice that I have for anyone who wants to do something creative is to just start doing it. If you want to be a writer, start a blog, start writing and then send it around and start sharing it. Get other people paying attention to it.

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