Heavy Hearts & Lilting Voices: An Interview With Anthony D’Amato

Anthony D’Amato may not necessarily have been a songwriter you immediately associate with ‘protest folk’ or heavily political music. His last two records were more focused on introspection than outward criticism of the current political climate, but alas a well written song and a great performance is impactful no matter what the subject matter.

D’Amato’s latest effort, a just announced EP collection of politically charged songs including covers of Woody’s “This Land Is Your Land” and the title track “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” comes at a time when we need it most. The singer-songwriter tapped into the talent that surrounds him to lend their voices and guest appearances from Josh Ritter, Michaela Anne, Sean Watkins and more grace the tracks of the collection. All profits will be donated to the International Rescue Committee‘s refugee aid efforts and you can head over to his website to order the limited run of pressings or catch him out at a show this week in the Northeast (he hits the Light Club Lamp Shop in Burlington, VT on 6/22 and Cambridge, MA at Atwoods on 6/25).

Anthony took some time off his busy touring schedule to catch up with us and talk about this new album and what it means to him, taking songs that at one point in our lives may have been indicative of simpler times and innocence but when explored deeper can take on a much darker, deeper meaning in today’s landscape. Get this album and support artists like D’Amato who are using their voices to make a difference…and read on folks.

RLR: Lets talk about the new project first. I think we are living in a time where the presence of folk and protest music is needed far more than it has in the past 20 or 30 years. The first track, a take on This Land is Your Land, a song as American as apple pie, but perhaps a bit more misunderstood as a happy tune. You brought out some of the original lyrics and the vocals and instrumentation is dreamily juxtaposed against audio clips (old and new) of…how do I put this…the ‘shit’, that we have been experiencing as of late and also in the past. Where was your head at when you were putting the compilation together?

AD: I wanted to challenge the notion that “this land was made for you and me,” which I think was Guthrie’s original intent when he wrote the song. When I first learned it in school we only sang the first couple of verses and it was placed alongside “America The Beautiful” and songs like that. But when you hear the whole thing the way he originally wrote, he’s really asking if this land was made for you and me. The audio clips from different political speeches that I peppered in there were meant to highlight that the quest for equality (whether it be in regards to race, religion, sexuality, gender, etc) is an ongoing one. Pulling out of the Paris climate accord also put the song into a new light for me. Woody’s not just singing about the idea of America in the song. He’s literally singing about the air and the water and the trees. If that belongs to all of us, and not just to the wealthy or the powerful corporate interests, then we better get together and do our damn best to take care of it and make sure it’s around for future generations, because it belongs to them, too.

 

 

RLR: Another recognizable cover, the ‘Mr. Rogers theme song’, if you will, and the treatment you give it is again kind of falsely optimistic and happy sounding, but I sense a bit more a dreary reasoning for its inclusion here. A satirical irony or something along those lines. Take us through why you felt this tune a good bookend with This Land is Your Land?

AD: This was the song that launched the whole project for me. I just had this vision of Mr. Rogers trying to welcome a family of Syrian refugees to the neighborhood and getting savaged by conservative media. I could see Sean Hannity trying to get him fired from public television or Rush Limbaugh leading a boycott of his show. If there’s anything people remember about Mr. Rogers, it’s that he taught his viewers to be kind and understanding and decent people. It’s such an uncontroversial message. But somehow it’s become polarizing in 2017.   

RLR: As an artist you have this opportunity to lend your political voice to a really nice melody and some killer guitar riffing…I feel like I see a lot of artists following suit, but also others that perhaps either aren’t able to channel that or don’t think it is their place to do so. Where do you stand on that?

AD: I’m not under any impression that I have some massive audience reach right now or that I’m going to go out there and change the minds of the masses. But at the same time, I don’t feel comfortable sitting on my hands and being quiet at a time like this. There are a lot of vulnerable people in the world who need help, and if my ability to record some songs and wrangle some friends to contribute helps encourage people to donate money, that’ll add up to way more than I’d be able to give any charity by myself.

RLR: You brought some friends along for the ride as well. How did you go about choosing those folks to include them in this project? I imagine like minded individuals and all that or close friends you were able to talk to about their feelings around the current climate?

AD: As I was recording the songs, I tried to think about whose voice I could imagine on each track. Some folks I knew better than others, but they were all folks who I think shared similar feelings about the state of things and were extremely generous with their time and talent. I would send them my recordings over email, and then they’d send me back their parts and I’d mix them all in together. It was like putting together a puzzle where I didn’t know what the final picture would look like.

RLR: Where we are at in the music industry today, many folks I talk to say that in the age of Spotify and online platforms for selling (or stealing) music and pretty much anyone can record and self release a record and that makes it all that much more difficult to get any sort of recognition or make any money doing this thing. You have had some pretty great press with the last two records and opportunities and there is always this question of “when does someone make it?” Do you find that to be a bullshit statement or is there really a measure of success in art these days? What does that mean?

AD: The more time I spend doing this the more I realize it’s a bullshit metric. Artists I look up to and hope to someday emulate career-wise are looking two rungs up the ladder at other artists and thinking the same things, and so on and so forth. If your criteria for feeling satisfied or fulfilled is good reviews or certain sales numbers, I think that’s a recipe for taking something fun and making it miserable. I have a long, long way to go and a lot on my to-do list, but at the same time I try to take time out to remember that I do this because I love creating and performing and if I’m doing both of those things, then I’m in good shape.

RLR: You have been touring pretty relentlessly around the release of Cold Snap. What are the three to five items you need in the van when you are driving around the country that either make it feel like home or keep you grounded?

AD:

1. Aux cable so you can plug in the iPhone and listen to albums/podcasts. Otherwise the radio will depress you.

2. M&Ms. They keep me awake on long drives.

3. Sparkling water. I’m a fiend and they weirdly don’t seem to sell it at gas stations in the south. 

RLR: How about 5 or so records that you need on long trips and can spin over and over again.

AD:

Jesse Malin – The Fine Art of Self Destruction

Valerie June – The Order Of Time

Bright Eyes – I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning

Bruce Springsteen – Darkness On The Edge Of Town

Lau – Race The Loser

RLR: What is your writing process like?

AD: It changes a lot, but the most common way a song takes shape is with some sort of chord progression or riff on the guitar. Then I start to sing gibberish over it until I find a melody I like. Then the gibberish starts to turn into some real words. At that point, I try to put the guitar down for a little while and focus on those words and what they mean and how the song feels and figure out how to say that. The shower is often the best place for lyric writing because there’s no distractions and I can just run through different variations of phrases over and over in my head until the water goes cold.

RLR: Where ‘Shipwreck’ focused on loss and acceptance, ‘Cold Snap’ explores the schisms between perception and reality, projection and truth, who we are and how we’re seen. I think a lot of artists tend to revisit a lot of the same themes over and over again (heartache and heartbreak or relationships in that sense). Its a fresh breath of air to be able to really love songs that span across a broad range of emotion and pensive thought. Do you find when writing an album you intently focus on “this is what the record is going to be about” or do songs just kind of work out that way and in the end you come out with a collection that plays off of itself well?

AD: I try to just write everything that comes to me without filtering it too much. And then after the fact, I can look at a collection of 15-20 demos and realize half of them are garbage but that the other half stand up well and all fit together and help tell a story. That’s usually a good time to try and write a couple more that fit into that family and maybe cover the gaps you’re missing. 

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