Interview: Anthony D'Amato on Collaboration, Craft, and Can't Miss Music

Interview: Anthony D'Amato on Collaboration, Craft, and Can't Miss Music

Over the summer, I watched Anthony D’Amato open for Old 97s at Tarrytown Music Hall, a stunning venue with a whole lot of history situated an hour outside of NYC. The Jersey-born, Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter gave a hell of a performance, sharing center stage with just his acoustic guitar and his soul laid out in pieces in front of him, practically extending a hand and offering the fragments to us, unassuming and slightly heartbroken, in the audience. The stripped-down set made me cry rivers, but I’m not nearly as mad about it as I am impressed. Now, months later, D’Amato shares some thoughts with The Music Mermaid about his songwriting, last year’s benefit album, and a whole lot more.

When Anthony D’Amato was in college, he studied songwriting with Paul Muldoon, a Pulitzer prize winning poet. Under Muldoon’s guidance, the young singer-songwriter began to hone his craft, tackling both narrative and poetics in what would become a remarkably profound (but accessible) discography. Fast forward to today and D’Amato’s got four full-length albums under his belt in addition to facilitating a benefit record last year (more on that later). With his first official release introduced during his senior year at Princeton, it’s worth it to mention how D’Amato’s evolved — both sonically and personally — over the last eight years.

He’s grown, loved, and lost, and though his work has always been consistent in thoughtfully navigating these themes, nearly a decade of excavating his soul has been more than good to him. Two years ago, D’Amato released Cold Snap, his fourth full-length exploring a wider swath of influences than we might expect — from thick, percussive-based arrangements on “Oh My Goodness” to the rapid-fire and bittersweet “Rain On A Strange Roof.” The record features the best of D’Amato, a clear showcase of the ways in which he moves — effortlessly — through twangy folk, alt-rock, and even groovy pop-tinged tones. We hear, then, that D’Amato can do it all, but never at the expense of sacrificing, say, his songwriting expertise. His tender treatment of lyrics remains the same throughout his discography — chockful of poignant reflection strung together with carefully chosen words that make the difference.

His craft is clear even from the get-go on earlier albums like 2014’s The Shipwreck from the Shore. Soft and sweet with an edge, the record isn’t exactly trying to prove anything. It doesn’t smack you in the face or shake you by the shoulders, but it does subtly sweep you off your feet with jangling folk anthems like “Back Back Back” and aching acoustic ballads like “Calico, Alone.” The standout here is “Ludlow,” the song that made me sob unexpectedly when I watched D’Amato, small on such a large stage but with an energy that matched the venue in size and grandeur, perform it live. There was a brutal beauty to it, the tender twang of acoustic strums matched with his breaking croon singing the kicker: “I’ve been a stranger in my own damn home.” There are so many moments like this in D’Amato’s discography: tiny soul-crushers sung without apology. This is the kind of artist he is, though; one who is both thoughtful and seamless in his craft, so much so that his craft has become a gift — not to him, but to us.

Watch Anthony D’Amato’s Tiny Desk concert below (keep an ear out for “Ludlow” at the end) and connect with him on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Read on for our exclusive interview with D’Amato below as well.

The Music Mermaid: You were raised in Jersey but you’re now based in Brooklyn, is that right? In what ways have the music scenes in each location influenced your work at all?
Anthony D’Amato:
I grew up going to concerts at the Stone Pony in Asbury Park and seeing a lot of Jersey bands perform around the Shore, so that was really my first exposure to live music. Once I got to New York, I was just blown away by the talent that's everywhere around you. Every night of the week you can go out and see something totally inspiring. 

TMM: Last year you released your EP, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, a beautiful benefit record with all proceeds going towards The International Rescue Committee. Can you talk a little about the idea behind that project, its production process, and the results of it since its release?
AD:
I was on tour in Europe on Inauguration Day, and I was watching from afar when the Muslim Ban got announced. I felt kind of helpless being out of the country and unable to go join a protest or make my voice heard. I decided to record a bunch of songs at home (some originals and some covers) that all spoke to the politics of the moment in some way.

"Won't You Be My Neighbor?" starts to sound pretty radical when you live in a country that's trying to exclude people based on their faith or skin color or economic background. I recorded stripped-down versions of all the songs in my bedroom, and then sent them to musicians that I've gotten to know over my years on the road to add harmonies or instrumental bits.

I was lucky enough to get Josh Ritter, Israel, Nash, Sean Watkins from Nickel Creek, Michaela Anne, The Mastersons, and Lizzie No to help me out. I released it as a limited edition CD that sold out, and now an abbreviated version of it is streaming exclusively on Spotify so it can continue to raise funds. Right now it's brought in nearly $6,000 for the International Rescue Committee. It's a drop in the bucket of what they need, but I think every drop counts.  

TMM: You credit a lot of your songwriting successes to your studies under Pulitzer Prize winning poet, Paul Muldoon, and it makes sense -- your work really is poetic in that nearly every song tells a narrative while being so meticulous in regards to its structure, theme, diction. This isn’t your typical songwriting; it’s storytelling, confession, and poesy. What have you learned from Paul?
AD:
I used to think songs just came out of you, but working with Professor Muldoon taught me that once a song comes out of you, that's when the work really begins. Learning how to take that flash of inspiration and sculpt it into something that has an architecture with layers of meaning and imagery and still sounds catchy is a challenge, but it's worth the effort. 

TMM: I think one of the most impressive components of your work is your collaborations — you’ve toured with Ziggy Marley and performed with your own audience, encouraging a call-and-response for [what would become Anthony’s newest song, “The Oyster and The Pearl”] at Tarrytown Music Hall. Why do you feel collaboration is crucial for musicians?
AD:
Music is meant to be shared. It's this whole other language that we all innately understand. I don't think there's a deeper way to connect with another human being than to share a song.

TMM: We know it’s absolutely unfair, but we have to ask… which of your songs do you feel closest to or most proud of and why?
AD:
That's an ever-changing question. Songs mean different things at different times. I fall in and out of love with performing certain tunes, and the setlist changes to reflect that when I'm on tour. 

TMM: There’s an intriguing duality to your music: themes of light and dark, love and loss, upbeat rhythms but despairing lyrics. Do you craft these warring words intentionally or do you think it’s often inevitable with such honest songwriting?
AD:
I think that's just the nature of life. Nothing is entirely sad or entirely happy. Every day is a little bit of both, and I try to make music that reflects that. 

TMM: Who are three musicians you think the world needs to hear ASAP?
AD:
I haven't been listening to a ton of new music lately, but I was introduced to an Irish songwriter named David Keenan recently, who I think is pretty phenomenal. I also think Timmy The Teeth should be a star. And my friends Lily & Madeleine have a new album coming out next year that I'm very excited to hear.

TMM: What has been your most memorable music moment so far?
AD:
There have been a lot. Playing Town Hall in NYC with Valerie June was certainly an unforgettable night. I remember going to that theater when I was younger to see Bright Eyes and thinking from my seat up in the balcony that some day I wanted to play on that stage. It was a very special full circle moment to be out there singing songs from an album I was lucky enough to make with Mike Mogis from Bright Eyes. 

The Music Mermaid: Finally, what’s next for Anthony D’Amato?
Anthony D’Amato:
I'm in the middle of a ten-week European tour right now which will carry me through until Christmas. After that, I'd like to put out this new album I've recorded, and then just get on the road as much as possible in the US. I've got a lot of new music in the can, and I'm antsy to share it with everyone as soon as I can!

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Featured photo of Anthony D’Amato by Vivian Wang.

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