Singer/songwriter Anthony D’Amato has an exceptional gift for crafting stories. A vivid lyricist, D’Amato captures soulful, beautiful portraits in his music. His songs are both classic and current, rooted in Americana and folk, the closest modern comparisons that come to mind are Jeff Tweedy and Rufus Wainwright, with echoes of Harry Nilsson, Bob Dylan and George Harrison. A DIYer who recorded his albums alone in a Princeton University dorm room for several years, D’Amato has garnered impressive critical praise from NPR, The New York Times, and World Cafe. His latest Paper Back Bones is his finest album yet.
Ruth Gerson: What’s your songwriting process? Does it vary from song to song?
Anthony D’Amato: Often the music comes first, and I’ll begin singing gibberish over it until I find the melody. Out of that I tend to find a word or a phrase that sticks, something that belongs, and then comes the laborious part of working through the lyrics. Some songs begin the other way, with a word or phrase that I set to music later. And some songs begin as four different songs, none of which I’m truly happy with until I realize how to harvest the strengths of each of them into something entirely new.
RG: You’ve been very successful as an indie artist in the last three years since you began writing, recording, producing, touring and opening for artists such as Pete Yorn, Ben Kweller, Alejandro Escovedo, Jesse Malin, and Don McLean. How have you been able to do it on your own? What advice do you have for those just starting out as you were a short time ago?
AD: As counter intuitive as it sounds, it starts with doing it. The only way to improve your live performance is to perform live as much as you can. The only way to improve your skills as a songwriter and producer is to write and record as much as you can. I think a lot of people (myself included early on) have this vision of “the break,” the idea that if only this artist or that label could hear my music, then I’d be set. The reality is that it takes an infinite number of tiny breaks to add up. And you get those by making them yourself, by being relentless about booking shows and writing songs, by treating every gig and every recording like it’s the most important, because you never know who it will make an impression on.
RG: If you have an hour later to listen to ten songs, what would you listen to today?
1. Joe Pug – “Hymn #35”
2. Jocie Adams – “Bed of Notions”
3. Pete Yorn – “The Man”
4. Justin Townes Earle – “Harlem River Blues”
5. Jesse Malin – “TKO”
6. Sam Roberts – “With A Bullet”
7. Josh Ritter – “The Curse”
8. Leonard Cohen – “So Long, Marianne”
9. Bruce Springsteen – “The Ghost of Tom Joad”
10. Simon & Garfunkel – ‘The Only Living Boy In New York”
RG: Can you talk a little bit about “Hank Williams Tune” and “Silver and Gold?” Both of these are timeless, perfect songs. What are their stories? What made you re-record “Hank Williams Tune” for this release?
“Hank Williams Tune” was one of the first songs I wrote while working with poet Paul Muldoon at Princeton. Muldoon is a tremendous music fan and it comes through in his writing. I always loved the referential nature of his poetry. With “Hank Williams Tune,” I wanted to paint a picture of this character who has a very difficult time communicating except through music and films and books, so I took inspiration from Muldoon and built the lyrics entirely out of references to other works. I recorded it in my dorm a few years ago, but I simply didn’t know enough about recording and producing to get the sounds that I heard in my head. This recording is the version I’d always intended for the song.
“Silver & Gold” is a tune about growing old and figuring out where your happiness lays. There are certainly some dark undertones to this, but I do consider it a happy song overall. On the day you die, you won’t be wishing you had more money in your pockets, because wherever you’re headed next, it won’t be joining you. It’s important to be rich in the right ways, and the narrator in this song considers himself plenty wealthy with all the silver and gold strands in his lover’s hair.
Brittany Haas from the amazing band Crooked Still plays fiddle on both of these songs, and she’s a force to be reckoned with on that instrument.