Review: Solid Debut “Down Wires” by Anthony D’Amato — He Answers Our (Way More Than) 12 Questions, Too
By Jim Simpson
Solid debut recorded and released independently with members of Ben Kweller’s & Natalie Merchant’s bands, plus Canadian star Sam Roberts
With his debut album Down Wires getting loads of attention, recent Princeton grad Anthony D’Amato seems to be on the fast track to a stellar career as a singer/songwriter.
The attention is indeed warranted, as Down Wires is full of youthful exuberance (evidenced by the infectious “Whoop!“s on “Never Grow Old” and the galloping “Ballad of the Undecided”) while keeping a keen eye on a mature worldview as it applies to intimate relationships (“Holy War”). D’Amato puts his own unique and talented stamp on songs like “Once,” an almost hymnal catalog of life’s beauty, both bold and simple.
Written, recorded, mixed and produced by D’Amato in a dorm on the Princeton University campus, Down Wires reflects the influences of the artist’s heroes Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Bruce Springsteen. D’Amato certainly has the musical and lyrical chops to someday make a name for himself.
D’Amato spoke with us (via email) from his home in NYC about the ghost of F. Scott Fitzgerald, California Girls and the album that changed his life.
We hear you’re recovering from throat surgery. Tell us it’s not serious. What happened?
I’ve suffered from chronic tonsillitis for a few years now, and it finally reached the point where it was interfering with scheduling shows and living a healthy life in general, so the doctors decided it was time for them to come out. I’ll be performing again soon enough, but for now it’s just plenty of bed rest and as little talking as possible for me.
Where are you from and where is home now?
I grew up in Blairstown, New Jersey, which is a small town in the rural, northwestern part of the state. I just moved to New York City a few months ago, and I’m living on the Lower East Side now.
You recently graduated from Princeton; we’re impressed. What did you study?
I majored in English and graduated with certificates (sort of like minors) in American Studies and Musical Performance.
You recorded Down Wires in the same Princeton dorm building where F. Scott Fitzgerald once lived. I’m sure you knew this beforehand, but was this literary ghost an influence on the recording or writing in any way? (We were unaware Princeton student housing was suitable for recording.)
Well Princeton housing isn’t particularly suitable for recording, but when you’ve got no budget , you make do with what you have. Fitzgerald used to write about sensing the ghosts haunting all the old buildings even back when he was a student there, so I don’t think the feeling is something you can escape when you’re surrounded by all that history. I think his influence manifested itself less in the songwriting than in the attitude I went into the recordings with. I wanted to make a record that would leave a mark, that would really represent a moment in time. I hope this is the beginning of a long and fruitful career, and maybe my music can stand as a part of the history those buildings hold.
Give us a bit of background on genesis of the album. Have you been carrying the songs around for a while? (Can’t be that long, you’re only 22!) Which songs are the oldest; which are most recent?
These songs were all written in the past year. “Let Me Tell You Something” was the first song for the album. Things moved slowly until I wrote “Holy War,” but after that, the rest of the album just poured out. “My Father’s Son” was the last track I wrote. I’d already recorded half the album, but I knew immediately I’d have to rethink the tracklisting and find a way to work it in, even if it meant cutting some stuff. I wrote a lot more than made the album, and I’m planning to release a free EP of tracks that, for whatever reasons (thematic, stylistic, etc), didn’t fit with Down Wires. I wanted this to be a very tight record.
Members of Natalie Merchant’s and Ben Kweller’s bands appear on your album. How did their participation come about?
I met Gabriel Gordon (guitarist for Natalie Merchant) while he was performing at Princeton. I passed on a copy of my last album and he really dug it, so when I had demos for the new songs together, I sent them his way. He invited me to his apartment in Brooklyn and laid down a bunch of electric guitars right there in his living room. Mark Stepro (drummer from Ben Kweller’s band) was introduced to me by Sam Roberts (who also appears on the album). Mark’s coming through New York all the time on tour, and we’ve been trying to find a time to record something together for years. The timing worked out perfectly for this record–he had two free hours one morning, so we stopped by a studio owned by my friend Seth Rothschild (who plays guitar on “Southern Stars” and was in a great band called Gingersol) and knocked the songs out in no time flat.
You’ve written rock music reviews and interviews that have appeared in Spin, Paste and Rolling Stone. Who were some of your favorite interview subjects? Will you continue to do music reviews?
My favorite subjects have been my favorite artists–Jesse Malin, Pete Yorn, Marah, Jackie Greene. It was amazing to sit down with these artists I admired so much and pick their brains about songwriting. I learned so much about music, and they’d turn me on to all kinds of great bands. I don’t write about music so much these days, but I do to continue to work as a freelance journalist in my spare time
The songs on Down Wires seem to draw from many different genres and generations: late-’80s jangly pop/rock, ’70s folk/rock, ’60s folk, ’50s bluegrass. From where do your influences spring?
I’m nuts about Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, and Bruce Springsteen. I listen to a lot of contemporary folk singers like Joe Pug and Josh Ritter, too. I’m very lyrically driven, so my favorite music is the kind that can stand alone with just a guy and a guitar.
You play a mean blues harp and an infectiously gymnastic guitar. When did you start playing? Any “formal” training?
I started learning piano before I started going to school, and I began guitar lessons when I was about 13 or so. The other instruments all stemmed from there. I recently had the good fortune to get some banjo lessons from Tony Trischka, who’s an absolutely amazing player. I really learned a lot about bluegrass from him.
Many of your songs have distinct and very different narrative perspectives, especially “Once” (a gorgeous song, by the way), “Southern Stars” and “My Father’s Son.” Are these point-of-view shifts a favorite part of writing for you? Talk about your approach to songwriting.
I very consciously wanted to try writing from different perspectives on this album. It’s inevitable that everything you write gets filtered through your personal experiences, but I tried to start songs on this album by creating a character first. It was a challenge, but I’m really happy with the results.
Part of the joy of listening to Down Wires is the unexpected juxtaposition of uplifting and lilting vocals with some rather down lyrics. Is this something for which you strive or is it just part of your natural style?
Outside of creating or writing as different characters on this album, I really let everything else just happen naturally with the writing. It’s really the only way I know how to write. I just pick up the guitar and mess around until I stumble onto some progression or melody that sticks with me. I try to match it lyrically as best I can. Once I’ve got that kind of bare bones, skeleton of the song together, then I start to focus on the details. I’ll write and rewrite specific parts of the lyrics a million different times or layer up tons different instrumental parts until I find the perfect combinations.
What has been your experience with California girls? (We’re referring to the closing track “California Girls (Ain’t So Great),” of course.)
That song was actually written as something of a joke. I was invited to perform at this songwriters’ night in Asbury Park called “A Night in Progress,” which is hosted by a great local musician named Rick Barry. The only rule was that you had to write all new material for the show. So I was frantic the night before because I was two songs short of meeting my quota. My friends and I had had some recent experiences with California Girls that ran counter to what the Beach Boys would have you believe, so I wrote this song as a goof. I played it at the show and Rich Russo from WRXP was there. He loved it and asked if he could play it on the air, so I ran home and recorded an acoustic version that night, and he played it on the radio a few days later. It instantly became a fan-favorite at the live shows, so I figured I had to record it for the new album. Jason Roberts from HYMNS plays electric on it–we were going for a “Highway 61” meets “To Be Young (Is to Be Sad, Is to Be High)” kind of vibe.
Now for the infamous 12 Questions:
1. What’s for supper?
Well because of my throat surgery, jello is unfortunately for supper tonight. It’s going to be a little while before I’m back eating solid foods.
2. List five items currently in your refrigerator (or if you’re on the road: cooler, glove compartment, backpack, suitcase).
All soft stuff/liquid for my throat–yogurt, jello, popsicles, gatorade, and apple juice.
3. Buck Owens or Roy Clark? Fitzgerald or Hemingway? (I know, two questions.)
Owens and Fitzgerald (I’m biased, of course).
4. What are you listening to and reading these days?
I’m obsessing over a song called “Beggar in the Morning” by a Canadian group called The Barr Brothers right now. I listen to it over and over again. They’ve got another song called “Old Mythologies,” which is a close second. I’m reading John McPhee right now. He’s one of my favorite writers in the world, and I was lucky enough to study with him at Princeton for a semester.
5. What was your first paying job?
My first paying job was as a writer. When I started out I was doing it for the experience, and I remember being astounded I could get paid to do something I loved so much.
6. What was your first paying music gig?
My first paying music gig was opening for Jesse Malin at the Tin Angel in Philadelphia. He’s one of my favorite artists, and he really gave me my start. He heard some demos I recorded in high school and invited me to come play at his bar Niagara in New York. That was my first solo show. After that he invited me to open for him in Philadelphia. So my third gig ever was opening for one of my absolute heroes. I really couldn’t believe it when I got paid for that.
7. Did you always know you wanted to be a musician? (John Prine was a mailman, you know.)
I knew once I started playing guitar that I wanted to be a musician. There’s never really been any question about it since then.
8. What record or artist changed your life when you first heard it (him or her)?
“The Fine Art of Self Destruction” by Jesse Malin changed my life. I taught myself the music to every song on the album, memorized all the lyrics. All I ever wanted to do was make a record that perfect. I later met Jesse and he became an important figure in my life, as I mentioned earlier. He’s a really wonderful person in addition to being such a gifted songwriter.
9. Prose or poetry? Favorite authors, please.
Prose. My favorite author right now is Johnathan Ames. The series “Bored to Death” is based on one of his short stories. He has this brilliant, dark sense of humor.
10. What does Nashville mean to you?
I unfortunately haven’t made it yet, so it means a new city for me to introduce to my music.\
11. If you were voted into the Country Music Hall of Fame (or Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame) tomorrow, what would be the opening sentence in your acceptance speech?
Well I think a Hall of Fame for music is kind of silly, but I’m certainly not going to turn down a free banquet.
12. What’s next for Anthony D’Amato?
Next is getting out to play shows in support of this record. The surgery prevented me from even playing a proper release show for the album, so that’s high on my priority list. I have some really exciting stuff in the works for early next year, and I should be able to announce those soon. People can keep up to date with all that on my websites [Myspace and Facebook.] The free EP will also be available there around Christmas-time.
[Full tracks of “Once” and “Never Grow Old” are now featured on ATF Radio’s live streaming audio on our main page.]