In 4-8 Minutes of Fame, people around the scene ask questions of people around the scene, and then people around the scene answer those questions, for people around the scene to read. Makes sense? Do you know Steve Stavola? You will when you’re done…
How has your Italian background influenced you?
I think there is an attitude in Italian culture regarding emotional life that can be liberating for an artist. I love a particular scene from the British film, Gosford Park where an English father derisively counsels his daughter to “stop weeping, people will think you’re Italian.” It’s alright to weep, to express joy in Italian culture. That’s great permission for a person who has an artistic spirit. Perhaps, the most profound influence though has been the tension between worlds that the children and grandchildren of immigrants experience, the desire to assimilate into American life with all of its virtues and vices and the desire to remain somehow connected to something ancestral. And sadly that something ancestral becomes increasingly vestigial for a second generation Italian-American like myself. And that feeling of loss pops up in my music sometimes.. The last verse of I’ve Never Been There Before (that song about Virginia) is “Maybe it’s a home that she loves so, And home’s something I never knew, Maybe it’s the call of a heartland, And I’ve been estranged from that too, Maybe there’s a division in my soul, And if I get to Richmond I can end the Civil War, But she makes me miss Virginia, Though I’ve never been there before.” One night before I played it, I just spontaneously introduced it by saying that it was a song written by the son of a son of an immigrant who had not completely felt at home in America, yet. That I think is true. Some Americans have deep roots in America. Virginia, the first colony, the place that gave birth to much of what is quintessentially American and enlightened, the battleground of the Civil War, all of that predated my family’s connection with America. And at the same time, I have been estranged from my family’s ancestral home, as well. There’s a sense of dislocation there, a sense of loss. Someone once said to me upon visiting Italy how beautiful he thought the country was, and commented on how poor, people must have been, to have felt compelled to leave such a beautiful place. There is the legacy of that deprivation and dislocation that is visited on future generations even if some material aspects of the “American dream” were realized.
Did you want to sing opera when you were a kid?
You know, I never had any interest in singing opera or even listening to opera for that matter. There’s that scene from Moonstruck where Nicholas Cage melodramatically talks about the two great loves of his life, Cher and opera. I guess opera is a stereotypical art form to love if you are Italian, but opera always felt artificial to me. I’ve grown to appreciate it some over the years, but I always preferred singing that felt more natural. I do love classical music, but Bach is my favorite composer, not Verdi or Puccini. I find the restrained emotional expression of the Goldberg Variations much more beautiful and moving to me than Pagliacci spilling his guts.
What would we have found you doing centuries ago in one of the great Italian cities?
Of course, so much of what I would have been doing would have been influenced by class and socioeconomic background. Not everyone got the chance to live the life of Lorenzo de Medici, but I would have made for a real Renaissance man if I was fortunate enough to have come from means. I’m much better suited to the wide breadth of activity and expertise that was idealized in fifteenth century Florence than the focus of the specialist that is more important in today’s culture. And to have walked the streets of Florence or Venice at the time of an unparalleled outpouring of artistic creativity would have been incredible.
What is your exact relationship to James Taylor and that whole James Taylor thing?
We’ve both seen fire and rain. And everyday I try to remember to shower…the people I love with love. Recently, I did open for his brother, Livingston, so there is one degree of separation there. I do like James Taylor, but he is not my musical ideal. So, then what is this whole James Taylor thing? I think I am compared to him most often because I have deep connection to the singer-songwriters of the seventies, and for many people he is either the only seventies singer-songwriter that they know, or he is the most visible embodiment of that type of singer-songwriter. I was drawn to singer-songwriters like Joni Mitchell, John Lennon, and Jackson Browne because of their underlying sense of the songwriter as consciously exploring and expressing openly something of his or her own inner life. When I was in high school and starting to write songs, I remember reading what a literary critic wrote about narrative poetry; that it rested on the poet’s assumption that if it was true for the poet it would be true for the reader. And something just clicked in me at that moment. That’s what I’m supposed to do as an artist. Like that wonderful Philip Seymour Hoffman-Lester Bangs line from Almost Famous: the only true currency in this bankrupt world is what one person says to another person when they are uncool. My music aspires to be uncool in that sense. So, songs like The Day I Buried My Father or Let Her Go or even Amazing rest on that premise that if I’ve experienced it and can communicate it artfully, the listener will get it as well and a connection will be made. That’s what the best of the seventies singer-songwriters did well. That, of course, doesn’t mean that everything I write about is autobiographical or descriptive of real events, but the essential experience has to be authentic, and if it is archetypal even better.
People think some of your songs sound like they were written in the 60’s or 70’s by someone famous, and this sometimes inspires them to wave candles and lighters during your show. How does it feel to have accomplished this so many decades later?
Well, at first, all candles aside, I have to evaluate whether what I’m doing is dated or if it serves a purpose to be writing in the style in which I’m writing. Is it really necessary to write Baroque music in the era of Stravinsky? A singer-songwriter who I respect would say to me: your songs are going to last. So if that is the case then it doesn’t matter, they can transcend a period. When I started writing songs as a very young man, stumbling along, I wanted to know how great songwriters did it. And so I turned to the great songwriters who I loved at the time, like Lennon and McCartney, Brian Wilson, Paul Simon, Stevie Wonder. Not a bad pack. So, you look at a song like Blackbird or God Only Knows. Most folk songs and rock and roll were easy enough, three or four chords, but these writers were modulating keys, using less predictable chord patterns, they were shading the sounds to create something more structurally interesting. And I ended up forever being influenced by the way they wrote music. And I think musically my favorite writers were all great writers of melodies, and I always had a gift and love for melody. Now, melody is far less important in today’s songwriting, melodies are far less distinctive, largely the influence of hip hop and rap. So, artists who are concerned more with melody, I think, may sound a little bit more like a throwback.
How is it that you’re single when you’re obviously such a smooth, romantic piano man? Your song “Marry Me” comes to mind, and “She Loves Jesus (But She Don’t Love Me).” How can women in lounges and restaurants resist you? What can a lady expect from you on a date?
A singer-songwriter friend observed to me after hearing a full set of mine for the first time that I write more romantic songs than anyone that she knows, including women. So, why does a single man do that? Perhaps, there was the need to experience in my music with a certain purity what did not come easily to me in my life. But I’ve also said on occasion at shows, and I think it’s true, that I write songs about romantic love at this stage in my life the way Melville wrote about whaling. It’s the story through which I believe a deeper truth and a more important narrative emerges. At this point in life, I’m actually slightly amused by the illusion of romantic “love,” to be honest. The song Marry Me took me about six years to write, not everyday, of course, but each line and each part came slowly with time and with my own growth. Someone commented on hearing the song, how beautiful she thought it was, a very nice compliment, and how lucky my wife was, which made me laugh. A fellow singer-songwriter thought it was literally my proposal to a woman, although I would never recommend proposing with the line: “I’ve seen both faces, I’ll try to love them both the same.” It does operate as a romantic song, and if someone wants to experience it just on that level, that’s fine. But it’s really about a kind of integration within oneself and with another that marriage at its best embodies. I had a friend who once gave me some wonderful personal advice that helped me to finish the song. She said just marry everything, in other words all the parts of yourself that you might not have embraced, embrace them, commit to them in a loving way, even the darker stuff, in the way of marriage, and that is what the song is largely about. And yeah, I don’t know how they can resist me, true, true, but believe me it goes on, just like other acts of human ignorance and irrationality. And what can a lady expect on a date. Now, what did I write on Match. com?
Tell us the story behind “She Loves Jesus,” if there is one.
Someone came up to me after hearing this song for the first time and commented on what a great idea this was for a song. And I was amused by that because it was as far from an intellectually driven song as anything I’ve ever written. Let’s see; what do I want to write about, today, what would make a great idea for a song, yes, yes someone who is shunned by someone who professed to love God, let me write that down, that’s a good idea. The song came from a period of my life when I was exploring spiritual things in the context of the religion of my youth. And along the way I met many religious Christians, many of them fine, sincere people, but I ultimately experienced the disillusionment of seeing how unhealthy and shaming religion can be and how dogma can become more important than love. The song came out of that disillusionment. The “she” in “She Loves Jesus” is not a bad person. But in her professed love for God, she is ultimately unable to see and love the other person in front of her. So, I find it, despite candle-waving during shows, to be perhaps the saddest song that I play. The song is actually rooted in a favorite line from the Bible: how can you say you love God who you have never seen, when you don’t love your brother who you have seen. It has been said that what is intensely personal is political, and so this turns out to be a political song, as well. How is it that ninety percent of Americans say they believe in God and yet we have one of the most ruthlessly materialistic cultures that has ever existed, and we leave so many people in poverty and fail to address for all, basic needs like health care? There is a cognitive dissonance between the professed religious beliefs of a nation and the lack of social and economic justice. And that cognitive dissonance is captured right there in that one line: “She loves Jesus, but she don’t love me.”
Who is going to play in your band?
I do want to play with a band, and I’m working on that. Part of me is like, are there people out there who really want to commit to playing my music on a regular basis? So, I have to get over that because it gets lonely at the piano sometimes and it would be a great joy to have other musicians share in playing these songs. I do think a lot of my songs would really come alive with other talented musicians joining in. I do envision a guitarist, a cellist, a violinist, a percussionist, a bassist and other voices playing and singing along. I think it really comes down to just playing with other musicians, experimenting, and seeing who clicks on both a musical and personal level. The great thing is that there are so many talented musicians on the scene.
What is your favorite Brian Wilson song?
Anyone who knows my story knows that Brian Wilson became the big influence on me at a very early age. If I had to pick one favorite, it would be God Only Knows. It’s such a transcendent song and an incredible recording. I just love the way the song flows and builds to such an ecstatic ending. It’s really kind of an ideal for me, two plus minutes of beauty. And a close second and third would be Wouldn’t It Be Nice and Kiss Me Baby.
Your songs to me have a real native new yorker flavor. Do you feel that growing up here has influenced your writing and how?
It must have, right, although I don’t tend to write about New York the way someone like Bruce Springsteen writes about New Jersey. It’s not the backdrop for some cosmic struggle. Some of my songs like Winter On Mulberry Street or Half Moon clearly use New York City as their setting. Some of my songs are about dreaming of other places far away from New York, longing for escape from New York, which I wanted at certain points in my life and still sometimes think about. At an early age, because of the influence of Brian Wilson and because of the way California has been built into the American psyche by writers like Steinbeck, I saw California as the idealized place for escape. And so, I have drawn on that idea in many of my songs. New York as a place to escape from. But on another level, I think New Yorkers are really good at spotting bullshit and artifice. And I think for all of the “melodious gentleness” in many of my songs, there is something of that spotting in my music, as well.
Why don’t we have any Steve Stavola recordings to listen to?
I really hope that you will soon. I did record two demos years ago, neither of which came out the way I liked, and so I think that left me a little gun shy. There is also something about putting out your music in some finished, definitive version that has really scared me, I suppose. And just this feeling of well, will it all be irrelevant, the recording finished, will people really want to listen to it? This era is great for getting your music out there in a way because of the internet, but the musical landscape is also so littered with recordings by everyone and their grandmothers that it is hard to really get an audience. But one of the things that having had a health scare recently has really taught me is that it is important to do sooner than later the things you feel called to do. Life is not forever, and I would like to leave quality recordings behind me of songs that are precious to me. And perhaps some people will want to listen to them in the years ahead. For the time being, there are some live recordings at www.reverbnation.com/stephenstavola.
You were born and bred in New York City. Have you always played shows around the City? When did you begin playing at the Sidewalk? How did you discover the Sidewalk? Where were you playing before?
You know even though I’m a native New Yorker I was really not connected to the music scene until about five years ago. I did play up at the Towne Crier Cafe in the Hudson Valley. They had a great open mic scene going back about ten years ago, and I would go there, periodically. And I also went to Caffe Vivaldi’s occasionally in the early 2000’s, but neither place really connected for me at that time. Mostly, I did music on my own, writing songs, playing a little bit here and there. I taught History at the time, finished law school in the evening. And that was my life, and music was on the periphery in many ways. Music was my great love, but I was doing the things that were more conventional, the things that had been expected of me in my family of origin. And by 2007 something in me broke. I felt deeply cut off from what was really inside of me, and the only thing I knew to do with my life was to start playing music again. So, I summoned up the courage to go to the Baggot Inn on West 3rd Street and played some older songs that I had written. One night in early 2008 after doing two songs, one of which was Winter on Mulberry Street, a guy came up to me who started talking about how much he liked my songs. It turned out he was the son of famous jazz musician. And I’ll never forget this, he said to me, “Keep at it, you’re going to be one of the great songwriters.”
It just got to me that I had been ignoring and minimizing something essential in me that needed to get out. It was at the Baggot Inn, that’s where I really first started getting connected to how many artists there were out there. I even wrote a song called Down to The Baggot Inn about some of the artists I had met. The Baggot Inn closed, and by the Fall I started coming to the Sidewalk and also Caffe Vivaldi. I think Don Cameron was the person who recommended that I come to the Sidewalk. It was a tough time economically. I had been working on projects as an attorney, and for a short while the work dried up, so I would go to the Sidewalk for open mics and stay there into the early hours of the morning. I didn’t get to the chamomile tea, but fairly close on a number of nights. And then I did my first gig in over a decade, on December 27, 2008 at the Sidewalk. Ben Krieger, a wonderful songwriter and the man who runs the open stage, was very supportive of my music. It was actually a great time in many ways because the shift had occurred, psychologically. All of my life, I was programmed to think of my music as just a hobby. Now, I had finally put the music at the center, where it belonged.
New York has changed dramatically in the last 12 years – It’s been cleaned up a lot, and many iconic venues have closed down (while new ones have opened). I hear a lot of local New Yorkers talk about how they ‘miss the old New York’. Can you tell me how the music scene has changed since you started playing? Are there things you miss? Are there things that have gotten better?
To me, it’s like Woody Allen’s movie Midnight in Paris, where a young woman is living in Paris with Fitzgerald, Picasso, and Gertrude Stein and she is pining away for the good old days of Paris in the 1890’s. I think this is a great time for music, and there are some incredible artists out there. New York will always be a vibrant place for music, and unlike theatre which is so lacking in New York because anything experimental and more serious is hard to sustain without substantial funding, music needs less of that financing. Sure, I would love for the Bottom Line to be back in the Village. But there are still a lot of venues out there for artists and audiences. It’s the Village that has become increasingly devoid of them, but there are a lot of venues in other parts of the city.
Your bio states that your songs have been influenced from songs from the 30’s – 40’s, due to the well crafted and melodic nature of the songs. I’d agree with that! Do you listen to a lot of music from that time?
At this moment, I’m not listening to a lot of it, but my musical language has been informed by it regardless, both as a composer and a lyricist. My father loved those songs, and he and a great priest I knew growing up, had a really positive influence on my love for that music. My father and I would sing those songs at the piano, songs like Moonlight Becomes You, Night and Day, Someone To Watch Over Me , A Foggy Day. My father loved Gershwin. The structure of my songs, especially some songs I wrote a number of years ago, like Passing Years, was influenced by that. The best standards are harmonically and lyrically rich. I get a little tired sometimes of songs that are too predictably within the same chordal range and start to get frustrated when I start to fall into that trap. And I also love the way lyrics were written. For example, I love the use of internal rhyme in songs. So many of the great songwriters of that era used it. You know, Lorenz Hart: Your looks are laughable, unphotographable, yet your my favorite work of art. I love the sound of that. I’ve used internal rhyme in quite a number of my songs: Passing showers, passing hours, the passing years go by. A musician came up to me after hearing Passing Years and said that it was as good a standard as any he’d ever heard. That might have been one of the most satisfying compliments I’ve ever received.
Who are some of your favourite artists?
Well, when I’m really listening to music, I often listen to classical music, a lot of Bach. I can listen to the Goldberg Variations and The Well-Tempered Clavier over and over. I still love Brian Wilson, the Beatles, Joni Mitchell and older artists that inspired me over the years. I love George Harrison and Tom Petty. A more contemporary artist I really appreciate is Regina Spektor. I love the way she brings together classical influence with other idioms, and I think that she is a very moving, intelligent and original lyricist. And there are so many artists on the scene, too many to mention by name whose music has seeped into my consciousness. I feel extremely blessed to have become part of such an incredibly rich and vital community of artists. One late night I was sitting at my keyboard with my headphones on and started writing a song with these major 7ths and a bridge that changes rhythm and then thought wow, this is really good, and then I realized that it sounded just like a Morgan Heringer song. That’s how the influence can sneak up on you.