UCR INTERVIEW: James DiGirolamo

Nashville-based singer-songwriter James DiGirolamo has extensive experience as a
session musician and touring sideman. As a keyboard player, he’s worked with Mindy
Smith, Holly Williams, Peter Bradley Adams, Alice Peacock, Robby Hecht, Fognode,
The Bittersweets, Judson Spence, and many others. DiGirolamo’s latest solo work
draws on a wide array of influences including Paul Simon, The Beatles, Joni Mitchell,
Elliott Smith, Kate Bush, Stevie Wonder, Elvis Costello, Harry Nilsson, Thomas Dolby,
Steven Sondheim, XTC, Steely Dan, Ben Folds, Ron Sexsmith, and to no small degree
many friends and peers from his time in Nashville, such as Sarah Siskind.

James DiGirolamo has just released an EP of original songs. I had the opportunity to talk to James about Paper Boats, his music career, and much much more. Enjoy!

Interviewed by Kevin Rolfe

UCR:  Where am I talking to you from right now? 

James DiGirolamo:  I’m just outside of Nashville. 

UCR:  Oh, nice, and is that where you’re from originally, or did you move there for music?

James DiGirolamo: I came here in ’87 to go to college at Belmont. I studied music there. I’m originally from outside of Philadelphia.  I’ve lived here in Nashville the longest. I did the requisite New York City sojourn after college, and then I came back five years later, not necessarily with my tail between my legs. But that’s a hard place to struggle.

UCR: I’ve known a few people that have had aspirations in music and felt like that was the place to cut their teeth, and they left there dejected and almost like not wanting to do music. Then they ended up here in Salt Lake and just felt more comfortable doing it here and actually have more success come from that than trying in New York.

James DiGirolamo: Yeah, sure. Lots of contradictions available in any old place. New York, you know, I at the time, I naively thought I would write film scores and stuff. That’s what I thought I was gonna get into and I did do some scoring cuts for TV. It was work made for hire.  It didn’t pay great, it didn’t pay terrible. I mean, I was happy to be making some money making music. But it wasn’t something I could live off of, by any stretch and it wasn’t very fulfilling in that I wasn’t getting credit and I didn’t feel like I was really building anything.

I don’t know, I might have hung in there if I had been made of different stuff. I might have hung in there longer and seen what it would have turned into. Meanwhile, I was killing myself working in restaurants. So it got to be a bit much after five years. Nashville at the time was a cheap and easy place to live. Well, Salt Lake City, you picked a great spot to be.  It’s beautiful up there.

UCR:  It’s a beautiful place. There’s actually a really awesome music scene here that I don’t think a lot of people know about.  There’s a really talented musical scene here and yeah, it’s beautiful. Looking out the window and seeing those mountains just never gets old. 

James DiGirolamo: One of my favorite memories is driving from the first and I think the only time I’ve been to Park City. We did that drive from, you know, we got picked up at the airport and driven up into the mountains where there was this, you probably see this all the time, but just underneath the cloud line, there were all these deer just right there. I don’t know. It was like someone painted it. Just really made an impression. It’s just one of my favorite sites.

UCR:  Yeah, there’s nothing like that drive up there and being up in that area. It’s one of my favorite parts of Utah. Even though it’s a lot more commercial than it once was.  

So you go to New York, you kind of try it out, it just isn’t for you, so you come back to Nashville.  Then you start performing? Do you leave the scoring behind?

James DiGirolamo:  Yeah, what happened is it’s my whole music career is like a profile in fecklessness. Really, I mean, I’m just a very late starter and was just a very confused kid.  I came back to Nashville, kind of licking my wounds a bit, I would say. Then I started to get into bands. I didn’t really realize that was something I could do and then, I was decent enough on the keyboard that I could, you know, people were like, “Oh, we should do you should be in the band”. 

So that kind of happened, a bunch of small, local bands and things and I started writing songs a long time ago. I’ve started working as a sideman for different folks, through the years.  I have had a limited amount of time and energy to put into my own stuff and then also in the, let’s say up until the last five, or maybe 10 years, just having any confidence in my own stuff.

UCR: Sure. Well, that’s hard.  You do so much and there’s such artistry to whether it’s arranging or just playing on other people’s stuff and kind of bringing your talents to that. But when it’s your own thing it’s so vulnerable. There’s such a vulnerability there that, you have to feel willing to kind of expose that part of yourself and so I’m sure that was hard. 

James DiGirolamo: Yeah, it’s like, I can do this, but should I do this? You know you hear that all the time. We can, but should we? And that was, you know, that’s part of it. Yeah, the vulnerability. I mean, the vulnerability part isn’t really what the problem was. If anything I was an oversharer. I was younger. But did I have the ability to make a decent sounding recording? And did I have the ability to write anything that anyone could identify with on any level?

For a while, I think my approach might not have been that helpful. I think for a little while, I thought, why don’t I just experiment? You know, I don’t want to do anything that I’ve heard before. I don’t want to say any line that I’ve heard before. I don’t want to play the way I’ve heard everybody played before. Sometimes that yields interesting results. But you can’t just throw out everything, right? You know, start over. If you expect people to identify with like I said, there has to be something that something familiar, or you’ll just repel everyone. So there’s that.

UCR:  Well, it is so tricky. When you were talking it reminded me of an interview I had read with Brandon Flowers from The Killers and he was talking to Bono as you do, right?

James DiGirolamo:  Yeah. I was just gonna say, yeah, I was just talking to him last Thursday. (laughing)

UCR:  And he asked Bono in what I imagine was a state of writer’s block,  if all the songs have been written?   Bono told him, “that’s the title of the next song you’re gonna write”. “Have All the Songs Been Written” is actually on, I don’t know if it was their last album, or the one prior to that. It’s a pretty good song. But it just kind of made me think of these guys who are in it and have been doing it for a decade or decades.

There’s got to be this feeling like, “Are we just kind of redoing what we’ve already done?” Has everything already been done? But to that point, with your EP, I feel like there is a certain level of familiarity where, and I don’t know that I was ever like, ‘Oh, this sounds like this person, but maybe more like a style, right?

But it’s also original and it’s also different enough to where you’re not like, “heard this before”. There’s a song where you’re singing, and the melody line goes to the place in my mind, that I wanted it to go.   Then there are other times where it doesn’t do that but I think “Oh, that’s interesting”. And that’s kind of what I think and correct me if I’m wrong,  that’s what you mean, you want the familiarity, but you want people to be interested still.  

James DiGirolamo:  Yeah, that’s exactly it. Going someplace unexpected or setting something up and going there and having it be like, “I thought that’s what was gonna happen”. That’s so satisfying. My piano teacher, so at school, you had your classical side, and then you had the commercial side, Jazz, and other styles and all that. My Jazz instructor who is infinitely more musical than I’ll ever be put it this way. He was like if you set something up, and then you don’t go there, just have a good reason. That stuck with me. 

UCR:  That’s a priceless piece of advice because I’m sure you’ve seen it where you’re like, “Why did that just happen in this song?”And it’s more perplexing and annoying than it is interesting because they didn’t have a reason. So that’s great. I really like that.

James DiGirolamo:  Or they may have said to themselves like we got to do something obscure or weird here. But then they didn’t really. It was for the sake of having something obscure or weird and that’s not a good reason.

UCR:  I totally agree.

James DiGirolamo:  So as to “has everything been written”, that reminds me of because I think the answer is, many kinds of songs have been written. But there’s always something else out there. For example, I don’t know whether this is just folklore or not, I’d have to look it up. Because you know, sometimes you learn a fact and then you repeat it to your friends for like a decade. You hear yourself repeating it, you say to yourself, is that actually right? Or have I been just embroidering this now? 

It’s just one of those things that I just think and it’s not real. But anyway, so if this turns out to be folklore, it’s still instructive. So that’s why I’m going to share and it may be may very well be a verifiable fact, like in two seconds on Google if we just took the time to do so. In like 1900 the guy at the patent office was like, petitioning to close it down because everything had been invented. You know, it does sound now like the setup to a joke, but I do think that there is that temptation to think that. 

UCR: I also don’t have anything to base this off but I have heard that as well. So the two of us combined can say that that was actually what happened. 

James DiGirolamo:  All right, I like it. I like it. That’s totally the scientific way to do it. 

UCR:  A couple of random dudes have both heard the same story.

James DiGirolamo: I do think it’s instructive. I’ve heard it put different ways musically. So, if every song has been written, just add your voice to the chorus, so to speak. I really do feel that you can come along, and someone at any moment, can come along and just shatter everything.  Just do something that’s so innovative, or so creative, or so pure or so inspired or thoughtful and just knock everybody over. 

UCR: I agree. I get music submitted to me to listen to quite often. What amazes me when I listen to these songs is, it’s the same number of notes within an octave and the number of keys on a keyboard. We’ve all had that same amount for how many centuries really and there’s still, like I’ll hear a new song and be like, ‘I’ve never heard anything like that song. How is that possible?’ It just kind of reminds me that there are still possibilities within what seems like a limited amount of sound that we can create. 

James DiGirolamo:  I’m sure there’s a way to calculate the number of permutations.  Actually, there may not be a way to calculate now that I’ve started to think about it because yes, you have all those notes and you’ve got to factor in all the instruments, all the styles. I don’t think there’s a supercomputer that can predict the outcome of a 15 billiard ball rack, just the break. Yeah, they’re all spheres and they all have an infinite number of, you know, angles or slices, or an infinite number of angles that each one of them can go. So I think that’s fascinating, right there. 

That’s each of us musically too. I’ve got fairly diverse interests, but you know, I feel like the amount that I’m talented is very limited. I’m not the first person to say that about himself or herself. Because you listen to some virtuoso musician and you go like, “Oh, I can’t do that. I will never be able to do that.” I know what I’m good at. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not being falsely modest. I know, I’m good at certain things. For example, it would be great to have  a voice that when you’re saying people just automatically listen because it was such a beautiful singing voice. I’m not sure I have that or have ever had that. I’m not saying I have a bad singing voice. It’s like you know you just have to be yourself work with what you got.  

UCR:  Speaking of that, from what I understand, you played all of the instruments on the EP. Is that right?

James DiGirolamo: On, at least several of the songs, I played everything. There are three, I played everything on.  Four, I played almost everything on. Then there are two key ones, where there are some other excellent musicians on the track by dint of the fact that they were recorded. But the ones that I played everything on, was born of necessity. If not necessity, it’s my response to how difficult it is to put it all together, just scrape money together to go in the studio. You know, it’s very rewarding, but it’s just, wow, it feels like getting punched in the stomach a little bit. But I really enjoy playing everything. It’s a fun challenge. I’m not going to win any bass playing awards anytime soon but I can do it over enough. Until I get it. 

So that’s the luxury of recording a home. It’s costly in a different department. It’s costly in time. So whoever said time was money they were so right about that. We all recognize that. So yeah, having to do something over like a lot in order to get your take and then to have to do that with, you know, six other instruments is, it’s an awful lot of going by. One of the chief pitfalls is, I can’t hear this anymore. On by so many times that I don’t know whether it’s, I don’t know whether I’m adding anything now, I don’t know whether it’s making sense. Fortunately, for the most part, I haven’t started to hasn’t gotten so bad, where I’m like, “I don’t even know if this song is good”, right? It has happened.

UCR: That’s the great part about recording is you can work and do it till you feel like it’s right. But then there’s also this point where it’s like, ‘I got to take a break because I can’t even hear what I’m supposed to be hearing anymore.”

James DiGirolamo: Or I can’t advance. I can’t play this part any better than I’ve already played it. Like, these are the limits of my guitar playing right here. Usually, it’s not mistakes or miss notes or anything, because you can just fix that stuff. But it’s just like, overall, it’s like overall feel or overall there’s some quality. Like, this effectively captured me playing the guitar and there’s only so good I can play it. Even if I go back and fix all the inconsistency or you know, many of the glaring things. 

I’m thinking of Daniel Lanois saying how you can easily go right past with a band in the studio. You can easily go right on past where there was some fire in interest in the way everyone was playing because you’re in search of perfection. You can go right and you can blow right past where everybody felt inspired, and you shouldn’t do that. 

UCR: I’m impressed that you are able to play everything enough to do it. It’s resourceful, obviously, but it’s also really impressive.  Is piano your main instrument?

James DiGirolamo:  Yes and then I’m self-taught on the guitar. I mean, I’ve picked up some things here and there from buddies, but I haven’t really taken any lessons on guitar and same for bass and same for drums. You pick up an instrument, and you see what sense you can make out of it. If you already play an instrument, you have a huge advantage in picking up another one as I’m sure you know.

I think it’s very interesting. It’s like, you have to just express yourself as best you can, through the instrument that you have available. There’s an analogy to running there, which I’m in a run club. I started running at age 40. I had been walking for 10 years before that. Which was one of the things that saw me through like, just the blackest of depressions that I suffered for a long, long time. I got walking every day and it was one of those things that worked every time. But in any case, it led me to one day I was like “I wonder what would happen if I went a little faster” and I kind of ended up stringing together quarter miles and now I’m kind of an avid runner. 

But there are people who will come out and come out to the run club and they’d be like, “I’m just like, I’m just not that fast. I just Oh, God, I don’t know”. And it’s sort of like, just run. You’ll improve, you know, if you stay at it, and or possibly, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with what you’re just the way you’re doing it right now. There’s always someone who is further along and that you’ll envy if you don’t work on it, you know?

UCR:  You just have to think what’s the purpose for this? Like with the run example.  Are you running to just feel good and get exercise, just be in that community of that club? Or are you really looking to crease your time and be better? Because that will come as you keep doing this. So it’s just what the purpose is. You can be great at it if that’s what you want. But if you just need it for a certain reason, then you don’t need to worry if you’re a great or not. 

James DiGirolamo: Yeah, not everyone is trying to win a 5k when they run. Some of them want to just run with a crowd of people. Then on guitar, interestingly, just as a facilitator, it’s great there. I think that’s one of the reasons I picked it up in the first place was because writing on the piano, there was so much pressure, that self-applied pressure. You’ve got to do interesting accompaniment because you’re a piano guy. It’s really hard to just go around being just blocking out the cord.

On the guitar, I was like, ‘Okay, yeah, well, I can’t play this thing. So I have to just strummy strummy strum and it was easier to write. It was easier to free up a certain type of writing. And of course, I found my way back to the piano, where now I’ve let go of some of that burden, that mental burden that gets in the way and I’ve just kind of accepted myself and so things are a bit more natural and I don’t struggle so badly with it and then hopefully, I’ve also come up with some interesting accompany.

 UCR:  Which song on the album are you most excited for people to hear?  

James DiGirolamo: That’s a great question. Most excited for people to hear? That’s a tough one.  My favorites revolve. That won’t surprise anybody. It’s like, one week, I’m like, “I really think this one is, I’m the most excited about this”. Then that fades and you start to go, “maybe it’s this one” or whatever. I think if I had to, there’s one that sort of sticks out to me, which is “Pure Joy”. There’s something about that one. First of all, it’s a happy optimistic song without being false. I hope he people hear that.

But some of the things I like about that one, I sat down at the piano and at certain times, doesn’t happen every time, but at certain times, something just jumps out at you and then five minutes go by, you had nothing and then, five minutes later, you have an almost entirely written song that you’re excited about. You can tell sometimes right away where something happens, and you go, Ah-Ha! this is something. 

But on this particular day, you could hear these birds outside. I’ve since gotten some knowledge about birds actually. I had plenty of time to take pictures and I live up here north of Nashville, and it’s got all kinds of really interesting bird species. So they’re all over the place. Stuff that’s like, kind of hard to find, or hard to see elsewhere. It’s like they’re everywhere here which kind of makes me laugh a little bit.

Anyway, so I heard these birds and I just was just listening, and these notes were kind of suggested. I’m not gonna say it was like it is on the first line of the song.  I just heard and I pecked out the notes, and then I got some words in my head. So I started to play some chords. Anyway, that happens sometimes and when it happens, it is the greatest. For me, the greatest musical feeling that you can get, it’s like getting struck by lightning.

You can listen to Paper Boats wherever you stream or purchase music. For more information on James DiGirolamo go to jamesdigirolamo.com/

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