Le Cri Du Coyote
is an Alt-Country/Americana magazine published in France
The interview was conducted by Eric Supparo (June 2013)
Much thanks to Eric Supparo and Jacques Bremond
• France needs to know more about you. Where do you come from? your childhood? Do you still have family in Italy?
I was born in Tuscany - a small mountain village called Gromignana. When I was 5 my parents decided to move to America - specifically, Cleveland. That's where we had relatives. We stayed there for about a year and then moved down to Cincinnati.
My childhood is a blur. I was living in two worlds - Italy at home and America at school. I don't think I adapted very well to American culture. It felt very unnatural to me. It wasn't until I started listening to older American music that I began to get a grasp of the culture and that wasn't until my late teens.
All of my family is in Italy. I only have a few distant cousins in America.
• Do you know or play some traditional Italian "folk" songs? Is it something that pops up in family reunions?
No, I'm not familiar with that kind of music. I wish I knew more about it because much of it is very beautiful. My father and uncle played those songs in a band they formed back in the '30s. They performed at dances in the little villages around Garfagnana. I believe they played a version of what is called "il Liscio" - not sure about that, though.
For me, it never comes up in family situations. In fact, my Italian family knows next to nothing about my music. I don't really know why that is. I suppose part of it is my own fault. I may have been under the false assumption that they would find it slightly absurd. I think I might have misjudged that.
• Do you remember how and when you discovered music? The first emotions?
I think I've always loved music. The first LP I bought was a Chet Atkins record and I had a few singles, as well. When The Beatles hit, the world opened up. They had a profound influence - both in music and visually. Rock & Roll has always been a kind of gateway drug for me. It led me to other artists, writers, and performers. A lot of those '60s performers directed me to work that preceded them and that's where I found the lasting treasures. Robert Johnson, Elvis, Chuck Berry, Hank Williams, Billie Holiday. On and on. All of that was started by the people I listened to when I was young - the performers from the '60s.
On an emotional level, music became a home for me. It was exciting and inspiring but, more than that, it allowed me to not feel so out of place - particularly those pre-'60s artists I mentioned. Those artists from America's past gave me a little more insight into this country and I began to be more accepting of where I was.
• Would you say that - musically - your style is still connected to those pre-60's performers? A mix of country-folk, blues and rock?
Yes, very much so. That's where I found my voice - my creative energy, musically speaking. It's a little difficult to explain but basically, when I started listening to those artists I began to understand what constitutes a good song and performance. It's not that those artists were more talented than the '60s artists but the music just felt much more pure and honest.
Also, those old tunes had such wonderful lyrics. They were filled with clever, smart writing that conveyed very complex emotions in a simple and witty fashion. I got much more out of listening to the lyrics of those old standards and the old public domain Folk and Country tunes than I ever did from Dylan or Lou Reed, for example. It was just a different mindset back then - a different set of values, perhaps.
• How do you perform on stage? Always with a band (bass, drums) or sometimes solo acoustic live acts?
I started out doing only solo acoustic shows and I never thought seriously of putting a band together. When the band happened, it changed my writing style a little and I started writing songs with a band in mind.
Now I perform both ways and it's usually determined by the venue. There are some places that are too small to have an electric band and others that are more dance or rock band oriented.
I enjoy doing it both ways. The advantage of performing acoustically is that it gives me a much wider range of my material to chose from. A lot of my older songs don't really fit with a standard Rock band. I enjoy pulling out a tune I haven't played in a while and that's much easier to do when you're performing acoustically. On the other hand, playing with the full band can be very exciting - loud Rock&Roll can have that effect.
• And the first songs you wrote?
The first songs I wrote weren't very good. The only one I recorded was a song called "Baby Doll" which ended up on my "Under Whip And Chain" CD. That one still stands up pretty well.
Most of the time, "first songs" are best left at home. As with anything, it takes time and work and being allowed to make a lot of mistakes before you start to produce anything of value. One of the first things you have to overcome is the need to stay au courant - to keep up with the Pop Music of the times. You have to find your own voice - your own point of view.
I didn't come to that point until the late '80s. That's when I began to write songs that came directly from me - without trying to sound like this or that person. Strangely enough, part of the process was separating myself from the current trends in music. I immersed myself in the performers from the past and that, along with a few other things, helped me find my own voice.
• As an artist, are drawing, photography and songwriting just 'different' ways to express yourself? Make portraits of special characters? Talk about people you never see in the media?
Yes, they are different ways to express myself but, for me, one medium leads to the other. I had abandoned songwriting in the early '80s and I was more interested in taking photographs. In the process of taking the pictures I got myself involved in situations and with people that inspired me to, once again, write songs. Many of the characters I draw are versions of people I write about and that I have photographed. One medium plays off the other.
Also, working in this manner allows me to step away from one medium and do something else for a while. This prevents me from getting tired or stale with any one particular mode of expression. For instance, if I want to get away from drawing, I might start writing songs or shooting pictures. If and when I go back to drawing, I go with a renewed attitude. Because of this, I seldom start into any project grudgingly; I do it because it feels like the right thing to do at the time.
• Who are the painters, writers that you like the most?
My list of favorite painters is fairly common and not very esoteric. I like Velazquez, da Vinci, Jacques David, Bruegel, Titian, Botticelli, Rembrandt, among many others. Mostly pre-20th Century European painters.
The writers are a little odd. The first book that left an impression on me was Jane Eyre (Charlotte Bronte). I read that when I was in my early teens. Other books didn't do much for me until I read Notes From Underground (Fydor Dostoyevsky) in high school. That one was very impressive. Also, Baudelaire left quite a mark on my own writing - the decadence, the ennui, the world weariness etc. It took a while to get past all that.
I never seem to read authors who write purely for the entertainment value. I always go for the the standards of literature. I love Jane Austen and de Sade - two completely different writers. I enjoy Goethe - particularly his Italian Journey travel journal. There are some writers that I simply find informative. For instance, Jacques Barzun and Camille Paglia. Barzun and Paglia led me to Vico, Montaigne, Pascal, Swinburne, Huysmans, Gautier and others. I'm very thankful for that.
I don't read many contemporary books but, of the ones I've read, I liked Henry Miller's Tropic Of Capricorn and Virginia Woolf's To The Lighthouse quite a bit - for entirely different reasons.
• Baudelaire's "decadence" is actually a part of your world, both the photography work and some song lyrics. Do you feel that we have a lot to learn from that side of things? More than happiness and clean, responsible behavior?
First of all, I have to say that I've only read his work in translation which is a shame. I read his Flowers Of Evil collection and a small volume of his prose poems. Even in translation, his work is still extraordinary - simply beautiful writing.
As far as the decadent aspect - yes, it's part of my world but it's only one part. There was a period in my work where it was very prevalent - I would say in the 1990s. I was taking pictures of very salacious, decadent situations and I was writing quite a few very dark songs in the process. As I got older, I kept some of that feel but added a little more humor - that is, about the absurdities of life. The two sometimes go hand in hand.
Your point about a clean life versus a decadent life is interesting. For me decadence helped to mature my work - it gave me a more pragmatic view of the world and of human shortcomings. But decadence alone is not a very balanced view of things. I've come to the realization of something that is actually very obvious; if you live a clean life things are less likely to end in misery. Nature plays these little mind games with people because nature loves to destroy things - I learned that first-hand.
• Are you inspired by places? landscapes? Do you have a 'technique' to write, like being alone in a room? in a crowded street?
Inspiration and ideas can come from anywhere or anyone. That is all very unpredictable. More often, it seems to happen when I'm doing some mindless activity like walking down the street. Very seldom do I sit down with the intention of writing a song. Usually, ideas or riffs appear out of nowhere. I think that's part of what makes songwriting addictive. The songs seem to magically materialize and you never know when it will happen.
As far as technique, the only thing I try to do is to not put pressure on myself to write. It seems that whenever I force something to happen, the results aren't very good. I also keep a list of song titles that I think have potential and when I come up with a good riff, I try to match it with a song title I've thought of.
I'm usually a lot more productive in the morning when I'm alone. The best songs are the ones that come to you quickly - without a lot of fuss. In the mornings I have an hour or two to myself and that is more than enough time to come up with the structure and basic lyrics of a song. After that, it's just a question of filling in a few missing pieces.
• What music are you listening to these days? Is there any new band you like?
I still mostly listen to songs from the pre-Rock era - Hoagy Carmichael, The Boswell Sisters, The Carter Family, Billie Holiday. As far as Rock & Roll, I'll always have a fondness for Elvis and the greats like Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly. To me, all of that music is timeless. As you get into the '60s, the music starts to get mixed up with a lot peripheral things that seemed to take away some of its initial power. There are only a handful of performers from the '60s who's music still holds up. The R&B from the '60s is still pretty strong, though.
The last new band that I liked was the Magnetic Fields and they weren't all that new when I first heard them. Amy Winehouse had a lot of potential but she pissed it away - so to speak. I suppose I should follow new music more than I do but it's really a question of priorities and time. When I was young, there seemed to be an endless amount of hours to listen to music. It's strange to say but there just isn't that kind of time anymore.
• How do you feel about "music business" in 2013? Is there a place for independent musicians like you?
If there's a place for indie musicians like me, I certainly haven't found it. The music business is something I try not to think about because I don't see much point in it. There's a randomness to the business end of music that can be very frustrating to one's work and to what one produces. Success and talent don't often have anything to do with each other. I never want to find myself looking at songwriting as a business. I think that there are more than enough people that already do that and the results are fairly obvious for anyone to see.
When you say "music business" today, you're really talking about a by-product of a marketing business model. Music just happens to be one facet within the overall creation of a performer's sellable image. There is very little risk taking and performers are pigeon-holed toward a specific demographic and they produce music that is attractive to that select group of people. This applies to Indie labels as well as the big corporate labels.
• Is it possible to survive without the help of a record company nowadays?
I don't think record companies care all that much about performers. After all, they sign and drop performers like they're buying packs of gum. If the performer doesn't make money for the company they're gone and many times they're gone with a huge amount of money they owe the company for recording costs, promotion costs, etc. It's really a racket.
Maybe, as things stand, performers are better off going it alone and using the internet to distribute their music. This might be where something of value will eventually come from. Basically, there needs to be an event that breaks the mold and defies the standard business model - like Elvis and the Beatles once did. I'm not holding my breath.
• Don't you feel that promoting, releasing your own CDs and music, trying to get attention is also very demanding and taking away some energy that would rather be used in a creative way? It's not always easy to promote your own art works ...
You are absolutely right about that. I love designing posters for our shows but the booking of shows is a drag. Dealing with club owners is difficult and trying to get your music to a wider audience is still a challenge - despite the internet. The business end of music, once again, is really the most difficult part of the process and, you're correct, it does take away from the creative side. That's why I don't deal with it as much as I should. It would be nice to have a manager but I've never found one that is competent or that I would trust.
Art is slightly different, but only slightly. That is, it's okay to promote your music in any way you can but with Art, you're expected to be a bit more tasteful in your self-promotion. All that means is that rather than trying to appeal to the public at large, you have to grovel to the gallery owner or the museum curator - which, in the end, is even more demeaning than dealing directly with the public. The world is filled with these kinds of ridiculous scenarios, isn't it?
• Are Ohio and Cincinnati active for music? Good venues?
The Black Keys are from Ohio and I hear they're a good band. Cincinnati had a period when it was producing a lot of good music through King Records, which was based here. Everybody from Hank Ballard to Charlie Feathers to James Brown to Moon Mullican recorded there. That was in the '40s, '50s and '60s. I think this town can be very proud of those accomplishments.
• What about those "social networks"?
I enjoy using Facebook because I have fun with it and can promote my music and my other work. I don't take it very seriously but, at least, you're still getting your name out to people. Prior to this you were subjected to the discretion of the press and that was sometimes a real pain in the ass to deal with. Today, the artist/performer has a little more autonomy to promote their work.
That doesn't necessarily mean that you'll be noticed. Since everybody has the same opportunity, people start to tune out all the noise. The more there is of something the less value people will place on it. It becomes common and then it starts to get a little irritating. There are good things about the accessibility of the web but there is also a depreciating factor that comes when so much is there at your fingertips.
• What are your projects? Any plans to come and play in France?
Musically, I'm going to be releasing three compilation CDs of my music. The first CD is a collection of my Country Music, the second will be the Rock & Roll songs, and the last one will be a collection of my ballads. In fact, I'm going into the studio next week to master the Country CD. Looking forward to that.
I'm also finishing up the rewrite of my Western Skies musical that I put together sometime back. That was difficult to do but I like how it's developed over the years.
I'm continuing to do the Urban Dwellers but my photography is in something of a lull right now. I'm sure it'll rear its ugly head at some point.
It's interesting that you mentioned playing in France because that has long been my dream and it has become more and more attainable. I'd like to not only play in France but also Belgium, the Netherlands and, of course, Italy.
It would be a simple acoustic tour - me and perhaps my bass player. Hopefully, within the next year or so I'll have something arranged and, of course, you will be the first to know.