1. Please share whatever biographic details you feel comfortable sharing:
I was born into a very musical family. My dad, the son of a conductor on the railroad in Massachusetts, was brought up learning countless American folk songs. Traveling songs, hobo songs, train songs, drinking songs, love songs, etc… My father was and still to this day is always singing and playing the acoustic guitar.
Songs were a second language in my home and music was a mandatory part of my upbringing from violin and piano lessons starting at age 4 to drum set instruction starting at age 12 to guitar playing in college. The guitar is my primary instrument today, but it was the last one I picked up and the only instrument I play regularly that I received no formal training in.
Likewise, my mother’s side of the family was filled with music. Because they were Italian, many of the songs I remember at family gatherings during the holidays were in Italian, accompanied by my Uncle Benny who was an accomplished accordion player.
I was always a drummer in bands growing up. In college, I started playing guitar and started the first edition of the Jay Biddy Band with Dave Patterson who is the bass player in This Way. Dave and I have been playing music together for something like 12 years. I remember the first edition of the band played a lot of Paul Simon, which still to this day is one of my biggest influences.
I received an electric guitar for Christmas one year and my musical life became infatuated with louder rock & roll music rather than the more folksy / country music I grew up with. The Jay Biddy Band took our cues from bands like the E Street Band, Rolling Stones, The Beatles and Tom Petty to name a few.
The Jay Biddy Band, which was always a cover party band, took on a new persona as the Crossfire Inferno and we recorded and released an album called “Restless” which was a 3-piece garage rock/punk/alt country project.
The next project was This Way, which included Crossfire Inferno drummer Seth Kearns, guitarist Max Cantlin, keyboard player Jeff Merrow, Dave Patterson on bass, Anna Patterson on background vocals and myself on guitars and vocals. That version of the band was as close to the wall of sound type E Street obsession as I will ever get. The songs were anthemic, big and boastful with soaring guitar licks and solos, thick harmony, pounding drums, lyrics about liberation and a very schticky stage show with myself really trying to be a Springsteen like figure. That band released a record called “We Could All Make History”.
In my spare time, I was writing a lot and the songs were much different than the songs on WCAMH.
My interest in the whole rock atmosphere began to diminish and I took things back to the basics of my childhood. The acoustic guitar, the voice and simple, honest lyrics were really all that mattered again. Simplicity was key and the over the top stage performance style seemed to be rather trite and forced and not what I felt was my most authentic musical self.
The reconstruction of This Way happened much more organically than a planned course. Max, Seth and Jeff had all left the band and we were in very much of a transitional period and we had considered dissolving the band. I had continued to write, though when Andrew Martelle showed up from Nashville to live back in Maine where him and his wife are from, it felt like we had a considerable band again. And we did.
2. When it comes to songwriting, is this something you always did even before you were involved in gigging?
I began songwriting around the same time I started playing guitar. I had grown up playing violin, piano and drums and never wrote any music per se, rather just played music. When I started playing guitar, I used songs to teach myself the guitar. I would learn a song and then apply it to songwriting. For me, songwriting never was something I did for thoughts of doing it as a career. I just wanted to express myself through music and lyrics. The more I did it, the better I became at writing effectively.
3. Do you write the lyrics first, then the music, the other way around, or is there no set formula?
There needs to be a spark for a good song to be born. Sometimes that spark is a phrase or single word I found intriguing and pregnant with creative possibilities at a certain moment. Often times that spark is a chord progression or guitar lick that is unique and not obviously clichéd. After gigs, I often will decompress by picking a guitar quietly in my living room. Because my gigs usually have me performing some of what I consider the finest written songs, I feel like I am at an able place after gigs to create something new and clever.
If the spark that starts a new song is a musical one, I force myself to compose as much as I can until I’m out of ideas and I record all of these ideas. Inspiration comes in such spurts that you must seize it when it knocks at your door.
If I just came up with a cool chord progression, then I can probably come up with an equally unique melody. If I am able to come up with a melody too, then I’m probably at a good place to arrange the form as well.
So I’ll work on one of these ideas for as long as I can until I’m either finished or out of ideas.
The next day, I will go back into my enormous list of lyrical ideas and emotions and try to find a lyrical spark that will make the melody and chord progressions a song.
4. There is often a nostalgic, nod-to-the-past flavor in your songs. How important is that to your songwriting?
I’m inspired by pushing the genre in which I work further–adding something to the fabric of Americana music, which is where I feel I am my most creative and honest. I love folks like Avett Brothers, Gillian Welch, Ryan Adams, Mumford and Sons, The Civil Wars… Those guys aren’t reinventing a musical wheel, they are using a familiar wheel to drive a vehicle that will carry new and urgent emotional sentiments of the here and now that have the potential to deeply affect people’s lives.
5. Do you write with Andrew (Martelle, mandolin & fiddle player) & the rest of the band, or usually alone?
I have written a bit with Andrew and I will continue to do so I’m sure, though when I write, I need to take myself into a very deeply personal and vulnerable place to dig out something real and not contrived. I like being alone at my most vulnerable so I can really let my feelings breathe.
6. How do you feel that Bruce Springsteen’s songs have impacted your songwriting?
I think Bruce is one of these American artists that have effectively written timeless rock, pop, folk and country songs. The Pop Springsteen is the most recognizable, but not the most inspiring for me. I love his solo records the best – Nebraska, Ghost of Tom Joad, Devil’s and Dust. I think he can be his honest and least clichéd away from the confines of the E Street Band, which is a pretty rigid institution and rightly so.
As a writer, Bruce was the one who first gave me the nerve to be an unabashed and prolific songwriter.
7. Do you believe in scheduled writing efforts – like every morning from 1000 to 1200hrs without fault – or do you prefer a more organic solution where you write whenever the fancy/inspiration strikes you?
I would love to sit and write every day at a designated time and place, but because of the time demands of the music business and life in general, it just ain’t possible. I think a good songwriter can sit down and get some valuable songwriting done whether they are particularly inspired or not. I recently took a personal writing retreat where I forced myself to write as much as I could. I didn’t go there particularly inspired or with specific things I wanted to work on. It was tough at first to churn out anything of worth, but I kept at it and finally stuff started flowing out of me. I wrote what I believe are a few of my finest songs by forcing myself to write during that week.
8. On the song New York City, it seems that you personify the city itself. Is this a stylistic device you enjoy? Do you use it often?
I love to travel and experience new cities, dig deeper into the essence of ones I love and to imagine stories of folks from cities I have never been to. The song New York City is a love affair with the city itself, which takes on the role of a woman. I feel very inspired by New York and its history. I feel it is the quintessential American city and so many Americans were first New Yorkers immigrating through New York. I just finished a song about Tulsa, Oklahoma, a city I have never been. We have a song called Greetings From St. Louis, a song called Ol’ Mister Drifter about a man encountering all kinds of cities across America. Sense of place is a major idea that I draw upon in my songwriting.
9. Have you ever said or heard someone say something and thought to yourself “There’s a song in that”, and then wrote the song? If yes, which song is that?
All the time. For instance, my father always tells me “you living out your daddy’s dreams” regarding my work in music and his inability to ever really break career wise. I loved that line and the feelings that arose from it. It’s part of the chorus of “The Balance Beam”, one of This Way’s newer tunes that we play at every live show. My buddy Bob Hole was going through a breakup once and we were talking about it. Somehow the words “you can take it all or leave it all behind” came up in that conversation and I immediately wrote it down because I loved that imagery and how that could apply to so many life occurrences. We got a good song out of that one.
10. How, if at all, does being a multi-instrumentalist impact your songwriting?
Because I play lots of instruments, I am able to realize much of the arrangement and instrumentation ideas either in my head, on a demo or in rehearsal. Rarely do I come to a session with no idea of what I want the drums to sound like. Because of my years playing drums, often times a rhythm is the spark that fires an entire song. In demos, I often play a bass line (be it very rudimentary), or sing or play out melody lines that I have in mind. Many of the songs on Goodbye Forever were written on piano.
I write very differently from instrument to instrument. The melody and feel that comes out of a tune I write on piano is often very different than what I would come up with on guitar. I’ve written songs on accordion, which is cool because my knowledge of that instrument is very rudimentary and so I have no choice but to keep things very simple, which can be harder for me on guitar or keyboards, which I have far more experience with.
11. Is there a song that came together in less than 30 minutes from original idea to finished product?
These days, I tend to really labor over songs. I’ll write something, sometimes quickly, and think it’s the best thing I’ve ever written, and then I’ll listen to the demo in the morning and think it needs tons of improvement. Most of my songs go through loads of rewrites until every melody, every word, and every chord change ads something unique to the work. My earlier songs would come out quicker. I think I wrote Riding Through the Courtyard in about 20 minutes. Lots of the stuff off the Crossfire Inferno record was written very quickly because I wasn’t into over thinking my writing at that point. I do believe that if a song is taking a very long time to complete, perhaps there’s something not quite right with the foundation of it.
There are a few songs I’ve written that took nearly a year to be happy with and they are songs that don’t really get played much because all that time created something that was perhaps too complex and over thought to be effective.
Then again songs that seem to ooze out of you are usually from a kind of place of divine inspiration of sorts. I remember Can’t Take This Away coming out very quickly and no rewrites were ever made which is very rare for my writing.
12. When you write a song, what makes you think “Yup, that one will be on the CD” as opposed to “I like you, I’m happy I wrote you, but you won’t end up on the CD”?
I go through that a lot. I try to write all the time. Some of the songs are very meditative singer songwriter affairs that don’t quite fit in the This Way lexicon and those I am keeping for perhaps a different kind of project down the line. Some songs are more fit for the North of Nashville style of heavy simple outlaw country influences. Then of course, most of the songs I write are what This Way does best.
It’s a tough position to get into thinking “this song could be a hit” or “this song will really get a club moving” because you can be ignoring emotions far more valuable than instant gratification which is a lesson I’m trying to improve on. I have a lot of songs stockpiled that I’m not sure what to do with them, but if I bring a song to This Way, I feel that it is a song that needs to be heard by as many people as possible and one that should be recorded and released.
13. When you write a song, if you write it with just an acoustic guitar, how much of the final arrangement as a 5-piece band enters into the equation?
I generally have ideas for the entire ensemble when I write it though the band really brings the arrangements to life and I’m generally not one to tell anyone exactly what to play unless I have a very strong conviction about it. But I certainly have ideas that I hear in my head of what the bass and drums might be doing or if it’s a fiddle or mandolin song. I generally always write the harmonies in Garageband, but often times those change in rehearsal.
14. Take it all (or leave it all behind) is a great tune, both on CD and on stage. How did it come to be?
That was one that came to me after a gig one late night. I was watching the Woodstock ’69 documentary and just strumming my nylon string guitar. I had started experimenting with capoing further up the neck as it made the guitar sound almost like a different instrument, which really sparked something. I have all the steps of that song on recordings, from the riff at the top to singing dummy lyrics, to trying different capo positions, to different form ideas up until the finished product that is pretty much exactly what you hear on the record and live. Andrew and I started playing the tune with North of Nashville (which is often times how I like to test out new tunes on audiences before I bring them to This Way). It killed every single time, even more than some of our most memorable covers. We both knew we had something very strong.
The tracking of Goodbye Forever was complete before the song was written. This Way was playing the song live and it was the highlight of our shows from the get go. We realized it would be a shame if we couldn’t place the song on the record. We had to pull some very tight strings and push forward our mastering and duplication dates to get it on the record. It was recorded in one day in a marathon session with very little overdubs and edits. As we get ready to get back in the studio, we’ve all decided that our recordings should be modeled after the Take It All session, as it’s the best thing we’ve ever recorded and it was so close to never making it on Goodbye Forever.
15. Do you ever use tricks to “prime the pump” when the inspiration well has run dry? If so, what are they?
There’s an ancient plant that, when inhaled, can put you in a very magical place creatively. Other than that, playing along to music, reading as much as possible and watching stimulating movies and programming are all great ways to spark some new creativity. I have written some really cool songs from an idea I saw in the old Twilight Zone series. That’s kind of my go to show when I’m looking for some inspiration. My Netflix account thinks I’m a 75-year-old man with some of the old stuff I watch. And when I watch or read anything, I always have either my phone or my notebook around to jot down something that has a song in it.
16. Do you have any advice for beginner songwriters?
You have to learn the craft, pay your dues and constantly be in a state of becoming. Learn the songs of the artists that inspire you — songs are the great songwriter’s mentor.
Do the research; dig deep into the stuff your family listened to if it inspires you because that’s where you often find your voice amongst the millions of people doing the same thing. And then just play as much as you possibly can.
Don’t think of a cover as “just a cover” think of it as a piece of your essence and find yourself in the characters of the songs you’re playing. The songs that you close your eyes to are often the ones you have a personal connection with. Make a list of those songs and try to build your own narrative using the tools of those songs. This won’t work for everybody, but it certainly works for me.
Your best song is always the one you have yet to write so get working on it.
17. If I told you can have three things of your choice to go write a song… what would those three things be?
Pencil, paper, guitar.
18. When do you know that the time to stop tinkering with a song has come?
When I have played it live a few times and it feels complete or if, after listening to the demo and read the lyrics several times and it feels right.
19. Please finish the sentence: Songwriting is…
an expression of the truest and best side of me.
20. What should we know about your latest CD?
It’s the best work we have done up until now.
You can buy This Way’s Goodbye Forever album here
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You can also listen/buy This Way’s latest album, published 9/2012, entitled The Story of Simon Pure.