Anthony D'Amato: A Songsmith Schooled By A Master Poet

Aug 30, 2014
Originally published on August 30, 2014 10:47 pm

When Anthony D'Amato was a junior at Princeton, he slipped a home-burned CD under the door of a professor — not a professor of music, and certainly no record executive.

It was the door of Paul Muldoon, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, critic and poetry editor of The New Yorker, who began to work with D'Amato. Five years later, the student is on the music scene, winning praise for folk-rock songs that demonstrate a plain, sometimes flip poetry of their own.

D'Amato's new album is called The Shipwreck from the Shore. He spoke about the process behind it with NPR's Scott Simon; hear the conversation at the audio link.

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When Anthony D'Amato was a junior at Princeton, he slipped a home-burned CD under the door of a professor. But not a professor of music and certainly not a record executive - it was the door of Paul Muldoon, the poet and critic who's won the Pulitzer Prize and is poetry editor at The New Yorker. And he began to work with Anthony D'Amato. It's now five years later, and the student is on the music scene. He's won praise for his folk rock blend and the plain, sometimes flipped poetry of his lyrics.


D'AMATO: (Singing) If it don't work out. If it don't work out, you take the bed and I'll take the couch, if it don't work out.

SIMON: Anthony D'Amato's new album is called "The Shipwreck From The Shore." He joins us from our studios in New York. Thanks much for being with us.

D'AMATO: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: What made you want to be a singer?

D'AMATO: You know, I started playing the piano and guitar first. And singing kind of just became a necessity out of that. I was listening to songs and started covering other people's songs. But I reached a point where I felt like I could do that myself. So I started writing my own songs. And I needed somebody to sing them and I was the closest person, I guess.

SIMON: Well, let's listen to the first track on this album. It's called "Was A Time."


D'AMATO: (Singing) There was a time when every kiss was haunted by your ghost. There was a time when after this was but a moment, at the most. A time when I could see the shipwreck from the shore. There was a time that I loved you; I don't love you anymore.

SIMON: Ouch. Tell us a little bit about this song because of course, I mean, that's the title song.

D'AMATO: Sure. You know, writing that song was a little bit - it felt like the tumblers of a lock kind of falling into place. And the rest of the record poured out pretty quickly after that. But when I wrote this album I was in a situation where - you know, I live in New York City and real estate is a bit of a tricky thing here. And I was in a relationship that had ended, but the timing of that didn't exactly line up with the ending of the lease of the apartment that we shared. So we wound up being roommates for a little bit. And writing this record, and that song in particular, it was sort of a way of, you know, processing what was waiting for me at home when I was out playing shows and I'd come back to that apartment.


D'AMATO: (Singing) There are times, I must confess, I wish we'd never met. There are times when I feel blessed to get to love again.

SIMON: There's a significant amount of heartbreak in this album, isn't there?

D'AMATO: There is.

SIMON: Is that just for entertainment value or is this how you feel now?

D'AMATO: Those were almost like notes to myself at the time, you know? The album writing, it was kind of a cathartic process. And you know, a lot of the songs, they blend darker lyrics with more upbeat music. And the idea was that these songs were going to bring me someplace else and hopefully bring other people along with it.

SIMON: I think that brings up another song, "Good And Ready." Let's listen to that first.


D'AMATO: (Singing) Let me die in a heartbeat, not slow and steady. Let me die in my sleep when I'm good and ready.

SIMON: So what's running through your mind - your heart - when you write a song like that?

D'AMATO: I kind of came into that song as thinking of it as a love song. And it's, you know, it's funny, I've had people come up to me after shows and they hear it in one of two ways. They either hear it as a very sweet, romantic love song, or a very, very dark, depressing breakup song.


D'AMATO: (Singing) I don't want to wake up but what else can I do? I don't want to wake up if it ain't next to you.

I've had people ask me to play it at a wedding and that always kind of - it catches me off-guard - that has the phrase let me die, like, a dozen times in it. Like, you want me to play that at your wedding? But, that was a song, again, where I wanted to kind of take some of the darkness and kind of counterbalance it with, you know, some bright instrumentals.

SIMON: May I ask you a bit about your relationship with Paul Muldoon?

D'AMATO: Sure.

SIMON: What made you seek him out? And I know he's a poet who has written song lyrics.

D'AMATO: Something about his poetry always struck me as very song-like. And I can remember in particular, he has a poem called "As" - that when I read it, it just, it felt like it would make for such a great song, at least conceptually. And knowing that he'd written lyrics for Warren Zevon and was such a music fan. He had his own band he would play around campus with and sometimes in New York.

So I was really interested in getting better at writing songs. By the time that I was a junior and I was working in the music department there towards a certificate in performance - your choices were either in jazz performance or classical performance, or like, being a conductor for an orchestra. And none of those things really felt like they were bringing me closer to where I wanted to be. So you know, I approached Muldoon with this idea of working on songwriting with him and the music department went for it, oddly enough.

SIMON: (Laughter). And what are some enduring lessons about songwriting do you think he imparted?

D'AMATO: One thing that I really carry with me from our time together is the way that you can tell a story through a progression of images, that you don't necessarily need to have a narrator or a spelled-out plot line.


D'AMATO: (Singing) First the captive, then the guard. First the artist, then the art. First the fruit fell from the tree, then the pain, the ecstasy.

Through the progression and shifting and coloring of images that you present, you know, you can tell a story that people can interpret and understand in ways that really are personal to them. You know, if you were spelling out something very explicitly, you wouldn't be able to do it the same way.

SIMON: Is it necessary, or at least desirable, in a song to kind of tie up the thread sometimes?

D'AMATO: Absolutely. And that was something that I really took from my time with him too, is, you know, I would bring him lyrics that I was working on and he'd mark them up. And sometimes there would be notes where he would draw a line between something from earlier in the song and later the song and say, you know, I like the way this connects but the next line of the song doesn't feel like it's part of the same family; it doesn't feel like it connects in the same way.

And those were things, at the time, I wasn't thinking so much about. I was kind of just letting the songs come out of me and that's what they were. But he really taught me how to make sure that there's continuous threads weaving in and out of everything.


D'AMATO: (Singing) First the last and last the first.

SIMON: Anthony D'Amato - his new album, "The Shipwreck From The Shore." It's out September 2. Thanks much for being with us.

D'AMATO: Thanks for having me.


D'AMATO: (Singing) I want to tell you but I don't know how. I mouth the words but they won't come out. I've been lying, I've been alone. I've been a stranger in my own damn home.

SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.