By our newest contributor, Joe Rapolla Jr. :::
The first track off of Down Wires, the debut album of singer/songwriter Anthony D’Amato, is “Ballad of the Undecided.” The year was 2010, and D’Amato, then a student at Princeton University, recorded the ten-song album in bits and pieces and in a mix of dorm rooms and New York City apartments. The last line of the track is fitting given the song’s title: “I’m just a man who doesn’t know what he wants.”
Fast-forward five years and two more albums, including his critically acclaimed 2014-release Shipwreck from the Shore, and D’Amato seems to be significantly surer of himself and what it is he wants. From the time I first met and saw him perform in New Jersey around the time that Wires was released, D’Amato is a new man on stage. Once a quiet performer with songs possessing quality far beyond his years, D’Amato is now a seasoned veteran of life on the road. After opening up his set at the 2015 Americana Fest in Nashville with the acoustic, yet-to-be-released track “If You’re Gonna Build a Wall,” D’Amato got the crowd laughing by joking that, with his thick black beard and broad-rimmed Stetson hat, he resembled a young Amish man on Rumspringa. With the crowd humored and feeling good, he brought his band for the evening onstage and kicked the show into full gear.
His comfort should come as no surprise, however. Since graduating from Princeton with degrees in English and American Studies, (and penning a thesis on Bruce Springsteen) D’Amato has worked for the music PR firm Shore Fire Media, toured on three continents, and, in 2013, signed with New West Records. After signing, D’Amato retreated to the woods of rural Maine to record Shipwreck with producer Sam Kassirer (Josh Ritter, Langhorne Slim) and members of Bon Iver and Megafaun.
The result of that time in the studio was D’Amato’s most cohesive and reflective album to date. Not only is the production sharper and the mix cleaner, but the lyrics also evidence a very specific time in D’Amato’s young life—one that the listener can clearly tell is uncomfortable and transitional. Over lunch in East Nashville, D’Amato reveals to me that this is no coincidence. “The songs for Shipwreck came out really quickly,” he said, whilst biting into a smoked brisket sandwich.
There is delicate blend of both pain and hope on Shipwreck. In “Was a Time,” the first track off the LP, D’Amato expresses this dichotomy vividly. The utter heartbreak in a line like “there was a time that I loved you/I don’t love you” is met with a display of optimism in “I could see the shipwreck from the shore.” Whatever has happened—whatever disaster has occurred—D’Amato has made it out of the rough waters and to the safety of dry land.
And while there is certainly an air of disappointment and heartache on Shipwreck, the melodies are remarkably poppy and uplifting. “I didn’t want this to be wallowing about what happened,” said D’Amato. “It’s more like ‘okay, this didn’t work out, so time to get up and move on.” If a listener who didn’t know English heard the album, they may even think it was an album about falling in love.
But the album is actually about falling out of love, and the “shipwreck” is a breakup, one that was long, messy, and took place whilst sharing an apartment in the volatile and high-priced New York City housing market. With neither D’Amato nor his ex being able to afford to break their lease, she slept in their bed, and he on the couch. He sings about this with honesty that is equal parts vulnerable, hilarious, and beautiful in “If It Don’t Work Out.” When the audience at Americana Fest laughed at this story, D’Amato responded appropriately: “You laugh now, but at the time, you write an album.”
Write an album is what he did, and while I doubt D’Amato possesses the ability to see into the future, he has known for sometime that whatever curveballs life throws his way, he would be writing about in song. The product of intellectual and artistic parents, D’Amato was brought to concerts on the Jersey Shore from the time he was a toddler. He can’t pinpoint an “a-ha” moment, yet at some point a seed was planted and he knew that becoming a singer/songwriter inevitable. He spent high school beginning to craft songs, picking up freelance writing assignments in order to attend shows and get closer to bands that he admired, and gigging locally around in New Jersey.
These local performances eventually connected D’Amato with the folks who run Light of Day, an organization founded by prominent music promoter Bob Benjamin. Benjamin, an early acquaintance of Springsteen, started LOD after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. The charity organization now holds not only its annual flagship festival every January in Asbury Park, NJ, (Springsteen himself is a frequent “guest” performer) but also puts on festivals in Canada, Europe, and most recently, Australia.
D’Amato has been one of the artists to support these tours and travel overseas supporting the cause. He has donated countless hours and energy to raising money for Parkinson’s research, and his sentiment towards being involved in the cause is brief and simple: “I feel really lucky.”
Up next for D’Amato will be his fourth album and his second with New West. An exact timetable or recording location has not yet been determined, but a track that will definitely be on there will be “Honey, That’s Not At All,” which D’Amato has been performing live over the past year. In it, he sings, “I’ve got love/and honey, that’s not at all.” If any bets can be made about the album, a safe one is certainly that D’Amato will no longer be watching the shipwreck from the shore. He’s dusted himself off, he’s moved on, and he’s “grateful that it all happened—even if that sounds weird to say.”
– Joe R.
Joe Rapolla Jr. writes about sports, music, and interesting people. He enjoys suspense, adventure, and unearthing a good story. Born and raised in New Jersey, he’s enjoyed Haagen Dazs with Bruce Springsteen. The only thing that surpasses his passion for writing is his love of fantasy football, which is problem he’s (not so) actively working on.