There are those who wait for their big break, and those who put themselves right in its crosshairs. Singer-songwriter Anthony D’Amato was not content to keep making music in his college dorm room and wait to be discovered. In college, at Princeton, he sought out a renowned poet-laureate to teach him how to write the perfect lyrics, and a successful Americana musician who was not a part of the university to train him – all while finding a way for the university to pay for the time and get him college credit.
And after graduating, D’Amato was not satisfied with any old day job to pay the bills while he continued to write. Instead, he got a job with a major artist publicity firm, where he learned about the music industry inside and out.
The dorm room songs he wrote got the attention of national media, and with the help of friends and colleagues, he was finally able to make the leap to a full-time music career, with the fall 2014 release of Shipwreck From The Shore, his first professionally recorded album. D’Amato, who performs Tuesday, along with Liz Longley, at Freight and Salvage in Berkeley, credits his earlier efforts and partnerships with his current status as a rising name in Americana and folk music.
“Making it as an artist is never an easy task, but at the same time, I felt like I had such a running head start from my time working in the industry,” he said. “I had just been through however many hundred album campaigns (as a publicist). I’ve done this a million times for other people. I can do it for myself.”
At Princeton, the New Jersey native’s primary course of study was English. Interested in the world of music, he freelanced for Rolling Stone, Paste and Spin magazines. The opportunity gave him access to pick musicians’ brains about songwriting, which has remained more interesting to him than chord progressions and bass lines.
He also hunted down Pulitzer-winning poet Paul Muldoon, the head of the university’s arts program – and convinced him to be his mentor. Muldoon, also a critic and poetry editor at The New Yorker, had written lyrics for Warren Zevon. He turned the student on to the lyrics of Paul Simon and Leonard Cohen.
“He was somebody who could help me get better at lyrics,” he said.
D’Amato petitioned the school to let Muldoon lead him in an independent study. Every two months, when he had written several songs, the two would meet to discuss lyrics. Muldoon marked up his writing with suggestions and comments.
“Every time I’m writing a song, to this day … I have that imaginary conversation with him in my head,” he said.
Similarly, he convinced Princeton to let him study independently under five-string banjo player Tony Trischka, even though Trischka was not associated with the school but happened to live a short train ride away.
The studies resulted in Down Wires, a 2010 album recorded in his dorm room, and 2012’s Paper Back Bones, which he wrote after graduating. NPR called the first album a “modern folk gem.” Other news media also picked up on his work.
Following college, D’Amato moved to New York and got a job as a publicist with Shore Fire Media, a public relations company. In several years, he worked with St. Vincent, Grizzly Bear, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, and many others.
“I knew I needed a day job, and I figured the best place for me to be was some place where I could be learning about behind the scenes stuff: How albums get launched (and) how press happens,” he said. “It was an incredible vantage point because … I was interfacing with the management and the artist and the booking agent. I was seeing it from all sides, not to mention working with the journalists on a daily basis. I got to be involved … in every facet.”
D’Amato treated the job as continuing education. Working with 10 or more artists on a daily basis, he learned what worked and didn’t work in their paths to success. With Macklemore, he said, it seemed like within a two-week span, he went from pounding the pavement to get the attention of the music press, to having more interview requests than the artist could handle. But with the artists he worked with long-term, he enjoyed studying career arcs.
“Seeing (St. Vincent’s) long-term vision for who she is as an artist and staying true to that over a period of time, that was really inspiring,” he said. “You not only watch this growth, but in our own small way, be a part of that growth.”
Ultimately, D’Amato did not want to continue that line of work. He had his own music, and he had choices to make.
In 2013, he had written a batch of songs that would go on to comprise his next album, and had squirreled away enough cash over the years to have it professionally recorded and produced. He understood his limitations as an artist, and decided to go all-in with a team.
“The homemade thing (was) only going to carry me so far,” he said.
But just as he was ready to make the jump, New West Records (Patty Griffin, Steve Earle) stepped in to sign him.
“I stepped off the ledge, and then a net appeared,” he said. “At that point, I felt like I had the momentum to take that running leap off the edge of the day job world.”
D’Amato recorded The Shipwreck From The Shore in a Maine 18th-century farmhouse-turned-studio with producer-keyboardist Sam Kassirer (Josh Ritter’s band), drummer Matt McCaughan (Bon Iver), and bassist Brad Cook (Megafaun). Longtime friends Gabriel Gordon (Natalie Merchant’s guitarist) and singer Katy Pinke joined.
Much of The Shipwreck was frantically written after D’Amato and a former flame burned out but had to continue living together until a lease was up. The songs helped him move beyond his “present situation.” The name of the album came to him as an image of someone having jumped off a sinking ship, swimming to shore, turning around, and seeing the last of his vessel go under.
But some of the darker themes are paired with a light, whispy feel that created an uplifting feeling.
“I didn’t want it to be a heavy listen,” he said. “For me, it was an album about moving through the dark period and coming out the other side. It’s a time to take stock of the positive things that came out of that difficult period.”
His goal was to make the lyrics relatable even for those who don’t know his state of mind at the time of conception. Other songs include titles such as “Was a Time,” “Hard To Say,” “If It Don’t Work Out,” “Middle Ground,” and “No Not Tonight.” The titles suggest conflict, negotiating and acceptance.
The lyrics, such as “There was a time that I loved you / I don’t love you anymore” (“Was a Time”), act as statements of acknowledgment. Yet the music, which incorporates xylophones, vibraphones, trumpets and organs, usually emphasizes the hope above the despair.
He pointed to “Back Back Back.” Sample lyrics: “Sorrow might come for you tomorrow / And the devil’s sure to follow / Oh he knows just what you want. / But brother, I’ll stand with you ‘til sunrise / to stare into his black eyes.”
The song was inspired by the alacrity of gospel and soul singer Mavis Staples, with whom he worked as a publicist.
“I was amazed by this positivity that absolutely radiated out of her,” he said. “(‘Back Back Back’) came out of me thinking about Mavis finding the silver lining and positivity in that.”
Follow writer Roman Gokhman at Twitter.com/RomiTheWriter and RomiTheWriter.Tumblr.com.
Liz Longley, Anthony D’Amato
Freight & Salvage
May 12, 2015
8pm, $16 advance/$18 door