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Anthony D'Amato explores uncertainty and transformation in his new folk album

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Anthony D'Amato has change on his mind. He wrote and recorded his album "Down Wires," that NPR Music called a modern folk gem, in his dorm room.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY FATHER'S SON")

ANTHONY D'AMATO: (Singing) See me rise. My cash is clear, you're - Jesus Christ - I don't know.

SIMON: Well, a lot's happened over the past 12 years.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TRYING TO CHANGE")

D'AMATO: (Singing) Time's a fluid kind of thing, you know. The way you move so fast and then so slow.

SIMON: And that's a bit of the track "Trying To Change" from Anthony D'Amato's latest album "At First There Was Nothing." The artist joins us himself on the road in Wisconsin. Thanks so much for being with us.

D'AMATO: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: Help us understand what's in these songs, what's behind these lyrics. What have the last few years been like for you?

D'AMATO: The same as it's been for a lot of people. There's been just, you know, so much up in the air and so much uncertainty. For me personally, I left home in January of 2020 to go down, and I was doing some recording in New Orleans. And I thought I was going to be down there for, you know, a couple of weeks, a couple of months. And sure enough, I didn't get back home to New York City for about 18 months.

SIMON: I gather your parents got some bad news, too.

D'AMATO: Yeah. You know, both of my parents got diagnosed with different kinds of cancers. And there's a song on this record called "Enough," which was something I wrote while I was on tour. And just, you know, it's tough to be away from the people that you care about. While you're a musician, you're traveling a lot and you can't always be with the people you want to be with. So sometimes you write a song, and that's your way of communicating.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ENOUGH")

D'AMATO: (Singing) Whatever daylight's left before the twilight comes, whatever happens next, it'll never be enough. However many breaths are left inside your lungs, however many steps, it'll never be enough.

SIMON: Let's listen to the first track on your album, "Long Haul."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LONG HAUL")

D'AMATO: (Singing) When you wake up from a bad dream, shivering, shaking above the bed sheets, call my name. You can count on me. That's just how it is. That's just how it be.

SIMON: You like trains, at least - I don't know if you like to be on them - but metaphorically, 'cause there's a running theme of a train rolling down the tracks. There are photos and a music video that accompany this album.

D'AMATO: Yeah, I grew up around trains. My dad worked for a magazine about model railroads. You know, one of the things that happened during the kind of pandemic period where I wasn't touring, I ended up out in Durango, Colo., for quite some time, where there's this beautiful old - the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. It's this old mining railroad that's now a tourist attraction. And I ended up going out there and spending a lot of time photographing that and getting to know the people who run that. And some of those photographs turn up in this book of photography that I released alongside the album. And then we shot the music video for "Long Haul" on the train out there. And it was very special for me to kind of bring that part of my life into the music part of my life.

SIMON: Why did you want a book of photos and lyrics along with the music?

D'AMATO: One of the things that I've heard from people on tour more and more is that they don't have a way to play CDs anymore. They still wanted to own the music. They still wanted to experience it in a physical, tangible way. And at the same time, you know, the photography has really been an important part of my creative expression and way of connecting with audiences. And so I decided I would try to combine those two things and release this book of photography that has all the lyrics to the album and a little essay about the record. And then it comes with a download code on the last page. So that way, you know, you can have this experience of losing yourself in the visual component. And to me, these images are all really connected to the songs. And having that opportunity - I think that's something that gets lost a little bit in the age of streaming and kind of active listening versus passive listening.

SIMON: I don't believe I ever heard Arlo Guthrie say, and here's the download code.

(LAUGHTER)

D'AMATO: Well, the times, they are a-changing (ph).

SIMON: Oh, that's a good one. I think that's got the potential for a song in it.

D'AMATO: Yeah. I'll work on that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LONG HAUL")

D'AMATO: (Singing) No, I won't let you down. No, no. I'm in for the long haul. I won't let you down. I won't let you down.

SIMON: Let me ask you about a very outspoken song that's on this album. This track is called "Kinda Strange."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KINDA STRANGE")

D'AMATO: (Singing) Holy roller (ph), that body getting colder. Cut him down like a soldier. Don't you think it's kind of strange how nothing seems to change? Don't you think it's kind of strange...

SIMON: My body getting colder. Cut him down like a soldier. Nothing seems to change around here. What brought this song up?

D'AMATO: "Kinda Strange" was a song - I wrote that in 2017 initially. And it kind of just keeps staying true, unfortunately. And I guess it's kind of about the deja vu of watching racial violence at the hands of the police in this country and kind of just the eerie ease with which a large part of the country seems to move on each time that the same story plays out. And that's that line at the end of the song, where the anchorman says, you know, tune in tomorrow to watch it happen again. And just that sense of discomfort that comes from feeling helplessness as a witness in the face of it, but also, you know, trying to question what your own culpability is as being part of this country where, you know, nothing seems to change.

SIMON: Let me ask you about one more song and it's very tough. This is "Broke Tooth Smile."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BROKE TOOTH SMILE")

D'AMATO: (Singing) They don't know half of the hits I took. I'm not as sober as I think I look. Ain't no bruise that's going to make me quit. I got a broke tooth smile and a bloody lip.

SIMON: Wow. Where does this come from?

D'AMATO: Well, musically, I think at the time I was probably listening to a lot of old Staple Singer records. And I loved the idea of trying to write a song from the bass line first, because as a - you know, as a folky singer-songwriter, I instinctually pick up the acoustic guitar and start strumming a lot of the time. And that's where a song comes from. And so I wanted to force myself to kind of write in a different way. And lyrically, I think, you know, anybody who's been in the music business or any kind of creative field for that matter, for any amount of time, you know what it's like to kind of have a door slammed in your face. And you know, if you believe in yourself enough, you're always going to find another door. And that's what that song is about. It's about getting knocked down and getting back up.

SIMON: Anthony D'Amato - his new album "At First There Was Nothing" out now. Thanks so much for being with us.

D'AMATO: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BROKE TOOTH SMILE")

D'AMATO: (Singing) Don’t enter the party, that Garden of Eden. They thought it would stop me. My heart is still beating. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.