11 Questions to a Nashville Musician: Joe Pisapia

Joe PisapiaWhen I moved to Nashville in 1998, I started to discuss my musical tastes with some of my new Nashville music friends. As soon as I mentioned my love for the likes of Elvis Costello, Squeeze and Nick Lowe, they all said “Have you heard Joe, Marc’s Brother?” I took the hint and soon found myself becoming a fan of their delightful indie-pop sound.

Sadly, the band’s performing career had slowed down by the time I got around to enjoying their three great records. However, I did catch one of their since infrequent shows at The Basement in 2005. It was a night I won’t ever forget since the band’s namesake and lead singer-songwriter, Joe Pisapia, scared the pants off me when he lit some Fourth of July sparklers in the club to celebrate! I guess we all laughed it off once the smoke had subsided and the Fire Department didn’t show up.

But along the way, Joe Pisapia has become known as one of Nashville’s most versatile musicians and sought-after producers. Taking him away from Music City were touring stints as an official member of the band Guster and as band leader for k.d. land and the Siss Boom Bang. Lately however, he’s been home and quite busy.

As a producer, his noteworthy credits include both the aforementioned Guster and k.d. lang as well as the comeback record for the Ben Folds Five, the most recent record from Nashville’s The Silver Seas and Drew Holcolmb and the Neighbors’ recent Americana chart smash.

Joe also has released three fine solo records, and his latest exciting project, as you will read about below, is currently part of a Pledge Music campaign. He also will be performing this coming Saturday (9/30/17) at the Muletown MusicFest on the Square in Columbia, TN.

I am grateful to Joe for the extra effort he put into his “11 Questions” which will certainly give you great insights about one of the most talented musicians working in Nashville today.


Where are you from originally, when did you move to Nashville and why?

I’m originally from New Jersey (Rahway). I moved to Nashville with my brother Marc in 1994, right after we finished our first recording together. I’ve always had a fetish for country and folk music techniques and textures and how they might blend with a more power-pop or Anglophile presentation. This first recording came out posthumously in 2001 as The Pennsylvania Sessions.  We recorded it with my friend and fellow college band mate, Steve Ward in his apartment in Lancaster, PA.  We blended rock, folk, country and jazzy tones.  It’s a quirky record and I had no idea how to sing yet, but it really has an interesting vibe.

A friend of ours up north had a mutual friendship with a producer named Rick Clark.  Rick really got what we were up to musically.  In 1993, we visited Rick and spent time brainstorming in both Memphis and Nashville.  On that trip, we encountered and met many people who I’m still tight with to this day. Our main mission:  Joe, Marc’s Brother.  We went through many phases and incarnations in a short time. We pushed ourselves to the point of palpable anxiety and stress to figure out and demonstrate our sound.  It was tough at the time, but now we’re all thankful to have had those boot camp days.

I had musical fantasies and desires that I still have. I wanted to become a better guitar player, songwriter, arranger, a better musician overall. I wanted to learn more about tone, and the gear that facilitates those tones.  Early on we met George Bradfute a/k/a “The Tone Chaperone.”  His knowledge and mentorship was a revelation to me. I can trace much of what my guitar sound was in Joe, Marc’s Brother back to George and his guidance. Also, I wanted to be around people who literally invented and showed us what a pedal steel guitar can do. I was curious about how some of these amazing musicians would interpret and play through more elaborate and extended chords.  To this day it still turns me on.

What are the first and the last records you bought, and where did you buy them? Were they CD, vinyl or digital?

Luckily our parents had a pretty good record collection, so we had our bases covered for the “101” stuff.  It wasn’t extensive, but it was important. For instance, Pet Sounds and Rubber Soul were already there waiting for us to discover. Our mother used to play John Denver a lot too.  That’s probably where a lot of my folky inspiration comes from.  I didn’t know who Nick Drake was until college, when my friend told me that my voice reminded him of Nick Drake.

I remember the first 45 that my brother and I went to the store to buy.  We wanted to get “The Best of My Love” by The Eagles.  By accident or maybe by angelic intervention, we ended up with “Best of My Love” by The Emotions.  I can still remember the needle hitting the record and the staccato horn hits blasting out of the built-in speaker.  We looked at each other with surprise, and then with a nod, of “Oh well, it wasn’t what we were expecting, but this is awesome as well.”  We succeeded to play the shit out of that record.

Looking back, it may have been a significant moment for me.  I’ve never tried to squeeze my sound into a genre, for better or worse.  For example, I might begin writing a song that I think will sound like the Eagles, and it ends up sounding like a ragamuffin version of Donny Hathaway meets NRBQ.  I love when that stuff happens.  The better part of not trying to pigeon-hole my songwriting into a genre is that it has made my musical life more fun, curious and exploratory and freer.  The worse part has been that nobody in the music business knew what to do with us back in the day.  They liked it, but couldn’t “name” it, so it was always a hard sell. It made the people that like what I was doing more selective. Maybe that’s what they mean by “freedom isn’t free.”

The last record that I received in CD form was Ravel Plays Ravel.  It was a gift from my good friend and collaborator, Sam Smith.  He knew I was in love with it, but it was out of print.  I’m in awe of this recording as it is such a rare experience to hear a brilliant composer sort of struggle through his own compositions.  Maybe the word struggle is an exaggeration, but it’s almost like you could feel the music happening upon him if that makes sense. It feels like listening to someone when they are trying to tell you a vulnerable and conflicted truth and their voice is shaking.

First and last live concerts that you’ve seen?

Proudly I can say that my first concert experience was Kiss at Madison Square Garden in 1980 on The Dynasty Tour. The last concert that I attended was Lydia Luce at the Station Inn.

Whose star should be added to the Music City Walk of Fame?

Wow! So many greats to choose from. I’m going to go with Les Paul as he is a personal hero.  I was lucky to see him several times during his ubiquitous NYC residency when I was growing up. Plus, he invented multi-track recording, so I wouldn’t have a day job if it wasn’t for him.

Where do you go in Nashville for coffee and pizza?

Nowadays I have coffee at home 90% of the time.  Sometimes I do a pour-over if I’m the only one drinking it, but mostly I use my shitty Mr. Coffee which delivers the goods just fine in my opinion. If I’m gonna go out and splurge, I like Dose on the east side.

As far as pizza goes for years the only game(s) in town were Joey’s and/or Manny’s House of Pizza. They made pizza in the style that I was accustomed to growing up, and notably, you could buy it by the slice.  There’s a lot of pizza pride in the New York tri-state area and for good reason. People say it’s because of the water.  I don’t know what it is, but it’s objectively better than pizza outside of a 50-mile radius.  Disagree?  The Jersey guy in me feels you’re full of shit. However, I do think that if I had to pick a place to have “artisan” pizza in Nashville it would be DeSano’s. I hate to use the word “artisan” but I think you get my drift.  Pizza by the slice is blue collar, pizza at DeSano’s feels more white collar. But, it is superb in my opinion.

What’s your favorite record to ever come out of Nashville?

Probably one that never actually came out, but was circulated among friends, and made an indelible mark, which is the solo record that Daniel Tashian made in the early oughts.  It still holds up as one of my favorites of all time. We have to convince him to release it.

Where’s the best place to eat late night after a show?

I love doing the early residency shows as afterwards, we can go and eat wherever we want. However, if we’re talking late night I like Dino’s for a great burger.  I recently went with a friend to the Tower and had a pretty surreal experience.  I haven’t done it recently, but the Doritos Locos Taco at Taco Bell is an unfairly delicious treat.  It’s unfair in that it ruins the subtlety of other foods in comparison.  Let’s put greasy salty meat and suburban American “toppings” in a taco shell.  But wait…let’s sub out that already delicious taco shell for a super-charged MSG laden, fucking Dorito shell. Totally unfair putting it right there across from Mickey’s tavern.

The Bluebird calls and asks you to host an “In the Round.” Pick three local songwriters to join you.

If I had to choose right now, I think it would be fun to do it with Daniel Tashian, Kate York and Bill DeMain.

What are your favorite music venues to play in town?

I love the 5 Spot.  Those guys have been so good to us, and it gave us a place to really hone in and dial in our sound and vibe. It also sounds and feels great in there. Eric who runs sound there is a Jedi.  I also love the Basement O.G. And for a more full on show, The Basement East is ridiculously cool. Keifer who does sound there is my hero.  That place is among the best sounding venues I’ve ever been in, and that’s saying a lot.

Name a musician who you’d like to see move here.

I’ve always fantasized that my good friend, one time band mate, and musical genius, Steve Ward, would move here.  I’d be curious to see what he would create and curate vis a vis this amazing talent pool that we all take for granted.

Finally, what’s in your musical future?

Well that remains to be seen.  I know what my desires are, but I’ve learned from experience that outcomes are largely out of my control. As far as the part of the future I can control:  Right now I’ve been obsessed with performance. The same thing happened to me after finishing my previous record, Nightvision. Okay—you’ve made a record, you’ve presented a song that you’ve massaged in a computer for untold hours to get it to sound right. Now, do it “for real.” To me, I’m totally into the challenge of seeing if the songs hold up in the moment of performance. I guess it’s sort of backwards in a way.  I’m always pleased and sometimes surprised which songs are the “sturdy” ones; the ones that other musicians seem to just get without a bunch of explanation or direction.

Recently with the help of Marc Pisapia, James Haggerty, Sam Smith, Kyle Ryan, K.S. Rhoades, Austin Hoke, Lydia Luce and Peter Groenwald, we have been experimenting with performing some of my music live and capturing video.  We call it “The Parlor Music Club.” The idea was to use one mic.  I’m in love with the AEA R88 stereo ribbon mic. That’s the “one mic.” However, at the last minute I added a Gefell UM70 15 inches away from me to capture a little more lead vocal.  Ostensibly the band is captured by the stereo ribbon (dual figure 8,) in Blumlein pattern, and the Gefell for just an extra sprinkle of vocal.  Everyone “mixes” themselves without the use of headphones, and we are all playing as softly as we possibly can. The acoustic instruments are 4 feet from the mic, the piano is 8 feet away, vibraphone 12 feet away, and last week we had an organ that was 30 feet away from the mic.  Marc is playing one brush on his thigh 4 feet away from the mic while singing harmony. This experiment has been a dream come true for me.  I think I can speak for everyone involved that we all feel a blend of meditative awareness, combined with the giddiness of kids playing outside past curfew.

We’re doing these recordings to share as exclusives for a Pledge Music campaign. I’m really trying to give stuff of value to this campaign, and not just walk around with a selfie stick while I show you how to make the perfect eggs over-medium or some shit.  Although, I may still show you how to make the perfect eggs over-medium, but hopefully not just that.  In other words, I’m trying to add real value to what Pledge refers to as the “Access Pass.” More than ever I want to give.  I want to truly connect.

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