James DiGirolamo is a multi-instrumentalist and songwriter based in Nashville and has performed as a sideman for many years, but from around 2018 onwards, he’s been focusing on creating and releasing his own music, especially now with his second solo release EP, Paper Boats, out on June 11th. The EP represents a diversity of styles musically, but the sparkling composition and reflective tone are something the songs have in common, drawing you into new ways of thinking about the world and relationships. From “Same Boat” which is a kind of cooperative anthem particularly in tune with our times, to “Top of the World” (the video for which premiered here on Americana Highways) and “Pure Joy” which focus on the positivity in relationships and maybe in the cosmos, too, the EP celebrates a kind of simplicity that’s not at all simple to achieve in music.
James DiGirolamo joined us to talk about Paper Boats, but not before we lured him into a discussion of John Lennon’s powerhouse song “Imagine” and Paul McCartney’s mysterious ability to achieve the seemingly impossible in songwriting. Both their music, and DiGirolamo’s encourages us to allow for wide-ranging sounds and ideas in musical collections, as we discuss below.
Americana Highways: How long have you been songwriting?
James DiGirolamo: I’ve been songwriting for kind of a long time. I put my first album out in 2008, but it’s been spotty in intervening years. It took a while to gain some confidence in my songwriting because I’m surrounded by the best around, here in Nashville. I was a later bloomer as a person, anyway, as a human being. I really was a confused kid when I arrived here, and I stayed that way for a while. I had my own bouts with depression and drinking too much for a long while, meanwhile working as a sideman.
But I’m really hoping to follow this EP with the stuff that I’ve already written that I feel very confident about. I really like how this EP turned out, too. I think it’s good that it’s an EP since it includes a lot of different directions. I like the diversity of it. But I’d like to record the next one in the same setting to give unity to the project, whereas this one was recorded in a number of places.
AH: It seems like the songs each have their own genesis points, their own flashpoints that inspired them. But there’s a concept with EPs that there’s a lot of creative freedom there in terms of content and style, and I really appreciate that. EPs are having a big explosion right now, actually, due to musicians working in less traditional ways during Covid.
JDG: Yes, you hit the nail on the head. For a little while, I was considering putting out a string of singles since it seems like there’s a tension between listening to full records and singles right now. But once I had these six songs, in mid-stream, I kind of changed my mind and put them together. It seemed natural to say, “This is what this year has been about.”
AH: They do really fit this time. “Same Boat” is really wonderful for this time. I also think people are responding to “Pure Joy” for a lot of reasons.
JDG: “Same Boat” was actually written before the pandemic, but it has totally changed its meaning in interesting ways. I’m so glad that I didn’t edit myself on that song, because when I was writing it, I was worried it might sound trite or strike people as irrelevant. But I allowed myself to write a hopeful, anthemic piece. It’s not meant to figure out the policy solutions, so I’ve started referring to it as a “cooperation anthem” and that feels very “right” right now.
AH: What you’re saying is really chiming with me because I’m nearing the end of reading a giant John Lennon biography, and I just read the section about the writing of “Imagine”. The same things could be said about that song. The most ironic thing to me is that it was written right after a really mean, childish song punching back at Paul McCartney, who, to be fair, had been antagonizing John in previous music.
JDG: Yes! “How Do You Sleep?,” right?
AH: Right. He was making fun of the cover of Ram, too, with the postcards of him riding a pig.
JDG: Ram is one of my favorite albums.
AH: It’s just the contrast of the situation that stays with me, that someone can flip from being so petty to John and Yoko writing a song like “Imagine” at the kitchen table.
JDG: To me, that’s one of the greatest songs of all time. I can’t possibly overstate how great I think that song is and how important I think that song is. When I was growing up, I loved the music and atmosphere of that song, but I really stumbled over the “no religion, too” line. I was still wrestling with my religious upbringing. But I really think he has that right. I’m sure that it’s possible to be moral but not be religious. I think it’s a fascinating and a brave thing that he put that in the song.
AH: Especially at that time.
JDG: In “Same Boat,” saying, “I hope someday you’ll join us” just happened and it felt right, and I sang it.
AH: It’s an important attitude and position to include others who might not agree yet. It leaves the door open. But with “Imagine” if you separate out the lyrics, they could be taken as trite or thin, but somehow they are not, and that’s the point I want to make about your song, too.
JDG: Yes, that’s a great point. I would say that, of course, the musical setting gives it such weight and they just nailed it to a crazy extent. Since we’re talking about John Lennon, that my dad was a television lighting director who worked in New York City. When I was a 10 or 11 year old kid, I would frequently go into the Children’s Television Network with my dad. We drove into the city the day after John Lennon was murdered. Everything was taped off still, and we drove by the Dakota on the way to the studio. People were just shellshocked, walking around crying. I’ve never really gotten that out of my head.
As a kid you can only partially understand the significance of The Beatles as a group, their influence as people, and the death of one of those people by violence. You can’t quite process all that. I still think about that. I remember turning 40, and thinking, “Wow, I’ve been around longer than he was.” And he’s a guy who would probably still be making music.
AH: You must have been really struck by the anniversary recently, of his birthday and of his death, because of all the things that were on TV around that time. This year was a big year for that. All of this makes me aware that, as a culture, we still haven’t fully processed what their music was and what the impact was. We think we have. But…
JDG: We think we have. That’s very well said. I agree that we will go on processing it forever because there’s so much there. If you consider that the entire output of The Beatles happened in an 8 year span, it’s still astonishing to this day. It’s like going back and looking at Einstein’s work. Before he turned 25, he had done all this most significant work, and it’s impossible to comprehend that. People will keep on spinning out Beatley-sounding things. They made so many different kinds of music. Speaking of diversity on an album, listen to The White Album. You couldn’t find bigger contrasts. We all refer to it as “The White Album,” but they called it The Beatles, as if saying, “This is what we are. All of this.”
AH: It’s like a challenge: “Figure that out.”
JDG: Right. Here’s “Helter Skelter” and then here’s also “Rocky Raccoon”. Deal with it.
AH: We’re still on that ground. I was actually going to ask you about Paul McCartney, specifically. Would you like to try to describe what you like about his music, particularly, separate from the rest of The Beatles?
JDG: His ability is very childlike, I think, in the best way. At his best, he’s untouchable. I do joke, and I emphasize “joke,” that my best songs are better than his worst songs. I’ve heard him say things like it’s like picking phrases out of the air. It’s just so effortless. You really get to hear him do his own thing after The Beatles. If you hear something like, “Let ‘Em In,” the chords are so simple. They are just two or three note chords over a bass at times. I don’t know whether it’s true or not, but it feels like he sits down, has an idea, starts to vocalize over it, and seemingly magical things happen.
The lyrics to “Let ‘Em In” sound stream of consciousness to some degree, but I’ve never heard anything like that. The thing I respond to most is the apparent effortlessness of it. It can be misleading to say “the simplicity,” since it’s a sophisticated simplicity. It’s almost like that song itself is about your imagination. He proceeds to list all these people and it’s a beautiful thing that can only have come from his head. It’s not a John song. John Lennon would make fun of him, calling Paul’s songs “Granny songs”. I love his Granny songs!
AH: There’s a lightness to it that’s very hard to achieve that’s just very Paul, I think.
JDG: Lightness is a great way of putting it. There’s the track “Mamunia”, where the verses are all about streams, seeds, growing, and interconnectedness. The song “Every Night” has a wordless chorus. There are no lyrics to the chorus at all. I think I heard that first in a dentist’s waiting room as a kid and I’ve never forgotten it. Who does that? That’s the beauty of a song where a guy just lets it flow.
AH: Something else that’s in common between this EP and Paul’s music, as well as The Beatles’ music as a whole, is that there are a lot of love songs. Secondly, though, when it comes to creating “lightness” out of something that could be heavy, there’s the song, “On Paper.” A lot of people don’t even want to talk about divorce as an experience. It’s just too much. But this is a very light song, musically. What were you thinking on that song?
JDG: Sometimes things just tell you what they are. I had the colors that begin the verses. Then I was waiting for the story to develop a little bit. I know that might sound funny, that I was waiting for the story to develop, rather than developing it myself, but that is what it feels like sometimes. It’s a bit of a puzzle, but with words. Then whatever sings well, when you try things, fit. Then the things that fit start to go someplace on their own. That’s one of my very favorite things about writing a song. Then there’s a weird bit towards the end, when I come up with the color white, and bring in the playwright. Then you get the sense that the song might be about that guy, and you get the weird metaphysical twist that he might be writing it. The playwright has succeeded in writing his work of fiction, but he can’t achieve his goals in real life.
I really enjoyed the process of writing that song. It was enlightening to write that. Like the lyric, “like someone’ tore that heart right up.” Which relates to paper. Those are the types of details that propel me through writing, and I really enjoy avoiding stock phrases, at least most of the time. There are times where you have to go with easy-to-understand language, of course.
AH: When you’re writing songs that relate to love, it’s more of a minefield to avoid phrases that are commonly used, especially in music. It does seem like you think about unusual turns of phrases in your music to try to punch through that.
JDG: You can’t reinvent the wheel, but you also have to try to say something fresh.
AH: I think “Top of the World” is a song that navigates that pretty well. There are well-known phrases, and yet they are not the middle of the road choices. And by leaning into the ladder imagery more than might be expected, you build it up. The degree of commitment can really carry a song into new territory, too.
JDG: It’s funny because I did kind of wrestle with that song in a way. After the song was recorded and mastered, I wondered what album art could represent it. I was clicking around stock images, and I came across a hot air balloon, and I manipulated that with color and vibrancy, and a hot air balloon is kind of how that song feels. Maybe I’m still subconsciously thinking of them as singles, so I want covers for them. Maybe the graphic designer and photographer that I am gets restless and wants to be involved.
AH: I noticed that you’re quite an avid wildlife photographer, particularly of birds. They are really good pictures, I might add. Is that something that’s kept you busy during the craziness in the world?
JDG: I’ve always been the person who stops when I’m walking someplace because I see something that I want to take a photo of. I’ve cut all my friends free of having to wait for me, so I just catch up. I’ve done that all along, but now I have a decent camera. Now I think I need a longer lens for wildlife stuff. I’ve always loved birds, but I’ve always known nothing about them. Living up here in Hendersonville, Tennessee, I have a bird watching course happening in my back yard. One thing led to another and I just started to pay more attention. Maybe I started to pay more attention because of the pandemic, but I’m not sure. I don’t really do it to keep busy. It’s almost the opposite. That’s not busyness for me. That’s me getting outside of the office, outside of my head. That’s mental health time, a break time, for me.
AH: Birds, of course, connect directly with the song “Pure Joy” on the album, too. Is there a musical connection between birdsong and your interest in birds?
JDG: Oh, you bet. It is more on the nose than you imagine, probably. That song is a literal case of sitting at the piano and hearing birdsong outside. Of sitting, hearing the notes, and playing. I heard some things that got me started with that melody and that’s why the song exists. That happy, cheerful riff is how I was feeling and that kicked it all off. I called it “Pure Joy” and you can hear where I’m coming from.