NoiseTrade One-on-One

Interview with Joe Pisapia

joe_pisapia_noisetrade_coverAs one who is continuously swapping out multiple musical hats (producer, multi-instrumentalist, band leader, music director), Joe Pisapia has once again donned his solo artist cap to prepare for the forthcoming release of his third solo album, Connection. For our newest NoiseTrade One-on-One, we interviewed Pisapia to discuss his new single “Feels So Good to Be Understood,” the differences between playing shows as a solo artist and as a band member, what goes into producing his own music, the social context for his new song “The World Has Lost Its Faith,” and much more.

Noisetrade: With the forthcoming release of your third solo album Connection, you’re offering up the album’s lead single “Feels So Good to Be Understood” on your NoiseTrade sampler. What can you tell us about the writing and recording of this adventurous track and how it represents your new album?

Joe Pisapia: I’ve actually got a romantic story about writing that song. I wrote it in a villa in Tuscany, which isn’t something you can say everyday. I was doing a little impromptu tour in Italy last year that turned out to be a really magical experience. I wrote the song about one of the shows in Rome that turned out to be a nightmare situation because of the language barrier. I didn’t speak any Italian and the people who ran the club in Rome didn’t speak any English.

Somehow, they didn’t have me booked for the night, so they weren’t expecting me, even though I had a pretty good-sized crowd that had shown up to hear me play. The woman reluctantly let me play two sets and after one of them, someone came up to me “your music has a great vibration,” which I thought was the highest compliment I’ve ever received, especially because of the language barrier. I thought to myself, if these people are feeling my music on vibration alone, it’s making me feel understood in a deeper way than ever before. So I wrote it about that, those subtle cues when you see someone light up when they get your music without it having to be telegraphed by the lyrics. It was soul opening for me, in a way.

That power of connection and communion, especially in such an unexpected way, is what gave birth to that song. It was one of the first songs I wrote for the record and it helped inform some of the rest of the songwriting.

NT: Your NoiseTrade EP also features some of your favorite songs from previous releases, including your first collaborative album with Liz Holder (as Watercolor) and your two previous solo albums, Daydreams and Nightvision. What do you hear when you listen back to these tracks that span over the last 15 years?

Pisapia: When I hear the material from the Daydreams record, I feel a sense of freedom. I remember that at that specific time in my life, I had no money and it helped me intuitively realize that time is a more valuable commodity. So I took a couple of months and just immersed myself completely in making that record and it was incredibly fun.

For years, I reminded myself of that feeling and so I finally did the same thing on this new record – I allowed myself to be fully immersed into this record without any distractions. I carved out the time and gave myself permission to have three months to just make the record. Since the summer is so oppressively hot here in Nashville, I actually went fully nocturnal for those three months. I would get started around 11pm and finish for the day around 9am. In the middle of the night, no one reaches out to you, there’s no text notifications or Facebook alerts popping up every few minutes and taking you out of the creative moment. You’re not able to get to your deepest place when all of that is going on. If I started work at 11pm, by about 3am or 4am I would start to get into a groove of not having any stimuli coming in to disturb me. I would get to a place were I could rewrite lyrics and recraft my arrangements, but it took me that long each day to slough off all of the normal stuff that we’re inundated with all day. I just went with it as an experiment and it was weird trying to get back. It was like the worst jet lag I’ve ever had. But it was really nice to work like that.

My day job is mostly production work and so I really feel those old adages – “Friends who do construction work will always have work to be done at home” or “The cobbler’s children have no shoes” kind of thing. It’s really hard for a producer to handle his own music. My wife always reminds me that if I don’t treat myself like I do my clients, then I’m not giving my own music my full attention. So I did that this time around and created a time and a space for it. That was a big takeaway from listening back to my early songs.

NT: As a band member, you were in Guster for multiple years and also toured with k.d. lang as her music director. What are the pros and cons that you’ve found in being a part of a band and playing solo?

Pisapia: I was actually just talking about this yesterday with some friends of mine who tour pretty heavily. I don’t know if I could slice it into pros and cons, as much as there are just so many differences between the two experiences. When you’re playing a small club show, you’re feeling a connection with almost everyone in the room. You’re genuinely feeling each other’s energy. When you get to the Guster level and it’s summer festivals with 7,000 people and you’re wearing in-ear monitors, it feels like you’re a little bit disconnected. You then have to sell something at the wholesale level instead of a retail level, or something like that. It’s such a different feeling. There’s a lot of excitement and energy, but it’s not as intimate and immediate. When I was doing larger tours, I found myself craving a packed-to-the-gills club show because there’s nothing like that amazing palpable energy.

NT: You’ve also produced albums for Ben Folds, Anthony Rapp, Drew Holcomb, and many other artists. What is your most important focus as a producer and do you run into any creative conflicts when you produce your own albums?

Pisapia: I think the most important focus as a producer is to serve the song first and serve the artist second. The producer should be the objective force that helps the artist communicate the intention of the song most fully. The hardest thing about self-producing, is you lack that objectivity. With that formula, the self-produced artist can quickly find themselves in a hall of mirrors.

One of the biggest conflicts I’ve had as a self-producer was during the recording of Daydreams. I wanted the record to sound raw and real, but not lazy. That balance is really challenging to strike. If you’re seeking technical perfection, there’s recording software that can help you get there. I don’t think that’s a good choice though because it interferes with the feeling of completion. You know the old saying, “Records are never done, they’re just abandoned.”

NT: Back in November, you released a rough demo of the song “The World Has Lost Its Faith” via Bandcamp. What can you tell us about the lyrical inspiration behind this upcoming Connection track?

Pisapia: A lot of this record I wrote last summer and at the time there was a lot of writing on the wall about how things were changing in our environment, especially in terms of being inundated with information. It was hard to find the discernment of what was true and what was false because we have so many subjective biases through which we view material. It can be so exhausting. When we see everyone else as the enemy, it goes against everything that is real in the world. That song was my way of ranting about all of that a bit.

From a musical perspective, I wanted the song to have a bit of a country feel to it. That country flavor is super American-sounding and it’s my own little patriotic anthem in a way, at least what I perceive to be patriotism. There’s sentimentality to the country vibe combining with that American Christian ethic, which has been co-opted into to something that people use for their own fearful agendas in super depressing ways. I wanted to set that song in a truly American-sounding setting, almost in a silly, ridiculous way. I think I put three bass sounds – a bass guitar, a baritone guitar, and a Moog playing the bass line – to be extra “monster-truck” about the whole thing.

NT: Finally, as someone who has produced, played with, and written songs for other artists, what is one album you wish you could’ve produced, one band you wish you could’ve played with, and one song you wish you could’ve co-written?

Pisapia: I’ll tell you a record that I wish I had been a part of, even just a fly on the wall or an intern on the studio couch, and that’s The Lemon Twigs record. I would love to see how that genius album came to be. It’s such an ambitious record on every level.

As far as playing with anyone, I wonder what would it have been like to work with someone like Joni Mitchell. Imagine being a second guitar to her and be around that talent and that unique gift with all those crazy tunings. Just to be able to ask, “How are you playing that part? How are you voicing that?” That would be really cool. It would be like learning a new instrument.

A song that I’m truly obsessed with – especially from a musical composition standpoint – is “It Was a Very Good Year” by Frank Sinatra. To me, that song is such a masterpiece. There’s a video of him doing it live in the studio with the orchestra that just gives me chills every time I watch it.

When writer Will Hodge (@will_hodge) isn’t wishing he had a river he could skate away on, you can find him running off at the keyboard about music, concerts, and vinyl at My So-Called Soundtrack