Growing up in Chelsea and still living on the same block to this day, singer/songwriter Dante recalls the days of bodegas on every corner, a stone’s throw away from prostitutes and drug dealers. A stark difference from rural explorations of the East End, Dante and his brother would explore abandoned subway tracks below to discover “the mole people” and climb the decrepit elevated railways above, what’s known today as The Highline, to drink beers.
Being “right in the middle of that transition” inspired the artist he has become today, a multitalented musician. He will conclude his Music in the Vineyards series with two final concerts on Sunday, September 23, at Jason’s Vineyard in Jamesport at 1:30 PM and Saturday, October 6, at Bedell Cellars in Cutchogue at 5 PM. The series kicked off Memorial Day Weekend and concludes with a cozy, intimate vibe.
How did you create Music in the Vineyards?
I wanted to put on a show that keeps people engaged and curious. I have an unusual style of playing in which I play a number of instruments at once, but I also have various guest artists who will play with me. To keep it fun, if I see someone in the crowd that I know is a musician, I may call them up to play with me on a few songs. There is this great energy that is created in the spontaneity of doing that.
This little community is starting to form. People keep coming back to the series and they start interacting with each other. People will come as a group of two or four and by the end of the night, they’re all dancing and drinking and having a great time.
Why hold the series in the vineyards?
The East End vineyards are such special places. When you first arrive, there is this immediate relaxation that takes hold. I look out over the vines and my breath slows, my shoulders relax, I feel calmness take over. I am reminded of the good things in life — the taste of a great wine, human connection, the beauty of the land, and the joy of getting lost in music. The Music in the Vineyards Series highlights all of these things at once.
You play a number of instruments. Which did you learn first?
My first instrument was actually the violin. I started when I was about two years old, but I never liked following the rules and preferred instead to experiment with all the different sounds I could get out of it. I guess I never quite outgrew that impulse. I started learning guitar in elementary school, that was the first instrument I learned well. Though I took traditional lessons, I also learned a lot from observing great musicians and their technique.
That was one of the advantages of growing up in the city. I’ve had the chance to meet lots of truly talented musicians in the New York scene and I always tried to get what first-hand knowledge I could from them.
What’s an encounter you recall from growing up in New York City?
When I was a teenager, I was introduced to Dave Van Ronk. He was an iconic figure in the 1960s Greenwich Village folk scene who was known for performing instrumental ragtime guitar music. He inspired and assisted so many great artists.
He and I sat in my friend’s living room for hours one night. He told me all about the folk movement that he was so passionate about and taught me some things about both playing guitar and living a full life.
What’re the most powerful lyrics you’ve ever heard and how did they inspire your own?
That’s tough. There are so many amazing lyricists out there — Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, John Lennon, Bob Dylan. The lyrics that had the most effect on my writing are lyrics that are able to present themselves in the abstract but somehow make sense in the context of the song.
Rather than just telling a straight story, they create images that leave some ambiguity and create different visuals for different people.
You’re currently working on your next album?
I’m producing an EP with an incredibly talented engineer named Adam Sussman, which we haven’t titled yet. This has been a really interesting project for us. We started out making the album in the typical fashion at a recording studio in Manhattan, but I would always be sending Adam ideas via iPhone voice memos. Adam kept telling me how great all the songs felt when I would send the voice memo versions.
Then one day I realized that every time I wanted to listen to one of my songs, I always wanted to listen to my iPhone recordings, not the professional versions. So, I had the idea to do my actual recordings on my iPhone and throw a high-quality mic behind them to get some of the sounds the phone doesn’t pick up — like the upright bass.
Musicians sometimes record our music a certain way because that’s how it’s typically done. People don’t necessarily want perfection. The things that we truly love are all flawed. That’s part of the reason why people go to a concert and say, “I love hearing stuff live.” It sounds different.
What makes this album unique?
When I play a lot of the instruments all at once myself, the songs are feeling better than when I play each instrument separately or have other musicians come in to play the other parts. I noticed that one of my songs, “Breaking in the Sun,” was going over really well live, but I couldn’t quite get the same feeling when I recorded it. So, I tried recording it while playing all the instruments at once and it gave the song recording this great energy.
Most people record each instrument separately in the studio because you can’t fix any of the mistakes you make while playing or singing if you play more than one at a time. To record live while playing a number of different instruments myself was a bit of an intimidating idea, but I figured that I’d just try it and see what happened. We ended up really liking the results. The fact that I can’t fix every little mistake is part of what gives it that raw and real sound.
How has being a father impacted your music?
Becoming a parent has drastically changed what’s important to me. I feel like I’ve become much more of an observer since I’ve had kids —probably because I’m more focused on them than myself. One of the things that I realized since having children is that there aren’t a ton of opportunities to experience quality live music with your kids. We try to create shows that families can enjoy together. That was one of the thoughts behind the vineyard series. I bring my kids to all the vineyard shows and they love them. They look forward to them.
I’ve also been playing more music festivals since having children for the same reason. It’s nice to be able to go out as a family. My daughters were playing in the pool the other day and I overheard them singing a Leonard Cohen song together. Every time they hear Howling Wolf, Johnny Cash, or Otis Redding, they get up and dance. So, we are trying to create opportunities for people of all ages to be able to enjoy that kind of live music together.
Dante can also be seen on September 29 at the Sag Harbor American Music Festival at the Sag Harbor Inn at 1 PM. For more info, visit www.dantesongs.com.