Once again, the magic of the Internet landed some great new music in my inbox from an artist looking to share their sound…Owen Sartori is a longtime musician/producer who self-released a power pop-rock record called “Nobody Gives a Damn,” and I’m so excited to share it on this blog. It’s hella fun, super polished and full of smart, big melodies, driven by a true passion for songwriting which is totally up my ally.
Lots of his songs are about finding yourself, fitting in with the rest of the world or throwing yourself into the next big thing — but of course, as a pop record, there’s lots of flirtation and romance too. Sartori is also a powerful singer, not shying away from holding out high notes. He’s got a wry sense of humor and isn’t afraid to go all-out with metaphor. But what impressed me most is the sharpness of the songwriting, with precise lines, perfect rhymes, structure and resolve. Technique matters, people!
I’m also really intrigued about how much of the album is about the industry around it. The title (as Owen explains below) is a direct reference to the trials and tribulations going on in the music industry, and by extension those who make art. Anyone who has tried to create something can tell you there’s this nervous question of pouring your heart into something only to have it land…where exactly?
I really appreciated hearing from Owen because not only did I get a sweet new listen but because he’s quite experienced and I think he has an interesting perspective on the music industry given his experiences as working professional. So without further ado, here’s my interwebs conversation with Owen Sartori, slightly edited for length.
Why did you decide to make “Nobody Gives a Damn,” what was your inspiration for putting a whole album together on your own? <?/b>
This ties in directly with what I was lamenting in the new record, and in some ways it shows me that I’m wrong. So, to elaborate… In 2005 I was approached by a producer/studio owner in Milwaukee named Daniel Holter. He was doing incredible work and approached my band to sign a record deal. His mixes were great and he and I hit it off right away, so in spite of the fact that my band had broken up, I agreed to sign a deal as a solo artist with his label Burst Records and made my debut album “Another Beautiful Day in the Cube.” It was a fantastic experience and I learned a TON. But as you know, the years that followed were bad economic years and the record never really got off the ground. I eventually disbanded the group and decided that if I was going to make a living in the industry, I was going to do it on the “other side of the glass.” Eventually, I went into partnership with a couple of fellow musician/engineers and we started F5 SoundHouse in Minneapolis. I had almost an album’s worth of new songs that my band and I used to play live, and when I had my own studio, they decided (and I agreed) that I no longer had any excuses. It was time to record the follow-up record. That’s the origin of “Nobody Gives a Damn.”
On the origin of the title, it’s kind of a long story involving Radiohead, “pay what you want” and the file-sharing demise of the recording industry. Artists work harder than ever to create inspired music for their listening audiences, yet people value that work less and less each day.
How did you become a musician? What kind of training did you go through to learn to play instruments/produce/mix? Did you play everything on this record or use studio musicians?
I think answering the question of how someone became a musician is like explaining to someone how fish started enjoying swimming. A terrible analogy, perhaps, but all things being equal, nobody “chooses” to me a musician. That is to say, if someone is equally passionate about music and, say, city planning, you’d best become a city planner. Music seems to choose people rather than the other way around. I, like many people in the industry, was given a love for music at a young age by my parents. It was encouraged and nurtured because I was definitely going to do it anyway. My musicianship is largely self-taught (drums, guitar, singing, etc…), but like most, I had great choir and band teachers along the way, as well as parents who also sang and played instruments.
Producing, on the other hand, is a different story. I had a small home studio in the early 2000’s and learned the basics then, and in the 90’s had released a few albums recorded by other helpful people while I was in Wisconsin. In the mid 2000’s I began working for Tom Tucker (Prince, Lucinda Williams) and, through a fortunate series of events, learned much of what I know about producing and engineering from him (and a bunch of other really talented engineers) at one of his recording colleges. That’s what got me started on the path I’m on now.
It is common these days for me to play literally every instrument on a lot of of the songs I write and produce, but in the case of “Nobody Gives a Damn,” it was sort of a mixed bag of doing everything some songs, and enlisting my old band (Mark Messina, Reuben Thompson, “Baby” Jake Torkelson and Carolyn Gleason) to play on others.
These songs are big, anthemy and boomy – the title track, for example, reminded me of something from Rent or a Green Day rock opera. Do you have a theatrical background? Or who are your biggest power pop influences?
There aren’t many people who would pick up on that… good form! I was involved in theater in my early days and in college, and I’ve always had an appreciation for musicians who brought drama and excitement into the fold. Maybe that’s why my favorite bands tend to have that in their DNA as well. Like XTC, Ben Folds, Queen, Jeff Buckley, Jason Falkner, Jon Brion, Aimee Mann, Michael Penn, Jellyfish, Toad the Wet Sprocket, the Beatles (of course). I’ve always been drawn to musicians who can not only inspire, but SURPRISE. In fact, this has only gotten more potent since I’ve become a producer. I’m just not surprised by anything anymore. But one band I’m particularly loving these days is Everything Everything from Manchester, UK. This is INCREDIBLE music. Thoughtful, intricate and emotive, all with a pop sensibility that is friggin’ spot on. So yeah… First buy my album, then IMMEDIATELY go buy any of theirs.
This definitely feels like a lyric-driven record in a lot of ways. Explain, if you will, how you come up with lyrics & when you know you’ve got something that works a hook/chorus!
You know, since I have started teaching songwriting out of my studio, my method has changed a bit. Many artists start with lyrics they’ve written independently, then come up with music, then melodies that fit the music. Others start with a riff or progression and move to lyrics from there. There’s no right way or wrong way, but it has become clear to me over the years that melody is king. You can literally say ANYTHING and as long as you have a catchy melody, nobody cares if it’s clever or catchy or crap. The last couple of songs I’ve written were part of a project I’m starting with fellow writer/performer Rob Meany. We limit ourselves to a melody and a bass line in the writing process. After all, melody is pointless without a point of reference, so a bass line takes care of that. But in most of what you are hearing on NGAD, I wanted to convey a particular message through story-telling. Cool is about spending time in LA and feeling like a total outsider, Banking On It is about how money dominates not only the music industry, but our entire vernacular, Dublin Sky is my ode to my traveling family called “the Ireland Pub Crawl,” and so on. Every song is a specific story to be told in a specific way.
What are you most proud of about this record? What would you do differently the next time you record a full solo album?
I guess, perhaps, the fact that I did it myself, my way, focusing solely on what made me happy. It was fun to take every element and let it be what I wanted it to be, imperfections and all. Oh sure, I employed all of the studio technology that you might expect and worked through bad takes and frustration just like anyone else. But in the end, the only audience I had to satisfy was me. That was freeing, I have to say.
In terms of what I’d do differently, there’s only one way I think I’d significantly change in my process. Bring in one or two other minds and do it together. It’s always fresher that way. If and when I make another record for myself, that’s how it’s going to happen. You can bet on it.