THE ARTISTRY OF DON CONOSCENTI
(December, 2002) - Don Conoscenti is a remarkable musician. Conoscenti merges acoustical instruments, voice, and soul, when performing. Conoscenti's voice and guitar become one instrument, forming a union that entices listeners into a lyrical journey of multi-capo compositions.
Conoscenti demonstrates brilliant artistry, and evokes an honest appreciation for what music can be. His music is written, and performed, from the heart. He's a musician that genuinely explores artistic expression, moving beyond compositions merely penned in proven formula.
I talked with Conoscenti after an October 2002 appearance on the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour in Lexington, Kentucky. Our conversation began with Conoscenti saying, "It was a magical evening." In December of that year, our schedules provided an opportunity for an extended interview...
- Mark D McKinley [Mark's Online Music Source]
mogswebsite.com: What age did you start traveling and how many shows do you perform a year?
Don Conoscenti: I started to travel when I was seventeen. I'd been out of high school for the summer and saved up some money, and started hitchhiking around the country, hopping the occasional freight train, and it was a couple of years of that before I actually bought my first guitar, and started writing songs. So, I had started to write songs somewhere in 1975, and then I started to perform and record. Later in 1976, I did lots of performances and recording sessions and whatnot, but I didn't really have my act, so to speak, together until 1978 or so, when I had my first band in Vermont, and I've kept at it ever since.
mogswebsite.com: You switched from playing rock music to performing acoustic music-- what brought about that switch?
Don Conoscenti: Well, people wouldn't notice that I started off in folk music and acoustic music, including playing around the folk scene in Chicago in the mid-seventies when Steve Goodman was still alive, and playing a place called the Hootenanny then, but basically open mic. Then, when I was in Vermont I got involved in rock and roll, and then from that, that lead to funk and R&B and jazz. I just kind of burned out on that challenge of keeping bands together and quit playing music for a few years. When I came back I decided to start again. I had an interest to go back and revisit acoustic music, and I did that, started to record and write and really focus on that, starting in about 1990 or 1991.
mogswebsite.com: The rock music scene kind of lends itself to a high-octane situation, doesn't it?
Don Conoscenti: Yeah, for a while that was a lot of fun. There was a lot of energy in it and I still miss that to some extent. I hope to go back to some of that. But keeping bands together and dealing with the clubs in that genre, it was kind of tough. It's really hard to deal with musicians, to be honest with you. (Laughter) They tend to be a scattered bunch. Not very focused. Not terribly organized.
mogswebsite.com: (Laughter) The typical artist mind, huh.
Don Conoscenti: Yeah, you don't see as much of that in acoustic music. People are forced to be a little bit more organized to survive. But having a band and having people play in the band, that was a tough entry. Those things don't last too long. You're always reinventing your wheel. Every six months to two years, you've got to start over again, and that got pretty difficult after a while.
mogswebsite.com: I can certainly understand that.
Don Conoscenti: You're much more self-contained as an acoustic artist. To play various instruments on a recording, or to do a project, I tend to do it myself at this point, because I can. I play a lot of instruments. That cuts down the number of people involved in any given project, which has been very helpful.
mogswebsite.com: When you're on stage it's as though you become the song you're performing and nothing else exists. Are you pulling from an inner strength or are you simply absorbing the audience?
Don Conoscenti: I would say both are true, plus I'm watching the characters in the song act out that little chunk of life that the song is conveying. And for me, a lot of times also, I'm trying to channel the voices of the characters, or ancestral spirits, depending on the content of the song. To conjure up the landscape as well, because it's a very visual thing for me. I see it. I'll often times close my eyes in order to see it better.
mogswebsite.com: Would you share the inspiration behind the song, The Other Side?
Don Conoscenti: It was a convergence of several things. One, was the desire to write a song about the death experience from an eastern point of view, with a western vernacular. That idea had been incubating for two or three years after reading Ram Dass' book. A book about dying. And then some friends of mine had a son named Jack, and Jack lived for nine days and went back. And when they let me know about that, they inquired if that was something I'd be moved to write about, and I said well, I don't really know. I'm definitely moved by your experience, but I don't know if I'd write about it. But sometime, shortly thereafter, the poem came to me while I was driving through the desert in New Mexico. And the music followed about two weeks later. Two to three weeks later, I was in Boston. I picked up my steel guitar and the music kind of jumped out pretty much the same way the lyrics did. I mean, I don't know, poems, lyrics, how ever you want to describe it, it just flowed right out. In twenty minutes it was all done. The music was the same way. It came later.
mogswebsite.com: And it just seemed right?
Don Conoscenti: Yeah. I guess it knew I had a desire to help and it came, and I was ready for it.
mogswebsite.com: Where did you write the song Beautiful Valley?
Don Conoscenti: I actually wrote it in Mew Mexico, but it's about the valley I live in. In southern Colorado. And it was the first thing I wrote on my banjo. I got my banjo at a festival in Colorado, and then we had a couple of concerts in New Mexico right after the festival, so I drove down there, and then I went home. By the time I got home, I had this song written. You know, I was so happy about it. It's just a sweet little tune about my, Beautiful Valley.......beautiful valley in southern Colorado.
mogswebsite.com: You've had the pleasure of performed with Nils Lofgren. I've been a fan of Nils since the early seventies. How did the two of you meet?
Don Conoscenti: Well, it was a happy accident, and I, like you, have been a big fan of Nils for decades, and his voice has been bouncing around in my psyche for all that time. The club that this happened in was the Ramstead, in Annapolis. [They] asked me if I would open those shows. Nils was doing four shows in an attempt to record a live record in film before he went back out on the road with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. So I ended up, by the club's request, opening those shows and spent four afternoons and evenings with Nils and his band. It was such a pleasure, and very inspiring. Really inspirational, to see him work and to be that close to it. To meet him, and talk to him, have conversations with him and his wife and his band. A real pleasure.
mogswebsite.com: What other working musicians and songwriters do you most admire?
Don Conoscenti: Well there's a pretty broad range. I would say that I admire a lot of writers and performers. I admire Kevin Welch quite a bit. Eric Taylor, Ellis Paul. I set my sights a little higher in terms of the people that influence me a lot. I look at people like Bob Marley, Todd Rundgren, Stevie Wonder, Sting. I'm really impressed with the work that Michael Franti is doing with the band called Spearhead. Some of the R&B and rap artists are doing some really inspirational stuff as well. And I know it's controversial, but I admire it when they do, I like the art form, but I especially dislike the stuff that's so negative and really like the stuff that speaks about reality and tries to expose what's wrong and sheds some light on the possibility of making it right.
mogswebsite.com: I think that's a good point, they're getting their message across, and yet they have something positive to offer as a solution.
Don Conoscenti: Spike Lee has been a real inspiration for me, not only for his film making, but for the music that he uses in his films. Some of the rap stuff that he's used in some of his movies has been phenomenal, powerful, and Inspirational.
mogswebsite.com: You have a very unique finger picking style and you're quite creative in your use of capos. Would you enlighten us as to your techniques?
Don Conoscenti: Cindi Craven in Atlanta, showed me the first capo trick I used. When I lived in Atlanta, some friends from North Carolina turned me on to this idea of using partial capos. Capos placed in a way that left a string open. Later on, somebody showed me a partial capo. In fact, somebody who I admire greatly, one of the people that showed me this, was a guy named Jim Infantino. I think Jim is a brilliant artist. He's in Boston. And some other guys that I knew called The Billys, who I worked with pretty closely. They had all gotten it from a guy named David Wilcox. I've kind of traced it back, and found that it leads all the way back to Harvey Reed. About twenty something years ago, Harvey Reed and Rick Shubb were experimenting with partial capos and developing partial capos. I've just taken it and used it across the board with everything I do, whether it's electric guitar work, session work in the studio, live performance, guitar arranging. I use multiple and partial capos to simulate open tunings without actually using the open tuning. I keep my guitar in straight tuning, and I use the capos to create alternate tunings by just placing them at different intervals and different combinations on the neck of the guitar. That way, I get the best of both worlds. I get the very lush open voicing, with lots of suspension, or if I arrange my fingers just so, I can have the regular voicing that you'd be accustomed to hearing otherwise. Then, by using my right hand technique of sometimes finger-picking, sometimes frailing, and sometimes strumming with my thumb, using a thumb-pick and two metal picks and also tapping, I can get a range of percussion, bass, melody, and rhythm at the same time.
mogswebsite.com: It's definitely a very unique sound. I mean, the richness to your music is just incredible.
Don Conoscenti: I appreciate that. Thanks for noticing.
mogswebsite.com: Would you explain the theory behind playing nine strings on your 12-string guitar?
Don Conoscenti: It's because a lot of my right-hand work is rotating. Having that paired string on the bass end of the 12-string guitar can get a little redundant. It can get very, very repetitive. Sometimes it affects the voicing of the instrument in a way that I hear. By leaving that string off, it gives me more options phonically. Although the last couple of shows, I've experimented with a wound pair of strings down there. I'm not sure if I'm going to keep it, how long I'm going to keep it on there. I kind of go in and out, but I'll use anywhere from 10 - 12 strings on the 12-string guitar. Depending on what I want to hear and how the strings are responding to the capos and whatnot.
mogswebsite.com: You've performed at numerous venues. In your opinion, what venue provides the musician with the greatest inner rewards?
Don Conoscenti: There's a number of venues that do that for me and the two that come to mind most immediately are The Blue Door in Oklahoma City, because of the lack of pretension and the natural ambiance of the place in the way it sounds, and the attitude of the owner, Greg Johnson. And the history of the place, there's definitely a history of amazing music being made by artists that I really admire. The other club that comes to mind is the club that I sort of cut my teeth in, during the years that I lived in Atlanta, and that's Eddie's Attic. The sound in there is incredible. The engineer is fantastic. The staff completely supports that kind of performance, that kind of artist that I am. They're trained to support that kind of music and work the room in that manner. The room sounds great. It feels great. It was designed for songs to be performed. It was designed for singer/songwriters. Not just for singer/songwriters, but for Eddie, who founded and built that club, he loves good songs. He loves good music, acoustic music in particular. He really created an incredible atmosphere to perform it in and the audiences are amazing there. I'll be playing there this weekend. It's always something I look forward to. There's always a great crowd and it always fires on all cylinders. It's great!
mogswebsite.com: I think your CD, Live at Eddie's Attic, backs up everything you said as far as...
Don Conoscenti: Yeah, I recorded it by accident on a night very much like I just described. I did not know they were recording it. They just captured a typical performance in that club for me and it's always fun.
mogswebsite.com: Can we expect a performance from you in Lexington, sometime in 2003?
Don Conoscenti: You know, I would love to perform in Lexington. The only thing really going in Lexington is The WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour. That's not the only thing, but it's typically the thing that brought me there. They've been really generous to me, but until I get a new record together I really shouldn't bother them again. I probably will not get around to a new record, well, I don't know, I can't say. I've got a couple of projects cooking, I just don't know when I'm going to get to them. I guess the short answer to that [question] is, I don't really know, but I sure would love it!
mogswebsite.com: If you get another project together, Lexington would certainly welcome another visit.
Don Conoscenti: I love playing there, I've made a lot of friends in Lexington. If there was another thing that didn't conflict with The WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour, and I could come on in and do a concert, I'd sure be up for it! That town has been great to me. I really enjoy coming down there. The WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour is one of my big loves in the music world. Aw man, and those guys are great!
mogswebsite.com: Considering the phenomenal success of WoodSongs, maybe Lexington will someday offer additional concert venues. We finally managed to arrange our schedules and get this interview done. (Laughter) I think both of us being persistent has paid off.
Don Conoscenti: Well, I appreciate your persistence. I really apologize for how our schedules have kept us from getting this done.
mogswebsite.com: I wish you safe in your travels.
Don Conoscenti: Thank you.
(C) 2002 Mark's Online Music Source
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