Interview: Singer/songwriter Barry Shapiro

Singer/songwriter Barry Shapiro has just released a new album, Boardwalk Rain.

Q: What was your introduction to music? How old were you, and how did it affect you?

A: My first music memory was that of my mother playing the classical music piece, "Czardas" (she pronounced “Chardish”) by Vittorio Monti, on our standing piano in the living room of my childhood home.  I remember being so excited about the fast moving notes and how happy it made my mother to play it. At six-years-old, I remember standing on the side of my parent’s bed in the morning listening to the white Sony cube alarm clock radio as Sammy Davis Jr. belted out the rousing song, "The Candy Man." At the time, I had no words for why I loved it so much, but I was thrilled every time it came on the radio. My first formal introduction to music was by my camp counselor from England named George at Park Shore Day Camp on Long Island in New York. I was mesmerized by the intricacies of music theory. It was hard to follow his lessons, but I knew he was revealing something very important to me. His last name escapes me like the scales he taught me.

Q: Did you grow up in a musical environment?

A: Yes, on my mother’s side. My grandmother, Claire Schlenker, also played the piano and recited poetry as she and I took walks in the park. She heard music in nature, in birds singing, in the rustling of the leaves on the trees, in the echo of a canyon. I learned how she improvised poems by accentuating and anchoring the last word of the previous verse in her next line. So joyful. My grandfather, Claire’s husband Sam, would yodel as he walked down the stairs to everyone in the family’s delight. It was a strange, fun sound and I was intrigued about people’s reactions to his unique skill. My Grandfather’s brother Morris was a professional cantor, an official who sings liturgical music and leads prayer in a synagogue. My father, though not a musician, had a deep appreciation for music. I remember sifting through his Jazz record albums and discovering the syncopated sounds of "Take Five" by the Dave Brubeck Quartet. As I dug deeper, I discovered the groovy sounds of the 5th Dimension and the pop sounds of Meet the Beatles on Vee Jay Records. I dreamed of becoming Paul McCartney in our dining room, broomstick in hand, dreams in my eyes.

Q: What styles of music had the greatest impact on you creatively?

A: I’ve always had a mystical and transcendent response to hearing American folk music of the 1960s and 1970s. It transported me to soulful, far away places with life lessons baked into every line. If folk music engaged my mind, rock music engaged my body. I felt connected to it like it was expressing my deep emotions, yearnings and desires for me. It felt primal, powerful and raw. Particularly the variety found in the early 1970s; Quadrophenia by The Who, Exile on Main Street by the Rolling Stones, Physical Graffiti by Led Zeppelin, Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen and Blood on the Tracks by Bob Dylan. I took a musical off ramp and became very interested in jazz fusion, a blend of rock and jazz, in high school. I was impressed by the precision in the way it was played and tuned into the atonal combinations of notes. I was introduced to classical music in a college course. I appreciated the way the sounds of Vivaldi and Mozart could calm an agitated mind. I was very engaged by the way stringed instruments can create dramatic music landscapes.

Q: How did you learn how to sing and write tunes?

A: My fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Anderson, nominated me to perform in our school’s barbershop quartet. She would tell me what a great voice I had and how she looked forward to hearing me perform. I was shocked. I never thought of myself as a singer, and certainly not a good one. I was very nervous when singing, sharply embarrassed by sounding off-key and bad. As I got older and more confident in my guitar playing I started playing open mic nights around town in Denver. Still nervous as a fourth-grade kid in a barbershop quartet, I slowly found my voice and physical stance on stages around Colorado. I learned how to sit into other people’s songs, without trying to push them out. I learned how to channel my nervous, diffuse energy into a more focused delivery. I noticed how a song can be projected outward instead of debilitated inward. Writing came as a natural next step to expand the bounds of existing songs I was singing; people in my audiences would often say, “I love your version of their song. It sounds nothing like the original, but your interpretation was great!” That gave me confidence to spontaneously create my own melodies and rhythms, many melodies inspired by the rhythmic motion of traveling. Thank you, Grandma Claire. Later in life I studied with Natalie Oliver-Atherton, a Gospel singer with attitude and conviction enough to belt a song into the next town. She taught me how to discipline my voice and my breathing in order not to blow out my voice 20 minutes into a 60-minute set.

Q: What is the meaning behind your new album's title Boardwalk Rain?

A: Boardwalk Rain, both the song and inspiration for the album, was born on Amelia Island, in Florida on a family vacation at 2:30 a.m. I couldn't sleep and brought my nylon-stringed Yamaha folk guitar outside the hotel onto a hill overlooking the ocean and a boardwalk, which jutted out across the water. There was mist in the area and an eerie, but comforting, haze of yellow light refracted by the mist. I felt comfortable, warm and creative in that space. To me, Boardwalk Rain expresses the cleansing, which comes from the refreshing smell of the rain and the invigorating feeling of negative ions in the air, which welcomes new life and promises a new beginning: "…When the rain comes shining down the boardwalk in the sun, washing away the footprints of everyone…"

Q: What is the most personal track on the LP and why?

A: "Omnia Vincit Amor." I wrote it for Lydia, my beautiful and loving wife. On the night of October 20, 2012, Lydia and I met on her birthday. I noticed she was wearing a silver bracelet with the words omnia, vincit, amor engraved onto its surface. It is Latin for love conquers all. I loved the sentiment and I love that Lydia walked around the world quietly proclaiming its virtue. My close friend Josh and I took a vacation to Mexico. I sat for hours in the hot sun forming the chords and scribbling the lyrics on notepaper. Sitting by the pool on one day, the ocean the next, I focused until it the song flowed like my feelings for Lydia. I love the simple transitions in the verses and unexpected chord twists of the chorus. I waited a long time in life before getting married. "Omnia, Vincit, Amor" speaks for the hope I have for myself, my family and for our damaged and dangerous world.

Q: What artists influenced you the most growing up?

A: I remember being formally introduced the music of the rock band the Who by my cousin Alexander, whose family was from Argentina. In this way, I learned how music has no geographical boundaries. Alexander excitedly shared, during my family’s visit to his parents' home, different songs from the Who’s huge catalogue and explained in detail why the band was so important. Indirectly, Jim Croce taught me how to craft a finger-picking song; Paul Simon taught me how to incorporate intricate rhythms into simple folk songs; Cat Stevens taught me how to soulfully express a spiritual dimension through music; Odetta taught me how to belt out a line from the bottom of my being; Richie Havens taught me how to strum with the guitar with the flourishing snap of a drummer’s stick; the Kingston Trio and the Mommas and Papas taught me how to create driving harmonies; the Beatles taught me how to write simple songs with universal messages; John Prine taught me how construct clever lyrics; and Bob Dylan continues to teach me how to make quantum leaps in experimentation and how much there is left for me to know, feel and express.

Q: How have you evolved creatively?

A: Primarily, I’ve evolved by having the courage to blend music together in new and unique ways. Boardwalk Rain contains ballads, rock music, Motown, a mariachi band, roots music and a French country song all in one project. Similarly, I’ve brought different musicians together who wouldn’t normally partner on an album like Gospel singers, an accordionist, horn players and a steel drummer. I’ve also learned to trust my instincts lyrically, having faith that people will interpret my written intentions, as they need to, without me trying to define how they should. Finally, and most profoundly, I’ve evolved creatively by thinking about myself as a creative person who is not bound by any one pursuit in music or in life.