A talk with the musician after the release of his new album “Why Not”
A couple of weeks ago, on the same day when I met Michele di Mauro, the teacher and writer I wrote about in my previous article, at Thom Chacon’s concert in Cantù, I had the pleasure of seeing Paolo Ercoli again. Paolo is not only a friend of mine, but also a regular in many of the live shows I have attended in the last few years, about which I have often written about in my blog.
Recently, Ercoli has achieved an important goal: he has just released his new CD, whose title is simple and appealing at the same time. “Why Not” has been produced by the Italian label Appaloosa Records. I have taken the chance to have a long talk with Paolo, and you can read about it in this interview.
Hi Paolo, welcome to my blog, and thank you for spending a bit of your time with me.
Thank you, and many thanks to everyone who is going to read this interview.
First of all, can you tell me where your passion for the instruments you play – which belong to the American tradition – comes from? And who are the musicians that have mostly influenced or inspired you?
Since I attended middle school, or maybe even before then, I used to listen to the kind of music that was popular at that time, so I bought the albums of bands such as Led Zeppelin, Who, Black Sabbath, Genesis, Boston, AC/DC and so on. Then I started to listen to the Eagles, CSN and mainly to James Taylor. His guitar style made me want to try playing as well. So, I bought a guitar, the same and only I have now – during the pandemic I have had to sell most of my instruments, including the amps – but, apart from that, I started to learn all Taylor’s songs on my own, because I had fallen in love with his style and I wanted to recreate that sound.
After that, I became more and more fond of American acoustic music, such as country, bluegrass, folk, and of the typical style oj acoustic players like John Renbourn, Stefan Grossman, Happy Traum, Duck Baker, Jorma Kaukonen and many others, which I discovered later. Finally, at the age of 25, I decided to start playing the dobro squareneck guitar.
Was there a particular event or episode which led you to make this decision?
I took the chance to listen to “Manzanita”, an album by the Tony Rice Unit. By the way, Tony Rice is one of the greatest acoustic guitarists of all time, but he unfortunately passed away last December. Jerry Douglas played on that album. I was very impressed by the sound of his resonator guitar. Until then, I had not felt really interested in it, because that instrument was not often used in bluegrass music. Gradually, it became more and more popular, alongside the banjo, the guitar and the mandolin.
Listening to “Manzanita” was a moment of sudden revelation to me. Moreover, Jerry Douglas’s “modern” style has completely changed the approach to this instrument, making it more dynamic and appealing. From that moment on I tried to do my best with this “strange” guitar, which was unknown in Italy and it is currently played by few musicians in a professional way.
To sum up, Douglas was the musician who has mostly influenced you…
Yes, thanks to him I started my “journey” and, amazingly, I was able to meet him after a long time, to have him as my guest in my just released album, in which we play a song together. So, I have come full circle and this has been the greatest satisfaction for me. By the way, Jerry has played with renown artists, such as Paul Simon, James Taylor, Eric Clapton and many others, so hosting him has been a remarkable opportunity. Moreover, I am the only Italian musician he has played with… an immense joy for me.
During your career, you have played with many well-known musicians, coming from Italy and from all over the world. Can you mention some of them?
I will try to remember all their names… let’s see: Bocephus King, Eric Andersen, Kevin Welch, Jono Manson, Richard Lindgren, Radoslav Lorkovic, Betty Soo, Annie Keating, Scarlet Rivera, Danni Nicholls, Heidi Holton, Luke Bulla, Tim Grimm, Matt Harlan, The Orphan Brigade, Doug Seegers, Jason Eady, Malcolm Holcombe, Jaime Michaels, Tony Garnier, Thom Chacon, Chris Buhalis, Steve Forbert…
Among the several Italian ones, there are Max De Bernardi & Veronica Sbergia, Stefano Barotti, Freddie Del Curatolo, Jimmy Ragazzon, Andrea Parodi, Lorenzo Del Pero, Violante Placido, Claudia Buzzetti, Dalton, Davide Facchini e Anita Camarella, Miko Cantù, Luca Rovini and many others less-known, but remarkable, artists… it’s impossible to mention all of them (I’m sorry about that!)
Are there any significant episodes concerning any of these musicians?
Each tour involves countless episodes and stories they tell me while we are travelling from town to town. Some artists are easier to get along with than others, and there are strong characters you do not easily get in tune with. And you must learn to keep the right distance, if necessary. But the very most of these people have always been nice, friendly and helpful to me. Sometimes there are also adverse incidents, such as the one that occurred during my last tour with Thom Chacon and Tony Garnier. Our huge van had a flat tyre. Thom and I rolled up our sleeves, we got our hands dirty to repair it, we managed to do it and, luckily, we were able to fix everything before the gig started. But there are many more strange things that happen while you are on tour… this is just one of them.
Your album “Why Not” took a long time to be completed. It has taken you two years to finish it, including the lockdown period. Why have you chosen this title?
I am very satisfied with this title for two reasons. The first is, in my opinion, very nice and unusual, as “Why Not” is a song of mine that I have composed with the mandolin. So this CD, the first by an Italian dobroist, bears the title of a song performed by the mandolin. So, to the ritual question: “You are a dobroist… why do you write and play songs with a mandolin?” my answer is “Why not?” To tell the truth, I have inserted a couple of notes played on the dobro, just in case… But the title track is played on the mandolin, and in it I also duet with one of my favourite players, Joe K. Walsh.
Knowing you, I think that the title of the album expresses your way of life …
That’s right! This way of seeing and living life is the second reason why I like this title. Why should we confine ourselves into something? In my opinion “Why not?” is a positive message, which suggests hope and self- awareness. When we face challenges or new situations, we usually say – insinuating doubts and uncertainties in our own minds – “this cannot be done, it is better not to do this, perhaps it is wrong, and so on”, but in my opinion the question is “why not?” Why not trying, if we like something, if it can make us feel good? There are no limits to our imagination and our desires to do and dare. We should propose what we like to other people too, because if we are doing it, it means that we are putting ourselves at stake to do something of our own, or at least we are trying to. So, summing up, I have written a song for the mandolin and I have used its title for my dobro album… Why not?
As a musician used to playing live and being on tour, how did you experience the forced “imprisonment” of the lockdown months? With frustration, like many “ordinary” people, or taking advantage from it to develop your projects, as numerous artists have done?
As for the “stop” caused by the lockdown, I experienced it badly, at the beginning, as it began just a week before the arrival of the American songwriters I was supposed to go on tour with for two months. This meant for me – and for every musician – a lack of work, and therefore also of income, which in our sector is already very low even when we play, let alone if we cannot do it for a year and a half. I have tried to “survive” by doing some livestreams on Facebook, so as to keep myself engaged and in contact with people, and I have asked for economic support from all those who participated. Then, in fact, I took my cue from this forced “segregation” to complete my CD, which had been lying “in the drawer” for some time.
The improvement of the epidemiological situation has therefore given you a “boost” to complete the project…
Yes, I had many songs “in the pipeline” and I was waiting for many recordings from abroad, in particular from American musicians who in turn had their own difficulties, so the production has been really long. Lately, I have managed to speed everything up and now I finally have my product in my hand. I can hear all these songs as I conceived them, at last, and it has been a great satisfaction to manage such a large number of musicians, organizing everything by myself, deciding who should play, how, what and where, and then “blending” everything, sometimes adding additional instruments, voices, etc. A really demanding job, of whose final result I am very proud.
In the era of digital music, making an album on a “material” medium such as CDs or vinyl has become more difficult than in the past and many artists, like you, resort to crowdfunding to publish their works. Did this choice involve any satisfaction, in terms of proximity to your fans?
Initially I did not want to resort to crowdfunding, but because of the forced “stop” during those months I did not have the opportunity to earn money. I only had to pay for the recording studio, for the musicians and so on. I therefore had to ask for the help of the public and I did not initially have high expectations about this possibility. In truth it went well, although what I asked for is not even half of what I have spent in recent years, as the work has been long and the collaborators involved were many, so the costs have been high. Although the crowdfunding is still open, the amount collected so far has allowed me to “breathe” a little. The positive aspect is that I perceived the closeness of all the people who know me and who follow me, which was better than I expected, so this was a further source of surprise and satisfaction … so thank you all, really.
The cover of your album is quite “basic”, in the sense that it portrays just you and your instrument, but it also has a famous antecedent: the artwork of the album “Brothers in Arms” by Dire Straits (1984) represented the Dobro guitar, immortalizing it and making it iconic even to an audience that was not very familiar with it. What is the difference between the guitar used by Mark Knopfler and yours? Yours has a wooden sound box while the one of “Brothers in Arms” is entirely made of metal: what does this entail? (I’m asking this for readers who are not familiar with these technical details)
I wanted the cover of my record to be “without me”, because my purpose is that the focus should fall on the instrument and not on the player. Seeing the resonator guitar in the foreground makes you understand everything, and above all what kind of guitar I am using, that is, the “squareneck”. The resonator can in fact be “roundneck” or “squareneck”. The normal guitar has a rounded neck, where you put the hand which makes the chords, so the “roundneck” is a guitar that is played in the same way as the normal one. It is usually made of metal, to reproduce the “vintage” sound of the first bluesmen who, having no chance to buy a real guitar, used to build their own using various metal objects, that they managed to bend, giving them the shape of a guitar. This is the reason, not because then the metal instrument sounded better, but only because they had nothing else. To sum up, the “roundneck” guitar is the one on the cover of the Dire Straits album.
The “squareneck” guitar is the one I play: its neck is square, not rounded as in the normal guitar, and you can only play by putting it horizontally on your knees; it also has a very high top, in fact between the strings and the keyboard you can almost put your finger. This height means that, even if you turned it around to play it like a normal guitar, you would not succeed because this height between the strings and the keyboard does not allow you to crush the strings. Thus, you can only play it horizontally with a metal bar in your left hand, which mainly slides on the strings. In 90 % of cases the “squareneck” is made of wood, or of various woods, while the “roundneck” is mainly made of metal. There is also a version of the metal “squareneck”, but it is little used, compared to normal wooden ones. Just as there are wooden “roundnecks”, however. But it’s the way they play them that’s different, and they also have a different tuning.
Your collaborations with other artists are many and in the same way lots of them have played on your record. One name among all: Scarlet Rivera, Bob Dylan’s violinist. How do you feel when you have the opportunity to play together with people who have made the history of contemporary music?
When I asked all these people if they wanted to play with me, I expected a “no”, or some excuse, like “now I’m busy with this and that, and I don’t know if I’ll have time…”. On the contrary, everyone said “yes”, so I ended up with a lot of things to think about and with the problem of finding suitable songs for everyone. Even when I asked Jerry Douglas expected a refusal, but an hour after sending him the email he replied with “of course I’ll play with you, Paolo”, so I thought “and now what am I going to play with Jerry?” That’s a nice thought, ha ha! And so it went with everyone else: when I asked any person I had toured Italy with, and whom I had helped in every way, they “repaid” me with their music, putting themselves at my disposal, so it was truly a great satisfaction. However, they are all international musicians and many of them are the best in their field, with many awards won… in short, it was an endless joy to have so many artists together for me, definitely all the best of Nashville and even more, because there are musicians from all over America – Scarlet, for example, lives in California. A truly all-star cast.
What plans do you have for this summer and for the immediate future?
I have just finished the tour with Thom Chacon and I still have three or four dates here in Lombardy with other friend musicians, while in August I have nothing to do, unfortunately. I’m working for next September, to look for some gigs to introduce my CD. I will also give other interviews to promote it and I will do some more promotion. It is always difficult to find venues, and I do hope that after the summer there won’t be another “stop” as someone is trying to make us understand, which would be extremely harmful for our sector. Let’s say that I’m keeping my fingers crossed and I’m still looking for future gigs, to be able to play as much as possible, always remaining positive regarding my future with music … Why Not?
I’m really happy about this chat with Paolo, a talented musician and exquisite person, and I wish him all the best for his career and for his future.
Those wishing to further contribute to crowdfunding can click here:
You can also listen to Paolo Ercoli on his YouTube channel:
By subscribing to his channel you can keep yourself updated on all the news and, in addition to listening to the songs played by Paolo Ercoli, you can watch the videos of the “Dobro Lessons” series if you want to know more about this instrument.