“I saw Vince Gill, Clint Black, Trisha Yearwood, Alan Jackson and many others over the years at various casinos in Atlantic City. Make of that what you will!”
The last few years have been times of upheaval for Joseph D’Agostino. The Staten Island-born songwriter came into 2019 exhausted with life on the road and having called time on Cymbals Eat Guitars, the band he had formed and been playing in since he was a teenager. Yet, D’Agostino has come out the other side with a palpable sense of relief and a renewed sense of purpose. At least, that’s what one can hear on Empty Country, D’Agostino’s first album under his new project of the same name. I talked to D’Agostino about the new album, his new outlook as a songwriter, and his appreciation of country music.
I know that Empty Country is regarded by some people as a solo project, but you obviously worked with quite a few collaborators to make this album happen. How did your collaborators influence how the album took shape? How was this kind of collaboration different from writing and recording with Cymbals Eat Guitars?
While I did write all the music and lyrics, co-produced the album, and had an overarching vision for what I wanted the new project to be, I had some lofty goals that I couldn’t have reached without the folks who played on the record and helped me with the technical aspects. Anne Dole and I, for instance, have a very special connection. We played together in Cymbals Eat Guitars for seven-plus years. Hundreds of shows (into the quadruple digits, probably) and countless rehearsals and sessions. We have a bond that goes well beyond simple friendship or collaboration. We have seen each other’s darkness. We have shared in the joy and disappointment, stress and dread, all the fleeting ecstasies of being live entertainers thriving or merely surviving in a doomed industry. Ego-tripping as we opened for Pixies or played Primavera Sound to thousands, only to headline Chapel Hill or Atlanta to 10 or 15 people a month later.
I don’t want to pile it on too much higher, but my relationship with Anne is one of the most intimate of my life besides my wife and immediate family. She is an extraordinarily gifted player, capable of interacting with the vocal/lyrics/emotion of a song in the way that only the best drummers are able to. She might play the simplest possible part for one song (“Becca”), or spiral out into glitchy inhuman madness (“SWIM”), or simply play nothing at all if the song calls for it (“Chance”). She plays what I hear in my head without me having to really even describe it. She always somehow improves on the ideal parts I dream of.
Likewise, her twin brother Pat’s bass parts mesh perfectly with the material and uplift/support it at every turn. I asked virtually nothing of him explicitly. I gave him a broad outline for what I wanted the record to be, told him some of the bassists I admired most, and he did the rest. Pat and Anne have a combined 40+ years of experience and two Berklee educations between them. They are a savage, perfect rhythm section. They always play only what the song needs, which makes their occasional virtuosic flourishes all the more impactful. My wife, Rachel, and our family are the direct inspiration for most of the songs on the album. Rachel and my sister-in-law Zoe sang backing vocals on almost every song. A pivotal piece of the writing process for me, months and years in advance of actually recording the material, was deriving inspiration from imagining how their voices would sound singing these words that were so nakedly about our own lives and loved ones. Watching them sing together in Field Mouse every night for six weeks in 2016, I had come to regard their sibling blend as something like perfect and began dreaming of ways to implement it in my own art.
On your past few projects, including this one, you’ve embraced a more narrative style in your lyrics. What draws you to this style of writing?
I love short fiction. It’s the form I consume the most, followed by poetry and Instagram doggy dum-dums. I’m drawn to short stories because I am fascinated by brief glimpses into vivid worlds. I love to think about all the stuff happening to characters before and after a story is over. The more left to the imagination, the better. I don’t think that’s a rule that I adhere to with my own art, though. I’m generally pretty hyper-specific and verbose. But it’s about that evocative feeling—making something that lives and breathes on its own.
I’ve seen critics struggle to pin down your music into certain genre categories over the years. Is genre something you think about when you’re writing music?
I give almost no consideration to genre, which often led to records that varied wildly stylistically and often perplexed people. After we handed in the LOSE masters to Barsuk, someone at the label asked me, “Are you sure about the hair-metal guitars on ‘Chambers’?” I was like, “What?”
Have you always had an interest in folk and country? What prompted you to incorporate some of those stylistic elements into this new set of songs?
I grew up on modern country radio. I saw Vince Gill, Clint Black, Trisha Yearwood, Alan Jackson and many others over the years at various casinos in Atlantic City. Make of that what you will!
Your last album with Cymbals Eat Guitars made explicit references to Philadelphia, and this new album explores other parts of the country like West Virginia. What effect does location have on the songs you write?
Every CEG record had referenced places. “Cold Spring,” “Indiana,” “Shore Points,” “Plainclothes,” “Jackson,” “XR”—the song title “Place Names” was meant as a bit of tongue-in-cheek commentary that I suspect went unnoticed because of the absolute self-seriousness of the song itself, the record containing the song and indeed the entirety of the band’s catalog.
Your outlook on this album is definitely different; there’s a hopefulness here that maybe isn’t all that present in your previous work. What prompted this change in perspective?
Antidepressants, therapy, a loving marriage—loosening our grip on the things we’re holding on to too tightly.