Performing songwriter and national touring artist Danielle Gasparro has been nurturing her musical expression in New York City for the past decade.
A captivating artist in every sense, she sings from the center of her soul and writes songs distinguished by a touching musical beauty, poignant lyricism, and occasional slivers of irony. Though she is quick to cite the rain, the city streets and a dark, flavorful cup of coffee as among her greatest influences, one cannot take in her remarkable voice and compelling songs without the power and poetry of female greats Joni Mitchell, Carole King and Laura Nyro coming to mind.
In addition to an ardent fan base in New York City, Gasparro has achieved notable success as an independent artist, including four self-produced studio recordings, national radio airplay, participation in two songwriting retreats hosted by renowned singer-songwriter Chris Difford (Squeeze), a publishing contract with a leading L.A. firm, and successful US and UK touring.
With independent artistry ever on the rise, it’s only fitting that this lone songbird has elected to bring her passionate music straight to the hearts of listeners, by bringing it into their homes. Currently in the midst of her inspired "Song Sweet Song" national tour, Gasparro has elected to make private house concert performances the main focus of her itinerary, which continues to include select public shows, and which all-together has her garnering hundreds of new friends and fans across the country with each regional tour leg.
Here, Gasparro shares her candid, thoughtful perspective on developing a national audience, trading in the Big Apple for the big unknown, nurturing her authentic musical voice, and how living in the present moment has served as the catalyst for new found success and deeply felt rewards, on all counts. Check her out at www.daniellegasparro.com for more.
Listen to Danielle's Thank You For Breaking My Heart!
I understand you've been performing house concerts primarily for over a year. How did you get turned on to them?
I have a close friend who is an artist based out of Louisville, named Diane Williams. A few years back, Diane introduced me to a good friend of hers from the UK, an artist named Jont, who not only performs house concerts regularly, but produces them. The concerts are called "Unlit", and they are actually a kind of an underground phenomenon. Jont travels extensively and collaborates with various concert hosts to put together special evenings featuring three or four artists. In 2008, Jont was visiting New York, and invited me, Diane, and a Baltimore based artist, ellen cherry, to perform a concert in Harlem. After that initial experience, I was hooked.
Having performed in public venues for over ten years, the level of intimacy I felt in sharing my music with an audience inside the unique setting of someone's home, with all of the guests having some personal connection to the host, was remarkable. There was this touching sense that, although I'm the artist, although I'm presenting my music to you, by joining together in someone's home, we are connecting inside this space we all quietly treasure as sacred. And that feeling of humanity is the essence of what I took away from it.
What inspired you to perform house concerts so consistently, to make them your main professional focus?
Well, about a year and a half ago, I went through a really difficult time that ended up revealing this focus to me. I don't know if I would have discovered it otherwise. I had been working a day gig with a nonprofit in New York City for almost four years, and because of the recession, they had to let a number of people go. I was one of them. So, I lost my day job, and for three solid months, could not find another one. It was a really devastating time. Not just financially, but emotionally.
At a certain point, I realized that I might actually need to leave the city in order to survive, and keep my sanity. Of course, I didn't want any of the jobs I was applying for. Working day gigs in support of my music for over ten years had taken its toll on my soul. So, while leaving the city I loved was a difficult thought, once I surrendered to the reality of my situation, I eventually came to view it as an opportunity. I started thinking "Who am I to say that leaving won't lead to the next great opportunity, or direction?" Don't get me wrong, I was very down, it was a hard time. I felt lost. But as I began to let go, I also started embracing the idea of having more time to be creative. To play the piano more regularly; just work on music, and write, free from the huge overhead and logistical demands of the city.
So, I put my stuff in a friend's basement, and headed south. My immediate family and a few close friends live in Florida, so I bought a plane ticket, and just let go. Mentally, emotionally, I said, "I'm not going to have any plan. I'm going to live presently. Period. You show me what's up, stars." The truth is, because I had come to experience being broke for the first time in my life, I started to understand at the core level what it means to live in the present moment. It was a painful way to gain such insight, but I did. Profoundly. And that was one of the greatest gifts to come out of that difficult time.
When I arrived in Florida, I settled in and decided to nurture the one genuine seed of an idea I had for a professional focus - performing house concerts. I had my fan base in the Northeast to tap into, and my personal network, to try and find concert hosts. So, I put the word out that I was brining my focus to house concerts, and I got such an overwhelming response from people wanting to host in the Northeast, that I put a tour together, last October. I performed eleven house concerts, and the truth is they were so extraordinary, that the experience changed my life. It was all so inspiring. I enjoyed the intimacy and soul of the concerts so much that I became more pro-active in finding hosts, and joined a great online network that provides artists with access to hosts across the country.
Basically, focusing on house concerts just felt right. So I went with it, and decided to coin the adventure my "Song Sweet Song" national tour. I was also embracing the fact that I finally felt ready to fly solo as a performer, and develop a national audience; to give myself over fully to being a professional musician. It's wild to think that leaving New York and really letting go of any agenda, led to this. My second tour leg happened this past spring, in the Midwest. That was amazing. Now, I'm inspired to keep my focus on touring through next spring. This fall, I'll travel through Arkansas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, Washington, California and Texas. There are some stellar public shows in the mix, but house concerts make up the largest percentage of my itinerary.
How does the energy that's created at a home concert differ from that of a public venue?
Yes. It's completely different. It's the opposite energy, actually. Because, no matter how great the public venue is, whether it's a small space that's well-run by people who truly care about independent music, or a large concert hall you can afford to play because you've developed a big enough audience, no matter how lovely the venues are, they are businesses. And so, the energy or aura of those experiences will never be void of the fact that there are people looking to make money from you being in that room.
On the other hand, when you perform a house concert, it's "how much money can we offer in support of this artist, not just for tonight's performance, but for the whole of their creative life." The home space really cultivates the direct connection between audience and artist. I think in a public venue, an audience tends to feel a sort of subtle, false sense that there's a difference between them and the person that's up there on stage expressing themselves. But when you perform in someone's home, you're doing so in a space that most of us have in common, and value as sacred ground. And because there's a large portion of the population who are not so fortunate as to have a roof over their heads to call their own, the qualities of reverence and gratitude sort of underscore the evening.
Plus, you have so many lyrics being expressed which reflect common thoughts and feelings that are often left unsaid, but that we freely feel within the comfort of our homes. So, there are many layers of human connectivity going on. Also, at a public venue, there's always some chance that an impersonal, unexpected physical distraction will arise, for the audience. But at a house concert, there's this beautiful level of complete attentiveness that you can come to rely on as an artist. And for me, that is what I strive for, ultimately. That's what I've strived for since the moment I decided to actively share my music with the world, so many years ago. No matter the level of exposure or opportunity I may or may not achieve in this lifetime, if I can share my music often with attentive audiences and make a living wage, I have reached my biggest earthly goal, in following my soul's bliss.
In performing home concerts myself, at times I come across people who suggest holding them in bigger venues. But I think if you do that, you destroy so many of the special elements. You're also adding infrastructure and operational components, and have to work harder at getting more people to attend. What are your thoughts on performing in more intimate spaces? Are you committed to doing so?
Yes. I agree it's important to preserve the element of intimacy with house concerts. Even if you have as many as 50 guests, you can achieve a warm, intimate feel in a home setting. I've had the fortune of performing for many large house concert audiences, and it still feels immensely personal. I mean, think about it. The refrigerator, the photos on the mantle, the porch swing, the books on the shelves...there are so many personal elements that are ever within eyeshot. Even during the performance, when the focus is on the artist and the music, we can all sense the heart and soul of the surroundings.
Are there any common threads you experience in performing house concerts, in terms of your perspective as the performer, or perhaps, with the audience's response?
Yes, for sure, in terms of the audience response. There are some very consistent and touching things I've experienced across all the house concerts I've performed. One remark I hear a lot is, "It's such a privilege to be here tonight, to have this chance to hear your music so intimately." The word "privilege" comes up all the time, and that is so moving. The second comment is, "If I were in a public venue, I don't know that I would be able to hear your lyrics so intently. I really loved hearing them so closely, and clearly." This feedback inspires me to no end. And the third is, "I didn't realize that this was the focus of your professional life." Which I actually love to hear, as you get the chance to talk with people in a meaningful way at house concerts, and they are generally very curious to get first-hand insight into what it means to be an independent artist in the world today.
Based on reactions I've experienced, I think many people have a misperception about what that really is, about what it entails. Sure, they know that being an original artist is a challenging career path. When has it not been? But I mean, in terms of the actual choices you have to make, and the dollars and cents that go into trying to make a living, or producing a record, building an audience, getting out on the road. So many people seem surprised to learn that I've had day gigs for eleven years. And so, it's another touching element to the concerts, you can offer insight into both the beautiful aspects and the challenging realities of such an existence, in a real, intimate way. There's a chance to explain to people on a very personal level why their individual choice to support an artist is a crucial component to their being able to get the music out there at all, and make a buck at it. I think often, people leave house concerts with a deeper appreciation for independent artistry, and so, are more inclined to spread the gospel, if you will, out into their communities.
Yes. I think that within professions outside of the arts, there are many people who don't really know about the realities of being a professional artist. But perhaps, to some degree, the industry has perpetuated this disconnect. Perhaps they've wanted to separate the public from the artist, to have them up on stage, feeling inaccessible. And that's a different goal, right? To offer people an idea of what it is to be an artist, as opposed to the real truth. It's interesting to think of house concerts serving as a kind of antidote, maybe a way to kind of heal and nurture the relationship between audience and artist.
Sure. That's a nice thought. Of course, different artists are into performing house concerts for different reasons, and my personality lends itself to cherishing the interpersonal aspect. But when you do a gig at a public venue, or at least, at the kind of venue I currently perform in as an independent artist, people generally come, they listen, and they go. Even if there's a separate space to mingle in, there are still other people coming and going, and most often, another artist waiting to get onstage. So there's the hustle of them getting set up, and the next audience settling in. There's a sense of transience about the whole affair. But at the house concerts, you really get to feel stabilized and cozy, meet the guests and talk with them in a focused way. And in my experience, this has bonded me with audience members in a way that inspires them to be more active in supporting my artistic enterprise, and introducing others to my music. And you know what, if they don't, well then I still had the amazing fortune of talking with some really cool people at the bottom of a big hill in South Dakota.
So it seems house concerts really offer a more direct, mutually beneficial exchange. It's pure. The audience is supporting the artist. There's no middle man.
Yes. I mean, can you just imagine, if you had a venue, with so much overhead, or if the way you maximized profit was by selling drinks, this would all occupy a lot of your thought. Even if you cherished the musicians on stage, there would still be so many financial burdens. But at a house concert, the question is, "how many drinks can I get you, friend who I'm so glad is here, artist who I believe in and want to support," I'll admit, that's a particularly sweet distinction. (laughter) Seriously, I didn't leave New York with any agenda, but after performing house concerts primarily for over a year, this direct support has transformed me in ways that I'm deeply grateful for.
I realize now that living in the city for over a decade, I began to associate my perception of success with whether I was playing in a particular venue or not, the size of my audience, the level of press I was garnering. It was as if these elements would dictate whether I was valid, and on my way, or not. But by letting go of everything I identified with, in turn, I let go of what I thought success should look and feel like, and now, I don't obsess about those things anymore. Most importantly, they do not motivate me. It's not that they aren't of value, or things to desire. I still do, to some degree. I would welcome the chance for quality exposure and opportunity. But if these are the biggest motivators, I just don't think you can fully relish your experience, grow and enjoy the journey at the fullest level. And this is what I want to do.
Honestly, if I only ever performed house concerts for the rest of my life, that would not only be fine, it would be magnificent. Because I sit at the piano, or keyboard, I share my songs with a large group of people who are listening intently, I make a living wage, and when I leave at the end of the night, my sole motivation for continuing on this path, is to create more, and share my expression. To express myself through my original, creative voice. So now, what I would call success, I feel I'm achieving regularly, but without any anxiety, or ego woes. I don't think I would have achieved this state so genuinely, if I hadn't left the city. Not that I couldn't have stayed there and performed house concerts. But, it was the piece of letting go of what I thought my life "ought" to look like. Sometimes, we let go of things and we realize, "No, I need that in my life." And what I discovered was, although I still love New York, I haven't needed it. I've needed people sitting still, and listening to my music.
How do you find people to host house concerts?
I connect with hosts through several sources - the fan base I've cultivated, my personal network, past concert hosts, and guests I meet at house concerts who express an interest in hosting a concert of their own. There are also those few online networks that connect artists to hosts, and vice versa. One in particular, concertsinyourhome.com, is exceptionally well-run. It's an outstanding resource. Artists who join that network gain access to so many stellar hosts throughout the country. There's also a large number of people who don't belong to an online network, but who host concerts regularly and so, in many instances, have a website for their series. There's a lot of daily activity on my part. I'm communicating a lot by email and/or phone, doing research, following up with people I've met, pursuing thoughtful referrals.
What does someone have to do to host a concert? What are the basic requirements?
Honestly, hosting a house concert is as a pretty simple endeavor. The most basic requirement is that you have the physical space, and the enthusiasm, to invite anywhere from 20 - 50 guests into your home to enjoy a warm, intimate concert experience. Beyond that, it's just a matter of deciding how to structure the evening, in terms of timing, food and drink, and sending the invitations out. The host does need to communicate to guests that the concert is a private, patronized event. It's important that guests understand the music is the main focus of the night, and not an atmospheric element. In hosting a house concert, you are asking your community to join you in supporting the featured artist, not just by being there, but by making an artist donation the night of the concert, that is within your means and interest. In my experience, the suggested donation is generally $15. But it can vary; it's really whatever the host feels most comfortable with.
So, the patronization element is an important and explicit one. However, the most distinguishing, treasured elements are the intimacy of the performance, the personal interaction between artist and audience, and the soulful, spirited quality the entire evening takes on. It's really a magical, meaningful experience, and a pretty simple equation: Welcome, friends. Here is some beautiful music. If you believe in this artist as I do, please give what you can. In turn, they'll keep on their path, and we'll meet again, over song.
Where can we find your fall tour itinerary?
At the end of September, the dates will be posted on my website, and I'll also be keeping a blog.
What effect, if any, has playing house concerts had on the way you want to present your music, and perhaps, record it?
Well, for sure, I believe in myself more as a solo performer. A year and a half ago, I felt that I was ready to present my music on my own. I took the leap, and now, after performing solo in so many intimate spaces for over a year, my overall expression is really developed. Traveling outside of New York City to places I've never been, and having a large number of people connect with the music, was the greatest source of inspiration for me to continue onward as a solo artist. When you live in New York, you tend to perceive it as this sort of crucial music "Mecca" that you need to "make it" in. It's not just "if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere", but - it's that you have to make it here, first. And I think this misperception informed my life for a while. Living and creating music in New York has no doubt pushed me to grow as an artist in infinite, crucial ways. But by letting go, by leaving, my soul's desire was nurtured in a more sustainable way.
Performing house concerts gave me the confidence to keep making music, and not associate my own perception of success with opportunity in New York. And as my confidence grew on the performing level, I began to sit at the piano differently. I began to play more presently and passionately, and more often. I got better at accompanying myself. Now, when I sing at the keys, I am freer. I even use my hands as part of my expression, within the space of the songs, as I would do when I'm just singing. With improved piano technique, I also started bending my notes more, singing more emotionally while playing, getting more inside of the song, vocally. And all this was possible because I wasn't giving as much attention to my insecurities as a piano player. The comfort of performing in someone's home really helped to nurture this change. Now, I have the confidence and desire to record how I am expressing myself during this chapter of my musical life. Just me, the piano, and a mic. No frills. It's honest.
What's the most important thing to you about songwriting? Do you have a philosophy about writing a song?
Well, sure. The belief or philosophy would be, that it is honest. That the motivation for writing something is never how it will be perceived, but how authentic and honest it feels. That is the most important thing to me.
You mentioned that an audience member once said to you, "I hate to tell you this, but your pain is our gain." How do you think an audience might gain from your pain, and why do you think pain is such a motivator for songwriting?
Well, I think that as human mortals, we're generally repressed. At least, when it comes to all of the twisted, difficult, negative, angst-ridden thoughts and feelings we have on any given day. We walk around, for the most part, repressing our thoughts. Especially the painful ones. Yet, what it is to be human, is to have all our emotions and thoughts dancing together, whatever they might be. Sometimes, that's a beautiful waltz. Sometimes, that's a break dance. And for whatever reason, artists, whether it's through a painting, a movie, a dance, a song, however they might express themselves, they are pulled to creatively render those things we all think and feel, but keep tucked away in the corners of our hearts and minds.
As a singer and songwriter, I use words to describe people, places, things, feelings and experiences that move me in some specific way. But I think overall, what I am quietly saying to the listener through my songs is, "We are all the same. It is a-okay to be feeling angst about that situation, to be feeling joy, or confusion. Life will give you what you need. It's fine to hope for something more. Life is beautiful. Life is shit..." And so, whether someone's sitting at home with a record, or at a live concert, songs offer a way to escape the rational activities of daily life and get in touch with the more primitive thoughts and feelings that thrive deep inside us, but that we can't, or choose not to, put into words.
I think we all essentially strive to feel deeply connected to this life experience, and long to be reminded, "You are not alone in your thoughts and feelings. You're not crazy, or foolish for having them. You are not alone in how you are perceiving and processing the people, places and things of your life." That is one of the most beautiful, subtle gifts of original, artistic expression, I think. I can only hope that songs I've written might offer that kind of quiet comfort to the listener. After all, I'm not really writing songs for myself.
I experience bliss in writing and expressing music, but that's just a bi-product of following my natural pull. I could quote Leonard Cohen so much when it comes to what writing is about for me. He's so brilliant. He once described his writing experience as "self-exploration without self-indulgence." I would venture to say this is true for me. He also said something to the effect that, as a writer, "your most personal expression will be the most universal." Freaking brilliant. I try to remember that.
In my life, I suppose I tend to see the lesson in an experience, and will write about that. So I think that overall, through my music, I'm saying that what I've learned is, life is worth taking risks and facing difficult situations head on. It's worth going through the gamut of emotions, especially the difficult ones. Whether there's pain or joy involved, your life will be much richer and rewarding if you follow your heart, and not your head. So perhaps, a message to live passionately, is coming through. And whether you're playing music, or doing math, this message can be transferred. If I were to sit down next to a mathematician who was passionate about math, I wouldn't necessarily go out and do more algebra. Okay, I most certainly would not. (laughter) but I would feel a deeper sense of enthusiasm for my own life, in experiencing someone who feels passionate about theirs. I think at this juncture, I can say that I'm passionate about living life very presently, and truthfully. I am willing to make choices rooted in truth, not fear. So, perhaps that's what people might gain from my music. A sense of encouragement, to do the same. Or, not. Who knows!
So how do you cultivate presence? Not how does "one" cultivate it, but how do you?
Hmmm. Good question. (long pause) Well, you just do it. There's really no procedure. But, I do think that cumulatively, as you head into your days on this spinning planet, if you want to really live presently, you have to internalize the fact that you're going to embrace both extremes of your life spectrum - the positivity, and negativity. I think most of the time, when people aren't living presently, it's because they're trying to avoid, at all costs, anything that might be difficult. But once you say "I'm going to be fully present wherever I am", you are inviting everything in. You have this kind of contract with life, that "everything" will include difficult shit.
I think that the musicians and songwriters I love, who inspire me, all have some sort of mystical quality to how they observe the world. They are not afraid to reveal the difficult and darker sides, along with the bright. They live presently and observe things intensely, and this involves noting both elements. I think basically, great songwriters are great observers. They have an intrinsic pull to observe and translate what they see into what's important, via words and music. Observing is a uniquely personal experience.
Is inspiring or encouraging others something you actively seek to achieve through your songs, or does it just tend to happen by virtue of who you are?
I would say, I don't necessarily strive to achieve an outcome in writing. It's really just my nature to observe people, places and things, thoughts, feelings, situations, and feel compelled to write about them. I'm not the kind of writer who sits down and thinks, "I would like to write a song about xyz, and hopefully, it will have this particular effect." There's a point to what I'm writing about, again, a lesson, but I tend to write when something moves me to the point of it being an unavoidable endeavor. A lyrical and musical eruption, if you will. I've certainly lost sleep many a night searching for the right word. Of course - it is deeply touching to learn that someone is positively impacted by my music. I cherish this, and it inspires me to keep writing.
Do you feel that the songwriting process yields different results than if you sit down with the intention to write something?
Absolutely. And that scenario is valid, if that is who you are, if that's what is honest for you, as a writer. I just don't happen to sit down and see what pops up. When I'm walking down the street, or buying batteries, driving down a dirt road in a Kansas cornfield, brushing my teeth, wherever I am, I'm noting what is moving me in my life experience. And the pull of wanting to express a lesson I've learned, or something I've observed, will come to mind in different lyrical forms, which transform at some point into complete songs. Musically, my songs come from melody. I'm drawn to lyrical ideas and melodies separately. I have an infinite number of melodies floating around in my head. Eventually, I'll incorporate the lyrical ideas I've thought of independently, into them. Sometimes they both come at once, which is a sweet gift. Again, I'm not the kind of writer who sits down every day, who shows up and does the work. At times I aspire to, but I do feel like I'm working at it every moment of the day, and then at some point, will sit down to put it all together, to develop the lyrics and structure of the song.
What words would you use to describe your music?
Contemplative. Melody-driven, poetic, dynamic. Sun shower, maybe?
How do you feel about the title "singer-songwriter"?
Well, it's not awful, but it's kind of limiting, I suppose. I tend to just use three words, "singer, songwriter and pianist." But I like what someone said recently at a show; that singing and playing the piano is the vehicle for my expression, but I am essentially a bard. I liked that. It was touching. Perhaps "minstrel" could work... I remember Joni Mitchell saying once that she considered herself a jazz artist, not a folk singer. She felt that people gave her that title because she played the guitar and sang.
But in terms of her music, she identified with Monk and Coltrane, with jazz instrumentalists. Still, I understand the value of using words to describe one's music, of trying to qualify it. Being able to offer a reference point for your sound can be helpful, especially if someone is genuinely curious to know about it, and you're not able to break out into song. Hmmm... Maybe I'll just do that more often.