THE EVOLUTION OF AN ARTIST
by Robin Umbley
What do you do when you’re in a rock ’n’ roll band, gain a little bit of national prominence, have lots of fans, a run of success, and come to realize that the creative direction you are heading in isn’t the same road that everyone wants you to follow? Then what happens when your band has run its course but you still have music in your head, heart, and soul, and just need to keep at it as your creative outlet? If you’re Salvatore Baglio, you evolve as a solo artist.
I saw Sal perform recently quite by accident at The Cantab. I had no idea he was playing, or even if he still played at all, but I did recognize the name as one from a band that was part of my high school soundtrack, The Stompers. So of course I took notice. He went onstage alone with an acoustic guitar. I half expected him to play warmed over Stompers tunes (and hoping, just hoping, I wasn’t going to hear the pathos of “One Heart for Sale” done “unplugged” as if all he had to rely on were his hits from years ago). To my delight—and relief—he presented us with something completely different: poignant, dynamic, subtle, sometimes lyrical and sweet, sometimes reflective, sometimes rockin’, but always personal songs sung with an astonishingly flexible and expressive voice. This was nothing like what I expected. And I was captivated.
On his website, his bio is noticeably void of details and includes only general, and somewhat cryptic, information. He posts just three quotes; one in particular from film director Francis Ford Coppola sums up his present evolutionary and artistic state: “…part of being an artist who wants to look at new areas [is knowing that] it will take awhile for people to be familiar with it.” Sal explains his inclusion of the quote this way: “I think a lot of artists share that. I think some of the …off the top of my head, who have gone up against what they’ve done in the past to where they’re going is John Lennon when he did his first solo record. Can you imagine trying to shake THAT [The Beatles] off. …When he did that solo album, it turned a lot of people off. But you know, he forged ahead. Dylan did it a bunch of times. Think of all the times he put out a record, so-called spiritual records, when he went from acoustic to electric. He changed music forever…and they booed him!”
Sal adds, “Of course, we’re talking a different scale here at home with what I did with The Stompers and what I’m doing now. I’ve come up against the same thing. The people from that era have no interest in my new music. It’s all new people.”
For the most part, Salvatore Baglio is a solo artist but he does play with a band of sorts. He says that there are advantages for him that he can’t get with being in a traditional rock band: “I play a lot of solo shows. I like the freedom. I can go anywhere I want to with the song. I do have a trio [upright bass, drums]. That’s also very different than what people associate me with. I just find more freedom in playing solo and with a limited trio; the drum kit is very small, I have the bass player playing a lot of bow, so it may be limited in comparison to a rock band, it also works out that you can get special tones and a feel. There’s a lot of that on my new record… even though I played everything myself.” Categorically, Sal refuses to label his music as if to do so would hinder artistic development. “Once you give it a name, you put borders on it,” he says.
As you might imagine, a man who eschews musical borders has diverse influences. His list includes jazz/swing/Vegas lounge performer extraordinaire Louis Prima, “hallways with good echo, [the year] 1966, the cool of the subway in the summer,” and a host of characters from his life. Of Prima, he says, with reverence: “A Sicilian cat from New Orleans. Amazing. I loved his music and stage presence.” But sound influences don’t always come from performers. Sometimes being in a big old building does the trick: “Where I grew up—East Boston—those hallways sound amazing. We’d sing, yell, bang things…”
Basically, Sal isn’t just using musical influences in his creative process; he is influenced by everything around him. Sal adds, “There were characters, too, which is a big part of my new record. Everything that I see and hear and experience all translates, to me, as music, as songs, as lyrics. Everything. I was sitting here earlier before you came in and I was observing different people come in, different characters, faces, and it’s an idea for writing. It’s ALL available.”
Sal, then, writes songs organically. Authenticity is a requirement for him; he says he’s incapable of having a topic assigned to him, so to speak: “I couldn’t sit down and write a song about [he pauses briefly to think of an example]…a broken heart. If I sat down to do that, it wouldn’t happen. For instance, [the Nashville music writing industry] is a totally different writing process than what I respect. I can’t write a song about my grandfather’s truck because he didn’t have one. [makes up lyrics] ‘Grampa had a truck… and we went down these dirt roads…’ I didn’t experience that and although most of the people writing those songs didn’t have that experience, they give themselves license to write about them. I’m not comfortable with that. I’d feel uncomfortable singing the lyrics. I’ll tell you one thing, on occasion we do a Stompers reunion. Sometimes it’s very difficult to sing the lyrics. I have to get my head in a position like I’m doing a cover song for a reason.”
In other words, his own older material seems foreign—and somehow inauthentic—to him now. He explains, “I was young, I was trying to find my voice—my writing voice. I’ve been writing songs and making stuff up since I was a little kid. I did it all in the form of music. There was music all over my house. Even though some of [what I wrote] made no sense, I kept on doing that. Sometime during The Stompers, I started to develop… I probably always kinda knew my voice but a lot of times, I put it aside, probably because of some kind of fear. A writer needs to be fearless. You cannot gauge your work on what other people are going to say. Otherwise, you end up like Pete Hamm, of Badfinger [who committed suicide]. Seriously. You end up dead. So somewhere along the way, I was beginning to see how I was going to be writing. And the more it was coming to be, the harder it got to be sometimes, it was starting to be a pain. By the time it was over—and it probably should have been over a couple of years before it was…” he pauses, and doesn’t finish the thought, “having said that, I’m grateful for the experience. And the people enjoyed it, for whatever reason, it’s quite a thing after 30 years. But what I’m doing now is the most important thing.”
So what do all the influences and creative process do for Salvatore Baglio? Well, they give us his new 12-track CD, Memory Theatre. One song, “Lime St. Revisited,” is in itself a take on his creative process influenced by his disappointment with the bands he saw on a trip to Liverpool. Sal explains: “It’s an alternate version of ‘Train to Liverpool,’ which was on a previous record. I wrote it when I did my first trip to Liverpool  and basically, it’s about taking a train from London to Liverpool, getting there and playing some shows, and there were a bunch of bands that just copied The Beatles… the suits, the haircuts, the guitars… and playing songs that they’ve written, and thought, this is not a way of paying respect to the music of The Beatles. To truly pay respect to your influences is to experience it, toss it around inside of your brain… and your heart… and THEN have it come out with YOU in it. That’s truly that way, ’cause we all can write ‘Penny Lane.’ It’s been done. Anyone can come up with those chords and just write something. Maybe it’s because I was there for it the first time around. You know who did a good job of taking the Beatle-esque sound and making it their own? XTC. You know it’s coming from there but it doesn’t it doesn’t sound like any song. That’s really… that’s how you pay respect.”
But all of this really sounds too analytical and complicated. Salvatore Baglio can talk at length at what makes one musician great, or wax nostalgic about an eccentric old Sicilian man entertaining the kids with his homemade sparklers in a schoolyard in his old East Boston neighborhood, or why he thinks he uses different vocal expressions on certain songs, but if you ask him what he’s doing these days, he’ll just respond, “makin’ music.”
Salvatore Baglio performs solo at The Cantab on Saturday, March 8, and with his trio on Tuesday, March 18 at Sally O’Brien’s in Somerville.