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Interview: Diane Gentile

15 September 2023

Diane Gentile has been a longtime key player in New York City’s downtown rock scene, holding many different roles: record company executive, music venue manager, artist manager, and singer-songwriter. In that last capacity, she – with her band, Diane Gentile & the Gentle Men – will release a new studio album, The Bad and the Beautiful on September 15 (via Velvet Elk Records). As with her previous releases, this one features evocative lyrics that examine the complex human condition, along wiith first-rate musicianship. But as she tells The Big Takeover over an Italian dinner at Bar Primi in New York’s trendy East Village neighborhood recently, this album is different from her earlier work because it has a blues bent, and it also includes a special duet with the celebrated singer-songwriter Alejandro Escovedo (other guest musicians include James Maddock, who plays guitar on the track “Lace Up Your Sneakers,” which he also co-produced). Through it all, Gentile’s sharp wit and native New Yorker swagger give this more edge than the usual singer-songwriter fare.

How did you know it was the right time to do another album now?

DIANE GENTILE: I had recorded about seventeen songs over the past three years, and I do them in bits and pieces because financially, I have to work out how much I can pay according to this month or that month. And so I did these recordings over three years. Then I sat down and was able to weed it down to ten. And then I figured, “Well, now I have these songs, so I’m ready to go.”

What made you choose “The Bad and the Beautiful” as the album title?

DIANE GENTILE: My life has been heavily influenced by people who are, in my opinion, very bad and very beautiful at the same time. On this particular record, I talk a little bit about those kinds of characters in certain ways. Characters that, in my mind when I wrote the songs, were people who influenced me because they had depth of character. And when I say “bad,” I don’t mean “bad human being.” I mean rebellious, or where they have no boundaries and they’re super brave people.

Like who?

DIANE GENTILE: One of the songs was influenced by John Belushi; it’s called “Kiss the Sky.” I had read the book Wired, which is a really wonderful biography of John Belushi. After I finished the book, two days later, all of the sudden I wrote a song, and it came out all at once. And it’s about him. He also reminds me of the kind of guy that once I was married to.

You also have a duet with Alejandro Escovedo on here – how did that come about?

DIANE GENTILE: I was on tour with Jesse Malin and Joseph Arthur. It was about six months after my serious accident [while on tour in Italy in 2018, Gentile was severely injured in a car accident], so I was still not really right in the head. Things were kind of foggy. I didn’t have all of my wits and senses about me. And Jesse, being the giving person that he is, asked me to go on tour with them because he knew that getting me out working again was going to help heal me. So I went on this tour, and we ended up in Austin, Texas. And Alejandro – another amazing, giving human being – came to the show and got onstage with me and sang with me. I didn’t really know very well, [but] he knew about my accident and he wanted to show support and love. And it was amazing. I was so touched. Then he invited me to stop by his house the next day for coffee. He lives in a very beautiful, spiritual-feeling home. There’s something just really wonderful about it. And I had a really nice lunch with him, and we did a walk down this long driveway, and it was beautiful. It was lined with these cyan-colored trees. And I just had a feeling of calm and peace. When I came back to New York a couple of months later, out of nowhere I wrote this song. And it has nothing to do with him, really, but when I finished it, I had the same feeling that I had when I was at his house that day, and it reminded me of him. Then I said, “This should be a duet, a back and forth between two people, and I need Alejandro to sing it with me.” I think it’s one of the best songs I’ve ever written because the lyrics are about how you can help somebody else by not caring about what their hangups are, and helping them to get through them just by being a friend and saying, “Hey, come on and walk with me. You don’t have to say anything – let’s just walk.”

Is this always the way you have approached songwriting, where you realize later what a song is really about?

DIANE GENTILE: Usually mostly everything comes from a feeling for me, or an idea in my head. Like from a dream or seeing a film, which creates a feeling later on that comes back in a different way. I need to be moved in order to write. I believe the really good songs are inspired by feeling – and they usually come all with words and melody all in one.

How did you realize that you had this gift to write songs?

DIANE GENTILE: I don’t think it’s really a gift; I just think it’s something that I do. It’s something that I started doing when I was really young, and I just kept doing it. Every time I felt something, I sat down and picked up the guitar and I started writing. It was very natural to me. I had to work to become better at it. To be a great writer, I think you have to work really hard. I still don’t think I have achieved that. I still want to write better and better and better.

In your career, you’ve changed your musical style and explored different genres – how do you decide on a musical direction to take at any given time?

DIANE GENTILE: When you like to write, you go through periods of styles and you try things that you’ve never done before – you don’t want to repeat the same thing all the time, over and over and over again, so you’re constantly looking for the next thing to do. Like on this record, I actually played a little bit more with blues chords, which I haven’t done in the past. It was just a feeling. It wasn’t a purposeful thing. It just happened that on this particular record, I wrote a couple of songs that seemed to just sit in the blues world, chord-wise and melody-wise. I wasn’t really sure which direction I was going. Like, I didn’t sit down and say, “OK, I want to make a record that has this style.” I just wrote songs. And all of the songs came at different times, and so they all have different flavors and different feels. Some are bluesy, some are country or more honky-tonk. Some are just rock and roll songs.

What would you hope somebody would come away thinking after hearing your music for the first time?

DIANE GENTILE: I hope they say, “That girl rocks! I want to go see her play live!”

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