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Interview: Vinnie Paolizzi

18 December 2023

It’s not always about the race to get an album out, although Vinnie Paolizzi is happy that his debut, The Vinnie Paolizzi LP, is finally out in the world, but, rather, it’s about the journey to get there. For songwriters, that means honing your skills, learning from others, paying your dues, and potentially performing in front of 6 people on a Tuesday night at a Sports Bar and only playing covers. Paolizzi knew as a teenager that all the roads would lead him to where he finds himself today, but it was a journey that has included writing songs for other artists before putting his best work to wax. For the Nashville-by-way-of-Philadelphia singer/songwriter, the hard-work and patience has paid off, his full-length debut album rooted in a Nashville sound but exploring other influences for versatile songs with unique personalities. In a recent phone call, Paolizzi explained his songwriting process, the welcoming Nashville community, his encounters with Jason Isbell and more.

I know you’ve got Jeni’s Ice Cream in Nashville so hopefully this makes sense. Everything Jeni’s sells is ice cream, it all starts with the same ingredients. But, flavors are added so that things don’t all taste the same. What I enjoy about your album is that it sounds like all the songs start with the same base but then there are all sorts of different flavors you add. I hear keyboards on some songs, backing vocals on others, I hear folk music, Americana music and Southern Rock. Every song is just a little bit different.

VINNIE: That’s a great analogy. I like that. For better or worse, I’m a writer on all the songs – some of them are by myself, some of them are written with other people. Even if I was trying not to have myself come through, it’s in there through the writing and there is a common thread.

But man, I grew up with all kinds of music. My parents were not musicians, but they had such an amazing record collection. It was Jackson Browne, it was Eagles stuff. I always say I grew up in the Springsteen belt because I was from Philadelphia. That’s where all that came from. But then my mom and her parents loved old Motown music and doo-wop stuff, and all that amazing Philly soul stuff from the ‘60s and ‘70s. My mom had a great collection of that stuff. I still have her copy of Songs in the Key of Life by Stevie Wonder.

Then I moved to Nashville, I guess it’ll be six years in January. I always liked country music, but I wasn’t really a student of it. I always liked John Prine and Willie Nelson and stuff, but I started meeting people who grew up with country music, it’s everywhere, you can’t escape it. And there’s elements to all that in this record. This is kind of the culmination of, not only my upbringing, but the five years that I spent writing this record in Nashville, along with 300 other songs.

It was supposed to feel like it had a through line, but you couldn’t just say, “This is a country record” or “This is a folk record.” It was supposed to be a Vinnie record.

I don’t love the pop country stuff, the songs about pickup trucks and red Solo cups, but I do like some of the stuff that’s more organic and doesn’t make it to the mainstream.

VINNIE: I don’t like fake instruments. I love when it sounds like there’s five people in a room playing together. There’s a lot of country music that sounds like that, like Chris Stapleton. I don’t even know if they do overdubs on a lot of Chris Stapleton’s stuff, a lot of its live tracks and then he goes back and cleans it. There’s something to that. You can make stuff on a computer that sounds really good, but it doesn’t feel like anything to me.

When we were making this record, we pretty much were in one room and it was like play it three or four times, pick one, then do a guitar solo and put vocals on it and that was it. It was eight songs in two days. And then we went back and did the acoustic ones later.

It’s a labor of love but overanalyzing it sometimes isn’t the right thing. I’ve got amazing players that I knew would do a great job and I trusted their first instinct. That’s how we recorded it.

What led you to Nashville?

VINNIE: I grew up just outside of Philadelphia, and then I went to Temple University, which is in Philly. I was playing shows all the way through to pay for it. I was doing the three-hour cover gigs in the corner of a sports bar, playing “Brown-Eyed Girl” for three hours. I was doing that four or five nights a week. And after college, I was still doing that and trying to do the local stuff and I just felt like I couldn’t get anything going in Philly. As much as there’s a history of great music there, it just wasn’t a great time. I went to New York for a minute then I went to LA for a week or two and then I was like, “This isn’t my vibe,” and I came to Nashville.

I think I had three things scheduled the first week I was here. And, the first thing I went to, someone was like, “Hey, you want to come play this thing?” and “Hey, you want to go write a song tomorrow?” And all of sudden, I feel like 10 minutes into my time in Nashville, I already had friends and shows booked and everything else. It’s such a great community and there’s a lot of people from all over who didn’t grow up with country music but came here and realized that there’s so much other stuff going on.

There’s even a pretty decent little pop scene if you’re trying to do that thing. There’s a metal scene. Dan Auerbach’s here doing the rock stuff. It just seemed like such a nice community that I felt like I could be a part of, so I went home and packed my car and I moved here. I didn’t know one person. I moved here on New Year’s Day of 2018 and I was an Uber driver and I would go to bars and stuff, but I would just drink club soda and hang out until it was time to start driving people home. That was my gig for the first couple months.

I’ve heard about the Nashville community and how it’s pretty easy to find someone to play on your record if you know what you’re looking for. That seems pretty special.

VINNIE: It really is and it sounds cheesy to even say out loud. There’s a sort of competition in the way that not everybody gets the same bit of success at the same time. It’s still the music business and it’s not easy. But, there’s an overwhelming sense that if you’re a good person, people will root for you. I did not get that vibe at all from any other place that I was playing and writing and performing.

If you have a good attitude and are a cool person and you have other skills, you can support your career with music. I’ve been hired as a guitar player to go play on the road for people and play stadiums and do the things as the side guy. I played in a dad band when I first moved here playing drums. I was terrible, but it paid the bills for a while.

I’ve also noticed that there are musicians that play with multiple artists. Like, Juan Solorzano plays with Molly Parden and Becca Mancari and Ruston Kelly and I’m sure others. It’s not like the Beatles where you have all the core band members who are there from the start to the finish.

VINNIE: Juan’s a beast. I thought when I was growing up that the Eagles were four guys and that was it. If you’ve seen live footage of them, there’s like 12 people on the stage. That’s how it is. I’ve subbed in for weekends, like the guitar player can’t go or whatever and you learn the music. Learning what’s called the Nashville Number System really helps with that stuff, which is a way of charting out what chords are supposed to be played at what time. It’s like reading Music for Dummies, but it’s really effective, and it helps a lot. And if you’re able to write good charts, you can learn a full set of music in a couple hours if you do it right.

I didn’t go to music school, I didn’t do any of that stuff, but there’s people here that are … virtuoso doesn’t even do it justice. People are so talented and have such good ears and being around those people, you start to listen to music in a different way. You start to get familiar with that music that I didn’t grow up with. It’s a really inspiring place.

I’ve only been to Nashville once but I remember walking down Broadway and it was just bar after bar with a stage up against the window and music being played around the clock. I have to imagine that that can be a full-time job for someone who doesn’t aspire to go out on the road.

VINNIE: I don’t play down there very much. I’ve played down there maybe twice a year. I know guys that, if they want to get their chops up for a while, they’ll do that gig for a week on Broadway and play and practice. For the most part, those are cover bands and that’s the gig. Some of those cover bands have 40 members and they take shifts, like a 10am to 2pm or a 6pm to 10pm. There’s people that will play a 2 to 6 gig, a 6 to 10 gig, and then a 10 to 2 gig. Any song you want to request is $20, sometimes more. I’m sure the bar pays them a little bit but it’s mostly tips and you play the top 30 set. You play the old school set. You play the stuff they can dance to.

I really have not done much of that at all since I’ve been here. I’ve probably been on Broadway 25 times in the six years I’ve been here. It’s just not where I hang. But, that being said, you can learn so much from doing a couple of those gigs. You learn what people respond to. You learn how to play with a band. Some of these singer/songwriters don’t play with a band until their first record comes out. Or they get in the studio and have never played with a drummer before. I was lucky that I played in bands when I was growing up.

You’ve done touring as a sideman in other bands. Have you done touring on your own?

VINNIE: Yeah. A couple of times it’s been really nice because I’ve gotten to open the shows playing acoustic and then play guitar in the band that I’m opening for. Those are fun.

I get up through the Northeast a couple times a year because I’m from up there. I’ve done some Texas stuff. Next year, hoping that with this record done there’s some more of that bigger stuff. Since COVID, the biggest thing has been getting this record out so that I can get to the next level of all that stuff, and it all seems to be happening. I’m not questioning it. Everything seems cool. I would love to be playing, instead of maybe 50 shows a year out of town, more like 100. Hopefully next year that happens.

You also do a lot of co-writing for other artists.

VINNIE: Tons. I think I’m up to about 400 songs and I would say 70% are co-written. I usually do that three days a week or so; sometimes less, sometimes more.

Getting in a room with a stranger is interesting, but a lot of times it’s friends. And a lot of my friends are artists, and then a lot of my friends are focusing on songwriting and trying to get their songs pitched to bigger artists. Sometimes it’s the radio kind of country stuff and you’re thrown into one of those. Sometimes it’s like a rock band that needs songs. It’s such a nice muscle to work.

I only have so much I want to say as an artist. Say I put 10 albums out with 10 songs on each, that’s like 100 songs over my whole career. If I write 3,000 songs in my career, I would love the rest of those songs to be heard as well. A lot of people make that their full-time thing. I think I like playing and performing too much to make that my only outlet, but I really enjoy working that muscle. And I love writing for other people’s voices too.

Are you writing lyrics or music or does it vary from session to session?

VINNIE: It’s all of it. I tend to do a lot of the guitar heavy lifting as well as the lyrics, it just depends on the vibe. Sometimes you’re writing with an artist and it’s like, “I have a verse and a chorus that I really love, but I don’t know how it should go,” and you do three hours working on the melody of how it should go. And then you come up with a second verse together, and then you’ve got a song.

In LA and New York, a lot of times they go line by line. It’s like, “You wrote this, so you get the percentage of blah, blah.” In Nashville, it’s completely expected that everything is split evenly, no matter what. If you put three lines in, if you put 10 lines in, it doesn’t matter. If you were in the room and contributing, you get the same amount of credit. It makes everything so much less competitive.

Have you contributed to any songs that have become huge hits?

VINNIE: Not huge, but there’s one thing that hopefully will come out next year that’ll do some things. Do you know Gabe Lee? He was the first person I met in Nashville. It was the first time he’d ever played a solo show; he was a keys player for other bands. It was the first time he ever did a singer/songwriter show and I basically ambushed him. I was like, “We’re going to be friends.”

We became great friends. I had eight shows booked at that time and I didn’t have anyone to play them so he and I did these duo things for three months. And then we started writing songs together. I’ve written two songs that made his records. I put out one of them under my name too. It’s called “Babylon” and it came out a couple of years ago. It’s been a pretty great relationship. He’s one of my closest friends. He was in my wedding last year. We feed off each other writing-wise. He doesn’t co-writes very much, so I feel lucky that I got to be a part of those albums.

I know someone who earned a co-writing credit on a Justin Bieber song and while that didn’t set him up for life, it did allow him to pursue his own stuff without worrying about having to sell records to pay rent.

VINNIE: That’s the dream. The dream is to get two or three radio things and you never know what ones are going to be the ones. There could be ones you’re super proud of or there could joke songs about your red Solo cup. The guys that wrote “Red Solo Cup” [as recorded by Toby Keith], I’m sure they were just hanging out but they cash those checks every month and they laugh all the way to the bank.

I definitely try to care about each thing that I do and make sure that there’s a level of craftsmanship that I’m comfortable with but at the same time you never really know what people are going to connect with. There are certain songs that I think, “I really crushed this one,” and nobody cares. That’s just how it is.

You said you recorded in two days. Are those songs still pretty fresh to you or have you been sitting on them for a while?

VINNIE: We recorded most of it in June 2022 and then over the course of last summer and a little bit this winter, we did those acoustic songs and we retracked some guitar solos and we redid some vocal stuff. The mixing and mastering takes a while. I also had to save up the money for it, especially as an independent artist without a big label behind me. That shit is not cheap. In terms of the freshness, I was kind of expecting to hate all of it by now. But, I just played a festival and I played most of the record and I still love it. I’m so proud of it. I’m proud I played on it, I’m proud I wrote all of it. It’ll always be something that I’m really connected to.

What type of festival did you play?

VINNIE: I play a lot of these songwriter festivals. The one this past weekend was the Frank Browns Songwriters’ Festival in Pensacola, Florida. It was 3 days and I think there were 175 songwriters that played.

To get to the point of releasing your debut album, did the time just fly by or was it a long road to get here?

VINNIE: It felt like it took forever. I’ll be 30 in April. When I was 16, I pretty much knew I wanted to do the music thing. The problem was, I wasn’t very good, and I had to spend a lot of hours practicing. None of this really came natural to me. I didn’t just grow up and have this voice. I had none of that. I think pure stubbornness and willingness is really the only way that I’ve gotten here.

Even in Nashville, I moved here in 2018 and I was kind of getting stuff rolling and then the whole world stopped rolling and it was crazy. Even the little side hustles I did all involved being around people, so it was a crazy, crazy, crazy thing. Since then, I’ve been making it brick by brick. Every month or two, there’s a little bit of success and then you push that boulder, and you push that boulder, and you push that boulder. For some people, five or six years doesn’t sound like a long time, but I feel like I’ve lived 20 years in that time just with all the stuff that happened.

Scrolling through your Instagram account, I saw a post when Chris Cornell passed away and you mentioned that someone had turned you onto Audioslave. Were you aware of Soundgarden or was Audioslave the first time you had heard him?

VINNIE: Oh my gosh, yeah, I knew Soundgarden.. The first record I bought was an AC/DC live album. All I wanted to do was be in a rock band. I bought this little shitty Strat and a terrible amp and learned a bunch of Soundgarden and Pearl Jam stuff. I learned all the Nirvana stuff, it was the easiest stuff at the beginning. And Chris Cornell, everything about him – the voice, the songwriting, the whole essence – was so cool to be.

The only two celebrities I ever gave a shit about meeting were Chris Cornell and Anthony Bourdain. And they both passed away by suicide within two years of each other. For some reason, I felt so connected to Chris. His voice was just so strikingly good and that first Audioslave record with “Cochise,” you can’t listen to that song without feeling every emotion. I would have killed to meet him.

Your very first Instagram post was a setlist of songs that you knew how to play from back when you were playing cover shows at sports bars. Is there a song from that list that you still love to play?

VINNIE: There’s a Jackson Browne song called “These Days” that I still play a ton as kind of a break in the show. There’s a song called “Desperados Waiting for a Train,” an old Guy Clark song, which I love. “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” the U2 song, I did a version of that for years and I still break that out once in a while.

I noticed that Jason Isbell follows you on Instagram. That’s pretty cool.

VINNIE: I was playing guitar for Brittney Spencer and it was just me and Britney for a while doing a duo thing and I got to hang backstage with Jason for like 5 dates when we opened for him. We hung out pretty much on all of those dates and it was right when he came out that signature Telecaster that he has. I told Jason about my buddy at Fender, I was like, “This guitar pretty much has all the specs that I would get on a Tele.”

This guy from Fender showed up a few months later and just gave me one. So I posted that on Instagram. Jason likes a lot of posts and he commented on that picture, or maybe it was a video, I don’t remember. He’s been really cool to me over the last couple of years. I wouldn’t say we’re good friends but we’ve met a couple of times. I obviously look up to him like crazy. I was a huge Drive-By Truckers fan and am a big fan of his solo stuff too.

To close this out, I know you’ve got a lot of musician friends. Do you go to shows that aren’t your friends or are you pretty much just hanging out and seeing your friends play?

VINNIE: I try to go to shows all the time. I saw Ruston Kelly this summer. I’m not a big festival guy if I’m not playing, it’s not really my thing. But, I love a club show. There’s a place here called The Basement East and we just got a Brooklyn Bowl in Nashville. I love a 400-cap room. I’ll pretty much go see anybody in an environment like that because it’s so intimate.


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