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Jon DAgostino - A Little Bit City, A Lot Bit Country
05/03/2012 - By Chad Safran
Photo: McKay Imaging (mckayimaging.com)
Jon DAgostino may be a lawyer by trade, but its his songwriting thats getting him noticed.
Storytelling comes naturally to Jon DAgostino. The Holmdel residents innate ability to do so with lyrics has enabled him to dent the country music scene as an up-and-coming songwriter. Although he may seem a bit out of place in Nashville, having grown up on Staten Island, the 47-year-old attorney and father of three, has always loved music. From standards to disco to classic rock, his influences span generations. But it wasnt until listening to a few Garth Brooks records in the late 1980s that Jon turned into a country music fan. Although he had always tinkered with songwriting, the passing of his father in 2002 inspired Jon to write a song about the experience. Dabbling quickly became a passion, and Jon was soon travelling to Nashville on a regular basis.
Jon was no longer simply a successful attorney with offices throughout New Jersey and New York. He was trying to turn his love of songwriting into something greater. He joined the Nashville Songwriters Association International (NSAI), improved his craft, and made connections in the country music industry. Publishers soon began picking up his songs, and independent artists recorded them.
In 2010, he won the NSAI Christmas in July contest with his song, A Christmas Kiss. He finished as a top 10 finalist in Country Music Televisions songwriting contest in 2011 and repeated the feat again this year with his alternative rock ballad, I Try to Let Go (written with Chris Corley). Recently, his song "Freedom Train" (written with Tim Maggart) was named Patriotic Song of the Year at the North American Country Music Association International Awards. He has also had songs featured in the movies Thin Ice with Greg Kinnear, and Dark Horse with Christopher Walken and Selma Blair.
LIH: Did you always know you wanted to be a lawyer?
JD: No. The funny thing is that my family business was construction. It was my fathers business with his brother and my cousins. I worked there every summer from age 13 until 21 as a laborer in every capacity you could imagine out in the field. I worked there long enough to know that it was not what I wanted and I didn't know how to tell my father that I didn't have an interest in doing what he did. I did notice they had lawyers who worked for the company.
I got very lucky because Skidmore College had a special program called J-term where you did an internship and would keep a journal. So for the month of January, during my sophomore year, I got an internship for a law firm, and I just fell in love with what they were doing. I approached my father and said that I was thinking of going to law school and then I could be an attorney for the firm. My father never got past the seventh grade, so for him it was a proud moment. I was scared to death to tell him though. So I worked part time for his company as I built my own practice and eventually phased out of his company.
LIH: Was there any particular reason you wanted to become a lawyer? I can imagine that studying English and philosophy in college could have inspired some interesting thinking on your part.
JD: When I was a little kid, I was very argumentative, hard-headed. I was always told I should be a lawyer. As I grew up, I was always a pretty strong writer. When I was in college, hearing about what they were looking for in law students, I was told they wanted a student who could think and write well. Since those were my strengths, I thought law school would be a good fit.
LIH: Why did you get into personal injury law?
JD: I think it comes from, one --- having interned for a personal injury firm and seeing how they were helping so many injured people, and two - having grown up in a home where my father had lost one of his legs in a construction accident. I could relate to the nightmare of the breadwinner being incapacitated. My mother had to go work in a restaurant. It was just a good fit.
LIH: What was your first law-related job?
JD: I worked while I was in law school for a law firm called Richard Neimark. At the time I thought I was very lucky, because he was moving to Rockland County and was interested in branching out and opening his practice there. He asked me to get more involved with the Brooklyn practice, and I was going to law school right across the street. It was a great opportunity. I was learning a lot. But unfortunately when I got licensed, things didnt work out, so we had a nice parting of the ways. I did more work for my fathers business and then went out on my own.
LIH: How were the first couple of years starting on your own?
JD: The first years are so tough because you know so little about running a business. They dont teach you how to operate a business and dont teach you much about the practical side of law in law school. You read a lot of law and learn a lot of law, but drafting documents and filing documents and all those little things you just have to get out there and learn it. I was lucky enough to have a couple of mentors who were there to help me and answer questions, but it was challenging. I was working out of a trailer that was attached to my fathers company in a construction yard. It was in a real bad neighborhood in Brooklyn. I would never let a client come to my office. I would go to everyones home. I started to put tiny ads in local newspapers and a business card ad in the Yellow Pages. Thats how I got started. I tried to form relationships with people who could generate business for me.
LIH: Do you remember your first client?
JD: One of my first was a woman who tripped and fell on a broken sidewalk and broke both her elbows. I thought that it was a great case. Unfortunately, I was only 25, 26 at the time. I think she started to doubt my credentials, and she was probably being told to get someone else by her fianc. So she left me, but I remember that case because I did a lot of work on it and got a small part of the fee. A lot of the first cases were soft tissue auto accident cases that someone would refer to me, or a friend who had been in a fender bender. And even though I was 25, 26, I was telling people I was 31, because I was young and looked young. One thing I started to do was put my face on my ads. I did it because I would show up at someones door and they would ask where Mr. DAgostino was and I would tell them that was me. I could see the look in their eyes wondering how long I had been doing this. I had to go through my resume for them. Now I still tell them I am 30!
LIH: So what brought you to Holmdel?
JD: We had two children at the time. My son was in third grade and my daughter was in pre-K. Staten Island was changing. They were doing a lot of building and traffic was crazy. It was hard to commute. It was taking my kids 45 minutes to go eight miles to school in the morning. My wife and I decided to look in New Jersey, and we were looking for a good school system. We heard so many good things about Holmdel. Its really not that far from Staten Island. We loved the neighborhood. We made friends right away.
LIH: You and your wife, Jade, were high school sweethearts. How did you two end up meeting?
JD: In 1979, when her freshman Spanish class and my sophomore Spanish class were sharing a bus to go see Evita. We had a mutual friend who was sitting between us, and thats how I met her. We became friends, and the following year in 1980, that September we started dating. We dated for seven years and got married in 1987 after my first year of law school, which was crazy. I would not recommend that to anyone. We had my son in my second year of law school. Those days were just a blur. I was going to school. I was working. I had a baby.
LIH: How do you look back on that time now?
JD: I look back on it as a crazy, wonderful time in my life when I didnt have time to think. We were just young and working on instinct. My wife was working part time for her Dad, who was a pediatrician and part-time for my firm with bookkeeping, taxes, etc.
LIH: So how does a lawyer from Staten Island get into country music?
JD: I get asked that all the time. It makes no sense. The best way to explain it is that I have always been into music. Ive collected all types of music. I grew up in a home where my Dad loved the standards. I was always listening to Sinatra, Tony Bennett, and Cole Porter. I have a sister who is 10 years older, who was listening to The Doors and The Beatles and Motown when I was five years old. That was all part of my life. Then disco hit, and I grew up through the disco age and classic rock. I loved all that. The sounds of the 70s were really my adolescence. I just found over the past 15 to 20 years that kind of music was going away. You just couldnt find that type of song anymore.
At that time, Garth Brooks was all over the radio. He was all over the charts. I just didnt understand it. So I went out and bought a Garth Brooks greatest hits album. I expected to hate it. I figured, like everybody else, that this is going to be something hokey. The first song was some rockin song, and it just hit me. The next song was a real meaningful song called, Unanswered Prayers, and I just loved the writing. It was just like I discovered something new that touched me. So I started listening to more country. The more I listened the more I liked. Then I started to listen to other artists, and they reminded me of the artists of the 1970s like James Taylor and Jim Croce, the singer/songwriters that I loved. Songs like Cats in the Cradle, which would never be written today, were being written in Nashville.
Then 10 years, ago my Dad died, and I wrote a song about him. Thats where the real songwriting started. I had always dabbled in writing songs. I wrote a song about him and I didnt know what to do with it. A friend of mine suggested I go to a small studio in New York and record it. Everybody was telling me to do something with it, but I didnt know what to do with it. It was a keyboard-based ballad. I just gave copies to everyone. So I just began to write more and more.
My wife saw I was interested in writing, and that I was trying to write more of what was in country music. She surprised me with a trip to Nashville and that changed my life. We started going to the little clubs and watching the songwriters perform the songs they had written for the artists. That really affected me. I went back the following year and joined the Nashville Songwriters Association International (NSAI). That changed my life even more since NSAI is really at the heart of the Nashville music scene and is there to help song writers. They have song camps I attended. I attended seminars and workshops all through NSAI. I was going down there every three months. I started to network. I started to meet other writers who were interested in writing with me. The songs started to get better. I started to meet publishers. The publishers started to get a little interested in my songs and offered me single song contracts. I started to meet people who owned studios and we recorded demos there. I started entering songs in contests and winning a few. It just kind of snowballed. The best part of it all is that its just a passion. Theres no downside.
LIH: What kind of reaction did you get from the people in Nashville since you were a bit of an outsider?
JD: You ever see My Cousin Vinnie? That was me in Nashville. When I spoke I heard myself speaking like him, and I wasnt taken seriously at the beginning. Eventually your songs speak for themselves. Originally, I would write a song, bring it into a studio, and I would sing the demo, but I sing more like Billy Joel than Tim McGraw. So its hard for people to take that song seriously if its a country song. It doesnt sound country. I started to use demo singers in Nashville, who for a few dollars will sing your song. These are super talented singers who are trying to make it as artists. So they didnt take me seriously for a while, but then the song speaks for itself and they want to know who wrote it.
LIH: Was it culture shock for you going down there?
JD: It was actually very pleasant going down there since life was a little bit slower-paced. The people were a little bit nicer than up north. If you were at a red light and it turned green and you didnt move instantly, someone didnt blow their horn. It was really nice. I did step on a few landmines when I got down there. I was in a new town. I knew nobody. There were some people early on who told me they could help make my songs sound better, and I would have to pay them some money. There were some who said they could take my songs to some people to listen to if I just paid them some money. Those were just the sharks in the town who are feeding on people like me, who come into Nashville with these dreams. I learned my lesson. Thank God I didnt waste too much money.
LIH: How did you learn how to write a song?
JD: Instinctively, I am a lyricist. I can write a story; I can tell a story. A great song is a great story. Some of the greatest writers of all time are great storytellers. Nobody had to teach me that youve got a verse and a chorus. I knew that. A lot of it is just shadowing songs that you love. If you say one thing, what should the chorus say? What is the hook of the song? What should it be about? If the verse melody is very short and choppy then you know the chorus melody should be long and soaring. But what happens when you get into songwriting, you start learning the rules, and country songwriting has a lot of rules. You learn them by making a lot of mistakes and writing a lot of songs that you think are good, but are not. You keep banging your head saying: Why didnt I see that? Or, Why did I do it that way? But you learn the rules. One writer said that you learn them so you can break them. Thats where the really great songwriters come from. They know the rules so well that they know how to break them, write the song that comes from outside the box, and it becomes a smash that doesnt sound like anything else.
LIH: What about writing the notes?
JD: I cant read music. I can play acoustic guitar and keyboards, but I really like strong musicians, so I would sing a melody into a recorder. I would then write an entire song to that melody and then would sit down with my co-writer to figure out the chords. I thought that was kind of weird until I read that Madonna writes her songs by singing into a recorder. Phil Collins sings into a recorder and fills in the blanks later. So, I figured I was in decent company. The point is that I cant play the chords that I can come up with in my head. I am not a performing songwriter like some people are, although I would like to be someday. Yet, its a thrill to see my co-writer go up on stage and play our songs. A lot of them are incredible musicians with incredible voices who are trying to achieve something different than I am. My dream job would have been to be like Bernie Taupin (Elton Johns lyricist). I think that guy had the best job in the world. You just write a great lyric and hand it off to someone who can put it to an incredible melody, and sing and tour.
LIH: What do you personally get out of the songwriting process?
JD: Some people keep a journal. Others have lengthy discussions about things. I like to write about them. Its challenging. You only have three or four minutes to tell an entire story or make a point or make somebody cry or laugh. I have written some songs that are pretty deep and some that are fun. Its cheaper than therapy. If youre going through some rough times, you can lay it out in a song. It gets it out of the system. If you set it to a great melody, it can be a great country song.
LIH: Where do you get your ideas from?
JD: Everywhere. You may say something to me right now that may sound like a title to a song to me, or I may be watching a movie and think of something. I may take a word, like serendipity, and say that would be a great title of a song. So I wrote a song called Serendipity, since I knew I wanted a song called that. I went to see the movie Crazy Heart and in it Jeff Bridges was having a conversation at the bar. He was talking about the family he abandoned and said, I wasnt there even when I was. I said, thats a song title! I wrote that down and wrote a song with that title.
LIH: Do you ever stop what you are doing or pull over to the side of the road to write down something?
JD: Yes. Before the age of smart phones, I used to pull over and call my answering machine and sing a lyric or remind myself of a song idea. Now I just speak into my phone or put it on the notepad in my phone when I am not driving. I do joke that I write at red lights. If I am in the middle of a song I love, a lyric that I love, then I am in the shower thinking of the bridge to the song while I am shampooing my hair.
LIH: You recently worked with Chris Corley from Middletown as a cowriter. How do you find him?
JD: I found Chris on Craigslist to give my daughter guitar lessons. I had never used Craigslist in my life. I didnt know anyone locally who would come to my house and give guitar lessons. She wanted to learn. He gave her lessons. He is not a country musician. Hes more of a pop/rock musician. After a few months, we started talking, and he told me he likes to write reggae. I said we should try to collaborate, and I can put a lyric to anything. I love the challenge of it all. He sent me something that I loved. When you hear a great melody and youre a lyricist, the melody just kind of speaks to you. I wrote a lyric to it called Leave Our Worries, and it was a great reggae tune. Then we started writing other songs together. We wrote a few rock songs together and weve had a lot of success. Hes purely a melody guy. He trusts what I have to say.
LIH: That song Leave Our Worries recently made it into the movie Thin Ice, which starred Greg Kinnear and Alan Arkin. How did you get one of your songs into a movie?
JD: I have access to listings of companies looking for particular songs for film and TV. This song got picked up by Crucial Music, which is a publisher that concentrates on film and TV. They fell in love with it and started pitching it to a lot of studios. The next thing I know, they are contacting me, letting me know it was picked up for this film. And the next thing I know, they are telling me its in the opening scene.
LIH: You also entered a song, If I Try to Let Go into the NSAI Song Contest presented by CMT (Country Music Television), where you were one of 10 finalists for the Listeners Choice Award. How were you able to get so far in the contest?
JD: Its a worldwide contest and can be any genre. The song that won last year was a pure pop tune. I entered last year for the first time and wrote an up-tempo fun song, called Just Being Me. Next thing I know, the song was a finalist for the contest out of 3,000 songs. I knew we had virtually no shot against some of the others who are full-time writers in bands that tour and have a fan base. Thats what I am up against. The lawyer from New Jersey who has songwriting as a passion is up against that element. When its a popularity contest, I am happy to be a finalist. We made it on to the finalists CD, so more doors opened for us.
This year, the contest came around again. I entered again with a song I wrote with Chris, and I was blown away when they contacted me and said I was a finalist again. Last year, I considered it just luck. Last year, I was so thrilled to be in the top 10 and I didnt think I had any chance at all, so I didnt tell people to vote for me. This year, it kind of validated my songwriting since people could look at me as someone who did it two years in a row. A lot of people started voting for me --- friends, clients, my mother was telling people in the beauty salon and her building to vote for me. As long as I like the song and I am proud of it, what happens after that is whipped cream on the ice cream.
LIH: What is the experience like, trying to get a song published?
JD: Its incredibly hard. The challenge when I was first in Nashville was learning to write a song well. Then it was learning to write a great song. Then it was learning to write a hit song. Then it was trying to get a publisher to listen. Then its hoping the publisher thinks your song is good enough to get invited back again to play another song. Its really about building a relationship. People have the perception that they are going to ride into town and have a song recorded by Carrie Underwood. It doesnt work that way. You can have the greatest song in the world, but you have to work your way through those relationships. There are different types of publishers. You have low-level publishers that are small and dont have quite the access to the artists that the larger ones have. At first, you start with getting one of those interested in your music and then you get one of the mid-level publishers talking to you, and then, if you are lucky, you get Sony, Universal, and Curb Music interested. You learn how to properly pitch your songs. Every single top songwriter that I know in Nashville put in six, seven, eight years of building those relationships and writing the best songs they could. I am really about six or seven years in. I now have a little place in Nashville that I stay in and I go down every six weeks for a few days instead of every three months. I squeeze a thousand things into those three days. I have co-writing sessions, publisher meetings, networking events, and visit my daughter at Vanderbilt. I am lucky she is there and gets to be part of the music scene with me.
LIH: What would be your ultimate music dream?
JD: To have my songs recorded by major artists. I have had a lot of songs recorded by independent artists, and they are still being recorded by independent artists. I will get the CD of artists and see my songs in there and thats a thrill. You never know. Theres a 14-year-old kid who has been on Disney whose management team loves two of my songs so far. Is he the next Justin Bieber? Who knows? Thats just the luck of it all, but thats the dream. Its more of a dream for my family.
LIH: Did you even envision this type of success when you began songwriting?
JD: Never. It wasnt even in my mind. I wrote a song when my Dad passed away and wanted to get better at writing songs. Its like asking someone who takes up golf and starts loving it if they would ever make it to the Pro Tour. I had no idea I would get to a point where my songs are being played for major artists. My songs are in the loop being pitched to artists who are on the radio. Its a matter of the stars aligning, and its just a thrill when I get an email saying that someone like Jo Dee Messina listened to my song, but passed. You know how hard it is to get to her ears?
LIH: Do you ever think of a day when you can quit practicing law and do this full time?
JD: Its a dream. I will be turning 50 in a few years. I have a son, Jonathan, in his first year of law school at Charlotte; a daughter, Jenna, whos in her third year at Vanderbilt; and a daughter, Jessica, who is in the fifth grade. Something tells me Im going to be practicing law for a while, unless a couple of my songs make it to number one!
Peter Luger Steakhouse in Brooklyn
Three people for dinner
Mel Brooks, Walt Disney, Garth Brooks
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