Kim Ruehl: I’m not sure where to even start. What are you more excited about right now? Your new solo record, or what you’re doing with Raina Rose and John Elliott right now?
Anthony Da Costa: Both. [laughs] They’re pretty different projects. I guess the solo album is the focus right now. I put it out on April 10...I’m not doing much solo toruing because that seems to be the nature of the summer. It’s my current project, rhgouh. The trio did a tour from Ohio to Texas but our album won’t come out until the fall.
What’s different this time around?
This album is the first one that I tracked live. Especially on my first several albums, I was in the studio alone with an acoustic guitar, laying down solo-acoustic versions of anything from 14 to 20 new songs. Then I and whoever was producing would go through the takes, decide which we liked best, then add a bunch of stuff. This was the first record I set up in a studio with a bigger live room, an isolation booth. I went in with a drummer and bass player, and we all hashed it out together. It’s much more of a band record that I recorded live with a rhythm section. We went in and added other stuff afterward. The closest I’d ever come to that was Bad Nights Better Days with Abbie Gardner. Adding a rhythm section in recording adds a whole different live feel, which was pretty crucial to the way the album came out.
Do you feel as at home in a recording studio now as you do onstage?
They’re totally different things but I really love recording. I love being in the studio. I wish I could afford to do it all the time. Playing live is of course what it’s all about for me. It’s definitely part of the job. But, there’s something about waking up in the morning during the making of an album, getting coffee and water and Cliff bars, going into the studio. It feels much more like I’m working a job. It gives what I’m doing a sense of purpose in terms of going somewhere and really going at it. Playing live is a different form of enjoyment. I find it challenging in its own special way. But to be in a place where I have a bunch of instruments at my disposal and I can lay down any idea I have, that’s very special and important to me.
The last time I interviewed you, you were still in high school. You said you were going to go to college but you were planning on making music your career. I wonder how that idea has evolved and how being at Columbia has changed your writing process.
It was definitely an interesting call to go to a liberal arts college, and one as renowned and challenging as Columbia University. I think it surprises some people that I go to an Ivy League school, but I remind them it’s a sports distinction.
I didn’t want to go to music school. I auditioned for some. I got into all the music schools I applied for. There was something about going to a conservatory that felt wrong to me. I learn more by doing. I had learned so much already...I spent my entire high school career playing folk music and hanging out with people twice my age, playing shows and recording, learning from the people around me. I wanted to continue that process as opposed to sitting in a classroom [doing it]. There is a lot of value in going to a conservatory. If I had gone somewhere like Berklee, I could have delved into something like engineering. I got into the NYU audio engineering program. Once in a while I wonder if I should have done that. But I was talking to my friend who passed just over a year ago – Jack Hardy – a fantastic songwriter who is much revered in the Greenwich Village folk scene. His daughter had gone to Columbia and had so many amazing things to say about it. I had been visiting the campus when I was playing Postcrypt Coffeehouse...
I was talking to him about this decision between a conservatory and a liberal arts school, and Jack said to me – he called me Grasshopper, in this sort of sunny voice – “Grasshopper, you spent enough years putting stuff out there, it’s time to put stuff back in.” That spoke volumes to me. I felt as though a liberal arts education would be better for me in the long run than sitting in a room where everybody has a bunch of guitars. I do that enough at folk conferences and festivals. I decided to do both. It hasn’t been easy by any means. Columbia is a very demanding school...
I’m studying Greek and Roman mythology. A lot of times I’ll tell people that and they’ll want to know if I’m writing that kind of thing. The answer is no. I think it’ll seep into my writing at some point, though. Right now a lot of the songs I’ve written while attending school have been influenced by the experiences I’m having. There’s much more in going to school - you’re learning to be a person, learning how to prioritize. You’re living on your own for the first time, away from your parents. All those combined experiences and trials have found a way into the writing. There’s no musical version of the Iliad just yet.
All those Greek and Roman myths are very good at telling a story, though, and nailing the human experience in some sort of bizarre, otherworldly way. Certainly that’ll find its way into the songwriting...
A: Yeah, one of the cool things I found out is the Greeks invented, colloquially, the late night folk song hang. They’d get together most often in Athens, I’d assume, and drink a bunch of wine and play songs about the issues of the day. My professor says it's as we would do now with Bob Dylan or Alanis Morrisette. It’s very similar to when people get together and play songs today.
Anthony da Costa's tour dates are available on his website.