North Fork Native & Musician Jon Divello on Improv Gigs, Songwriting & Why Here

Q: When did you become a musician?

A: I started playing the piano when I was like 4, and then I stopped playing piano in high school. I started playing guitar in college, and then started gigging around, and started playing piano again, and that’s how it all started. It was kind of by default.

I picked up the banjo about 4 years ago. That’s one those things that sits on a shelf, and sometimes I take it down. If it’s in the van I’ll start playing it.

Q: You’re a fixture on the local circuit. I’m listing your gigs every week. Do you take a break in the winter?

A: I play out here year round. I went through like three months I played like every night of the week, which was too much. I think the first gig out here that ever paid me was the Blue Dolphin in East Marion.

Q: Do you have a certain kind of music you like to play, or a certain way you like to play it?

A: Playing music to me is not like a conscious thing; it doesn’t require thinking. When I play, I just play. I’ve never rehearsed with my band, ever. Playing music is, it’s a feeling it. Turn the spigot on and surround yourself with really good players.

The two Jon Divello recluse band rules: You can’t wear shorts, and you can’t have a music stand.

Q: No shorts, no music stand? Why?

A: Shorts–it’s just not happening. There’s just something about someone playing in shorts that gets in the way. Music stand? Why would you need that? It’s just not the gig. If you can’t listen and do the job—if can’t just sit in and play, it’s not the gig for you. I don’t sit down and play the song as it’s written; and I don’t want anyone else to do that.

Q: Yeah, your covers are quasi-originals. One of my favorite cover-originals was your & Chris Tedesco’s rendition of Mary Jane’s Last Dance by Tom Petty. And that mix of the Talking Heads’ Psychokiller and Pink Floyd’s Another Brick in the Wall was pretty cool. You definitely remake tunes.

A: It’s all improv. Yeah, you have to kind of, when you play that many gigs, you have to play it a little differently each time to stay sane.

Q: But your set isn’t all covers. At least, I didn’t recognize all the songs.

A: When I play out I mostly play my originals. I think as soon as I started playing music I’ve been writing music.  I didn’t start writing songs with lyrics until I started playing guitar.

I’ve written probably a hundred. You just continuously write. Some just disappear and some continue to stick around. I’ve written story songs, songs that don’t mean anything; I’ve grown to appreciate songwriting as a craft. It’s a difficult craft.

I think my favorite songs are story songs, but they’re the hardest. If you’re going to tell a story in a song you’ve got two minutes. You’ve got a couple of bars to do it. I think a story song is always the most appreciated because it’s the hardest to write.

Q: Do you have any songwriting secrets? What makes a great song?

A: I think the best songs that I write are the ones when I sit down and write in one shot. You sit down, you’re in a certain place, a certain mood, and if you don’t finish it, when come back to it later, you’re a different person.

Q: Since you write a lot of music, do you have any albums?

A: I made a Jon Divello record when I was 19, and I put out a record with a band called Big River Ransom that I played with for 5 or 6 years. I put out an EP a couple of years ago, and I have a couple of albums’ worth of music that I plan to be releasing shortly, maybe in a month so. My next project is going to be a very different project.

I record these records, you have to go into this studio on this day. I’m looking to do the next album at my house. I’m looking for the right person to import the recording equipment into my house. Have musicians around so we can just record when we want, when we’re feeling it. Sort of a basement tapes thing. It’s not that it would be better, just different.

Q: You have albums, but you don’t hawk them at gigs. How come?

A: I don’t hawk anything; I don’t even speak into the microphone. It’s annoying to me when people talk into the microphone and don’t shut up about stupid stuff. I just go and I play and that’s it.

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Q: I saw you play with Chris Tedesco at Lieb Oregon Road; one of the great aspects of the gig was that he played electric violin and mandolin, two instruments that aren’t common. You play with other people too. Do they also play unusual instruments?

A: I play with Chris more than I play with anyone else, but I play with a lot of other people too. Every person I play with plays a mixed bag of instruments, and I always say it would be a better gig if I didn’t show up because I always surround myself with really talented musicians, and they usually have a lot of fun.  I play with a really great pedal steel player Greg McMullen.  You never get to go out and listen to pedal steel.

Q: Is there anyplace you particularly like to play?

A: Any place with a good piano is always a plus.

Q: Is there anything special about playing on the North Fork?

A: I like that you have a revolving door of people, which defeats the need to tour. During the summer you could play at the same venue every night and have a different audience.

Q: How did you get to the North Fork?

A: I was born in Mattituck. I lived in Providence, Colorado, New York. I like it out here. Certain things about it.  There’s salt water, space, but you’re an hour and a half from the city if you need to get there.  I can’t really explain it.

When I was a kid there was nothing here, no wineries. It was a total different demographic out here. It’s really changed. The changes certainly help if you want to be a performing musician.

The fall out here is the best time of year, period. And the spring is great. Summer is fun, but there’s too many people everywhere.

Q: Are there any North Fork musicians you make a point of trying to see when you’re not working?

A: I like to go see Rob Europe play at Brix and Rye in the winter, during the week mostly.  If I’m not working, I’m on my boat. I get land sick.

Q: You have a boat? What kind of boat?

I have a Steiger craft. It’s a work boat; a bayman’s boat.  No bells and whistles. I’ve had it for like ten years. I fish. I like to spear fish.

I take my boat to some of my gigs out here, which is great. I’ve never lived anywhere else I could take my boat to a gig.

Q: I don’t know anything about boats, but I take it that a Steiger craft is a motor boat?

A: Yeah. I don’t have the time for a blow boat. I can’t depend on the wind, I got places to be.

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