Peppino D’Agostino is a Renaissance man. This is not just because he was born in Italy. Everything about the longtime California resident and his art — virtuoso acoustic guitarist, composer, singer, teacher and all-around entertainer — is rooted in his heritage. It’s fitting then that his new CD is titled Made in Italy. It’s his first CD release since 2005’s Bayshore Road, a collaboration with longtime friend, electric guitarist Stef Burns.
“This CD is like a little portrait of Italy,” said D’Agostino. “It’s my thoughts and personal impressions of my native country. This music is for people who really want to sit down and listen.”
D’Agostino has had a long and distinguished career filled with highlights. His most recent accolade came from Guitar Player magazine when he was voted BEST ACOUSTIC GUITARIST by its readers in the Reader’s Choice Awards in May 2007.
Made in Italy continues D’Agostino’s 2007 hot streak. It’s been in the making for two years, and it’s a CD that’s very close to his heart, especially because half of its 16 songs feature his singing. D’Agostino has included a vocal song on his CDs in the past, but Made in Italy truly opens the door to a future of singing as one more color on his musical palette.
“I like the challenge of doing new things. That’s one of the reasons why I did Made in Italy at this point in my career. I like to sing. Specifically, I like to sing meaningful songs about life, love, loss, and the pursuit of happiness,” said D’Agostino. “Also, there’s a nostalgic element. Some of those songs I grew up with. I listened to those songs when I was a little kid. I decided to create my own arrangements.”
The material focuses on Italian folk songs and pop songs from the past few decades as well as works by classical composer Gioachino Rossini and legendary film score composer Ennio Morricone, D’Agostino’s musical hero. D’Agostino put his personal stamp on these songs, capturing the spirit and sound of the standards he rearranged while keeping his acoustic guitar work at the forefront. Guest musicians add extra textures on many of the compositions by playing traditional Italian instruments like the organetto and the launeddas. Despite his passion for this project and introducing this music to a new audience, he was also nagged by doubt.
“I had a little bit of hesitation about this CD. I thought, ‘Why am I doing this? An Italian CD in America?’ I could not find an answer until just a while ago. I thought, ‘In America, there’s this stereotype of Italian songs that are maybe tied to Dean Martin or Elvis Presley singing his arrangement of ‘O Sole Mio’ (as ‘It’s Now or Never’). People don’t know about composers and singer/songwriters such as Gino Paoli or Sergio Endrigo or Fabrizio De André,” said D’Agostino. “That’s why I translated those lyrics, just to show that Italian music is not just about pizza, amore, and pasta. It goes far beyond. Italian culture is misinterpreted by the media and by tourists. There’s a bunch of stereotypes. I get tired of that. Italy is like any other country. If you say America is New York or Los Angeles, that’s untrue. There’s so many nuances. There’s Milwaukee, New Orleans, Boston, Kansas City and Nashville.”
It’s fitting that D’Agostino mentions Nashville because he just filmed a solo performance at a studio there for a DVD to be released from Mel Bay Records in March 2008. The DVD, entitled Peppio D’Agostino – Contemporary Fingerstyle Guitar, premiered in January 2008 at the NAMM trade show in Los Angeles.
“It was quite an experience making this DVD. Very intense. I did everything in one afternoon — seven hours and 16 arrangements — including a few from Made in Italy. They used three cameras, and there was a beautiful backdrop,” said D’Agostino. “It’s all a collection of tunes that people request at my concerts and so I decided to put them on DVD.
I have other DVDs out there, but this one contains material never before released on DVD.” Variety is important to D’Agostino, and he proves it at his live performances. You never know what you’re going to get, and he doesn’t either. He doesn’t map out his shows from A to Z. D’Agostino feeds off each individual crowd to decide what he’s going to play and sing and how he’s going to mix up the set.
“All the different parts of me are out there — the singer, the composer, the guitarist, all together. I’m all of those. I really believe in that because I like to entertain an audience. I usually talk and try to make them laugh. Sometimes I tell jokes. The audience wants an experience where they feel connected to the performer and moved by the music. Otherwise people would just buy the CD and listen to it at home. I’m a medium — a filter between the music and the audience,” said D’Agostino.
D’Agostino’s personal and artistic journeys have certainly been out of the ordinary. He first discovered the acoustic guitar when he was 10 years old and heard his older cousin play in church. His cousin gave him a few lessons, but soon he began teaching himself. Through his teen-age years and into his 20s, he studied all kinds of Irish, Brazilian, folk and classical music. He also absorbed pop and rock music of the 1970s, including the work of progressive rockers like Genesis, Emerson Lake & Palmer, Gentle Giant and Mike Oldfield. At age 23, while serving in the Italian army, he actually went AWOL one night to catch a concert by some acoustic guitarists.
D’Agostino’s first album, ‘Bluerba,’ was released in Italy in 1981. It was a collaboration with Enzo Ponzio and Alfredo Morabito. ‘Silk and Steel,’ an anthology/collaboration with other Italian guitarists, followed in 1983. In 1985, D’Agostino met his future wife in San Francisco and decided to immigrate to the United States.
“I was a struggling street musician. I also painted houses and sold vegetables to support myself. I started playing on the streets of San Francisco in 1985. I played on Fisherman’s Wharf and I also started playing in clubs,” said D’Agostino.
An agent saw D’Agostino play and helped him get gigs, which led to a recording contract. He began releasing a string of solo and collaborative albums, including the soundtrack to the Italian film ‘Ardena’ after director Luca Barbareschi happened to catch one of his performances. The years of struggle finally paid off.
Collaborations are an important part of D’Agostino’s career. In addition to his work with Stef Burns, he has performed with the likes of classical guitar master David Tanenbaum of the San Francisco Conservatory and the children’s choir VOENA.
D’Agostino has taught at guitar clinics the world over, and his instructional releases include 1984’s country and bluegrass songbook ‘Metodo Per Chitarra Flatpicking Country e Bluegrass’ for Italian publisher Berben, 1997’s ‘New Acoustic Guitar’ for Warner Bros. Publications and 1998’s teaching video ‘The Guitar of Peppino D’Agostino’ from Homespun Tapes, to name just a few. Also, his song “Bella Donna” was included in the 1999 songbook-and- CD package ‘Fingerstyle Guitar Masterpieces’ published by Acoustic Guitar magazine.
D’Agostino’s creativity is not only confined to composing and performing music. In 2002, in association with guitar maker and instruments innovator Robert Godin, D’Agostino developed his Seagull signature guitar model, which employs the new compound-curve design. This instrument features a slightly wider fingerboard, and it’s perfectly designed to suit his explosive rhythms and almost constant change of tunings. Furthermore, he developed a guitar accessories pouch called the D’Agostino Tool Bag with the renowned Jim Dunlop Manufacturing.
2008 and beyond will find D’Agostino digging deeper into the various kinds of music he’s been making in recent years. He’s never at a loss for inspiration to trigger exploration.
“The next project will probably be another CD with Stef Burns, and then a CD of new compositions for solo guitar. There’s also the possibility of another CD with the United Guitar Ensemble – which features eight classical guitarists and D’Agostino on steel string. I also want to do more vocal CDs,” said D’Agostino. “I have a lot of things in my head. We’ll see what happens.
Keeping busy is part of being a musician.” It doesn’t matter what order the projects flow out of D’Agostino. All of them are guaranteed to entertain and enlighten us.