James Mastro, in his well-crafted and thoughtful debut solo single, “My God,” sings about placing his faith in the power of love and in a nonsectarian, ubiquitous God that reveres peace over war, is not gendered, and isn’t championing the “left or right.”
The tune, which was released on May 7 by Velvet Elk/OneRPM Records, suggests that Mastro’s God looks the same as yours. He ponders God as an abstract concept rather than a human-like, supernatural being.
With his deep, righteous and emotive voice and guitar prowess framed by a compelling arrangement featuring his friend (and the song’s producer) Tony Shanahan, of Patti Smith’s band, on bass, keyboards and backing vocals, and the late Louie Appel on drums, he sings:
I guess your God must look like mine
‘Cause God is love and love is blind
I guess my God and yours are one
Just different names under the sun
Written more than a decade ago and finished about a year ago, his message — which I interpret as a suggestion that we all are united by our love for a force that brings peace to a troubled world — is timely. He eloquently and in an understated way expresses my feelings about what God is and where God exists, including both the desire to “know God” and the inclination to say there is “no God.”
“I can’t pinpoint an exact event that inspired it, but I’m sure it was something in the news that just seemed ludicrous to me,” says Mastro, a member of the powerful and influential power-pop group The Bongos as well as Ian Hunter’s Rant Band. “Unfortunately, that hasn’t changed in 10 years — hence, finally putting this out. The first line of the song, ‘My God doesn’t fight in wars, doesn’t know what wars are for,’ was the springboard. The rest just followed.”
Music has always had a spiritual dimension, healing those in pain and bringing us together. God lives in the poetic phrases of Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell, and the sounds of Stravinsky and Schoenberg.
“My God” makes me contemplate and replay the powerful, meditative hit “My Sweet Lord,” released by George Harrison on his 1970 album All Things Must Pass. Praying to the Hindu God — Krishna — Harrison incorporates other traditions (singing Hallelujah), creating a unifying theme that counters sectarianism. Harrison sings of his need to see and know the Lord, which differs from Mastro’s notion that God “isn’t East or West, North or South, worst or best/My god just is — is everywhere.”
The song “One of Us,” written by Eric Bazilian of The Hooters and recorded by Joan Osborne for her 1995 album, Relish, also ponders the universality of God, with Osborne belting out the unforgettable lines, “What if God was one of us/Just a slob like one of us/Just a stranger on the bus trying to make his way home?”
I asked Mastro if he was inspired by other musicians, such as Harrison, who have grappled with envisioning and connecting with God.
“Just about any musician I know has been inspired by the music of The Beatles as a group and/or their individual works,” he said. “If God is a great melody, then sure, they’ve helped me connect. The possible connection is always there — in a great Howlin’ Wolf vocal, a Van Gogh painting, a perfectly pitched game by Félix Hernández. The inspiration and connections are always present; you just have to see them.”
Mastro’s cryptic lyrics suggest we can get closer to God, but also entertain the notion that there is no God: He uses, in the song, a phrase that sounds like both “no God” and “know God.” “I’ll leave that up to the listener’s grammatical preference to suit their belief,” he says. “I know I’ve used both at different times in my life.”
Mastro’s press material mentions that the song is about a belief in oneself and others. I asked if this suggests that the concept of God lives within all of us.
His response sounded rabbinical. “You can call it God, you can call it a spirit, a spark, a light. Not everyone may believe in a god, but everyone has a motor inside them that runs on some kind of fuel.”
Mastro said that Shanahan, a former bandmate of his in the group The Health & Happiness Show, made the recording session happen.
“He’d just opened Hobo Studios in Weehawken and wanted to do a test-run recording to see how the room and their new recording console sounded. We’ve worked together since the Health & Happiness Show days and have a good push and pull of getting things done. It was nice to hand over the producer’s chair to him, because I trust his instincts. He brought in our friend Louie Appel to play drums, who was a larger-than-life character. It was three friends in a room playing music.”
The striking video of “My God” (see below) — filmed on the same block as Mastro’s Hoboken store, Guitar Bar — perfectly captures the mood of the subject. Produced by Mastro and guitarist Bob Perry, it shows diverse people in black and white, providing a landscape of God’s creations.
“When I decided it was time to put this song out, a video seemed like the next tool needed,” Mastro says. “I rang my friend Bob Perry, who is not only a great guitarist and songwriter (Winter Hours) but a video editor. After hearing the song, he rang me with his idea for it, which is exactly what I had in mind doing, so I knew we were on the right track. I filmed it, and Bob pieced it together.
“The cast are all folks on my block in Hoboken. It’s quite a diverse mix for such a small radius, which I think is important to help get the lyric across. I know that if I were to fall down on the street in need of help, not one of them would stop to ask what God I believe in or what political party I vote for before administering aid. I’d like to think everyone is like that.”
A photo by his daughter, singer-songwriter Lily Mastrodimos, of a bee on her hand graces the cover of the single. Mastro explains the connection: “That could be her God, and I’ll accept that.”
Mastro says he has “an album ready to go” but no release date yet. During the pandemic, he has been “busy with sessions for various folks,” he says, including Greg Amici, Rachael Sage, Edward Rogers and Mark Hughes, both in-studio and virtually.
Though he has been a professional musician for more than 40 years, he never has released a solo single before. He has enjoyed the process of recording solo, but he likes working with a band, “so it feels weird when I turn around at rehearsal and I’m the only one there,” he quipped.
“It’s just more fun being in a band, until it’s not. And part of the joy of that is picking a band name. I’ve spent untold hours coming up with ridiculous group names. Some folks play Sudoku; I name bands. And don’t ask me to give you any; they’re way too valuable.”
When he’s not playing music, he says he lets “my dog take me for walks.” And he’s always reading something. “Two favorite reads for lyrical inspirations are National Geographic and Maria Popova’s weekly blog ‘Brain Pickings,’ “ he said.
He’s played with many artists over the years. When I asked him for a few highlights, his response was gracious, as always.
“I’m fortunate that I’ve enjoyed playing with everyone I’ve worked with. But certainly Patti Smith, who is a force of nature onstage. You realize quickly that her vocals are the lead guitar; you’re just along for the ride. John Cale was the most intense, exhausting — yet satisfying — shows because nothing is sacred, and the way something was done one night was approached completely differently the next. And all these years working with Ian Hunter — both solo and with Mott the Hoople — has been a master class in songwriting, performing, and zigging when you should be zagging.”
“My God” can be downloaded at soundcloud.com.
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