Steve Addabbo shares with NJArts.net’s Songs to See Us Through series his dramatic new song, “Afraid of It All,” recorded for the series and released in the video below for the first time. His electrifying solo performance is direct and honest, with a Dylanesque sound and impactful images of him standing in front of a white wall, plus alternating shots of him rocking out. It’s beautiful, despite the serious confessional theme of fear and foreboding.
The song resonates deeply during the coronavirus pandemic when many of us endure fear and anxiety, wondering if we will contract the virus or lose a family member or friend. Then there are the other associated fears, including job loss. The word “pandemic,” just like the word “pandemonium,” elicits feelings of chaos and confusion, and this song captures those emotions.
Addabbo — who owns the Shelter Island Sound Recording studio in New York and has decades of experience as a producer, writer, recording engineer, mixer and musician — sings expressively:
The year is 2020, yet we couldn’t see
What was coming at us
Straight for you and me
Stuck in our houses, bouncing off the walls
Afraid to go out, I’m afraid of it all.
Washington is useless, it’s every man for himself
Good luck at the grocer’s, good luck with the empty shelves
The world has changed forever, commuter rails stall,
Afraid to go out, I’m afraid of it all.
“When COVID first hit and there were so many deaths, it was a very sad and scary period of time,” said Addabbo. “I just tried to be careful and didn’t go out much. With so much free time, you would think you could get so much done … but I found I couldn’t keep track of what day it was and I was not in a creative space … I think the news was like a narcotic it was numbing.”
He added: “The song started to emerge the first week in April … the lyrics came first and pretty quickly but I couldn’t find the melody or rhythm. It was more ballad-like and then I realized I had lifted a melody from another song I had written, so it sat for a bit.”
On the 50th anniversary of the Kent State shootings, May 4, he remembered the Neil Young-written “Ohio,” and “that put me on the right track,” he said. “Once I found the right guitar approach and melody, I started to believe the song. It needed rhythm and electric guitars! We’re all frightened of this thing so why not just say it! Your challenge of writing something during this period (for Songs to See Us Through) made it happen.
“The only other time I had a ‘challenge’ like this was when Julie Gold asked if I would participate in her songwriting project. She gives you one hour in her apartment on the piano where she wrote ‘From a Distance.’ She leaves for an hour and then returns. She doesn’t ask to hear anything, but a few months later you are invited to perform the song you started in that hour, live at The Duplex in the Village, in front of many, many great writers.
“So, with my two-input laptop recording rig, I put down some guitars and then did the vocal live for the video. It was okay to be out of my studio world and just record in the spare bedroom. Of course, I miss all of the great gear and space at the studio. I still have no idea when we can open again.”
Addabbo closed down Shelter Island Sound Recording on March 15, and he and his wife, a clinical psychologist, initially stayed at home in Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y. “I make it a point to have no recording equipment at home, so I was stuck with my iPad and laptop to stay in touch with my musical world. I posted one live instrumental on my acoustic guitar of a melody I call ‘Breathru’ that had been floating around that I recorded to my iPad.” It can be heard here.
“I can’t believe that was two months ago,” he said.
He added, “soon after, we relocated (with our cat Faye) to our home in Shelter Island (Long Island) and have been here ever since. I started catching up on many binge-worthy series. ‘Ozark’ and ‘Bosch’ are really good … there are always projects around the house. I have three different people I am co-writing with via Skype or Zoom, so that has been a good thing. But I realized I needed some recording stuff out here. (This is where my studio started 30 years ago in the basement, before I moved it to the city).
“So, I made a trip back to the city and picked up a few mics, wires, hard drives, more guitars (never enough!) and cobbled together a small recording rig on my ancient laptop.
“It was spooky driving the empty streets of Manhattan at night, boarded up restaurants, dark buildings, no cabs or Ubers. I felt the enormity of what was happening … where did everybody go? It made the everyday hustle and bustle seem so distant and crazy.
“It’s great to be out here with no cable TV, no MSNBC or CNN. I don’t miss any of it. I can listen to WNYC on a stream or a bit of news on WINS but that nightly ritual of ‘shooting up the evening news’ was not healthy for the spirit.” (He thanks Jackson Browne for the “shooting up the evening news” phrase, borrowed from Browne’s song, “Redneck Friend.”)
Addabbo has produced and/or engineered music for many artists, including Suzanne Vega and Shawn Colvin: He co-produced Vega’s multiplatinum 1987 album Solitude Standing (containing “Luka” and the original version of “Tom’s Diner”) and Colvin’s fabulous 1989 Steady On. He also mixed Bob Dylan’s 2015 Grammy-winning The Bootleg Series Vol. 12: The Best of the Cutting Edge 1965–1966 boxed set, and Dylan’s 2018 The Bootleg Series, Vol. 14: More Blood, More Tracks boxed set.
Addabbo has also worked with singer-songwriter Richard Barone, who had a few thoughts about him that he shared with me by email.
“Steve is like a brother to me,” Barone said. “He’s a musician’s musician and a songwriter’s songwriter. He’s also a producer’s producer, sensitive and tactful, and — important! — allows his artists to do their own thing without needing to stamp his own style on them. The icing on the cake is that Steve is also a brilliant recording engineer, a master at capturing naturalistic sound. In these days of over-processed audio, that is an increasingly rare blessing!”
Addabbo has toured for years with legendary folk musician Eric Andersen and performs his own shows in the tri-state area. “I keep in touch with Eric” during lockdown, said Addabbo. “He is living in Holland with his wife Inge. We had a bunch of recording planned for April. I have most of a new album of his ready to go. We wanted to record a couple of his new ones, but now that’ll have to wait.
“I recently worked on an EP for Bruce Sudano — Spirals, Vol 1. He was supposed to go back to Milan with his wife right when Italy locked down, so now they are in L.A.”
Addabbo released his first solo album, Out of Nothing, in 2016. “Whenever I could grab some down time at the studio, I would work on it,” he said. “My thinking at that point was to put together a collection of songs I had written or co-written, not necessarily to release as my own record, but to try and get some publishing interest.
“Once I had most of the tracks done, I brought Steve Holley in to play drums, John Patitucci played bass on a couple, Larry Campbell and Byron Isaacs played on the country tune, Caitlin Canty sang harmonies. Eric Andersen wanted to play electric piano on ‘My Emmylou.’ Then it was done. What had started out as a demo project for songwriting turned into the album.”
Addabbo appreciates looking at music through the lens of a performer, a producer and an engineer. “I’m lucky to be able to be on both sides of the glass in the studio. I always have fun laying down guitar tracks and arranging with other artists, but getting up to the microphone and singing your own tunes is a very different thing. Producing yourself is akin to being your own dentist … not for the faint-hearted!”
He added, “Having worked with many singer songwriters, the most subjective and elusive part of any record is capturing the right vocal moment. People spend hours recording and cobbling together takes and I have certainly done that in the past. But if you have the right ears helping you along, you may just find that special take a lot sooner than you think. It’s also really important to play new songs out live (when that becomes possible again) before you record in the studio. It is the fastest way to know if the song works or needs some more tweaking.”
I asked him what kind of music he enjoys when he is not working and he said that he likes the sound of “the breeze coming through my pine trees.” Sometimes we all need a break from work.
Addabbo has performed in New York venues like the Cornelia Street Café, Caffè Vivaldi, Rockwood Music Hall, and as soon as the pandemic is over, he plans get back to performing live after he dusts off his studio. We agreed that getting a haircut is also on the top of the list.
“I’d love to go out and play live, do a bunch of work with Eric and play live gigs with him at the Turning Point and City Winery,” he said.
“That’s what I miss the most – playing onstage and having people respond, all the excitement and fun. It’s going to be hard to replace that. It’s really going to take a while for people to feel comfortable with live shows.”
When it does happen, I look forward to finding him in one of those musical spaces.
NJArts.net’s Songs to See Us Through series is designed to spotlight songs relevant to the coronavirus crisis and encourage readers to support the artists who made them (and won’t be able to generate income via concerts at this time). Click here for links to all songs in the series.
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