Tim Di Pasqua: Finding His Voice, His Music and His Lyrics
Singer/songwriter Tim DiPasqua, a fixture in the music scenes of his native San Francisco and New York for over two decades, is enjoying a renaissance of sorts these days, presenting all of his own music in a series of monthly concerts in New York. On Wednesday, April 8th, he'll be back at Don't Tell Mama to present another dozen or so songs in his extensive catalogue.
EDGE met with Di Pasqua recently to have a wide-ranging discussion about his music, his career, and his stronger-than-ever artistic dreams for the future.
Finding his center
EDGE: What kind of a childhood did you have?
Tim DiPasqua: At the center of my childhood was a clear understanding of who I was and who I was intended to be, but it was buried under layers of self-doubt, loathing, hatred, whatever you want to call it. I still am chipping away at the layers of sedimentary rock that kind of held me fossilized.
EDGE: Did you know you wanted to be a musician of some kind?
Tim DiPasqua: No. I started playing the piano when I was two years old. I played by ear, I don't read music or write music, in the literal sense. My father sang and my mother played piano but not to any heightened degree. But my mother taught piano, the basics. She tried to teach me and bring in instructors but they failed miserably. I started writing poetry at a very early age. It wasn't until my late teens that I started singing, and it wasn't until my mid-twenties that I started putting everything together-writing, playing, and singing my own songs. The mosaic completed itself around my late twenties. But it's only now that I know what I can and want to do. Thank God I try to keep myself healthy!
EDGE: The music business is such a youth-oriented culture. What do you think you have now that you didn't have in your mid-twenties?
Tim DiPasqua: Self-awareness and clarity. I totally understand it's a youth-based culture, especially in the pop world, which is what I grew up in and what I keep trying to get connected to. I never considered myself a cabaret singer in the sense of the word that most people identify it with. I wasn't fighting against it, but it was just a piano and a mike and I was trying to find a way to do my music. I'm not pop enough to be pop, I'm not cabaret enough to be cabaret, and I'm not Broadway enough to be Broadway. I'm a free agent in that way.
EDGE: And the business wants to pigeonhole the artist, define him in a way that is marketable.
Tim DiPasqua: So much of an artist's life is assessing how much attention you're getting from the outside world. Who is getting excited about what you do? For a while, 99% of my energy was geared toward that. It's so unfair to everybody and so unfair to me. I've decided that instead of waiting for someone to validate or greenlight what I'm doing, I'm just going to do it. If you look on paper, it looks like I'm swimming upstream, but it's my life and my time, and whether anyone else joins me or not . . . I finally got to a place in my life where I don't make that a priority.
EDGE: Part of the reason I loved your show is that you just came across as happy and devil-may-care, and there was something moving and refreshing about that.
Tim DiPasqua: If people can walk away with their lives richer and feeling soothed, that exchange of currency is about the best thing an artist can ask for.
EDGE: What's your process in terms of writing? What inspires you? How does it all come together?
Tim DiPasqua: It's a roulette wheel. This exchange we're having might be the topic of a great song or story. There is a databank, a hard drive, in my mind. Melodies are always coming to me and I can access that melody hard drive like a file. They stay in my head until I access them. Same thing with titles or stories or ideas. On my computer, I keep my word document open at home, and I have about seven pages of songs I've just started. It's like going through your closet and going in the back and digging a shirt you never wore but remembering that you liked it. One time I was in the park and this guy was skateboarding and as he passed me he went like this [tips his hat] and I wrote down "the tip of an imaginary hat." It's so beautiful, but it's been in my file for over ten years. But I've matched it with another motif and now the song is almost done!
EDGE: I need to steal this method!
Tim DiPasqua: You've got to! I wrote a show called "Notes on New York" and every song was constructed from a word or phrase that I saw. It's about choosing where to channel this new creation? A revue, a theater piece, do I want to give it somebody?
EDGE: So you grew up in San Francisco and moved here in the early '90s?
Tim DiPasqua: The true story is that I never really moved here; I kept going back and forth. After a while it became tiresome, not to mention expensive. I'd go back and sublet for a few months or stay on people's couches. And then my Mom got sick, so I spent more time out there. When she died and I got married, it was like the universe grabbed me by the shoulders and guided me here. But I still have the family home there. My husband and I live in Hoboken and we still go out there. We get the grounding of San Francisco but the stimulation of the arts here. It's the perfect balance.
EDGE: Being in both cities since the mid-'80s, I would imagine the AIDS crisis had a huge impact on your life.
Tim DiPasqua: Yeah. The late '80s were really dark. The '90s seemed like there was an offering of brightness because that's when I started to come to New York and started making music connections. I felt that we got through the '80s and now what? It's still influencing me today because I know what I came through, what I was able to walk through. It has galvanized me. I know now what my mission is. I know what not to take for granted, and what not to assume. So if I can sit comfortably with all those components in place and the music can come through me, then I've finally struck gold. It feels like it's working, whether anyone else gets me or not.
EDGE: Even though you're like a beam of sunlight on the stage, I assume that sometimes in your private life, there is a struggle to fight off the demons of anxiety and insecurity and depression.
Tim DiPasqua: Sometimes? First of all, it's not sometimes. The level of incapacitation-the self-loathing, the hopelessness, the demons that have plagued me, the fears, the obsessive-compulsive behaviors, everything-has finally loosened enough for me to at least walk out of the prison cell. I haven't made my way out of the door but at least I've gotten on my feet. There's an exquisite balance between the light and the dark in every moment of life, and understanding those contrasting elements every day and showing up at that moment is where you find your goal as an artist. When you see that beam, it's not because I know there is a beam. It's because I'm willing to jump off of that cliff. That's what you see. A willingness to be unbridled and untethered by those demons that grip me all the day. I am grateful I have a vehicle like my music, a vessel for all of that to go through. It took me many years to start therapy because I didn't feel safe enough to tell the therapist what I was feeling. Now, each day you take a step forward and you say, "Okay, I feel better than I did yesterday. And today I have a melody and a lyric. Or a desire to invite someone else up on stage with me." But it's all done with child-like awe and trepidation. But even if I do all of this, it still doesn't guarantee that someone is going to show up or that I'm going to get noticed. The difference is, all of that other stuff has diminished.
EDGE: Watching you work with Michael Holland, or your long-term associations with Scott Coulter and Tom Andersen, you seem to find this brotherhood with other gay men. Is that intentional?
Tim DiPasqua: I suppose if you looked at it, there might be a kind of mathematical equation to it. My paths with Scott and Tom have intermingled over the years. We did Southern Comfort because Phil Bond asked us to put a show together. It was never a conscious thing.
EDGE: You and Michael never sang together before that last show?
Tim DiPasqua: No. In my head, I didn't think he'd want to sing all those songs with me. But two weeks before the show, he called me and asked why I wasn't sending him the songs. "Send me the goddamn songs!" he said.
EDGE: Wow. Incredible.
Tim DiPasqua: Had I a better awareness of myself, I would have made more connections and incorporated more artists into my shows over the years.
EDGE: I was listening to "An Evening in San Francisco" but it was all piano. Do you ever have the urge to sing covers?
Tim DiPasqua: When I first started in New York, I would do shows and sing mostly standards. Eventually, I wanted to establish myself as a singer/songwriter of my own material, so I've shied away from showcasing myself as a singer of standards. But I am featured on two Joe Traina albums and sing some great songs. I'd love to do a vocal album of "An Evening in San Francisco." I sang "It's Magic" at my one and only time at the Cabaret Convention-I don't think Donald Smith liked me-but to this day, Sidney Myer swoons when he describes that moment. And others enjoyed it. I think at the time I was a little afraid to show up at the party.
EDGE: Do you ever collaborate in songwriting?
Tim DiPasqua: For years, I worked with Tom Andersen and helped him on so many songs. Even "Yard Sale," I took my name off of it. Scott and Barbara Siegel saw me at Zen Palate one night and told me they loved "Yard Sale" and asked me what I did on it. I got nervous. Tom brought me the melody and I came up with the accompaniment and chording and arrangement, but at the time I didn't know how to represent myself as a co-writer. What I contributed to it was enormous, but I didn't see my rightful place in it. The only other collaboration I did was with Nan Knighton. Nan's a lyricist and she sent me something called "Falling from Grace," which I did.
EDGE: As an artist, do you feel any responsibility to address political and social issues?
Tim DiPasqua: Yes, I just wish I were more adept at it. I wish I were more schooled on issues. I see people who speak loudly and confidently about things, and it's a lot of vitriol. That's just not my style. I want to see both sides. I can't keep up with it or absorb is quickly enough. I can only speak for myself, I can't speak collectively. I want to understand different points of view.
EDGE: Is there any one song of yours that you feel gets closest to who you are?
Tim DiPasqua: Yes, and it has the most universal appeal. It's called "You."
EDGE: Everyone wants to do that song!
Tim DiPasqua: It boggles my mind because I don't see that it's any more possessing energy or qualities within me than any other songs I wrote, but what I do know is that it was one of the songs that came out of me the quickest. I was sitting by the rock in Central Park at the boat basin and it came out of me in an hour.
EDGE: I think it's universal because so many of us will never become famous, but the song still values the process of living life and finding worth in it.
Tim DiPasqua: I like that. I just got married, and my life is no longer a mirror of what that song is. But it's the journey, it's the process. I want to be present in the moment.
EDGE: How long have you been married?
Tim DiPasqua: Two years in November.
EDGE: Ah, there's hope for all of us! How has that changed you?
Tim DiPasqua: My husband and I met twenty-five years ago in San Francisco. Later, we were both working at the Townhouse; I was playing and he was bartending. But we had never dated. Apparently, he had a crush on me for years and I never knew about it. And then six years ago, he sent me an email asking what was up. At the time, my life was falling apart, and in that darkness I did not want to allow him in. So how has it changed me? Everything I thought my life was about . . . we cling to all our possessions, and the debris too. But over a couple of years, he helped me strip the old away. That's why I've started over musically, because of him. A year ago, I did my first concert at the Duplex to get my songs out there. And now, six concerts later, I'm working with a band and have the seventh next week. It's a transformation that has come about for having allowed love in my life.
EDGE: What is the intent behind "The Music and Lyrics Project?"
Tim DiPasqua: To show the world who I am, finally. This is my music, this is my lyrics, and this is the project I've created to assemble people to help me mount my music for the world for the first time, in a new way. The past is ingrained in the fiber of it, but it's not what is fueling me anymore. It's not fossil fuel. It's a cleaner, biodegradable fuel that is burning now. It feels much better.
Tim DiPasqua and band will appear at Don't Tell Mama on Wednesday, April 8th at 7:00 p.m. Call 212-757-0788 after 4:00 p.m. daily to make reservations.