10 Questions: Gabriel Aldort

Posted in MusicWorld on June 25, 2012 by
Ask singer-songwriter Gabriel Aldort about his favorite places to perform and it sounds like he’s reading a map of the New York City transit system: Grand Central Terminal, Penn Station, the Staten Island Ferry’s George Terminal. That’s because Aldort has been part of the Music Under New York (MUNY) program for the past three years, carrying his electric piano into the subway, train stations and ferry stops to entertain commuters during morning rush hour. Besides catching him near the turnstiles, you can see Aldort at work in Beneath the Streets, director Rebecca Abbott’s documentary about Manhattan’s subway performers. Now, for the first time, you can also hear Aldort on recordings. He’s just released his solo debut Thanks For Today, which features Aldort accompanying himself on grand piano, and his song “Greed” appears on the recently issued Occupy This Album compilation from the Razor & Tie label.

Aldort’s literal emergence from the underground is due in large part to his participation in one of the highly regarded eight-week BMI Songwriting Workshops led by Billy Sideman at BMI’s Manhattan offices. “Greed” was written in the workshop and is a highlight of the first disc of the Occupy This Album set, alongside tunes by icons Jackson Browne, Patti Smith and Willie Nelson.

1. You wrote “Greed” in the BMI Songwriting Workshop. Tell us about that.

I’m a Music Under New York musician, so I play in the subway three times a week at 8 a.m. for the commuters. I was playing one day at the Grand Central shuttle spot and Billy Sideman was passing by and gave me his card. He said, “Call me.” So I called him and there was a gentleman at BMI who had asked Billy to find someone to give him piano lessons. We started chatting and Billy told me about this BMI songwriting course. It was really serendipitous, because for years I had felt something percolating inside me telling me to write, but I hadn’t written one song.

Billy, over the eight weeks, was a treasure trove of knowledge about songwriting. Every week we had an assignment to write a song, and there were themes. The third week the assignment was an attitude song. Initially it was going to be about somebody who’s cynical. The opening line I had was, “The world is flat and so is my drink.” But then “Greed”… it just came out. In under a half-hour the lyrics and music poured out of me line after line, and it was this very relevant song about a guy who is full of dissatisfaction about the disparity of wealth.

I got maybe six songs out of the whole workshop, but at some point my fiancé Jennifer passed an article to me about an album being produced called Occupy This, and it was going to have 99 artists including greats like Willie Nelson, Joan Baez, Crosby & Nash, and they were taking submissions. I submitted a rough version of “Greed” and they dug it.

As soon as the album hit the streets on May 15, it took on a life of its own. I hear from people. I know it’s touching them and making them think. And that’s the story. It all happened just because Billy Sideman passed by.

2. What long-term impact did the songwriting workshop have on your writing?

After the course ended I went through a tough period of transition, because I didn’t have any incentive to write. I had to rewire my brain. I didn’t have that drive. I have three jobs, a young child and a relationship, so I’ve only written two songs since the workshop. But I am really happy with them. I think they come from my life experience and what I’d like to communicate. Writing is about, “What message can I convey to make a difference?” The new songs I’ve written are inspirational. They’re about positive change. Just from the small amount of songs I’ve written, that’s a common theme along with kindness and love. I would like my songs to represent the most admirable qualities.

3. Has playing in public spaces influenced your interest in writing songs with a social conscience?

I think so. I see a lot of life and the thing I notice the most is the concentration of culture and diversity in New York. It’s the most diversity in cultures squeezed into the smallest square footage of anywhere in the world. You’re bound to have a lot of different kinds of energy flying around.

Playing in public in the mornings started as a matter of convenience. I have the rest of the day to do something else. I also love playing for the commuters. They are buzzing all around and trying to get to work as quickly as possible, but every day I can tell there are a couple people who I’ve touched. I’ve helped them have a better day. And that’s powerful.

4. What makes a song right for you as a performer?

It has to be a hit. I got into Music Under New York as a New Orleans blues piano player. It was a unique way to categorize myself, and unique is what they’re looking for. However, I quickly realized that the audience for that style of music is not that big, so as the months went by and I was able to shed a lot of my performance anxiety — for me, MUNY was a transformative experience in that respect — I understood that a lot of the music I had played as a kid, Billy Joel and Elton John… people would find those songs the most universally appealing. So I play tunes that the most amount of people will respond to. If you want to reach people and make a living at it, that’s key.

5. You’ve busked and been a club booking agent and taught piano while working for your breakthrough. What advice do you have for aspiring performers?

As far as busking goes, just do it. It sounds cliché, but I struggled with a lot of fear. It took me a long time to submit my audition tape to MUNY, but nothing would have stopped me from just taking a keyboard into the subway and playing. So for busking, you’re never going to know if it’s right for you unless you try.

Also, your intention as a performer has to come from a pure place. If you’re not doing it for the right reasons, people sniff out the insincerity of your performance. You can tell when musicians are passionate about their art. So maybe the most important advice is to be true to yourself. If you want to push forward, spread a message or give your gift back, you have no other choice than to say what you have to say.

6. Was there a performer who made you want to become a musician?

My stepfather was my earliest influence because he taught me how to play the piano. I didn’t initially take to it. I was steeped in a lot of cool music because it was the early ’70s, so I would listen to my parents’ soul, funk, Motown, blues… a lot of great genres. My step-dad, John Seiter, was a drummer who played with the Turtles, Spanky and Our Gang, Odetta, John Sebastian, the Mothers and all sorts of great bands. I just got a glimpse of the high point of his career as he was transitioning out of it.

7. Which songwriters have influenced you the most?

Stevie Wonder is my number one. I grew up listening to Fulfillingness’ First Finale and Songs In the Key of Life, but the thing I didn’t get until I was in high school is the energy and passion he was able to convey in that music, and the idea that it had a spiritual element. He had an open channel to a higher source. As a songwriter, you are trying to be a channel. Sure, you create the song, but it is coming through you.

To keep that channel open, you need to try to stay present and awake and aware, which can be challenging. Living in the now. If you enjoy escaping through all the various escape routes — drinking, partying… Then your body’s not going to feel so good. Creatively, it’s, well, what you consume in that aspect of your life, too. What you read, what the see, what content you absorb. That all has something to do with what you produce as an artist.

8. What are you favorite albums?

My favorite albums are Songs In the Key of Life, Dr. John’s Gumbo and anything by Ray Charles. Also, anything by Billy Joel or Elton John. Their body of work is tremendous.

9. Is there something you’d like to be able to explore in a song that you haven’t?

So much. I really want to get into expressing my journey, the life I have led, and the wisdom I’ve accrued. I guess I’d like to create an autobiography of sorts in song. I feel every 10 years of my life is a lifetime in itself. I’ve had so many transformations. I was a really troubled kid and had a tough time until I emerged. All the choices I’ve made and the places they’ve led me… I’d like to capture that.

Also, I just want to rely on being a channel — being open enough to let whatever comes through come through. Billy, in one of his classes, loosely quoted Tom Waits: “You have to lie really still to wait for the big ones.” That’s hard in our society. There’s a strong current that’s the mainstream, and it’s full of garbage. You have to try not to get pulled into it.

10. Why did you choose BMI?

Because of Billy. I didn’t know anything about BMI or any of the other organizations, but since I’d just gone though a BMI songwriting course I figured I’d go with BMI. I did some research after that and found that BMI is well respected and everybody I’ve had interactions with at BMI has been really nice. The whole process has been a pleasure. I’m just getting started, but I think BMI’s services will bear fruit.


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