Scott Amendola: Unlimited Possibilities
The quality of singing is something Amendola can certainly appreciate. Beyond his instrumental projects lies a long resume of backing up distinctive vocal stylists, including Noe Venable, Kelly Joe Phelps, and, most visibly, Madeleine Peyroux. He came into Peyroux's camp during the recording of her breakthrough album, Careless Love (Rounder, 2004). Larry Klein, the album's producer, approached Amendola about playing on the record. Amendola was on tour with Phelps, but he found time to visit the studio and lay down brushwork on one track. When it came time for Peyroux to hit the road, Amendola got the call again. He's been a mainstay on her tours ever since.
Amendola finds the experience rewarding, but there have been unexpected twists. "The shows have been wonderful," he says, "musically it's been great. But one thing that's interesting is that there's been a minor amount of... not backlash, but unhappiness from some fans over the shows." Referring to some of the hype that has built up around Peyroux's quirky vocal style, he says, "Some people see Madeleine in terms of this Billie Holiday connection. They come in thinking, 'oh wow, I'm gonna hear the new Billie Holiday.' And then when they hear her and get a taste of who she really is, they're not ready for it. They say, 'wait, that's not what I wanted to pay however many dollars to go see.' Because Madeleine is so much more than that. But some of the audience comes from an old-school perspective, wanting to define things, and they just can't deal with it. That's unfortunate, but luckily, that's a really small percentage of the audience."
Amendola finds that each singer he backs up is unique. "Different vocalists want different things," he explains, "just like different saxophone players or anybody else would. Like with Madeleine there's this real minimal thing. I play brushes on like 90 percent of the gig. For about two weeks on this last tour, she wanted me to play sticks on a few things, but then she wanted to go back to brushes."
"With Kelly Joe, I was playing a lot of sticks and doing a lot of percussion things. He used to be a fretless electric jazz bassist. An improviser. So it was still about the songs, but every song was different each night, whether it was his vocal phrasing or just where the songs went. Because of who he is and where he's coming from I could bring in all the elements of improvisation, and the energy was just incredible. He's one of the most interesting guys I've ever played with. It was just genius, this great marriage of song and improv."
"Then when I was working with Noe Venable, it was really about parts, and coming up with those, whether it was a drum part or a percussion part or whatever. And that's interesting for me, working with parts and song structures. Like when I made that record with Jewlia Eisenberg and Marika Hughes called Thick Red Pocket was the name of the band we just made the record. We'd played a couple of gigs, or maybe just one, so they let me just come up with parts that I liked. And they let me go crazy with percussion, let me do whatever I wanted. So in any vocal situation it comes down to what the singer wants; some people don't want much at all and some people want a lot of stuff. It's about that and being musical and not overplaying, you know? I've had times in all of those gigs where the songs were so great, that even if I was barely playing or even stopped playing, that could be equally satisfying as playing, just being in that environment."
Working with singers has opened up new vistas in Amendola's personal style, both as a drummer and as a composer. "It did bring out something different, and that's just being more aware and conscious of what's happening. I mean, I've always felt pretty deep into the music, but playing with singers got me into learning songs and learning about songs; it's really deepened my relationship with song structure. I think I'm bringing that into everything else now, even free playing. In free playing, maybe it's not even conscious, but you end up structuring compositions. I find that a lot when I play with Nels, because Nels is a real song player, with lots of melodic ideas. That's where I'm coming from as a composer, too, I just write melodies and then I write chords. Or I don't even bother with chords: I'll just write melodies and let everybody else figure out what the chords are!"
Although he began writing music in college, Amendola doesn't feel his career as a composer really began until 1997 or 1998: "once I began working with the right group of people, it just started coming." His compositional method hasn't changed, but he feels that his sense of harmony has grown over time. "And the other thing is that I'm more comfortable as a bandleader, which makes me more comfortable as a composer. But composing is still the scariest thing in music. I can play someone else's song in front of a million people, but playing my own song in front of two people is just terrifying."
Composition is still something of a mystery for Amendola. "The thing for me is that it's something I can't force. I can't try to write something. It just comes to me and I go with it, and try to make it work if I can. Like when I've made my records, I may expressing a certain thing, but I don't really control that. It's just whatever's coming out and coming together, and how I'm feeling at the time."