Singer-Songwriter and Producer JOHN DENICOLA Discusses His Dirty Dancing Fame and His Brand New Debut Album!
Get to know singer-songwriter John DeNicola! He is best known for co-writing the hit song from the film Dirty Dancing, “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life.” In fact in 1988, he won both an Academy Award and a Golden Globe Award, as well as receiving a Grammy nomination for the tune. In 1989 he was the co-winner of the ASCAP Award for the “Most Performed Songs from Motion Pictures” for that song again as well as for “Hungry Eyes”, another song from Dirty Dancing. In addition to these hits for Bill Medley, Jennifer Warnes and Eric Carmen, he has also written songs with and for Eddie Money, John Waite, Kristine W, Steve Holy, Jeannie Kendall, Sugar Jones, Annie Haslam, Bernie Worrell, The Sighs and Martin Briley.
More recently, late last year DeNicola released his debut solo album called “The Why Because.” This is a collection comprised largely of DeNicola originals—including called “(I’ve Had) the Time of My Life.” A subtle yet deceptively complex album of simply beautiful songs, The Why Because has been brought to fruition by DeNicola’s exacting ears, light touch, superb musicianship and gently endearing voice. There’s the bouncy pop gem “Everything You,” then “All in the Hands of Grace,” which is a remembrance rendered in delicate guitar and pattered percussion; and the dark, driven “Brand New Day.”
Connect With John DeNicola Online Here:
Omad Records website: https://www.omadrecords.com/store/john-denicola-the-why-because
Learn more about John DeNicola in the following All Access interview-
Happy New Year! When it comes to your music, what are you most excited about for 2020?
I’m always excited about making music and hopefully getting it into people’s ears. I’m excited about getting “you’re the Only One” out on the airwaves and then maybe follow it up with my version of my song “Hungry Eyes”. I also am currently producing an EP for the band The Sighs here at my studio which we tracked for 3 days on Jan 1, 2 and 3rd, working on a new Rust Dust record in March and getting the third Fovea record out this year.
Can you recall the moment when you thought you could be a musician? What do you think motivated you day in and day out?
I remember being in the basement of my childhood home picking notes on open strings on a guitar that belonged to my older brother, It was a Harmony Archtop, and overhearing my mom say to my dad “I think he sounds like he would be good at it”. Around the same time at about 5 or 6 I heard the plaintiff voice of unrequited love sung by Roy Orbison on the song Pretty Woman. I knew from then on that I would do music for a career so the love of music is what motivated me.
How do you think your hometown has influenced the kind of music that you make? If not, why is that?
Hmm…though we moved around a lot I started life in Amityville, NY and the music around me on local radio and in my household through my mom’s playing the piano, my brothers all playing an instrument and records my dad would play on his hifi system downstairs all had an influence on me.. We all took music lessons. My parents had a lot of dance parties also in the basement. I would hear the bass notes in my bedroom. Perhaps that’s why I was drawn to playing bass as one of my instruments. Then when I moved to Centerport ,NY and became friends with two brothers there , John and Ken Favre, who also played instruments. We developed a love of both underground and Pop music of the day. We were avid fans and listeners and then we would go down to the basement and emulate what we were hearing. Bands like Moby Grape, Traffic, Stevie Wonder, John McLaughlin, Frank Zappa, Hendrix, Otis Redding. I formed my first band with them.
Growing up, how important was music in your life? Was your family and friends supportive of this career choice? If you weren’t a musician today, what else could you see yourself doing?
As I said music became an influence at an early age and has never stopped being extremely important in my life. Maybe an obsession actually. I feel best when I’m listening, playing, recording, producing or writing music. My parents were supportive about pursuing music. They were laid back about what I might pursue as a career but would be supportive no matter what I would decide. I was lucky that my parents didn’t pressure me to be anything in particular and were open and supportive to what I might want to do. Later on when we won an Oscar for “The Time of my Life” my ailing hospitalized mother said coincidentally “I think he gets it from me” which is a famous line in Dirty Dancing said by Baby’s Mom.
Since my closest friends of my middle school through college years were musicians we were of course on the same page. I have no idea what I would be doing if I wasn’t doing music.
What has been the biggest surprise so far about making music your career? What has been an unexpected or welcome challenge to it all? What has been the best part about it all?
The success we achieved with the writing of two songs that have become such a part of our American vernacular has been a pleasant surprise. One hopes all their songs are going to be successful but it’s unusual to have the lasting popularity that “The Time Of My Life” and “Hungry Eyes” have achieved.
Unexpected challenge would be matching that sort of success in other endeavors. I have pursued many different types of music since this success and worked with various types of music and bands from Indie rock to r&b to jazz and enjoy all of it. I really enjoy producing other artists and working in the studio. The best part of it all is that the success has enabled me to continue to write, record and produce music that interests me and work with artists that I believe in and enjoy working with.
Let’s talk about your most recent collection, “The Why Because.” What made you decide to put this together now? How did you go about deciding the songs to feature on it? What was it like getting into the studio to record them?
Two things kicked off the project “The Why Because”. After building a studio in our barn upstate NY it was time to test the big room out with drums. We recorded the Moby Grape song “I am Not Willing” just for the heck of it. It was written by founding member of Moby Grape Peter Lewis whom I had recently finished producing a record for. I threw down the tracks and decided to put my vocal on it. After Peter heard it and said he really liked it I thought hmmm. Then I wanted to rerecord a song I wrote with my Dirty Dancing writing partner Franke Previte, which was in a Sylvester Stallone movie “Avenging Angelo” sung by Steve Holy. Steve did a wonderfully haunting version of it that worked perfectly for the movie scene. The song was never released outside of the movie. Being one of my favorite songs, that Franke and I had written, I wanted to hear the song a certain way and to rerecord it that way for the purpose of getting another artist to cover it. When it was time to get someone to sing the demo I just decided to give it a try myself and to continue to record more songs and put together the album.
After these two songs I started searching my repertoire to find songs I thought I could identify with and put across vocally. Many of my songs are written with a particular artist in mind so I had to find the songs I knew I could identify with.
Getting into the studio to record them was maybe the most fun I’ve had musically. The tracks came easily and I got a chance to play many of the instruments I have collected over the years. From sitar to guitar to marimba to clavioline and of course bass and guitars. The process was a culmination of what I had learned to date both as a songwriter, musician and engineer/producer.
What was it like working on the favorites, “Hungry Eyes” and “Time Of My Life”? Where did the ideas for these come from?
The challenge in doing “Hungry Eyes” and “Time Of My Life” was how to do them that would be different and interesting. For Hungry Eyes my son, who is a filmmaker/musician, suggested that many contemporary indie rock bands are influenced by 80’s synth pop and maybe I could approach it that way. I think it was a great suggestion and it kick started my recording of it using the Roland Juno -106 that I originally wrote the song on.
I questioned whether I should approach “The Time of My Life” at all. Because it is such an up song with great vocals by both Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes I wondered how I would be able do that in a way that would be interesting. I decided that I would strip it down to just acoustic guitar and a small brass section and close the record with an homage to it.
Originally “Hungry Eyes” was written for my DD writing partner Franke Previte for his record. This track, musically, came to me in ten minutes. The music just played itself down. Sometimes music just comes from somewhere else and subconsciously flows out. Not often but sometimes.
“The Time Of My Life” was written for the movie by myself, Franke Previte and Donald Markowitz. There was a call to all writers to submit songs who were given the parameters that the filmmakers were looking for but it’s not like we were chosen to write it. As the story goes they had listened to 150 songs and our song was on the last cassette they put in. They were getting concerned as they had to film the ending dance sequence and still did not have the song and when this song came on they all were elated knowing that they had what they needed.
How did the collaborations between Maroon 5 bassist Mickey Madden, former Styx guitarist Glen Burtnick, bluesman Zonder Kennedy and drummer Brian Delaney (New York Dolls, Wu Tang Clan) come to be on “The Why Because”?
Mickey Madden is a friend from when Tommy Allen and I produced Kara’s Flowers first record. They went on to become what we now know as Maroon 5. We’ve kept in touch through the years and when I sent him the track of “In God’s Shadow” he loved it. One of the cowriters on “In God’s Shadow” is Keith Reid who was the lyricist for Procol Harem and wrote the lyrics for the classic tune “Whiter Shade of Pale”. Mickey being a fan of Procol Harem said he’d love to play bass on the track. John Waite also being a cowriter said he would add his voice to the song’s harmonies. The song was originally written for John’s record “Temple Bar”. His version was an uptempo rocker and I decided to slow it down and have the feel of an English folk tune.
Co-writer Patti Maloney’s childhood friend Glen Burtnick played piano on “Everything You” a few years back when we demo’d it and his parts fit so well that I kept them and built tracks around that.
Zonder Kennedy is someone I met recently. He happens to have a home up the hollow from where my upstate studio is and we became friends and I asked him to come in and just play the solo section. I was looking for a blues like guitar solo ala Pink Floyd and I was lucky to get him to lend his magic to the track.
Drummer Brian Delaney has been playing on the last few records that I’ve produced. Arwen Lewis, Peter Lewis and now my record. He lends such a great feel to everything he plays on and is a super guy.
So really just guys that I know through the years that were kind enough to lend their talents to my record.
What was the inspiration for your new song, “You’re The Only One”?
The Inspiration for “You’re The Only One” was the direction given when Sylvester Stallone described what type of song he needed for his scene in his movie “Avenging Angelo”. So I responded to the direction musically and wrote the music and melody and Franke Previte wrote the lyrics. I felt really comfortable with the lyric and interpreting the song for my record and my friend Jim Yaeger, who worked with Cindy Lauper, Ozzy Osbourne etc., did a wonderful job orchestrating the song for me. Jim and I were in a fusion band Flight which was on Motown Records. Erykah Badu sampled a song off that record for her song “Back In The Day”. Jimmy passed away recently and I think of him often.
Do you hope to hit the road at all this year and play these songs live?
I put together a band for my record release show and plan to do more shows in the near future. I have no immediate plans to tour but that is in the mix.
How do you think you have grown as a musician since you first started making music? What if anything has stayed the same about your music-making process?
Thankfully I don’t think you ever stop growing as a musician. I think that with each project you work on you gain a little more insight and take in a little more experience that becomes helpful on the next project. I think there is a cumulative effect. I try to stay current and not let myself get stagnant and on the production side I’m always trying new things sonically and you can’t help but learn when you experiment.
What has stayed the same in my music making process is what I hope comes across as honesty. I write and play music from my gut with not a lot of intellectualizing. If it sounds right then it is right. I try and play it from the heart and soul.
How do you feel about social media? What do you think social media has done for your career so far?
I guess social media is what was once called artist development. In the past record labels would work bands to press and radio and now it seems incumbent on the artist to do their own development. In a way it levels the playing field but on the other hand it’s a lot harder to cut through the myriad of other artist vying for the same attention. The immediacy of social media is helpful to reach out to people who already know about you and you can access them quickly and easily.
What musicians would you absolutely still love to work with in the future?
I’m pretty happy with the collaborations and musicians I am working with at the moment. I’d love to do more with them. I’m planning to work with John Waite on some tunes we wrote in the past that we revisited and were impressed with what was there and hope to flesh it out for a new release. I am of course open to working with any artist or cowriter regardless of genre.
If you could design your dream music video right now, what would it look like?
My son Jake just purchased a 16 mm film camera after he produced a few video’s by the artist Raveena in which they used film and I was so impressed with the results that came from using film. It’s not unlike my love of analog gear for audio. There is a fullness and richness that comes with analog be it film or audio that is very attractive to my eyes and ears.
At the end of the day, what do you hope people take away from your music?
With all that we go through in our world with the many problems politically and with our environment I would hope that people can get some release and escape to a place that relaxes them and that they can find some truth and honesty and peace in that even if it’s only for a fleeting few minutes . That would be my hope for any of the music that I get to participate in making.