BY: JIM VILLANUEVA
To multiple generations of emerging and established artists, Nashville is nirvana, a music mecca, a fulcrum for serious songwriters who don’t just make music for a living, but for whom music is life. For years now, Tony Lucca has had the energy and spirit of Music City coursing through his veins, a seemingly life-sustaining flow of inspiration that in part served as the lifeblood for the writing, recording and producing of his current self-titled album, the eighth full-length studio set in his notable canon. “When you go into a writing session, you gotta know who you’re writing for…and then you dig in,” says Lucca, who at this stage in his career has become a seasoned songsmith.
For Lucca, who was raised in a very large musical family in yet another American music mecca, Detroit, home to Motown, the constant opening of professional doors started when he was very young. By the age of 12, his already well-honed musical talent literally began to pay dividends, after earning his first few bucks for a gig at a junior high school dance. In 1995, following a four-season run as a cast member on The All New Mickey Mouse Club alongside fellow future hit making heavyweights Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears, Lucca relocated to Los Angeles where he dove into doing the Hollywood shuffle/auditioning actor thing before deciding to ditch acting in favor of pursuing his true passion. “I think it was definitely 1996 when I realized I had to make it clear for myself, if no one else, what I was going to do and how I was going to channel my energy; what I was gonna focus on and what I was willing to sacrifice it all for, and that was music.
It’s fair to say Lucca has long since stopped chasing his dream of making music, and for some time now has been living his dream. So what lies ahead? What’s on tap for a man who is now a husband, a father and of course a top tier singer-songwriter? Lots! Lucca has seen more than his fair share of changes in the musical landscape since the release of his 1997 debut, So Satisfied. He has surveyed the landscape and sees a blank canvas, an opportunity to use a wide new palette of colors to paint more musical portraits, while still displaying his past masterpieces in different frames. That is the sign of a true artist.
Tony, thanks for your time today. Certainly by now you are a seasoned journeyman musician and songwriter, but paint a picture for me of where and when your sonic journey began. I know you were raised in a very large musical family, but can you take us back to perhaps the moment when you first knew you wanted to make music for the rest of your life?
There was definitely this moment that the dream was born as a kid, where my eyes got real wide and I kind of saw the vision of it walking into a music shop in Detroit when I was probably seven or eight, and just seeing rows and rows of guitars on the walls, and I was like, holy cow, that is awesome. I want all of them. But then yeah, I obviously started real early in actually making the music and getting up onstage by the age of 12; getting paid to do it. I found myself deeply entrenched in the business by the time I was driving and making career caliber money at it. But I think it was definitely 1996 when I was kinda going through a pretty gnarly breakup and really felt compelled to say something about it. I went home, grabbed a guitar and wrote a song, and I knew right away that it was the caliber of song that if I could kind of really stick to it and take it this seriously every time that I’d be the kind of artist I’ve always dreamed I might end up being at some point.
You’ve previously cited influences that seemingly range from AC/DC to ZZ Top, and everything in between, but how much – if any at all – did you draw from your hometown of Detroit’s massive musical legacy, of course courtesy of Motown?
Oh yeah. To speak specifically about the ones you mentioned, that was part of the bio for the last album which was a new leaf sort of thing – that record having been a bit more of the classic rock sound that I grew up on as a kid, and really returning to those roots on that last record. But for years I’ve been doing the singer-songwriter thing and explaining to people that Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne, Crosby Stills & Nash and Paul Simon have informed my writing and my work. If I’ve had one adversity my whole career, it’s been diversity; it’s that I’ve been a little too diverse and a little too eclectic for modern times. There’s been a little of the acoustic stuff, there’s been a little rock stuff, there’s been a little soul stuff, but the one thing that kind of runs through all of it has been this soulful element, this soul quality; a bluesy blue collar soul. And in hindsight, looking back, yeah I would easily attribute that to, you know, literally it was in the water (laughs). The Motown music was really a large part of the early soundtrack of my life, and when I hear it my subconscious just wakes up and I feel extremely connected to Marvin Gaye and Smokey Robinson and Stevie Wonder. But yeah, Motown was a big influence.
Going back to the “diversity” thing for a second, there was a band called – oh I’m trying to remember – The Beatles, I think (laughs)…
I don’t think they had any problem with the diversity thing (laughs). But we are in different times and I totally get what you’re talking about. So let’s fast forward to present day: your current self-titled album opens with the song “Old Girl,” and I gather it’s a pretty stinging rebuke of the current state of the music business. You’ve seen lots of changes since the 1997 release of your debut album, So Satisfied. So explain why you are so dissatisfied with, as Pink Floyd dubbed it back in 1975, the “machine.”
Yeah man, it’s funny because I’d been doing the indie thing for so long and making my own bed, sort of speak, and taking things as they came. After doing The Voice (third place finish, Season Two) and signing with Adam Levine’s label, that was the first time I’d signed to an actual label where I was going to have an A&R person to report to; have someone else involved in what I was doing, and a marketing team that was going to chime in and weigh in on what I was gonna cut and what was gonna be recorded. That was interesting to me. I wasn’t naïve that that was how it was gonna go, but I thought like maybe by now I had earned a little more freedom in that department (laughs). And then strangely somehow you get thrown through such a ringer that [you think] how in the hell is this no longer fun, and I think that song is sort of about that. And as much of a rebuke or a scathing indictment as it might be, the hook does round out with out with the old, in with the new. There’s gotta be a bit of a positive spin on it; you gotta keep pressing forward and finding out what’s new and what the new paradigm is gonna look like and how we’re all gonna make it work and find satisfaction in it somehow.
Yeah man, it’s an interesting thing because Nashville is morphing at a rather rapid rate; it’s going through quite a metamorphosis. I moved here initially back in 2000 which was right around the time that Garth Brooks and Shania Twain had sort of flipped Music Row up on its head. All of a sudden country was taking on these arena rock proportions and radio was becoming a huge, huge part of who was getting signed and how labels were going to start spending their money and marketing music. It was just a different time here. That being said, this town is nothing if not efficient. When you go into a writing session they sit you down and you gotta know what you’re writing for; who you’re writing for. Are we writing country, are we writing pop, are we writing crossover; what is this gonna be? And then you dig in. And once you get adjusted to all of that and you can find a way to preserve your creative mojo, then you find a rhythm within that structure to remain creative and contribute great ideas and strong lyrics and good melodies and be a part of big songs, eventually, and big careers.
I think these days it’s important to note that Nashville’s nickname is Music City and not Country Music City. I guess my point is that it’s not your father – or your grandfather’s – Nashville, as you’ve pointed out. That said, some of your latest record was written and recorded in Nashville with fellow writers out there. Tell me about the experience of being in the room with Nashville songwriters.
I learned a lot, right off the bat because again, doors were flying open for me that would have otherwise stayed shut, or I would have had to get into a much longer line to wait to get into [the room]. I started to get introduced to some writers that work a little outside the Music Row country market world. You gotta drive a little bit out of town to have these sessions, but it’s certainly worth it when you do because you get there, you’re in someone’s home studio, you hang out, you have a couple beers, and next thing you know you forget where you are and how long you’ve been there and you’re writing some really cool stuff. Personally, for me, writing for my stuff, that became where I’ve landed and that’s where I’ve felt most comfortable and most productive and most honest. And I’ve written some really cool stuff both on and off Music Row since.
This year will mark the tenth anniversary of the release of your album Canyon Songs, and that features the standout song for me, “Around the Bend.”
Oh, nice. It’s so funny you should say that because that was a song I wrote in a motel room in Nashville, years ago.
Well stay on that note because I was gonna ask you to share some memories about making that great, tip of the cap to the Laurel Canyon sound, but take me into that motel room.
Yeah, it was quite a trip because I was down here in Nashville visiting and trying to take some meetings and do some writing and I had a whole day and night to kill. I went to a liquor store, grabbed a bottle of Tennessee whiskey and I went back to my motel room. I left the door open, poured myself a drink, grabbed my guitar and just kinda started writing it, and it seemed like a story that sort of told itself. But I just remember looking out the door into the hillsides, the woods and just that sort of southern Tennessee air and just thinking about all the greats that had come through here; that had started here or landed here or made their mark here, and what a trip it is; what a pleasure and an honor it is to get the opportunity to just grab a bit of that mojo and make it your own, one song at a time.
It sure is, man! That’s my boy Timmy Jones, or Dr. Jones as he was called back in the day (laughs).
Tim and I have had a handful of really good conversations in the past several years. So one more thing on Canyon Songs: it was your second set released with Rock Ridge Music – by the way, a label whose roster I’m particularly fond of (Ike Reilly, The Damnwells, Humming House, Folk Family Revival). What was the determining factor for you to make Rock Ridge your musical home?
I was introduced to them through my manager at the time in L.A. who had worked with the president, Tom Derr. They seemed really cool, they seemed really straight forward and forward-thinking and a couple years later when I had finished Canyon Songs and I was considering distribution I said, well, how ‘bout I send it to them and see what they think. And I did and they heard Canyon Songs prior to me having had it mastered, and they said, we’ll put this out as soon as you want to. And I said, okay, I guess we’re gonna work together. So that was it. They got behind it and we did quite a bit of work for a while.
Well as I already alluded to, I’m a big fan of that label, so I think you definitely made the right choice. Now I wanted to ask you about your involvement with M.I.L.E. (Music Is Love Exchange). Give us a brief overview of what the organization does and why you got involved.
Well actually I’m one of the founders of it – my wife and I and my former manager Jason Spiewak and some partners of ours from Louisiana. With Rock Ridge we were always trying to find opportunities while on the road to kind of break up the monotony and the self-importance of touring (laughs) by making hospital visits and by giving back to the communities through which we tour. We spent a couple of days, a couple of different times, over at Walter Reed (Army Medical Center) playing for those guys, and doing a lot of children’s hospital work and realizing, here we are bringing this gift of music and this uplifting afternoon to whoever might need it, and in return what we leave with is just so much more fulfilling than an afternoon in a hotel room or killing time in a bar before sound check. It was like, wow this feels good, let’s do more of this, let’s find a way to put this on a larger scale. And I don’t know too many artists that given the opportunity and the platform don’t want to do stuff like that, and contribute and give back somehow in any way they can. So the M.I.L.E. started as, let’s find a way to do this and maybe somehow supplement artists while they’re on the road, so that they can pad their tour schedule a little bit to accommodate them for more of these activities. And it’s just really great to work side-by-side with fans and then after the work is done we go back to our hotel each night and have nightly house concerts. And it’s just like this really fulfilling wonderful thing and it’s kind of taken on a life of its own that has impressed us all beyond our expectation.
That is very cool, Tony. Thank you for the clarification; I hadn’t noted that you started the [organization] and were a founder of M.I.L.E., so thank you for clarifying that for me. I did watch a video on YouTube of you guys down in Guatemala, working at a hospital and a school. So great, great work.
So earlier in the conversation I mentioned the song “Around the Bend.” I’d like to use that title to wrap the conversation. So what’s next? What’s around the bend for you, a guy who’s done the acting thing, who of course was on The Voice, who is a husband, a father, etc?
It’s been a wild two years. Stepping aside from my career to go do The Voice, going through that whole ordeal and on the heels of that working with Adam Levine, touring with Maroon 5 and putting out a couple of EPs and another full length. I got to the end of this last self-titled album cycle, more or less – though I’m still kind of in it – and I just was like, okay, yeah, now what? What do I have in me to muster up, and do I wanna get back in to the studio and work on a new project? Is it time for that or is it time to take a second, take a beat? And then it dawned on me that this is the tenth-year anniversary of Canyon Songs and I’m one of the few artists at my stage in the game who actually owns all of his records; I own the whole catalog. I thought, instead of getting back out there maybe I’ll look at this big stockpile that I have and shine some more light on it and reflect for a minute and promote the body of work. Promote myself more as a songwriter; a writer and an explorer. So working with Rock Ridge Music we had pretty constructive conversations about how best to do that. We mapped out a proper timeline over the course of the next year to do lots of touring and our focus of course being on Canyon Songs. I’ve got lots of traveling ahead. In the meanwhile, we’re working on a periodic releasing of deep cuts, B-sides, rarities, other stuff and ultimately we’re gonna culminate with a 10-year anniversary vinyl edition of Canyon Songs.”
Ah, nice! Finally, I guess it would be fair to say that you’ve long since stopped chasing the dream of making music and in fact for a long time now you’ve been living your dream. Is that fair to say?
Yeah, that’s spot on.
Well it’s been a pleasure. Thank you.
Likewise, Jim. Thanks, brother. See ya.