An article in the Globe and Mail recently lamented “The End of the True ‘Singer-Songwriter’.”
The reporter who wrote it clearly had not met David Picco.
This is one Newfoundlander whose growing success in The Big Smoke shows it’s possible to succeed on the strength of your songs, not the contact list of your PR firm. Where other musicians spend time building their reputation at home before venturing into the wider world, this Goulds native came straight to Toronto nine years ago with a minimum of experience — and zero formal musical training — and proceeded to carve himself a career as a popular and sought-after musician and producer.
Now his third album (second as a solo artist) will be launched in Toronto later this month, adding to the string of hard-earned successes that make up Picco’s impressive bio.
Man of many musical faces
Picco’s already well known for his work in JetSet Motel, a Toronto-based band he put together with three other Newfoundlanders. JetSet’s self-titled debut album came out exactly a year ago, to widespread acclaim from music media across the country.
“I just wanted to do something she would be proud of… They’re heartfelt songs, and I stand by them.” —Dave Picco
An early breakthrough came for Picco when he met up with legendary singer-songwriter Kyp Harness. Impressed with Harness’ songwriting and the wide range of material he covers, Picco regularly attended shows and was eventually invited to perform with him on a permanent basis. Today, he’s lead guitarist and also produced Harness’ latest album ‘Resurrection Gold’. But more important for him than these musical accomplishments, is the close friendship that emerged between them.
“I wouldn’t call him a mentor, because he’s not the sort of guy who goes around telling other people what to do — he’s not like that,” Picco explains. “But what impressed me about him was his songwriting, and the fact that he covers so much ground. Sometimes his songs are serious, sometimes they’re straight up ballads, sometimes they’re really witty or full of really oddball humour.”
Picco draws on a range of other influences: Dean Wareham (Galaxie 500), Jason Molina (Songs:Ohia), Ron Sexsmith, and Jeff Tweety (Wilco is the band Jet Set Motel is often compared to). But of all these, Kyp Harness “is my fave, because I’ve never heard anybody with such a natural gift for writing songs and lyrics. He’ll just go out for a walk in the evening and come back with a song.”
Picco has branched out himself: he performed the live soundtrack to a theatrical production of Joel Hynes’ ‘The Devil You Don’t Know’ that played in Toronto; and recently CBC picked up three Jet Set Motel tunes for use in the series Republic Of Doyle, including one of the tracks on Picco’s new album.
Trials and adversity
It hasn’t all been easy though, Picco explains, his voice still slightly raspy from recent throat surgery that forced him off singing for a month. His mother died in late 2010, and he recalls it as a dark time in his life, albeit one that led to the recording of this new album. While he was back in St. John’s, his brother – also a musician – encouraged him to record the new CD.
“My brother said let’s do it. We can sit around and get drunk, or we can do this and get your new CD out.”
The album was recorded in three days in St. John’s, with a fourth day of work in Toronto. There’s a purity to it that reflects the singer-songwriter skills Picco has been cultivating on the mainland — one of the things he’s happiest about is it required zero vocal editing.
While Picco exhibits a range of styles on the album — including a Harness cover — and draws on the talents of a variety of backup musicians (including his brother Chris, George Morgan on drums, Jimmy Rose on guitar, Christine Bougie on lap steel, and others), the theme of loss pervades much of the new album. It’s not surprising, given the circumstances surrounding its recording immediately after his mother’s death.
““You gotta work hard. You can’t rest on your laurels up here.” —Dave Picco
“I just wanted to do something she would be proud of,” he recollects. “I didn’t second-guess anything. They’re heartfelt songs, and I stand by them. I just did it on honesty. There’s sadness there, but sometimes music’s like that.”
But if there’s sadness there, what stands out even more to the listener is the songwriting skills Picco’s harnessed in his active years of playing and recording in Toronto. He smiles when he thinks back to his first album, and how hesitant he was to put his music out there for others. Now, he says, he’s already ready to begin work on his next CD, and no longer second-guesses the music he writes.
Three albums, and a solid reputation as musician, songwriter and producer can seem quite an accomplishment for a fellow who left the Goulds without a single music lesson. But Picco has no intention of slowing down — in the fast-paced Canadian indie music scene, you don’t dare.
“You gotta work hard,” he emphasizes. “You can’t rest on your laurels up here — you gotta be out working your ass off all the time.”
The CD release for David Picco’s self-titled solo album will be happening April 21 at The Dakota Tavern in Toronto, featuring a variety of musical guests. The album will be available at Fred’s Records this month, and a second CD release will be happening in St. John’s on June 25 at The Ship, to kick off a national tour. For more information, check out http://radio3.cbc.ca/#/bands/David-Picco