Asbury Park singer-songwriter Tara Dente chats about her roots, her records and other triumphs, her great band (featuring members of The Burns, Levy & the Oaks, and Remember Jones), and her upcoming appearance at the second annual Makin Waves Roots Fest on Aug. 11 at Asbury Park Brewery, and shows at Rockwood Music Hall (Sept. 6) and The Asbury Hotel (Sept. 7). Photos by Matthew Raspanti
What a treat talking with Travianna recording artist Tara Dente about how growing up in Long Branch, playing the open-mic circuit and recording with fellow singer-songwriter Dan Matlack influenced her career.
Tara lays out her story beautifully here, so I’m just going to get out of the way except to say that she is has been writing her second studio album for Virginia-based Travianna, a subsidiary of the esteemed Mountain Fever bluegrass label, with her band in mind. Bassist Chris Dubrow (The Burns, Avery Mandeville & the Man Devils, Rachel Ana Dobken), lap steel guitarist Chris Colon (Levy & the Oaks), and drummer Santo Rizzolo (Remember Jones, Arlan Feiles, Matt Wade) didn’t appear on 2017’s “The Gleaner,” but they will be on the next one, which begins recording in October for a 2019 release.
And with them, she also will play on Aug. 11 at the second annual Makin Waves Roots Fest, the final of four shows in the Makin Waves Summer Concert Series at Asbury Park Brewery. The evening also will feature Levy & the Oaks, The Burns, Cranston Dean Band, and The Paper Jets. She’ll also play solo acoustic on Aug. 9 at All Things Local in Red Bank with Pamela Flores and Jason Alton Miller, as well as with her band Sept. 6 at Rockwood Music Hall, New York City, and Sept. 7 at The Asbury hotel.
I hope you enjoy this chat as much as I did!
Where did you grow up and did it influence your desire and ability to be a singer-songwriter?
The title track of my next album actually references this. I mention ‘Pleasure Bay,’ which is an apartment complex in Long Branch, next to Oceanport. I grew up in a house down the road from there, but I used to walk by myself or with friends to a field next to Pleasure Bay apartments, where way in the far corner, there was a little spot covered by reeds to jump down onto the sand and mud if it was low tide.
I lived in a middle-class neighborhood. The houses were very close together, and you could both know your neighbors really well and also have never met some of them because there were all sorts of people and lifestyles, and sometimes a language barrier with Spanish-speaking families. I spent a good amount of time outside. I wasn’t naturally enthralled by suburbia and spent a lot of time in my head, daydreaming and being creative. I don’t know how much of this was unique to me and just being a kid.
I have a memory of seeing ‘Harriet the Spy’ in the movies one summer day. I was 8, and I remember that movie waking something up inside of me. I had a new hero. Harriet was fearless, adventurous, and followed her curiosity.
I have another memory, walking down Atlantic Avenue with my first Sony Discman to or from my friend’s house, listening to ‘A Day without Rain’ by Enya. I remember looking up at my familiar settings, everything a little drab and, well, suburban, and suddenly, everything was magical. The sky and its pink colors, the salty air, the sidewalk, it was like alchemy. Everything was suddenly interesting set to this soundtrack -- or maybe the visuals mattered less because now it didn’t need to be a source of happiness if I found happiness internally. Hindsight is 20/20. So maybe the connection is, in order to occupy myself and feel stimulated creatively in my suburban setting, I escaped with music.
There was a piano in my living room growing up, and I played that, not yet singing until high school, learning or writing some simple songs by ear. I didn’t like having assignments from a piano teacher very much, although I would take lessons on and off a few times as a child.
Who and what else influenced that desire and ability?
I grew up in church, so definitely that community. I was given countless opportunities to play piano with the church band, and then would go on to lead a youth band. There were some key people in my life there who helped, guided, and equipped me to learn. The community as a whole was supportive. There wasn’t that pressure one might feel in school or in a competitive setting, so I was able to gracefully improve and build self-esteem.
At home, my mom is Irish and had Celtic music on often. My dad’s sister, my Aunt Tina, was also key in my development. She showed me guitar for the first time, brought me to her home to record some of my early piano songs, and gave me feedback and praise for what I was doing. I also had a handful of friends in childhood who had instruments around their houses I could play, like piano, guitar, and drums.
I had a great piano teacher in high school who was supportive of my original compositions and seemed to accommodate my playing by ear while helping me to use that in tandem with my reading abilities. In college, I took a piano class and had a professor who allowed me to perform two original compositions for the end of semester recital. After a high school boyfriend of mine had purchased a Martin guitar, I picked it up, and he showed me some chords, and I immediately was drawn to the intimacy of that instrument -- the feeling and sounds of it. Not until the end of high school did I begin to take a few voice lessons with Allie Moss, which opened up the world of lyricism, which until then was only melody. All these people encouraged and nurtured my musical development. The desire was just there, like an appendage of me.
Tara Dente records for Virginia-based Travianna Records and will be entering the studio soon to capture her next collection for them.
When and how did you get involved in the Asbury Park music scene, do you have any friends from home who also play there, and do you ever perform with them?
I started with open mics in Red Bank, Jamian’s, my first-ever open mic, where it was too loud to be heard but sentimental none the less; Keyport, Espresso Joe’s, where Ed Kok gave me an incredibly generous amount of stage time, and Toms River, Revolutionary Lounge, where Chris Rockwell was a big support to me. I met a bunch of musicians, poets and art appreciators through that open mic circuit.
My first times playing in Asbury Park were actually as a keyboard player with a surf-rock band, Plato Zorba, where Ryan Gregg (of Shady Street Show Band) more than took the torch. I did that for a while and had a lot of fun, but felt I was ultimately ignoring the pull I felt toward playing my own music. I felt like I was playing a role instead of being myself. Sometime in 2013, I started playing in Asbury due to those connections made through open mics and playing with the surf-rock band. Scott Stamper at The Saint had me open acoustically for other acts, and that’s one of the places I got comfortable on stage. Rick Barry and the Asbury Underground team gave me some slots over the years for Light of Day. I definitely made friends being a musician in Asbury, and yes we all often share bills together, across genres. I feel really lucky.
What record label are you on and how did you hook up with them?
I am with Travianna, a subdivision of Mountain Fever Records, based in Willis, Va. This is one of those branch-on-a-branch-on-a-branch things, loose ties that lead to further-reaching connections. Dan Matlack, a local musician-producer and fan of my music, asked if he could produce my second record. I said yes, and we worked together through 2016 on the making of ‘The Gleaner,’ released in 2017. The songs were already written, but he helped to bring them to life in a way I wouldn’t have, helping me to curate them through the lens of Americana and with a full band he was behind gathering. I met some great musicians that way, whom I still am so grateful came together to bring those songs to life.
So after the album was released, Dan decided to send them to a handful of labels to see what would happen. I didn’t know he had. I’m glad he believed in me and in the music because we heard back from Travianna, and I wound up signing with them. I really feel a sense of support and a genuine appreciation of my individuality and style. Mountain Fever is one of the premiere bluegrass labels in America, and its Americana label, Travianna, is growing quickly as well. The bottom line is they love music and are good people, and I’m happy to be learning and growing with them by my side.
What is the status of your next record and will it be released on the same label?
The songs are there, and the band is assembled. Recording is set for October of this year. What I like about this group -- locals Chris Dubrow, Chris Colon, and Santo Rizzolo -- is how the songs are being shaped in the writing stage, which is still mostly just me, for a band with room to breathe and expand. My writing style is changing in that way to accommodate more sound. The songs of ‘The Gleaner’ were somewhat more fixed as they were not written with a band in mind originally. I am really enjoying the process of creating more layers and breathing room in the songs. This will be my third album -- second studio album -- released with Travianna sometime in 2019.
What new songs are you performing live, what are they like, and what inspired them?
I’m starting to perform some of the new ones, which will be on the next album. Some of them I’ve been playing for a while now: ‘Ain’t No Time,’ ‘What a Mess,’ ‘Let a Good One Go’ -- and a few of them – ‘Hill So Steep,’ ‘Enough,’ ‘Truth in the Mud’ -- are totally new. ‘Enough’ is interesting. I wrote it on guitar, as I do all of my songs, but went to the piano to come up with a hook, when prompted by Mark Travianna, the last time I visited Virginia to do some pre-production. Once I did, I realized it sounds pretty cool on piano and then took on a second life. Now there are essentially two versions of ‘Enough.’ That’s fine with me, because it’s really fun to play the folk, fingerpicking iteration of it when I’m playing solo, and I look forward to shredding some piano with the guys thee next time I have the opportunity! I no longer have a piano of my own.
I have been circling back around to piano and feel I’m finally finding my own voice on it -- or maybe, I’m reconnecting or validating my child self who was once free on the piano, became rigid for a time, and is now becoming free again. I know my piano teachers -- in addition to being happy for me -- would all cringe to hear the clacking on the keys from my fingerpicking nails on my right hand.
‘Enough’ is a song that highlights the randomness of daily life and expectations we have of ourselves, feeling the pressure to be ‘enough,’ and comes around to the conclusion that no matter what, you’re enough. You have to start from that ‘whole’ place instead of trying to earn wholeness, because it can’t be earned. It’s a decision you make about your own worth, and seeing yourself through an ancient lens instead of a conditionally-based, societal one. I am going to release a video in the near future to accompany one of the songs on the third album.
Tara Dente’s band features bassist Chris Dubrow of The Burns and Avery Mandeville & the Man Devils, lap steel guitarist Chris Colon of Levy & the Oaks, and, not pictured, drummer Santo Rizzolo, who recently toured with New York City songstress Dana Fuchs.
What do you like most about performing with Chris and Chris?
Chris Dubrow is one of the hardest-working, funny, kind, and dependable people I’ve ever met. He will basically tell you to your face that he is not a bass player. Yet he plays with, like, six bands. If he’s not a bass player, then I’m not a guitar player. We share a lack of traditional training on our main instruments. But what we both have in common is our shared love of playing music. So he makes it work, and he’s really good, but he won’t ever tell you that.
Chris diverges from his electric bass to slay it on upright, occasionally using the bow to create a cello sound, which lends itself really well to some of my songs. I’ve never played the upright bass, but it looks really hard and somewhat painful. He must have some other-worldy callouses. The only downside to playing with CD is the reality that any moment, he will get swept away on tour with one of the many bands he plays with. Maybe we should all develop a Chris Dubrow Google calendar to share him.
Chris Colon is also a very busy fellow and with good reasons: he’s got a few different projects going on, has an amazing work ethic, is very talented, and is one of the few people in the area playing lap steel. Colon is another one I feel very lucky to be playing with, and he’s already added so, so much to the overall atmosphere of my songs. Whenever I’ve played live with him, listeners are sure to tell me how much they love his sound and how it fills out the songs. I’m really excited how his skills are going to open up the songs.
Who’s your new drummer and how did he come to join your band?
If you are in the Asbury Park or even NJ music scene and have never seen Santo Rizzolo play, then you don’t really go out. Santo is a drummer gem. He’s played with many of the folks in the music scene at one point or another, lending himself to an album release show, sitting in for someone else, or working with one of his multiple projects. He works so hard. I actually took a couple lessons from him at Lakehouse a while back, and still remember what he taught me! Some teach AND do.
While I was playing out solo, I was accompanying myself with foot percussion using a suitcase kick drum that Kevin Grossman -- another incredible drummer -- helped me to make, and for a while wasn’t really sure what direction I would take with things, but knew that the percussion helped to open up my set when I was playing solo. Over the course of a few months, Santo would come up to me and say, ‘If you ever need a drummer, let me know.’ In my mind, I already had a drummer (myself), and thought I would just do the trio thing when it worked out. But once I finally did take him up on it and saw how much chemistry the four of us had together, I don’t know if I can comfortably go back to playing songs alone as my default performance style. I am totally spoiled and totally OK with it. My grip on my songs has been slowly loosening (thank you, Dan) to allow room for collaboration and ... fun! Playing with a band is fun! Look out for my upcoming memoir, ‘Confessions of an Introverted Singer-Songwriter.’
What do you think of the lineup at the Makin Waves show at Asbury Park Brewery and what you looking forward to about it?
I’m excited to be part of the second annual Makin Waves Roots Fest. I mentioned some of the downsides around having band mates who are in a bunch of other local bands, but sometimes the stars align, and they are also on the same bill! Both The Burns (Dubrow) and Levy and the Oaks (Colon) are playing Aug. 11 at Asbury Park Brewery -- my first time playing there -- as well as a couple other local favorites, The Paper Jets and the Cranston Dean Band. What’s cool about flowing in and out of the singer-songwriter platform and playing with a band is I can be on bills like this that I might not otherwise ‘fit’ well with. I’m so grateful to have that opportunity!
Brian Erickson of The Paper Jets has been so, so supportive of me, and I don’t think I can talk to anyone in the scene who doesn’t share that sentiment. Cranston is one of those guys I saw at this small house show a couple years ago for the first time, and my mind was blown. And anyone who has seen him perform knows exactly what I’m talking about. That man wears his heart externally.
What else do you have coming up over the next few months for shows, touring, videos and anything else you want folks to know about?
The next few months is going to be shows locally -- follow me on Facebook at @taradentemusic and Instagram at @taradente – and preparation with the guys for recording in October. I’m looking forward to playing Rockwood Music Hall for the first time with the full band as an opener for my friend and fellow Travianna recording artist, Pi Jacobs (www.pijacobs.com) on Sept. 6. The next night at The Asbury hotel, she comes to my turf to play with her trio, all the way from California!
What is your greatest musical accomplishment and why, and how did it impact your career?
My greatest musical accomplishment, so far, is deciding to leave the profession I started in the mental health field about five years ago, although it served me for a time in order to make room to really be a Musician with a capital M and all. I have always been one. It’s who I am. But the shift that occurred is in believing that the thing that makes me most happy, could also make a lot of other people happy if I were to serve them through my strength, and to learn as much about it as I can. It’s the most vulnerable thing I could do. And so that’s how I know that it could also be the greatest thing I ever do.
On a more concrete level, I’m really proud of confronting my perfectionism and releasing ‘The Gleaner.’ If I had stayed on my own, I’d probably still be trying to release it. We need each other.
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