Gerry Rosenthal is an example of a hard working musician. The singer-songwriter / guitarist from Highland Park plays in multiple bands (an original rock band, Beatles tribute, wedding band, and his own Gerry Rosenthal Trio) and guests with other artists. He released a new EP on January 1, 2022. In addition to music, he's had an acting career that includes roles in Finding Forrester, "Law & Order", and was the star of a video game called "Bully", which still has a huge fanbase 15 years after its release.
New Jersey Stage interviewed Rosenthal to learn more about the new release and his career overall.
Were these three songs written during the covid era? I know many musicians were inspired (or bored with lots of free time) to create new works. Did that happen to you?
Totally. These 3 songs were pretty much the first songs I wrote during quarantine. After everything shut down in mid-March 2020, and after finally getting my bearings after the whiplash of playing 4 to 5 nights a week to ZERO nights a week, I knew I needed something to do as a musical outlet. And so I bought some recording gear and got to work putting it all together and figuring out how to use it. I have a few friends who are absolute geniuses with the recording software Logic, and so after many phone calls and Zoom meetings with a few friends, and many Youtube tutorials later, I was able to record these tunes that you hear now. My buddy Jeff Greenspan in particular deserves a shout out for his efforts to school me on Logic. He's a studio engineer and a killer guitarist/songwriter, and was super generous with his time trying to educate me on the software, and recording techniques in general. Without him I probably never would have been able to gain enough confidence to record these tracks entirely on my own.
"In Common" was the first track I wrote in the pandemic--I was trying to capture the feeling of parenting during this unprecedented time (my son was about 20 months old at the start of Covid, he is 3 and 1/2 now) and how that same anxiety you might feel about "doing the right things" as a parent now became "doing the right things as a parent, in a pandemic." It can be a lonely job raising a child, even if you have a partner, and the pandemic really only added to that feeling since naturally we couldn't interact with other people in person outside our immediate family for months. And parent or not, the isolation was something that pretty much everyone had in common.
"Back To Philadelphia" is basically a love letter to the city. My sister has lived there for the last decade plus, so I have been there often. I've always loved it there, especially the scrappy underdog, don't-give-a-fuck attitude. It's got a great music scene -- I've always fantasized about living there as a musician, and every time I go back there I always get excited. One of my favorite bands is Dr. Dog, and they are out of Philly. So the character in the song used to live there, and for some reason or another had to move out, but now he's back with a vengeance, ready to join a band and make some music. And ultimately I like to think he finds success in the city!
I wrote "Gone" with my younger brother Hank in mind. He succumbed to a heroin addiction in 2017, and I tried to write this song from the point of view of someone with addiction. How helpless and powerless they must feel over it, and how addiction really robs the person of their full potential.
In recent years, you’ve submitted several songs to Original Songwriting Competitions. Were any of the songs like "See You On The Moon" considered for release?
Absolutely! In fact I have "See you On The Moon" almost fully tracked and ready to go. My good friend Mark Stewart wrote a beautiful string quartet arrangement for that song so I just need to schedule a session to record that, and it will be ready to release! It's on the top of my to-do list in January. Mark plays in my wedding band The Jersey Joint, and is an incredible bassist, keyboardist, and arranger. I'm so fortunate to work with him. And yeah, I also lead a wedding band called the Jersey Joint, ha!
Are there songs you write for yourself and songs you keep for the band?
I actually tried to stop thinking about my songs in terms of "solo" and "band" a long time ago. I found it was distracting and limiting--I would try too hard to get it to sound like a "solo" song or a "band" song instead of just letting the song come out the way it was supposed to sound. That said, if a song comes out that I think would work better if I play and record it solo or with a band, I'll lean into that. I actually have a bunch of tunes that I play with my band the Gerry Rosenthal Trio--which is just acoustic guitar, upright bass (Jack Breslin) and violin (Sean-David Cunningham.) Over the years I have written songs that I believe work better in a stripped down setting, so I started a band with just those instruments to get those tunes across.
Does deciding which songs to record come down to $$ and studio time?
It can, yeah. Now with this home recording set up it's not as big a deal, but there are definitely things I want to do that require a bigger space and more money. Like the aforementioned string quartet! And I love horn sections. Can't really do that in my cramped little home studio.
There are musicians who play out a lot and then there are folks like you who have multiple bands, solo shows, and guest with others. What was it like to go through a period when there were no live shows with an audience? Did you do live stream shows?
I can't lie, it was tough to go from playing 4 to 6 nights a week to doing zero gigs. I'm a full time musician. I play with several of my own bands (The Jersey Joint, Big Wake, Gerry Rosenthal Trio) and as a solo artist, and also for hire, so normally there's a lot of work out there. It's how I put the food in my 3 year old's mouth. It's my entire identity. So yeah, it was a real kick in the you-know-what. I'm sure I speak for all full time artists out there, at least the ones who rely on live performance for a living. The first several months were tough. Even some of my musical heroes who rely on touring for a living became online music teachers--just like I did. I took a guitar lesson with one of my favorite guitarists on Zoom, Chuck Garvey from the band moe.-- a normal dude trying to make ends meet when his livelihood was taken away, just like me.
Obviously it goes without saying that the financial hit was hard enough, but how about the notion that your entire livelihood is dependent on being in public, and when the public shuts down, so does your job! It's a very humbling experience to say the least. There was a list of essential jobs, and rightfully so, but "guitar-player-singer-dude-who-also-plays-bass" was not one of them. For a while I felt pretty low, and not at all valued. It's tough to go from making decent bread with your talents to essentially begging people for tips on Facebook. And for that reason I didn't do live streams for almost two months into the pandemic, mostly because I thought they were not a good example of a live show--like, where is the audience? But after a few months into the pandemic I did do a series of solo Sunday night live streams--7 weeks in a row. And quite frankly it was the combo of needing to perform and needing the money--I needed to play music for people even if they were behind the screen, but I also needed the tips to pay my rent! And the people didn't disappoint--it was just another humbling experience in a long line of humbling experiences--I made enough money to pay my rent with those streams, and I have so much love and gratitude to those people, most of whom probably have no idea just how much they helped me in a super difficult time.
Gerry’s father began teaching him guitar and piano around the same time, at age 7. Between the ages of 10 and 13 he attended the St. Thomas Choir School in New York City, a boarding school for young male choristers, where he sang 5-6 church services a week at St. Thomas Church Fifth Avenue with the St. Thomas Choir of Men and Boys under the direction of Dr. Gerre Hancock. While at St. Thomas, Gerry studied piano with concert pianist Leslie Singer and music theory with composer Scott Eyerly (composer of the opera House of Seven Gables, as well as a faculty member at The Julliard School.) He was fortunate enough to tour extensively with the St. Thomas Choir, traveling to Austria, Italy, Vienna, and Ireland.
How did attending St. Thomas Choir School and your choir background help you with your musical career / ambitions? It must have been nice performing in Europe as a young kid.
St. Thomas was a huge influence on my musical upbringing, and I am eternally thankful for that experience. It wasn't always easy as a 10 year old at boarding school, but the further I got away from it the more I learned to appreciate it. St. Thomas is 100% the reason I am a full time musician now, 30 years later. I actually really wanted to be an actor, but I didn't go to an acting boarding school at the age of 10, I went to a singing school! But yes, without those 4 years of training from age 10-13, I likely would not be a professional musician today. It was fun going to Europe to tour with the choir, but honestly we were all probably too young to understand just how special that opportunity was. All I knew was that it was keeping me from my summer vacation! But it was definitely fun being overseas with your classmates running around the streets of Italy and Ireland in between performances.
Do you think performing in front of audiences at a young age is good preparation for musicians? Is there anything you learned during that time that has stuck with you throughout your career?
I do think performing at a young age was good for my career. I learned early on how to handle myself in front of a crowd, if anything. And in hindsight I think back on certain performances like The Messiah -- we sang it twice a year in full, when most churches and/or high school choirs do it once every few years if that, and never in its entirety. It's literally 3 hours long! So we sang music at St. Thomas that I would never have sung anywhere else at that age. I actually have been thinking about this very question with my son James recently--should I get him performing in front of people at 4 or 5 years old? Would it be good for him? How would he respond? All I can say is it worked for me, but that doesn't mean it will work for him.
One thing that I can say I learned from that time -- accept and own your mistakes. Everyone makes them, so don't lie. The choirmaster Gerre Hankcock was a stickler for it -- if he heard a wrong note he looked up for someone to raise their hand to acknowledge it. And to this day I still raise my hand when I make a mistake -- it's instinct at this point. I've even done it on stage at gigs without even thinking--"Hey man sorry I blew that chord change, and I admit it. Raising my hand now!" Mistakes are such a natural and beautiful part of the artistic process, and perfection is an illusion. It's unattainable. So why try? Make mistakes, admit them, let people know, and make art around them. It's pretty simple. The guitarist Trey Anastasto of Phish is one of my favorites, and he makes mistakes up all the time! It's great. As brilliant as he is, he's also human. He's mortal. And so am I. Trey gives me permission to suck sometimes! I'll never forget my Berklee roommate Matt Stines saying "I like Trey, he's so good, and he also sucks sometimes. He's relatable because he's attainable." The point of all this is to say, make mistakes. Learn from them and get better. It's not only allowed, it's encouraged!
Are you still focused on Big Wake or focusing more on a solo career - or still balancing those two with the other projects?
So this EP is actually technically my first "solo" EP release--everything was written, arranged, and recorded by me, and I played all the instruments myself except for the drums. Creatively I had full control. My other projects are definitely more collaborative, if anything because they involve more people! I have two full length releases out with Big Wake, and another EP out with my band the Gerry Rosenthal Trio, where I play some of the more acoustic-based bluegrass type tunes that might not necessarily work with an electric rock band like Big Wake. Right now Covid is still putting somewhat of a damper on things, and I haven't played out with either of those bands currently as much as I would like to. Funny enough, the wedding band really took off last year because all the dates we had booked in 2020 were moved to 2021, and on top of those dates we had gigs booked in 2021 outright, so it almost felt like working two wedding seasons in one year! As a result, our 2022 really booked up quickly as well--we have over weddings this year, and even a few on the books for 2023! It's been a nice surprise to say the least, but all this focus on the Jersey Joint definitely took some focus away from my original projects. Although after a miserable 2020, it is finally nice to actually be making some money again, so I really can't complain! I'm really lucky in that the Jersey Joint consists of 3 out of 4 members of Big Wake, some of my other closest friends from the Jersey City scene, and even my own father on sax! So that band really is a family affair, and a ton of fun. I'm very lucky.
Are you still acting or do you fully concentrate on music these days?
I absolutely love acting, but it never quite paid the bills. Not enough of them anyway. Music has been my full-time job since around 2008. I still do some voice over work here and there, so I suppose I still have a toe dipped in that world, but music is how I make my living. I found it really hard to do both with the amount of intensity it takes to succeed in either, both careers took a hit because I couldn't properly focus on one or the other. I do certainly miss acting, but music has always been a passion of mine since I was very young, so it wasn't exactly hard to focus on solely playing music for a living.
It’s great to have a character that people remember like "Bully" - I saw your Q&A done in 2016 about ten years after the game. Are you ever surprised by the lasting effect that game has had on its fans?
Totally, completely surprised. When I did that job it was just another acting gig, and while I was aware of Rockstar Games and Grand Theft Auto, I was never a gamer at all. I mean, I never even owned a Nintendo! So even though I knew it was a big deal, I never thought in a million years that people would connect with the game in such a way that I would still be hearing from fans 15 years later. There's a whole community of Billy fans out there, and it's been so amazing to get to connect with a lot of them over the years. There's a Youtuber who goes by Swegta who I have become close with over the years, whose channel almost serves like the hub of all Bully activity--he has over 200K Youtube subscribers! And while he devotes time on his channel to other games now, he started as a Bully channel and grew his reputation that way. It was his idea for the Q and A in fact, and he edited the video and put it all together. I did two live streams of myself just playing the game (Jimmy Hopkins plays Jimmy hopkins!) and neither of those would have been possible at all without Swegta's help, not just his technical support but his knowledge and love of the game and it's fan base. Over the years I have received so many kind words about my role as Jimmy Hopkins, and many of the Bully fans have had so many nice things to say about my music as well, and have really supported me over the years.