Something Special: An Interview with Scott Dente

Scott Dente plays acoustic guitar

Scott, as your wife and co-member of Out of the Grey, I have witnessed and been a part of your creative process for more than thirty years. I thought it would be fun to get your perspective on creativity in general and songwriting specifically.

Q. Do you mind answering a few questions for me and my readers?

A. You have readers?

Q. Very funny, yes, more readers than you have. So here’s your platform to disseminate all of your accumulated wisdom, (that shouldn’t take long)

What is your first memory of discovering the spark of Life (with a capital L) in relation to music?

A. Thanks for asking. It’s fun to go back and think about these things! I have quite a few memories of coming online to music in my young world.

Being born and raised in the ’60s and ’70s, as you were, we both know that there was so much amazing music being made. 

needle arm of a turntable playing a vinyl record

It was 1967. I have a hazy memory of being 4 years old and singing along to The Doors’ “Light My Fire“ as it played on the radio in the suburbs of Los Angeles. My parents liked music, so the radio or record player was always on. I remember hearing the songs of Burt Bacharach and Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. I also recall singing along to hit songs like “Band On The Run” by Paul McCartney and Wings and “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” by Steely Dan. Of course, my sister and I loved The Partridge Family. 

As I got a little older, Elton John and Billy Joel found their way into my ears. I knew every word from The Stranger album. The Eagles plus Crosby, Stills and Nash, and Neil Young were also hugely important in my young musical formation.

Then, in late 1976, “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen became a massive hit. Even though it was 6 minutes long, it played on the radio constantly. The sheer force of that piece of art caused a shift in me: I didn’t just love listening to music anymore, now I needed to learn to make it.

I rode the bus to school in those years and remember a very dramatic and wonderful eighth-grader named Michael Sinatra. He made sure that all of us kids on the bus were entertained for the short ride to Holdrum Middle School. Together, we sang “Bohemian Rhapsody” every day for what felt like months. We tried the harmonies, the call-and-answer parts— it was the best!

Soon after, I asked my parents for guitar lessons. They were hesitant to buy me a guitar, imagining I’d abandon it like I’d quit football that year. I persisted.

So, one week when I was sick and out of school, my mom gave in and signed me up for guitar lessons. I played a rented nylon string guitar for a year or so. I practiced my etudes and classical technique until my teacher Sal made the mistake of bringing an electric guitar to a lesson. He played the opening riff to “Free Ride” by The Edgar Winter Group. Bye-bye classical music. Hello Les Paul.

It was time to rock.

side view of man playing electric guitar

That began my fascination with guitar riffs, song structure, Led Zeppelin, and The Who. And all the good and not so good that came along with them (think young hippie kid). I caught the performing bug at our high school talent show when I got a great response covering a Neil Young song. Playing the guitar and harmonica just like Neil, I also noticed that the girls were finally noticing me. Hooked. It’s an old story. 

I must say that Peter Townsend of The Who was probably my biggest influence as a young musician. His honest introspection about what it was like to grow up feeling alone, alienated, and confused resonated with me. And he wrote those emotions into his songs and made another guy in the band sing them!

I realized that great music, poetic lyrics, and the conflicted feelings of a young man could all come together in a song. Also, the way I used to beat the crap out of an acoustic guitar, well, I borrowed that from Pete. Many nights, I played the Quadrophenia album in my room over and over again. “Can ya see the real me, Can ya, Can ya?” 

Q. With all of those sparks for your own creativity, when did you write your first song?

A. I was in a band in high school with 3 really talented dudes. We called ourselves Perpetual Change and we covered songs that were somewhat difficult to pull off from bands like Yes, Led Zeppelin, Rush, and The Who, ( Tommy medley ). We also composed some ridiculous instrumentals that only our best fans/ friends liked. At the time, I was experimenting with recording my own original bits in my bedroom using the old “sound-on-sound“ technique with 2 cassette recorders.

I can’t remember if I ever finished any of those fragments but I wrote my first song for Perpetual Change as we were about to graduate and call it quits. It was called “Remains of A Runner.” If my memory serves me, it was an autobiographical lyric about me causing the band to break up. I think I was the “runner“ that the title refers to. Sorry fellas, you see there’s this girl I’m gonna meet and we’re gonna… never mind.

Out of the Grey CD cover

Q. So about that girl. When I first met you at Berklee College of Music in 1985, you played me a song you wrote called, “Empty Pages.” I think I started falling in love with you after hearing that song: it was so emotional and romantic. Although I was already working on my craft, you inspired me with yours. We didn’t co-write until a few years after that. But aren’t you glad we did?

A. Yes!

Q. Okay, tell me about your strengths as a songwriter, and how do they show up in our Out of the Grey music?

A. It’s taken me a long time to develop and embrace my strengths as a songwriter. As a younger songwriter, I had very little faith in my ability to present and complete an idea, even when we worked together in Out of the Grey. I was always good for a title, a verse here or there, an effective bridge, and the guitar parts to hang it all on.

You were very prolific from the start, so I was always happy to give your songs some guitar muscle or help edit and shape an already excellent idea. Then there were what I call your small beautiful songs, ones that needed no help at all from me. They were usually the super-fan favorites and deep album cuts. It was always a pleasure to collaborate with someone who is as meticulous with the craft as you. Your melody writing, interesting harmonic structures, and care for every word of a lyric inspired me to write more and get better. And that’s the truth.

As time has gone by and I’ve shifted focus into my music licensing company, Global Genius Productions, I’ve had a lot more opportunity to write for all manner of situations and I’ve been able to grow immensely as a writer. I got better in the second act and I’m really grateful to have had one!

Q. Will you tell a story about one of your favorite OOTG songwriting experiences?

A. Uh oh. Too many to list just one:

  • I remember sitting in our first little apartment writing “The Deep” for our first project. So simple. so lovely. I can also feel the stretch of finding that hard-to-grab first guitar chord in “He Is Not Silent.” That was a couple of years before anyone cared or would ever hear our first album.
  • Writing for the second album, I remember the first time you played me “Dear Marianne.” We were backstage before our opening set at a Charlie Peacock concert. You played it for me on the dressing room piano. One of your perfect songs that needed no help from me.
  • The night we recorded “All We Need” for Diamond Days. I remember feeling like we had gained entrance to an exclusive club that night. The amount of talent assembled in the studio to record a song that we had written was overwhelming. I cut the guitar solo later that evening after everyone went home. My favorite solo of the few I’ve ever recorded.
  • We wrote “So We Never Got To Paris” sitting at our kitchen table in the first house we owned. I wrote down that title after turning down a trip to France to make a music video with Steve Taylor because you were pregnant with Carina. You ran with that title and wrote a killer lyric. I wrote a good guitar part too. 
  • I remember that we took a year off from touring to write the songs for See Inside, our fifth studio album. We were exhausted from being on the road and the pressure to deliver another album. But we dug down deep. I wrote a lot of the riffs for those songs on electric guitar trying to bring some muscle back into the music after the lighter pop Gravity album. 
  • “Shine Like Crazy” started as a guitar hook on my Gretsch 6120 in our music room. We needed a catchy radio song for our sixth album, 6.1. I came up with that bouncy riff and you sang your butt off on the tracking session. The kids loved that song and I remember dancing to the mix in our living room as a family. Wonderful memory of a great time in our family’s life.
  • It’s hard to pick one from our 2015 album, A Little Light Left, but one song that stands out for me is “Dropped Off,” which is a song about my dad. I feel like it took me my entire life to be able to write that song. I’m very proud of it. Also, “Travel Well” is a song where I gave myself a difficult task to solve a lyric problem and I think I pulled it off. It’s a love song to our life and our family and always chokes me up when the last verse comes around.
  • I feel like I have to mention your solo album, Becoming. Even though I didn’t really write anything on it, it’s one of my proudest achievements as a producer and editor. I remember that we worked especially hard on the background vocals and arrangements. I can’t believe that was 17 years ago.

Christine and Scott smiling in 2020

Q. Yikes, I can’t believe it either. Moving right along, how has your approach to songwriting changed since the early ’90s and our first years as Out of the Grey, through our latest recording in 2015?  And what is your songwriting focus currently?

A. I think that my songwriting has changed in the same way I have personally changed. I used to care a lot more about being clever, doing something unique, being recognized and appreciated by our peers. This was reflected in the early albums when you and I had particular rules about what was cool and what wasn’t. Seems kind of funny now. These days, my songwriting is stripped down, a bit more basic when it comes to chord structure. Lyrically, I’m taking a more minimal approach, trying to get to the real emotion with less flower and fewer words. In some ways, I’ve come full circle and feel like a singer/ songwriter, more like the artists I grew up listening to.

Q. Very cool and so true. On a related subject: Scott, your love of literature and various book genres has always inspired me. I often turn to you for editing and critiquing of my fiction and non-fiction writing.  

Can you describe how fiction and other genres (like biography, personal essays) add to your life? Give examples.

A. I’ve loved books my entire life. As a kid, I had a rich interior life populated with books and stories. Literature, biographies, and personal essays continue to be the main source of inspiration for my songwriting. I don’t think it’s easy to write well unless you’ve read some great stuff. I’m no genius and I need a lot of fuel and inspiration to be creative. If indeed our lives are a story, the great stories will provide lots of clues for creating a purpose-filled life. There’s so much inspiration, hope, and beauty in the stories that others have written. This has always been the case for me. I find it hard to believe when people tell me that they don’t like to read! 

From Mark Helprin’s miraculous novels to Michael Chabon’s insightful essays, there are far too many to list in between. Perhaps that’s a separate blog: What Inspires The Dente’s?

Q. Do you have any advice or insights about the creative process that you’d like to share?

A. Sure, I have a few muddled thoughts:

Scott Dente gets creative in his home studioI think the beauty of the creative process is that there are so many ways to travel and so many places to stop and look around. It took me a while to learn that waiting for inspiration to strike is a sure way for me to get nothing done. Songwriting is a craft that can be learned like most crafts. But you have to put in the time and seek out the masters of the craft. Study them, absorb, and emulate. It’s hard work finding your own voice.

Remaining a fan of others’ work and knowing that their glory and brilliance don’t detract from my own, has been hugely important. I can enjoy and even revere someone else’s creation, knowing I can’t be them and that’s okay. That’s great actually!

Loving and listening to good art gives me fuel, and love for the colors in my own paint box. I’m pretty much the result of everything I’ve taken in over the years. Hopefully, whatever I create adds my own nuance to the conversation of Art. I know more about music than anything else in this life. My heart was captured, shaped, and maybe even saved from loneliness and confusion, by sound and beauty and art. I owe so much to the creative life. It hasn’t been easy, it’s rarely been smooth, but it’s how I know to live. So I’m grateful. 

Thanks, Scott, for engaging my questions about songwriting and creativity. I’m sure readers will have thoughts and questions for you in the comment section.

Dear Readers, for more about Out of the Grey, read “Cloudy Today? Get Out of the Grey!”

Finding Freedom In Confinement

finding freedom in confinement

Are you finding new freedom in this self-imposed confinement?

Living With Limitations

Social distancing and sheltering in place in the time of Coronavirus have created a unique situation for many of us.

For example, a friend who lives alone is now working from home. This could double the loneliness for her, but at least she can spend more time outside in her yard. And she’s finding ways to connect with friends at a distance. I’ll be seeing her face when we talk via screens this weekend.

finding freedom in confinement

I know an older couple in my neighborhood who thrive on shopping and dining out. They will suffer from cabin fever, no doubt. But the neighbors are checking up on them through calls and texts, keeping tabs without touch.

My default mode is homebody. Staying put to avoid contaminating crowds isn’t much of a hardship. Walking in the small creek behind our home is as good as going dancing for me.

However, my husband, Scott, and I have a baby grandson and a daughter and son-in-law who are expecting in June. Should we stay away from them? We adults are trying to decide if full quarantine is smarter than the less extreme social distancing we are practicing. Can we actually keep from seeing and hugging family members? Some unfortunate people are truly cut off from their families. They are choosing this for safety or because someone is sick with this invisible, insidious virus.

The new limitations and tough choices are shocking.

Sudden Seclusion

One of my greatest fears is being disconnected from my family. The horrors of history tell of those who’ve suffered in gulags and POW camps. I do not linger long with thoughts of solitary confinement. The idea of forced isolation, alone with no husband, no kids or grandchildren, makes me ask, “How would I fare; would I find a way to be free inside a cell?”

If I had access to books, I would be free to read, read, read. With pen and paper, I could write, free of distraction. But without family interactions, could I survive through meditation or cogitation? Or die a slow death in lonely rumination?

I guess I’ll never be locked up in solitary. But I’m feeling the walls closing in. What do the walls of my home offer that I haven’t grasped? From those whose worries are weightier, I ask, “Are you finding any freedom in this sudden seclusion?”

Chance for Change

finding freedom

Our limited choices, whether chosen or thrust upon us, magnify our chances for positive transformation.

Obviously, no one looks for change by putting on chains. But when we find our wrists shackled by circumstance, we naturally crane our necks for different ways to move, to live, to be. For some people, the challenge is discombobulating. For others, this season is downright earth-shattering. Yet, it’s an opportunity for all to discover freedom within our confines. Our physical, mental, and emotional health depend on our healthy response to this stress.
Here’s what I’m thinking:

I Am Finding Freedom From…

  1. Choice. Choice can be overwhelming. Like a restaurant with a ten-page menu, my lengthy to-do list is more of a menace than a blessing. Self-employed people, such as Scott and I, wake each morning to a bottomless pit of a list. Or an agonizingly blank slate. Either way, we start from scratch each day. I have been enjoying the simple menu of fewer choices.
  2. Worries. When the bigger story concerns a killer microbe, I worry less about writing perfect prose or if I should exercise more.
  3. Myself. Okay, it may be a stretch, but I am free to forget my face for a while. My body, my clothes, the pimple on my nose. Who cares? Yes, many working people are video-conferencing and Face-Timing and Insta-gramming like crazy. But lots of us can just stay in our jammies. Skip the mirror and quit the navel-gazing for a minute.

I Am Finding Freedom For…

  1. Creativity. More reading, more writing, yay!
  2. Thinking or not thinking. Quiet sitting or a slow walk are no longer a waste of time. I’ve got lots. Like today: I haven’t accomplished any tasks except trying to write these ideas about freedom. It’s rather liberating.
  3. Being Present. No outside events call to me. I’m not missing anything because nothing is happening. I am here. Now. In the moment in which I am.

Are You Finding Freedom To…

  1. Connect with your kids more? Your spouse?
  2. Let go of a busy schedule?
  3. Be thankful for what you have?
  4. Share with others who are suffering more than you?

People suffer without human interaction. This virus crisis amplifies our discomfort. The current limits on our ways of life have added countless new stresses. I suspect, though, we will unearth certain blessings in this mess. What freedoms have you come up with in confinement?

For more thoughts on health, read: 3 Creative Ways to Move Toward Emotional Health

 

Finding Life in Creativity

finding life in creativity

Creativity 101

I wrote my first song after leaving home. creativity

At eighteen, I’d moved out of my house in Lancaster, Pennsylvania and landed at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh as a college freshman. It was my first time living away from home.

Feeling the loneliness of being a 5-hour drive from all that was familiar, I wrote a song for my boyfriend called, “Baby, I’m Missing You.” That’s all I remember of my first song but I’m certain it was not very good. 

However, this creativity had awakened something new in me. I sensed songwriting was a door to discovering more of myself, healing deep hurts, and dealing with some confusing emotions. Maybe the creative life was for me!

Little did I know how far I would have to go to become a true artist.

Secondary Education

We have to start somewhere. Singing was my beginning. First in elementary schooI then all the way through high school, I sang other people’s songs. I still remember my first solo in a choral Christmas concert. I got to step out and sing a short verse of Wintertime Aglow. The local TV station aired it which thrilled my mom. That performance had a huge impact on my 15-year-old self. What else would I be brave enough to try?

I sang my heart out in every high school talent show that came my way after that. Linda Ronstadt and Pat Benatar inspired me to belt out many a rock ballad for my peers. I was always mimicking the singer’s inflections, matching the song’s sentiment without really comprehending its message. In one show I sang “Someone to Lay Down Beside Me” by Linda Ronstadt. The chorus went like this:

Someone to lay down beside me
Even though it’s not real
Just someone to lay down beside me
You’re the story of my life

Thankfully, it was not the story of my life. The message went over my head but tapped into my heart’s desire. I wanted to sing out my sadness with passion.  

The Singer and the Songwriter

That first semester in college, with all its disruptive changes and challenges, I decided to give my feelings a voice. With a borrowed a guitar, I plunked out the 3 chords I knew. I created a melody and lyrics to match my loneliness. And to fit my writing style.

creativityWell, my emerging style.

Just as my vocal style wanted to amalgamate all of the singers from the ’70’s and ’80’s whom I wished I could be, my writing style wanted to combine Billy Joel, Joni Mitchell, and Janis Ian to create the perfect blend.

In the end, though, I had to be me. My songwriting morphed into a vehicle for my limited vocal power and the message and emotions I had to communicate.   

Creativity 201

At Berklee College of Music I began writing in earnest. I had transferred to this college in Boston because I wanted to move beyond the classical voice training from my first college. Now I could work on becoming a singer-songwriter. Berklee was perfect because it was all about the pop and jazz!

My songwriting and theory teachers taught me so much. I studied jazz harmony, ear training, voice, and performance. Also, I got involved in ensembles, gained recording studio experience, and performed in some shows on Berklee’s big stage.

My singing and songwriting improved as did my performance chops. Probably, I wouldn’t want to record any of those early songs I wrote. But they are still a part of my bigger story.  

Scheduled Creativity

Scott Dente and I had met at Berklee during my second semester. We became an item soon after and have collaborated on music ever since. After graduation and marriage, we loaded up the truck and headed to Tennessee. Nashville, that is. 

As Out of the Grey, we got to make 7 studio records. After that, he and I worked on my solo projects and several outside collaborations. Throughout the decades of our musical marriage, we always had to make the time to write. We called it scheduled creativity.    

In fact, we’re doing it that way still. He works on new music constantly with his production company called Global Genius. He has a lot on his plate and maps the days for creative space.

Creativity has never been easy for me. I can’t just drop everything when a bright idea strikes. Mostly, I like to schedule my creativity and hope for inspiration to show up. She usually does. If not, I come back again and again until I get my writing up to snuff.  

Tools For Creativity   

creativity
A Handbook and A Workbook

Recently, I put together a few songwriting tools for my songwriting students. The Singer and the Songwriter is a handbook and workbook for singer-songwriters. It’s based on my training and experience.

I put in some teaching elements as well as exercises, prompts, and reminders to help writers to get creative.

  • I mapped out 10 steps to keep your flow of creativity going so you can start–and finish–your song.
  • I created a section for developing your lyrics by using figurative language. 
  • I included a section on basic music theory and harmony so you know what chord patterns work well and how to write a good melody.
  • My vocal technique section teaches you how to gain strength and range while releasing vocal tension.

The other tool is my Creativity Journal which has lots of space for getting creative with emotions, images, and lyrics. Using samples of some of my lyrics, this journal inspires writers of all kinds to create a flow of imagination and artistry. (If you want to get creative using an autographed Songwriter Handbook, you can find it here and I’ll also write you a nice note!)

Also, I created my 10 Tips for Better Songwriting on this site. 

The Bigger Story

Looking back, I see how far along the road I had to go to hone my artistic expression.

At the end of the day, the joy, the sorrow, and the chaos of life drive us to draw some creative conclusions about what’s going on. 

When I sing,”Walk By Faith,”  it’s because I can’t see straight in the broad daylight. I’m looking for a way to live in the big picture without having all of the answers. 

When my son sings, “Hallelujah,” I lift my hands and agree that I don’t know why I’m alive. Sometimes I don’t have to wonder why.

“Oh hallelujah, I am alive
Yeah and I don’t know why, why
No I don’t know
Hallelujah
I don’t have to wonder”

When You Create….

We all get creative in some way. Trying to put our lives into perspective, we write, draw, paint, or play.

  • Who did you sing along with as a teenager?
  • What artists have impacted your story? 
  • When did you create your first song, story, poem, or painting?
  • Have you tried getting creative lately?
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