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INTERVIEW with Pittsburgh Singer-Songwriter John Vento

Singer-songwriter John Vento, who is a father of three and a successful Pittsburgh businessman, spent two years completing his album “Love, Lust And Other Wreckage”“It is all about one person’s struggle with real intimacy in relationships,” explained Vento. “Our hero has great friends, fun, music, but something much deeper is missing. And that something is tough to find and keep. The record is full of regret and heartache but in the end love finds a way.”

Though a one-of-a-kind performer, he professes a great distaste for the word, “solo,” insisting that, “Without my collaborators, I would not have accomplished anything.” That’s no surprise to those who know him, as he truly is a humble, loving, and grateful person, who treasures his family and friends. Certainly, that comes across, loud and clear, in his honest, from-the-heart songs; and that, undoubtedly, is another quality which endears him to his fans. As he puts it, “If just one person is touched in some small way by one of my songs, that’s the greatest reward that I could receive.”

  1. When did you realize this is what you wanted to do, how did you get started, and how did your bands come together?

John Vento: Music is in my genes, it’s in my blood… professional musicians date back to the early 1900s on my Mother’s side of the family. Music has surrounded me from the day I was conceived. It’s what comes naturally, it’s what lifts me up and heals my heart, it’s what makes me feel alive, and it’s what helps me to help others in many ways as well.

From 1985-1989, I sang with a cover band called Xposure, and then was lucky enough to be invited to perform and record original music with the Businessmen in 1995, and we’re still making music today as the B-Men. I realized that original music was more fulfilling, so I devoted myself to continuing to record and participate in the writing process for new original music. In 2003, I started recording an album called “Nied’s Hotel,” dedicated to Jim Nied, proprietor of the establishment where many of our songs were created and played many times. The Nied’s Hotel Band formed from that project. Many great session and live musicians flowed in and out of the band, until the current line up banded together in 2011. And now, after releasing “Love, Lust & Other Wreckage,” I also have been singing with a group we call John Vento & Friends. And just as my hero Harry Chapin did, most of the events we have played are organized to benefit or support an organization or individuals in need.

  1. Who are your early musical influences, and who are you listening to right now?

John Vento: I listened to a lot of Motown as a kid. The music has such an incredible groove! I was always blown away by the lyrics, especially Temptation songs like “My Girl,” “Ball of Confusion,” and “I Wish It Would Rain.” As an artist, I like to make music with a groove that makes people move, and sing lyrics that move people to feel or think deeply sometimes, and other times, embrace a more light-hearted perspective. Because of the impact music has on me, I realize how much of an impact I can have on people who listen to me sing. I don’t take that job lightly.

Besides Motown and my family, my greatest early influence, who still is today, is Harry Chapin. In June of 1981 I was a very young project manager for Westinghouse ASD (systems office furniture division) out of Grand Rapids, MI. At the time I spent a great deal of time working in NYC, flying in and out of the city quite regularly. On one of those flights I sat next to one of my true musical and humanitarian heroes, Harry Chapin (younger folks can look him up on Wikipedia). Actually it wasn’t until halfway into the flight that I even realized who I was sitting next to. After nearly 45 minutes of very nice conversation I said to him, “Has anyone ever told you that you look just like Harry Chapin?” His reply was classic Harry, he said, “Yes, I get that all of the time, because that’s my name.” Yikes, I was stunned and taken back a bit. Besides his great music and huge hit, (Cats In The Cradle) I knew him best because of his many performances (in the 1970’s) on the annual KDKA Bill Burns Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh fundraising telethons. Which explains why the only thing he really wanted to talk about was his obligation as a successful musician to give back to others, especially when it came to ending world hunger. We were only about 25 minutes from landing when the plane hit some horrible turbulence, needless to say I was white as a ghost. Harry however was not bothered one bit, as a matter of fact he put his hand on my knee and calmly reminded me that “We are much safer up here than we are down there.” Almost one month later on July 16, 1981 Harry Chapin was killed in a car accident on the Long Island Expressway. He may be gone, but his legacy of giving to others less fortunate, will live on for many generations to come. What an honor it is to have my friends and great musicians join me in performing my favorite Harry Chapin song, Taxi. The video we made at Steamworks Creative, a music listening room I manage in Gibsonia PA, can be found on my YouTube Channel, John Vento Music.
Who am I listening to now? Cherylann Hawk… the WV born and raised Pittsburgh based singer/songwriter who sang on all of the songs on my “Love, Lust & Other Wreckage” album, assisted in writing some of those songs and others as well after the release of that project, and who has been singing and playing percussion in my band. I didn’t realize how many potential hit songs she has written until having vocal struggles prompted me to ask my band members to sing lead more often in our shows. She’s a pro at everything she does, whether it’s singing, writing, playing guitar or percussion, recording music, taking care of business, taking care of her children, or inspiring others to feel good and live a good life. I’m very grateful that Cherylann Hawk is part of my team.

  1. If someone has never heard your music, which keywords would you personally use to describe your overall sound and style?

John Vento: Americana Classic Rock with Indie Folk Pop surprises

  1. Do you remember the first piece of musical equipment that you actually purchased? And which is the one piece of gear you’re still looking to add to your setup now?

John Vento: I really don’t remember the first piece of musical equipment that I actually purchased, but I feel like I have all that I need for making music right now. What’s the one piece of gear I’m still looking to add to my “setup?” I’m a landscaper as well as a singer/songwriter, office furniture businessman… I want a Toro Zero Turn Lawn Tractor!

  1. Do you handle your own recording, production and mastering work or do you outsource any or all of these processes?

John Vento: I have recorded at my own Corbriwood Studio in the past, and at various studios around the ‘Burgh, but I’ve most recently been recording at Maplewood Studio in Ambridge, PA with David Granati. He engineered LLOW, and produced the project with me and Cherylann Hawk. He played guitars and bass on most of the songs, creating dynamic foundations full of hooks, and called upon some of Pittsburgh’s top musicians, including Cherylann and his brothers and nephew. He also hooked us up with Brian Foraker in Nashville for mastering. And he kept us all fed and watered.

  1. Could you describe your creative processes? How do start, and go about shaping ideas into a song?

John Vento: Well, I share my stories with my songwriting friends. Sometimes, they’ve begun by playing music that seemed to fit the moods of the stories, then I improvised lyrics with melodies over the music, and/or so did they. Then we listened to recordings of our improvisations, and began to write and save what worked the best, and built from that. AND other times I have given someone the music of a previously recorded song that needed new lyrics to bring it to life, and tell my songwriting friends what I’d like to write about, sometimes with melody and lyrics to work into the song, and sometimes I’ve left much more open for others’ contributions. Lots of great magic has happened in the studio while writing as we’re recording… such as in Follow Your Heart and in Rainbows & Lightning, where the music morphed into a whole new mood and energy for the ends of the songs because of experimentation, and sometimes even mistakes, which Bob Ross would call “Happy Accidents.”

  1. What has been your biggest challenge so far? Have you been able to overcome that challenge? If so, how?

John Vento: My biggest challenge so far, has been my current vocal struggles. Several health issues have effected my voice… it started with a surgery to remove a kidney to rid my body of cancer, then a couple of years later, I performed with all 3 of my bands for a month without knowing I had walking pneumonia. My voice didn’t recover after my health returned. I lost my ability to sing long phrases and hold my pitch, which eventually caused me to call upon other singers in my bands to sing lead, while I have been the MC who only sings a couple of songs. I’ve tried surgery, injections, Chinese medicine, supplements and more. My most recent and most hopeful attempt to heal my voice has been with Katie Agresta, a world renowned vocal coach who has been successful with everyone who has worked with her. After our first session, I was singing better after 45 minutes of coaching than I had in months! She is confident that with persistence and lots of hard work, I will be myself again soon enough to do that European tour we’ve been planning.

  1. What would you say are the most important elements, tools and/or instruments in creating your sound?

John Vento: My collaborators have been key elements in creating my sound… in the studio, each new musician added their own style to the songs, which has sometimes been copied on stage, and sometimes, my bandmates came up with their own interpretations that were similar enough to the original recordings, but original enough to make it sound fresh and new for whichever line up is performing. What instruments create my sound? Electric & acoustic guitars, bass, drums, keys and vocal harmonies are present throughout my album, but when we strip it down and play acoustic, we are able to do the songs justice with acoustic guitar, percussion and a female background vocalist.

  1. What were your main compositional, performance and/or production challenges when starting out, and how have they changed over time?

John Vento: Well, I don’t play an instrument, so the biggest challenge when starting out was getting my ideas out of my head and flowing through the instruments of my band mates. Over the years, I have learned the language of music enough to communicate my thoughts more clearly, but it is still a bit of a struggle to completely describe what I hear. Fortunately, that is where a lot of the magic happens. The music I make is a wonderful blend of my stories, and the contributions of my collaborators.

  1. Do you have any favorite track in your catalog that has a specific backstory and/or message very dear to you?

John Vento: Baby Blues was the very first song that we worked on for “Love, Lust & Other Wreckage,” and it ended up being a sort of theme song for the album. It all began after my cancer surgery and the struggles that followed, when my dear friend and co-writer Bert Lauble came to visit me, and we had a real heart-to-heart discussion. We talked about regrets, and about taking responsibility for damaging or ending relationships that had potential to be fulfilling. We decided to write songs that approached relationships from that perspective.

When Bert presented the first draft of our first song, Baby Blues, it was really a completely different melody, which he had written over the music from another song that we had started months earlier. It was just frankly kind of boring, but the lyrics and the bones were there.

Then when producer David Granati suggested we bring singer/songwriter Cherylann Hawk into the project, she added life to the chorus, so we decided to revisit the main melody of the verses. We re-wrote a lot of the lyrics, and even much of the melody several times until we stuck with what you hear now. You can hear some of the previous lyrics and melodies in the second verse if you listen to what Cherylann sings. She was singing a harmony to what I had sung. When we changed my part, we kept hers as a counter melody. We tried to do so for the other verses as well, but decided it worked best only on the 2nd verse.

Well, I’m so glad we were persistent in creating and completing Baby Blues, because I think it’s the song that captures the whole message of “Love, Lust & Other Wreckage” the most. Because of this, it is featured prominently in the stage play, which is a collaborative multi-media experience written by playwright Amy Hartman, which tells the story of one man’s struggle to understand the fractured mess his life has become. He recalls his crooked journey of heartbreak, his own cruelty, and his insatiable lust for the stage. After losing all, he must climb out from under the wreckage he’s created, which sends him through a dark journey of chaos and despair, eventually leading him to love, discovery and forgiveness… and it’s mostly all true.

The video for Baby Blues that is featured during the stage play was directed by Nicole W. Ross, who stars in the video, and is also the model on the front cover and throughout the artwork of the CD. Nicole also appears in multiple film vignettes throughout the stage play.

It’s amazing to think of all the wonderfully talented artists involved in creating songs, videos, and even a stage play based on part of my life story, and it all began with Baby Blues.

  1. How do you handle criticism and/or naysayers in general? Is it something you pay attention to, or simply ignore?

John Vento: I listen to what everyone says about everything I do. If there is something I can learn from what they say, and make changes for the better, then I improve my craft or my strategies. I know that nobody can please everyone, but if someone listened or watched long enough to form an opinion that they cared to share with me, then I will listen. I will continue to grow for the rest of my life, and the reflections of others will help me see what I’m doing right, and what I could do better to inspire and connect with others.

  1. How essential do you think video is in relation to your music? Do you have a video you could suggest fans see, to get a better understanding of your craft?

John Vento: I believe videos are extremely vital to a recording artist. I always search for a video when I hear a new song. I love to see the emotion in people’s faces, the passion in the playing, and the stories people share to help us understand a song. Which video of mine shows what I do best? Well this question has held me up from finishing this interview for a while now. I’ve been asking around, and someone who knows me very well replied, “Can you submit his ‘Love, Lust & Other Wreckage’ YouTube Playlist? He is, after all, known as The Chameleon!” So, here it is, the video playlist for LLOW…

https://m.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLeR9KAr6aDoecgVVttQKcj_6Xxs097KwZ

  1. What’s your view on the role and function of music as political, cultural and/or social vehicles – and do you try and affront any of these themes in your work, or are you purely interested in music as an expression of technical artistry and entertainment.

John Vento: Well, from what I said about how Harry Chapin inspired me to utilize my music as a vehicle for helping others, it is clear that I do understand that music can reach into the depths of political, cultural and social issues. I have chosen to make music mostly to share my journey regarding love and relationships, but the shows we play usually benefit folks with health issues who need support and funding.

  1. Creative work in studio environment, or interaction with a live audience? Which of these two do you ultimately prefer and why?

John Vento: What I like best is performing LIVE, and feeling the energy move through me and my band, out to the audience, and back to the stage again. The exchange and connection is surreal much of the time. We all get to be in the moment and feel something together.

  1. What would you consider the most successful, proud or high point in your endeavors so far?

John Vento: Well, besides creating a stage play based on my most recent album, I’d like to talk about my favorite music “listening room” in the Pittsburgh region, which I founded and manage with a very appreciative and productive team… “Steamworks Creative.” Too often, talented musicians and singers perform in loud bars or restaurants where they are simply “background noise”. Also, many music venues don’t have enough seating to accommodate their guests (or worse yet there are no seats at all), the food & booze is way too expensive, parking is terrible (if you can even find a spot), and the shows start and end too late. With all of this in mind, Steamworks Creative was launched as a collaborative venture between a group of performers and dedicated live music lovers.

Steamworks Creative is an intimate space (max seating 50) tailored to solo, duo, and small band performances, a true “listening room”. Additionally we encourage and welcome young people and even those on the autism spectrum to perform and participate to the best of their ability.

Steamworks is a BYOB venue (except when noted for all ages events), and folks can also bring in food. It’s quite common to see our guests with fine wine and cheese trays or their favorite craft beer! We also sell coffee, soft drinks, and snacks, and parking is free. We typically charge a cover at the door though many events including open stages are voluntary donation only. Advanced online ticketing is used for some shows.

This venue is dedicated to the performer and as a result is designed to be free of distractions and unwanted noises. These are the “rules” we created for the venue to keep the atmosphere as we intend it to be…

  • Please refrain from talking during the performance.
  • Please try to remain seated during the performance. If you leave to use the restroom, please be respectful.
  • Please silence your phone. No, seriously, please silence it.
  • Also, please bring some cash. Most performances cost between $10- $20. This will go a very long way in keeping each artist on their path to success and keeping Steamworks Creative a healthy destination for great music in Pittsburgh.

Please visit our web site to see photos of the space and schedule of events…

www.SteamworksCreative.com

Something I am very passionate about that has a great presence at Steamworks Creative is Band Together Pittsburgh… The purpose of BTP (a recognized 501 (c) 3 non profit organization) is to employ the power of music to engage youth on the autism spectrum and their families. Music has the proven capacity to enhance social interactions, build and develop communication skills, and improve motor/sensory, emotional, and academic/cognitive functioning. PLUS it’s FUN!

Music brings us together. Fills our souls. And creates pathways to help those on the autism spectrum to build new skills. The founders of Band Together Pittsburgh, Ron Esser and I, have decades of experience in the music scene and in the non profit youth development world. Ronny “Moondog” Esser, proprietor of Moondog’s, a well known music venue that’s been successful for many decades, has a son that’s on the spectrum, and my nephew and god child are on the spectrum as well. That experience coupled with a science based approach provides us with a solid foundation to provide programming.

When Words Fail, Music Speaks.” For more information, please check out www.BandTogetherPittsburgh.org

  1. Do you consider Internet and all the social media as fundamental in building a career in music today, and what is your personal relationship with all the new technology at hand?

John Vento: The internet and social media are indeed fundamental in building a career in music today. Getting paid for plays and views, and learning how algorithms work on social media are two of the many challenges in today’s digital music world, and I have a great team working with me that knows how to utilize technology better than I do, so they are helping me to spread my music around the Internet and beyond. So WOW! I can communicate with my bandmates and team members, and share my music, shows dates, plans, pictures, videos and more with thousands and soon millions of people… just about any where at any time… from my phone that I carry in my pocket!!!

  1. What is the best piece of advice regarding the music business that you actually followed so far, and what is the advice you didn’t follow, but now know for sure that you should have?

John Vento: Stay original.

  1. What do you like best about what you do, and what do you dislike the most about it?

John Vento: Well, as I said in a previous question, what I like best is to perform for a live audience… the human connection with the audience and musicians is unlike any other interaction I’ve ever experienced.

What I dislike the most is the struggle to get songs I have in mind from my brain to the studio or the stage. It’s often a 50/50 proposition. The process is fun! It’s wonderful to hear what my talented collaborators bring to the songs, but still frustrating to figure out how to communicate exactly how I envisioned a song.

  1. Tell us something about your latest music release and where fans can find it?

John Vento: My latest music release is the only cover on my recent album, “I Hope That I Don’t Fall in Love With You” by Tom Waits. We changed it up a bit by adding some background vocals, different instrumentation, and some great dynamics. You can find it on all streaming platforms, and there’s a video on my YouTube Channel starring Nicole W. Ross, who starred in a couple of the other videos for songs from “Love, Lust & Other Wreckage” as well.

  1. Do you have a specific musical vision and/ or goal set in your mind for the future?

John Vento: Well, we are planning on doing a European acoustic tour of coffee shops and cafes… AND most prominently, we are planning to do a second run of the stage play, “Love, Lust & Other Wreckage” to prepare it for NYC… Broadway, here we come!

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