Dave Vargo Carves Out the Spaces in Between

A solid regular on the scene, Dave Vargo has played countless intimate concerts to top venues with heavy hitters such as Whitney Houston.  He embodies what it means to be a musician—tenacity, talent, and commitment. Vargo has lent his guitar prowess to studio sessions and organized musical events around the Jersey Shore including Musicians on a Mission and his own Pierce Sessions. Conversely, he also manages his successful investment firm to balance it all. Whoever said creativity and financial intelligence are mutually exclusive clearly never met Dave Vargo. 

Vargo’s second album Spaces in Between lands somewhere between alt rock and Americana and between a musician still young enough to rock with the best of them yet seasoned enough to sculpt a song with precision. Spaces offers insight into a songwriter who was finding his way to one who lights his own path. With the same level of artful commitment as his first album Burning Through, Vargo adds an element of musical maturity to his second effort as Spaces sees the expansion of the songwriter. And it’s a delve. The album is a reminder that beautifully-written songs with melodious arrangements can still garnish hundreds of thousands of plays on Spotify, even if they didn’t originate from Tik Tok.

Working with Tim Pannella (the same drummer/engineer he collaborated with on Burning Through) on his second studio album Spaces in Between, Vargo honed in on each song, allowing the guitar parts to compliment, not drive the songs.  This is evident on “Battle Burns” as Vargo offers a sampling of what he learned at Berklee without sacrificing the weight and beauty of the melody.  The tones are consistently smooth and precise. The fourth song on the album, “Rewrites”, is a pleasant earworm.  Its smooth melody mixes with catchy lyrics ready to be put on repeat.  There are silky subtleties written and into each song like on the melancholic “Nowhere Else”. The album is well-balanced, much like the songwriter.

Spaces in Between is an interesting title.  Don’t they say spaces in between the notes when you’re playing are just as important or something like that?

It’s actually a partial line from the song “In Between” at the end of the record. The second to last song I wrote for the record.  It’s strange when you sit down to try and title these things.  It’s almost like trying to name a band.  The first record I struggled, and this record I struggled.  The first record ending up coming from a line in a song, and I kind of tried to go that way here.  There wasn’t a heck of a lot of deeper meaning (laughs). Except…”the spaces in between” was more of a – I don’t want to say political statement – more of a social statement on the crap that’s been going on that is coming from bad politics, the distance between people’s points of view and trying to get along with one another. 

While you’re, obviously, well-versed in guitar, you don’t let it take over.  There are some nice compliments in songs such as “This Time Around”.

Yeah.  I do a lot of session work, and I try to approach those things the same way.  I think everything else around the song is ‘how do you compliment the song?’ and ‘how do you not get in the way of the melody and the lyrics and the singer but how do you bring it to a next level without stepping on anything?’ I tried my best (laughs).

When you do your own record it’s really easy to run wild.  There’s no one to say, ‘no’ (laughs). But I tried to bring that same kind of attitude to my own things – ‘what does this song need?’ and ‘how do you enhance the message somehow?’ – and not overdo it so you’re detracting from that.  

The song is extremely well-balanced and melodic with sweet flavors when those guitar parts come in.  What about “Rewrites”?  Listening, it feels like it spilled out.  How was the writing process?

Unfortunately, that one took a while (laughs).  For me, the music and the melody…if I could just do that I could put out twenty records a year.  It’s so easy.  On my phone right now are probably twenty different song ideas from that perspective.  It’s always the lyrics that take a lot of time.  Not that I don’t jot down ideas and have phrases, words, or maybe even a line or two that you sock away and hope that you can use.  I think, for my first record, “Good Enough” came really quick, and on this one “Without a Fight” came really quick.  Everything else was a fight (laughs).

I didn’t even start writing songs until five or six years ago, and the main reason was that prior to that time I had no idea how to do the lyrics.  As much as I like to read books, I was never somebody who was a good writer.  I always struggled even doing essays and things like that.  Sometimes I struggle for twenty minutes trying to put together an email to somebody, so it’s worded properly (laughs). 
So a lot of it is just repetition, and, for me, I equate it to – I probably shouldn’t say this because he’s my favorite songwriter, and I shouldn’t compare myself to him, Paul McCartney – the famous story of “Yesterday” …He had that melody, that song in his head for a long time, and for awhile it was called “Scrambled Eggs” because that what he used to mark the melody.  He turned “Scrambled Eggs” into “Yesterday” (laughs) I try not to put words in there, but a lot of it’s me going ‘La la la la la’ for a long time until something drops, and it fits.  Then I kind of work around that idea.

Now, you’ve spent time touring with other people and working as a session musician… When was it when you thought, ‘I need to do this.  I need to get my own songs out there?

You can blame Dana (Vargo’s wife)…in a good way (laughs).  I had taken years off.  I didn’t even touch a guitar or do anything, musically, and then, in 2011 or 2012, I started to play again.  I hadn’t done much singing prior to that either, so I got a really good acoustic guitar, started singing, started doing open mics, and that turned into showcases and things.

Everybody else around me seemed like they were writing some of their own stuff, and I was doing covers.  Dana said, ‘You know, you really need to write your own stuff.’  She kept pushing me, and I kept saying, ‘No.  It’s really hard.’ (laughs)

I have a natural ability to hear somebody’s song on the radio, come home, not even think about it, and have my own version of that song.  I could put my own imprint on it very quickly, very easily.  I knew I could do that anytimeI wanted to, but writing, I knew, was going to by really tough. 
So, she pushed me, and I finally wrote my first song.  It just kind of [grew] from there.  Truthfully, I don’t write a lot.  If I’m lucky I’ll write seven or eight songs in a year.  It’s not like I have this massive outpouring.  I kind of have to force myself to do it, but it is much easier for me to just sit down and say, ‘Hey, I’m going to come up with a version of an Eagles’ song now, and I’m going to go do it tonight when I have my gig.’ That was definitely the path of least resistance. (laughs)

With your experience on stage, in the studio, at home writing. Where are you the most happiest?

Yes. (laughs)  All of the above.  I feel bad if I’m at home all week and playing in my backroom like, ‘That was a waste of a week.’  At the same time, those weeks when I have five shows I think, ‘Why did I commit to so many shows?  I should be home writing.’ (laughs) It’s hard to find that mix that works and also allows you to get sleep, which is sometimes problematic when you have a day job, and these things run on opposite sides of the day.  I really do enjoy being on stage.

The prospect of touring is not very alluring having done it so much in my past, although it would be a different type of touring now.  Doing it for yourself – that might make it better.
I think a perfect week would be to have three or four days at home doing things and also have a show or two – whether a showcase, venue show or something that’s going out sharing your stuff while, hopefully, getting some level of feedback or appreciation for those songs. 
My album’s been out since September, and I haven’t done a cd release show, yet.  Mostly because it requires putting together a band, securing a venue, etcetera.  Now it’s like kind of too late.  I kind of missed that boat.  But I am in the process of getting back into the studio, hopefully, the end of next month to record couple songs, one of which will, hopefully, be a single to be released in May.  Then, maybe for that single release I’ll do a release show for the single and for the record – tied all together. That’s the thought process at the moment.  We’ll see.

How was recording Spaces different from recording Burning Through?

This record was, again, Tim Pannella who is not only the drummer but the co-producer and engineer – he mastered it.  The only difference was the space.  The first record we did in his basement, and the second one he had his own studio.  This is what he does for a living.  He’s head engineer at Lakehouse in Asbury Park.  He’s a super talented guy…and much younger. (laughs)

For some reason, we just had this thing where we clicked.  It seems like we’re almost always on the same page with the direction of the song, the production, the parts…Tim is probably one of the most musical drummers that I know, meaning that he hears all of the other things going on, too, besides just the rhythm of the song.

So, it was similar to the first record although I think we both got better having learned from the first record, I think…I hope.  And we were more tasteful with our choices in production.  I hope I grew as a writer.  Maybe the songs are a bit stronger than the first record, too.  Vocally, I was a little bit better.  We were both a couple years older, too, and with more experience under our belts.  I think that all plays into things.  And we’re both, luckily, from the same vein that we’re not doing this to show off. We don’t need an eight-minute guitar solo that shows ‘everything that Dave learned at Berklee’ kind of thing.  We need to make the songs work cohesively with the parts complimenting the songs as opposed to just saying, ‘Hey, look what I can do.’  

You do well on Spotify…

Yes. We’re doing pretty good on Spotify.  The record has, I think, close to 600,000 plays or so, which is almost the total I got for the first record over a three-year period.  

Will there be any videos in the future with this album – you mentioned marrying the album release with the new single release – anything else coming down the pike?

I’ve never done any videos.  I’ve never explored them, mostly because I don’t really watch them myself.  It’s just not an interest for me.  I guess it’s something that should be explored at some point.  I’d like to release a couple singles this year and get the next record out.

It took two and a half years to get the second one out, and I don’t want to wait that long again.  Part of it is…people move on. (laughs) There are so many choices out there.  So, unless you have something new, you’re going to be quickly forgotten when there are 500 people who do have something new that you can check out.   I think it almost forces you to be Beatle-esque. The Beatles used to put out two or three records per year – full records – which is kind of crazy, but it’s like, ‘Hey, we’re hot. We’ve got to run with this.’  I don’t think it needs to be at that level, but I think you need to keep in front of people.  Attention spans are short.  

So, you have a show coming up at The Lizzie Rose Music Room with Jack Tempchin. Can you tell me how that came about?

I was hosting a songwriters’ showcase down a The Lizzie Rose Room once per month, too.  That started when I volunteered to open for somebody down there, and they had wanted to put together something for local songwriters.  I did that for seven or eight months, and it got to be too much because it was on a Wednesday night…but, as a result of that, I developed a relationship with those guys.
I saw that Jack was coming up on the calendar, and I said, ‘Hey, if you need an opener…’ So, they checked with his management and got the okay.  Jack is – I don’t know him, personally, so I should call him Mr. Tempchin probably – co-wrote or wrote a couple of the big Eagles’ songs like “Peaceful, Easy Feeling” and the hits from Glenn Frey.  Most of his big hits in the eighties Jack wrote or co-wrote.  He has this library of hits that’s like, ‘Oh, he wrote that?’

So, I think it would be cool to do a show with someone of that caliber.  I’m looking forward to it.  The room has a great sound system.  It’s a beautiful room.  It still has the wood paneling, the chandelier, and the stained glass from the original home.  It’s a nice venue to see shows in.

Dave Vargo will be at The Lizzie Rose Music Room on March 13 in Tuckerton, NJ, March 17 at the Pierce Sessions, Pierce Memorial Presbyterian Church in Farmingdale, NJ, and April 11 at the Asbury Hotel in Asbury Park, NJ. For a full listing of shows check out: davevargomusic.com