The New Jersey native spoke earnestly about what Ocean County did for him, his perspective on life, and his musical journey – both before and after the COVID-19 outbreak.
Like all artists trying to move forward during a global pandemic, Asbury Park Music Award-winning singer-songwriter Frank Lombardi, the 2019 Makin Waves Male Artist of the Year, aims to keep going. But he admits that no reasonably sane person would be an artist at this point in history.
The Ocean Township-raised artist shares plenty of other choice niblets during the following in-depth interview, which I’m just going to get out of the way of and allow you to enjoy!
You grew up next door to Asbury Park in Ocean Township. When and how did you gravitate to the Asbury scene?
Yessir. Born and raised. Same zip-code in fact.
Asbury was most certainly always there in my mind, in some form, and even as a youngster in the early to mid-’90s, I was always generally aware of the history of the larger venues, like the Stone Pony and Convention Hall; though, I’d say when I was younger, in the ‘90s and early 2000s, there wasn’t a whole ton going on — at least comparatively to what it eventually became, or for that matter, what it had once been.
There are a few standout personal firsts for my involvement in town. On a strictly fun note, my first “real” concert was a Third Eye Blind show at the Pony. I was about 13 or 14, so this was around 1999 or 2000. The city was in a shape such that you still didn’t want to stray too far from the venue at that point, and mom and dad were coming to get you exactly when the show let out at the door!
A few years later, I was learning to play guitar and found myself at an open mic night over on Cookman Avenue at a great place that is now long-defunct called Harry’s Roadhouse. I was about 18 or 19 at the time. It was required that I have adult supervision to get myself on the sign-up list. Again, while there were the beginning signs of a rebirth on Cookman at this point, Asbury was still generally a place where you didn’t want to park or wander more than a half-block from wherever the music was on any given night.
As I got a little older, came of drinking age, and got more into writing, The Saint was initially the place that took me in — first as a young spectator, then soon, thereafter, as a performer. The Saint would play a big role in introducing me to a handful of the locals, especially Scott and Meg, and to the scene in general, and was instrumental in me becoming more comfortable with playing my own songs as opposed to covers, which I also did quite frequently at the time.
By the early 2010s, I was helping out Peter Mantas (Langosta Lounge/Asbury Park Yacht Club/White Chapel Project) by hosting a weekly Thursday evening music showcase at the once-great Trinity and Pope on Mattison and Bond. More than anything else, I’d say, this is where I really got to know the musicians who made up the core of what I’d now consider the Asbury Park scene. For that short-lived period of time, you’d find a ton of the Asbury locals around my age hanging out there on a Thursday night, whether they were playing or not: Accidental Seabirds (Jesse Herdeman); “Brother” Andrew Robinson and whatever project he and his brother were working on at the time, including Underwater Country Club; a great band no longer around named Lightning Jar; Ron Santee of Battery Electric; Matt Wade; Roshane (Mr. Tickle Hands); Santo Rizzolo; Emily Grove … Without naming everyone in town, it was just about everyone you’ll find playing around town these days. It was a two-floor building. By 11 p.m., a lot of times you would find a crowd inside for the show, and another crowd outside or upstairs having an impromptu jam. It was something that probably, sound ordinance-wise, you couldn’t pull off on Mattison today.
From there on out, the town took off relatively quickly on just about every front, not the least of which being the live music scene. Some places came and went. I remember the short-lived Asbury Blues, where I’d go for Wednesday night jams.
Overall, the gig opportunities took off for the younger musicians who stuck it out. You had the older guys, who had never really left, or went on to other things and now had a reason to more frequently come back. Places like Lakehouse Music wound up hiring a ton of us to teach or as in-studio guys. Eventually, it seemed like new places were popping up, at times, every week. Since then, it’s just been an endless process of meeting and maintaining relationships to the best of my ability.
Did the Asbury scene inspire you to play and influence your music?
Most certainly not for a lack of people I greatly admire in town, I’d have to say not a whole ton. You’d have to understand that by the time I finally started playing and writing seriously, I was in college in Florida, and a long ways away from Asbury Park. So by the time I had developed into a sort of regular suspect in the area, I already had some good idea of what it was I wanted to do musically. Add in the facts that by my nature, I tend to be a bit of a musical loner and by the time the scene had grown into what it currently is, I had generally become comfortable in my own musical skin; so I’d have to say, only by accidents of temporary distance and timing, the answer would be no.
However, I’d also add that in terms of continued interest in and enthusiasm forwriting, over the years, there has been no greater influence and encouragement than this city and the people and musicians in it. That aspect cannot be overstated.
Who and what else has influenced your music?
Oh, man. Well, I was brought up in a musical house. My father played piano and sang throughout the majority of his life. For a while, he was regularly doing weddings with his band FDR Drive and playing as a sort of house band at a place in Long Branch called The Squires Pub — now, I believe, Branches.
My father loved doo-wop music, the Four Seasons, and most certainly Ray Charles. So I grew up with a ton of stuff from that era.
Besides early life influences, when I started buying CDs in high school from ‘’01 to ’05, I was reverting back to a lot of early ‘90s alt-rock and grunge. There was a ton of Stone Temple Pilots, Smashing Pumpkins, Third Eye Blind, Pearl Jam, etc.
When I was coming home from college around ’08, I was making a sort of living playing cover tunes in bars in Belmar, playing Kelly’s and Clancy’s Tavern, The Columns in Avon, and basically just a ton of bars around the area, including wedding cocktail hours, private parties, on and on. When you’re 20 or 21, playing mostly for people twice your age, you inevitably get asked for a ton of stuff — some of which you already knew, some of which you had never gotten into. I started to dig deep into Bob Dylan and Neil Young, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Tom Petty, Crosby Stills Nash & Young, and a ton of ‘60s and ‘70s stuff. Typically, whatever you’d normally hear an acoustic guy or band do in a bar around 2005, I was doing.
From there on out, it was just a ton of discovery, some old, some new. At some point, I got huge into Wilco and anything Jeff Tweedy was involved with. Since the end of college, I started to get into My Morning Jacket a ton, Damien Jurado, Nick Drake, Ryan Adams, Milk Carton Kids, Fleet Foxes, Water Liars, Sun Kil Moon.
If you want to know my influences, basically just put a bunch of those acts into a Pandora channel and hit play. There is definitely a certain predictable feel in what I find interesting. I’m not ashamed of that predictability.
How many LPs or EPs have you put out, when, how, and what are the titles?
I did my first full album with Jon Leidersdorff at Lakehouse in my early 20s. It was called ‘Whiskey and the Mourning After.’ That year, it took Album of the Year at the AP Music Awards. At the time, I was very proud of that album.
About five years later, I needed some merch for a national DIY tour I put together with a Connecticut musician named Daphne Martin. So I did a seven-song release, self-titled ‘Francis Lombardi’ at a buddy’s studio of mine that is no longer there.
Most recently, I put out ‘Predawn’ with Steve Greenwell producing, guest musicians, like Emily Grove, Tara Dente, Arlan Feiles, Robbie Butkowski, and all with the help of Mr. Peter Mantas as executive producer. We did most of the recording of my vocals and guitar live at a cabin that Steve has up in Bethel Woods, N.Y. Then we very carefully layered it out from there at Steve’s studio here in Asbury. I suppose it’s a good sign that, to date, it is easily the piece of work I’m most proud of.
On the first couple, you went by Francis Lombardi, but on the latest one, you’re Frank. Why the change?
Well, the story of why Francis is a long one, which I don’t care to get into too much. I think we had just gotten a new pope, so Francis was thrust back into the collective consciousness. A few people suggested it sounded more ‘artistic.’ And getting to the top of a Google search as ‘Frank Lombardi’ was near impossible. Aside from there already being another Frank Lombardi who used to drum in a band with Dickie Betts, and now was an acoustic musician himself, there was also — that I can remember — a state politician convicted of corruption, among 10,000 other Frank Lombardis. So let’s just say, Francis was the conclusion and lasted for a few years.
Now that I’m in my 30s, and essentially everyone who knows me calls me Frank, I was done with any degree of pretension I felt Francis might convey and felt that I was at a point in my songwriting where I wanted to break from everything I had done before artistically. It was a way for me to clean the slate in a way, and be reborn and mostly free of old songs that I felt had become somewhat anachronistic, or had lost their meaning for me.
At performances, you’ve seemed to mention that you were in recovery. Did I hear that right, and if so, how do you manage to continue to work in a bar?
Yeah, well, COVID lockdown was pretty ‘interesting’ for me, but I suppose the short and polite answer is yes, I’m always battling those demons.
As for working in a bar, I don’t have much of a choice. Whether with music or with alternate streams of income, my skill set consistently brings me back to bars. I either deal with it or I don’t. There’s no magic bullet. Sometimes it’s easily done. Sometimes it’s not. The more times I can string together an ‘easily done’ night, for whatever reason, the easier that becomes. The inverse is also true. That’s about as well as I can answer that question.
You’ve received a lot of accolades, including Asbury Park Music and Makin Waves awards. How does that make you feel? Does it make the challenge of maintaining a music career worthwhile? What else makes that worthwhile and why?
I mean, it’s not a bad feeling, but it certainly doesn’t fulfill me in any significant way. Well, not the award in and of itself. If the award represents, as often write-ups like yours do, a bit of recognition on a growing scale, then the answer is yes. Without any recognition, I cease to be able to function even meagerly as an artist.
The thing that ultimately keeps me going … shit, I don’t know what keeps me doing it. No sane person, with a well-developed sense of personal well-being, would do this job right now. At a certain point, you either need to do it, or you do not … and if you need to do it, then you forget or ignore all the reasons, which are many, that you should not.
So what’s next for you? Do you have an album’s worth of songs you want to release? If so, what’s the plan for them in the face of the pandemic, and do you plan to work with Steve Greenwell again as producer and Peter Mantis’ AirPlay Records as the label?
I’m always working on stuff. I can’t say this whole lockdown was a flourishing of the creative muscle for me, but at the same time, I’ve written a few since the last album, and this strange time has certainly created the material and the basis for what I’m sure will become more easily written songs in the near future.
Yes, I will be working with Steve and Peter once again.
Comment on how and why you liked working with both those guys last time out.
Well, I love Steve. We probably met about two years ago with the help of Peter. He’s a very vibe-oriented human being. Zen in a way, for sure. If that makes sense to anyone reading this, then so be it. If anyone has met him as well, I’m positive they understand what I’m talking about.
The other thing I like about Steve is, I feel like he interprets his job as being in a position of facilitating sound rather than directing it.
And Pete, well, he’s just been a friend for a very long time, and he’s seen some shit with me and managed to look past it the whole time. I value our friendship very much.
You typically write very personally, like early Jackson Browne, Gordon Lightfoot, and Harry Chapin, but I know that you are very politically minded and appreciate great social critics, such as Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn. What do you think of the direction America has headed in the past four years and what direction do you think we should head in during the next four?
I do write personally, but I think you’ll find, if you read between the lines, that references or narratives about things within my own life often act as metaphors if not outright statements about current cultural or political phenomena. I may not name names, but that’s only because I’ve never been a fan — at least as a writer– of making very literal and explicit political statements within the music itself. If for no other reason, because it allows me to say something true to people who otherwise might disagree, and sneak it past their earhole. Or it opens my work and perception to be more in tune with the perception of others who might otherwise flee if I spoke extremely bluntly and concretely within the art form itself.
Chomsky and Zinn are key. Yes.
As for the last part, Jesus, Bob. You trying to get me killed? Just kidding, brother.
I will say this. First off, yes I am very politically opinionated and historically-conscious. While I tend not to spread those ideas on any ‘official’ music media pages, anyone who is personal friends with me on Facebook is quite well aware of why you would ask that question. Seeing as though I’m sure this isn’t a prompt for me to write you a dissertation on what is wrong with America and American politics, which if I were to indulge myself right now, I’m sure I would. I will always answer as shortly as I know how, given the topic, as someone dedicated to be as straightforward as is humanly possible when and if the question is posed.
That said, I will say this. First off, let’s not limit ourselves to four years back — nor forward, for that matter. Speaking in those terms, people might gather a sense that I think Donald Trump is or should be our biggest cause for concern, and that merely getting rid of him will prove a positive enough solution.
Before I go on to say what I’m about to say — because I know a ton of what I say is not popular with the Democratic Party Left — I invite any reader with an intense dislike for and a bent on getting rid of Trump to insert their own criticism of the man here, and know that I most certainly agree with it, minus, perhaps, the intelligence farce that was the ‘Russian spy’ nonsense, but that’s another story altogether.
That being said, however, we all need to grapple with our most discomforting realities right now, especially in this historical moment. Simply put, this president is a symptom of our underlying rot, not the rot itself. Sure, he is uniquely crass and crude, But the most fundamental evils and inadequacies of this system — I would put forth — have continued on, on pretty much the same downward trajectory, unabated and largely unaltered since his election! That’s no compliment, nor is it an excuse for — nor ignorance of — the man’s worst abuses. It’s simply an indictment of our deep systemic rot, which much of this country has long been able to safely ignore, and which far too many people attribute solely or even mostly to Donald Trump.
The truth is, we have for over 40 years had two parties increasingly dedicated to the well being of the corporate state over that of its workers; two parties dedicated to the military-industrial-intelligence complex, and the erosion of civil liberties and the rise of police-state tactics that go hand-in-hand with that; two parties dedicated to ignoring, yet rhetorically placating, their bases to a point where so many of this country’s voters — those who still bother anyway — by and large just look for a way to most boldly give the system the finger every four years; hence, Trump! And yet again, we have two parties who have neglected to do what was necessary in the midst of a health crisis in order to save the livelihoods and lives of citizens who, through no fault of their own, have had to live through it.
Yes, we have a ‘conservative’ party in this country, fully tempted by authoritarian tendencies, often over-obsessed with conservative social issues, plagued by a small but active portion of racists and bigots, and largely dedicated to some Randian wet dream of market fundamentalism. But we’re living at a time during which we’re seeing one of the greatest, if not THE greatest, mass shifts of economic wealth and market power value upwards. Unfortunately, the Democratic Left is far too busy telling everyone — mostly powerless individuals by the way — to ‘check their privilege,’ rather than taking a more coherent, more class-conscious approach; rather than doing any self-inventory after 2016 whatsoever; rather than having any curiosity at all as to the widespread anger and disillusionment that created the possibility for a faux-populist like Donald Trump, and, for that matter, a comparatively more genuine one like Sanders, in the first place. Liberals, in the absence of any REAL opposition to the corporate, economic neoliberalism that has plagued the American working class for the last 40 years, has turned a majority of their attention to social issues, and not in a good way. Often, it is in the most politically cynical and expedient way possible, in a way that is truly divisive, and in a way that in no way seeks to achieve REAL equality of opportunity.
The Right may have the most visually and rhetorically dangerous party and factions right now, but the Left arguably harbors many of the same economically neo-liberal, militarily neoconservative factions, who have served as the more historically successful barrier to genuine economic change — or social change for that matter — beyond when it has become politically expedient to do so.
If Democrats think Donald Trump is as bad as it can get, then I advise them to welcome more of the same, simply vote for Biden, wash their hands clean so to speak, be content for another four to eight years of business as usual, and find out how bad of a monster this country actually could produce in the not-so-distant future. Imagine a country where none of the underlying rot is fixed, none of the corruption addressed, none of the economic suffering assuaged; feelings of anger and disenfranchisement allowed to continue unabated for another four to eight years; and then imagine an intelligent and politically competentsomeone, far more dogmatic — beyond their own narcissism, that is — than Donald Trump ever could be, harnessing that disillusionment.
Donald Trump is no walk in the park, to put it lightly. But it just seems to me like too many decent people are willing to ‘lesser-of-two-evils’ this country right into the actual apocalypse. Donald Trump has just been our dress rehearsal for all-out American Fascism, and it’s time for people to wake up or buck up for far worse.
Yikes, sorry. I’m stopping before carpal tunnel sets in. Clearly, I’m a bit of a pessimist for our prospects in the near future, to put it lightly, given the nature of our systems and institutions of power, and the quality of our discourse right now.
Given your appreciation for political thought, have politics influenced any of the songs you’ve written for your next album? If so, how? If not, why?
What I’ve written thus far is both very personal and political, sometimes concurrently, but not always at the same time; and I don’t suppose much will change this time around. At the end of the day, there is often nothing more political than the personal properly contextualized and articulated in such a way that people can personally relate.
I’d also say that when I do write politically, it is more in the vein of cultural commentary than it is in any way political cheerleading for one side or the other.
Has the pandemic inspired you to write any songs? If so, please describe the songs and specifically how and why they came to be.
It has at least one. I suppose I’d just put it this way: the lockdown, the inability to work or play, and the fact that I had just moved into a place by myself, had made for some unhealthy tendencies, some chronic depression and — ultimately — loneliness. Mix the circus that is our society in general right now with this new reason to do a bit too much ‘screen viewing’ in order to fill the void and serve the boredom, among other things, and that’s the mindset from whence the song came.
Do you have any virtual, drive-in, or other shows coming up?
Aug. 16, White Chapel Project in Long Branch with Brother Andrew. I believe it’s 2 to 4, but I’m sure it will be listed on their site or their Facebook page. That show is outside, obviously, and weather permitting.
Is there anything I didn’t ask on which you would like to comment?
No, sir. Just thank you for being interested and taking the time. And thank you for all the work you do for local artists. Thank you for caring and always having your finger on the pulse. It is much appreciated, and not just by myself.