Courtesy of Dave Vargo

Dave Vargo Talks New Single & Tips His Hat to Nashville

Dave Vargo is one of those multi-dimensional musicians who is destined to leave any music scene he encounters better off than the way he found it. His impact is far-reaching simply because of his thoughtful approach – not only musically, but professionally, as well. 

Along with his penchant for creating songs that soothe and stay with you, he also brings together fellow musicians by expanding the community, giving artists an opportunity to reach new audiences. Evident with the latest release of his new single “Half Bad,” Vargo is delivering the musical salve we didn’t realize we needed. It serves as an antithesis of sorts to the cynical daily news stories we are fed – an uptempo, bright-sided reminder that maybe if we lifted our gaze up and around us, we would find that life is not ‘half bad.’

The single is the first release from Vargo’s upcoming album which is to follow The Spaces in Between from 2019 that offered melodious moments amid lush guitar stylings on songs such as “Without a Fight” and “Rewrites.” A sought-after listen on Spotify, Spaces in Between, along with his first effort Burning Through (2016), solidified Vargo’s place in the sphere of songwriting.

Throughout the pandemic, Vargo has kept his chops up in creative ways including his popular livestream 2forTuesday, which happens weekly via Facebook. The show consists of two songs, usually one cover and one original, then Vargo allows for another musician he admires to follow right behind him. This structure gives the audience an opportunity to hear Vargo, along with a musician of his choosing, while not committing to hours on the platform. He has taken into account the shorter attention spans of online audiences these days. The concept also allows for Vargo to try out new tunes while the new album is in process. 

To his credit, Vargo seems to have no trouble keeping the attention of listeners out there in the Spotify-iTunes-Apple Music-verse. His albums and singles rack up thousands of plays. As a seasoned touring musician (He toured with Whitney Houston among others.) with studio session prowess, Vargo has managed to combine his talents into the creation of a new concept, Not Quite Nashville. What began as an online songwriters’ showcase has now formed into a hybrid live/online show. The next Not Quite Nashville will feature Vargo along with George Wirth at Calgo Gardens in Howell, New Jersey on July 31 and can be streamed online.  

Not only is Vargo a talented songwriter and performer, he brings music to the people while looking sharp with his trademark hat atop his head (a Goorin Brothers hat, to be exact).

Dave, you just released the song “Half Bad” on June 25 and the song did well on the UK charts. In fact, you were beating out Ed Sheeran and Doja Cat at one point, correct?

[Laughs] For a brief moment in time, yes. It was nice they took that snapshot when they did because I’m sure hours later that it was not the case. [Laughs] I’m not quite sure how it happened.

This song is so well-received. Did you expect that to happen as quickly as it did?

I know it’s a little more pop-sounding than anything else that I’ve released, but I didn’t expect it to chart anywhere, except maybe a college radio chart or something, but not on  iTunes, or whatever it was, for sure. And it charted on the pop chart, which is kind of strange.

It does have a bit of an uptempo, pop-ish sound, but it’s rooted in your signature sound, which is more singer-songwriter and Americana. When you set out to make it, what kind of song did you feel that you were making?

You know, I never really thought about it until we had the song almost done in the studio. We had done all the parts on it and I think we were just adding backing vocals when my engineer said, “This one’s for the people.” I’m like, “What does that mean?” He said, “You know, it’s kind of for the people, meaning that it’s more of a mass-appeal kind of song than what you typically write.” 

I didn’t intend that. Part of it, maybe, came out in the arrangement and in the production, too. I don’t know. Obviously, when I’m playing it by myself on an acoustic guitar it’s probably not quite as pop-sounding. You never know, I guess, when you bring these things in the studio and start working with them. You kind of get a vibe going on a song. I’ve learned not to fight the vibe and to run with it. Nothing intentional as far as stylistic, but I just kind of felt with the song where it wanted to go… and five guitar parts later….

You are a guitar guy. Which guitar of yours did you use on this track, specifically?

Oh, boy. Well, we started off with just an acoustic guitar, so it was a Martin acoustic that laid down the basic rhythm part, and then we layered. We had Telecasters on there. We had a Gibson Les Paul. We had a Rickenbacker twelve-string and probably something else I’m not remembering right now. 

Actually, on most tracks, but this one in particular, every single guitar part was a different guitar. I didn’t use the same guitar to do different parts. Trying to get that combination of sounds to work towards that richness that you hear, that’s what I admire from other great records. You can’t really tell, but there’s four or five guitars on there or maybe more. You layer them up and that’s when you get that bigger sounding push.

It’s interesting that it is a priority for you going into it. You’re looking for that rich guitar sound. 

On most songs… definitely on this song. There are some songs that will be on this record that are much more sparse or acoustic fingerpicking-driven with some other things mixed in. 

There’s another song we recorded called “Fault Lines” that has only two guitars in it. I recorded it with an acoustic, and then there were two other guitar parts, but it was the same guitar. It was much more subdued than this one mostly because, once again, that’s where the song wanted to go.

“Half Bad” sounds very much like a gratitude song, so it makes sense that your engineer mentioned it’s “for the people.” The lyrics feel universal in that everyone will get something out of it. Was there an epiphany or a moment when you were feeling particularly grateful writing?

I think it was more [about] striving to not take for granted where you are and be happy with what you’ve done already. I had this feeling – there’s something built into this. It didn’t start with me wanting to write about this, but it kind of directed itself this way. It’s that we just keep, myself included, wanting more, you know? It’s more material things; a better life, a better house, a better whatever, and if we took a moment, just took a step back and looked around. Actually, [you see] things are pretty damn good already. It ain’t ‘half bad’ [Laughs].

The way I see it, we’ve actually got it pretty good, and we should be happy for that, grateful for that.

So, you’ve released the first single. How about the next single, and, of course, the album release?

What we did, strategically, so far, is we recorded four songs and mixed and mastered them. All four songs are ready to be released and we chose “Half Bad” to be the first single. And I did it that way ’cause typically that’s not the way we do it. Typically, you get everything done and then at the end you’re ready to release. You drop a single and then you get the record out, but I’ve had so many delays – it seems like every record I put out just takes so much longer to finish than I want it to, for various reasons. Also, the COVID thing pushed everything back a year, so as we were recording we thought this could go on for three, four, five years. Who knows? At that point, I said, “Let’s get these four songs done just in case. We’re not going to be back in the studio again for a year,” so we got it done. 

The plan is, hopefully, to get the full record out in October and we’ll see if that becomes a reality or not. In between, we’ll probably drop another one of those three remaining songs just to keep things going. 

I’m not quite sure what song it would be, yet, but part of the fear, I think, in releasing “Half Bad” as a single is that this sounds like me, but it’s also much more positive than most of my songs [Laughs]. People like this, they get the record, and then they see the real Dave, who is more of a sad-song-singing kind of guy [Laughs]. Are they going to say, “We’ve been misled”? I probably tend to overthink these things.

That’s the game plan. I’m hoping – I have a couple dates booked in the studio at the end of this month – I’ll get the next batch of songs started. At this point, I have twelve songs written and I’ll probably have a couple more written before we’re done. The plan is to record them all, and, obviously, not put a record out that has 15 songs on it. The previous two records had eleven songs each.  That sounds like a pretty good number, but who knows? Maybe we’ll have eleven.  Maybe we’ll have twelve songs.  We’ll have some songs for the next album, whenever that may be.  

You’ve had a productive pandemic.

The last record was out in 2019. I was slated to go into the studio in March of 2020 to start this thing, and, for obvious reasons, it didn’t happen. So, everything got pushed back, and I didn’t have the full record written then. Typically, I’ll go in if I have five or six strong songs. That’s when I’ll start recording and I’ll keep writing as it goes because it takes forever to record. Ultimately, I’ll end up with like 10, 11, 12 songs, but since this one got pushed back I did keep writing. 

I’m habitually a slow writer. If I can write eight or nine songs a year that’s a lot for me. I know people who write 20 songs a month [Laughs]! I can’t write lyrics that fast.  It just takes me much longer than that for most of the things that I do, but, I guess being stuck in the house not gigging and not recording did allow me to get a couple more songs done.  I’ve actually written four songs already this year, which is pretty good for me, without really pushing myself to write and just kind of letting it come.

How much different will the new album be than the last one, Spaces in Between?

It’s hard to tell because I’m not sure which songs out of the ones I’ve written will be on there. I’m not even sure what the differences are between my first one and my second one. I definitely have some similarities there as some reviewers have pointed out, that “Dave Vargo sound,” which I can’t pinpoint, but, apparently, people can. 

Lyrically, I think I’m getting better. As a lyricist, I hope I’m evolving and getting better, a little more precise, maybe less wordy than I was on the first record. That may have changed a bit into the second record. There’s a bit more confidence there, and, perhaps, a little less concern about what people think. 

When the first record came out, I remember when I got the first review I thought that I couldn’t bear to look because “What if they said something bad?” [Laughs] That didn’t happen. You kind of build off from that. You build your little following and they help to instill confidence. I’ve been doing this 2forTuesday thing for so long, which is a nice avenue – this past Tuesday I debuted a new song I’d just written – so it’s a great way to get some quick feedback on a new song. That helps build the confidence that people are still liking what I’m doing. 

You see so many artists hit the wall, and there’s many more who hit the wall than who keep going and keep producing great stuff, so I’m always thinking that, most likely, I’m going to be one of those people because most people are. Will you know when it happens [Laughs], or will you overstay your welcome? So, I guess, that’s in the back of mind to some degree, too.

Speaking of your 2forTuesdays, what else are you getting from those Tuesday livestreams? Are they inspiring for you to do?

Some weeks it’s inspiring, and some weeks it feels like work. I had this conversation with someone last night – I was doing a radio interview – and I said that sometimes it feels like I prepare more for the two songs than I do when I’m going out and playing a full set or three hours of music. 

Generally, I’m trying to pick a cover song that is not a blatant cover song. Oftentimes, it will have a story behind it or maybe nobody has heard before and I’m introducing them to a new songwriter coupled with an original of mine. A lot of thought goes into that, and a lot of times I don’t get to learn these songs until the night before, maybe two nights before. Then, you get to perform them and there’s always that anticipation if Facebook is working or not working [Laughs]. We’ve had multiple issues over the 67 or so episodes. The other thought is that if you go out and play them live, which is how you should debut songs, going to an open mic or coffeehouse (especially in the early days) and you’d play your songs there and have 15/20 people in the audience. You’d get some feedback. You’d get applause or maybe after someone would mention something, but it was done. Now, when you do it, it’s recorded. It’s there forever [Laughs]. If you make a mistake, if you flub a word, if you flub a chord, it’s there forever, and it’s logged in for everybody to see. That is also an element of stress that gets added to the whole mix, especially if it’s a brand new song. The song I did Tuesday night, I had sung it through three times – you’re still learning the cadence of your own song. Are you going to phrase the lyric exactly? What’s the right tempo? All of these things. After 67 weeks it’s given me more bravery. I think in week four or five I would’ve said, “Eh. Let the song sit for a week or two before we do it.” Now I’m, “I’ve got a new one. Let’s do it. What the hell?” You have that built-in audience that has been very supportive, and even if you do screw something up they’re going to be there. They’re going to have your back. 

It seems you’ve been, through collaborations on 2forTuesdays and Not Quite Nashville, keeping your musical community going through it all.  How’s that been for you?

It’s been great. Something that I’d done previously, the Pierce Sessions, which was in-person, we had two songwriters come in. It’s really nice to introduce an attentive audience to artists and new music. Sometimes, for some of the people, it may be a stretch for them. We had on Kuf Knotz a few weeks ago, who is a hip-hop guy, and they love him. I’m not a hip-hop person per se, but I just love what he does. I thought there would probably be some people who would be like, “Huh?” Yet, he got this great and positive response – maybe more so than anyone I’ve had on the show so far. It’s nice to broaden other people’s horizons. I know that a lot of people who’ve been on the show have new fans as a result. The core audience is very supportive and if they like them they’ll buy their cds, they’ll follow them on Spotify, and they’ll probably go out and see them live. It’s been nice to kind of share that with other talented people, and it means something to them, you know? 

Yes, you’ll be hitting a lot of breweries in the area soon.

[Laughs] I am. It’s a drunken tour! [Laughs] Yeah, it’s funny because part of the compensation for these things is to drink as much as you want, but I don’t drink when I play, so they’re getting off cheap.

It’s been cool.  It happens to be that one of the benefits of COVID: that when the breweries were starting to be more prominent, like five or six years ago, when they started popping up all over the place, they could do whatever they wanted to do. They could do music, they could do weddings, they could do any kind of event that they wanted, and the bars and restaurants that owned the more expensive liquor license started complaining because they were paying for this and they were getting it for a fraction of the price. They didn’t want them doing all the same things they could do. 

New Jersey came in and said they could only do twelve functions per year regardless of the type and that’s all they’re allowed to do, so music stopped at all of the breweries and wineries. Weddings, for a large part, stopped. And, with COVID, they released that since things were tough, and they said, “You guys can do whatever you want.” It then went the opposite way… pretty much every winery and brewery has music now… until they get stopped again [Laughs].

It’s great. They pay decently. They have a good audience. Most of the people I’ve met who own these places are very nice, very supportive. In some ways, they’re more friendly and it’s easier to do than the restaurant and bar gigs I’d been doing. It’s worked out great. I’m happy about it. 

You’re known for your trademark hats and recently collaborated with Goorin Brothers hats. How did that come about?

Well, I own a lot of Goorin Brothers hats and I really like the company. The boots I wear, the hats I wear, the shirts I wear. on Instagram I’ll try to tag as many as I can to try and help out the companies that I like doing business with – not that Goorin Brothers need me. [Laughs] I think they have like 80,000 followers, but they would like my posts. 

About three months ago, I sent an email to each one of the companies that I’d been doing that for and said, “Hey, I don’t know if you guys are interested, but I like your product and wear your product. I recognize you when I do social media. Do you have any type of ambassadorship where maybe we could work together?”

I sent one to Robert Graham who makes most of the shirts that I wear and heard nothing. I sent one to Bed Stu who make my favorite pair of boots and heard nothing. Then, Goorin Brothers responded and said, “Sure. We’d do that. We’d be happy to have you as a brand ambassador.” Now I’m a brand ambassador, which I’m still not sure exactly what that means [Laughs]. We tag each other in some posts, I get a discount on merchandise, and sometimes I can send fans there and they get a discount. It’s kind of cool. 

I know one of the musicians you collaborate with is Sahara Moon. Do you happen to be working on anything with her at the moment?

We’re actually doing a show together this coming Monday. It’s Sahara’s show. She came in and sang on a song on my record. I told her if she needs a guitar player for anything I’d do it for free. She would not accept compensation for singing on the record.

We’ve been rehearsing, yeah, and she has about 20 originals for a two-hour show down in Manahawkin. We haven’t written together yet, but we’ve been talking about it. She’s become a good friend of mine, which is kind of weird because there’s such an age difference, but she’s kind of an old soul. She’s very talented and a sweet person. We tend to bounce things off each other. 

I’ve only, purposely, co-written one song in my life [Laughs], which happened recently. In the past, when I’ve done co-writes it’s because we were in the studio, I’d been playing on their record, and I’d come up with some chords, come up with a bridge for their song, or I’d do something – you get a co-write that way. 

I can see the direction her songs are going that it would be fun to sit down and do that: to write something and record. She sang on the song I’d mentioned, “Fault Lines.” She sang background on it and our voices work really well together. 

You go to Nashville often even though you’re Jersey/New York-based. How would you describe your relationship to Nashville? 

I love being down there. It’s a fun city… inspirational. As a songwriter and a musician it’s a city that, if you go unprepared, it could wreck you. If you go there and you’re on your game, though, it could lift you up to a higher level. I say that because it’s a lot of talent squeezed into a small area. If you have your shit together you can really ride on that wave with inspiration. 

We didn’t go to Nashville last year because of COVID, but the previous year – actually, Sahara was with me – we worked our way into a showcase that was just songwriters. I didn’t know anybody’s name, but it was kind of cool. I got to be in a room with these people. Everyone, aside from us, had written songs for someone famous. These were all top-tier people who are earning a living at this, writing songs for Miranda Lambert and just a litany of names, and yet there we were. It was kind of cool that we were like, “Hey, yeah, we’re the Jersey guys just coming through. Thanks for having us.” They brought us in and it was great to be in that presence of people who do this, that get it, and are at a much higher level of competence than you get even in a town like Asbury [Park], for instance. 

It would be hard to put together that level of show in someplace other than Nashville. Maybe in LA you could pull together a bunch of songwriters and do that, but they’re just in Nashville in droves. To me, it was kind of cool to be in their presence and be accepted, get a pat on the back after you did your songs and it coming from somebody who knows what they’re talking about. 

And one final mention…

Speaking of Nashville, one thing we did, and will continue to do, are the Not Quite Nashville shows, where we are trying to replicate that Nashville song swap that is so popular down there where it’s three, four, or five people on stage. They’re sitting in chairs, they go around, and each one plays a song, talks a little about the song. Sometimes they play with each other or sing with each other as they go. It’s just a really cool way to hear somebody’s songs. It is something that is not really prevalent around here. 

I try to do that. The first two shows were virtual, just me and another songwriter. The third one, which was a month-and-a-half ago, we did a live and a virtual. I think that’s the way we’ll continue to do it moving forward as long as it’s safe to do so and we can find a venue. Right now, it’s pretty much outside, which is kind of cool. People have been eating it up. We sold 115 tickets for the last show we did. Part of that was people who were dying to get out to see live music, and people were, I think, enamored with the concept – the simplicity. It’s mic’d acoustic guitars, just bare bones, and people interacting, having fun. The virtual part, too. We still have people who are logging in who can’t come from San Diego, Colorado, and Texas, so it was nice to not cut them out, which, typically, you would do if you were just doing it at like the Saint or something. 

The next one is July 31 with George Wirth at Calgo Gardens. That’ll be one for the books.