James Mastro – Interview

It was such an honor to speak with James Mastro about his amazing new album, which I love, and more. As soon as we started talking, it was like we were old friends catching up from not seeing each other for some years.

He has such a humble non-assuming love for his craft and the other artists that inspired him along the way. He maintains that humility when speaking about the great artists that he has worked with (Patti Smith, Ian Hunter, etc.). He also has a selfless character that shows when he does performances for the love of doing them, not for money. 

Interview by Nica Strong. Photos by Jini Sachse (cover), Dennis DiBrizzi, and unknown, courtesy of James Mastro and MPress Records. 

Nica Strong: What was your journey to become a musician?

James Mastro: It’s been a long journey, because I am old (laughs).

NS: You are not old (laughs).

JM: I pretty much knew from a young age, even before I played an instrument, that it was what I wanted to do. Seeing The Monkees on TV when I was a kid got me going. Living in a house with other musicians, hanging out, playing guitar all day seemed like a great way to spend a life – much to my parents chagrin. It is a journey that has not ended and hopefully will not end for a while. I can’t think of doing anything else.

NS: Do you have any other interests or hobbies outside of music?

JM: They are all based around music. I recently opened an art gallery/performance space in Hoboken, so that has been my new hobby. It is a selfish one as I have a lot of musician and artist friends so I get to see them display their work, or play live. Besides that, working on my new record has been my focus lately. 

NS: What is your creative process? Where do you get your ideas?

JM: Ideas come from anywhere. It depends on what I am reading at the time, or I overhear a conversation, and it sticks in my head. If I have a good basic ingredient, opening line or song title I can start adding into this recipe and it grows from there. A good line can trigger it, so I always keep a notepad nearby.  If I have something I take my dog for a walk and in my head I start writing the songs.

NS: What type of dog do you have?

JM: He is a mutt. A Corgi/Jack Russell mix. He is adorable.

NS: And a lot of personality.

JM: Too much personality (laughs)

NS: Is there a particular artist that inspires you? Or a culmination of artists?  If you had an artist to work with, who would that be?

JM: Bob Dylan – huge influence. I have been lucky enough to work with some of the people who have influenced me like Ian Hunter. I have worked with him for over 20 years and as a kid that was my favorite band.  His approach to songwriting is so deep and he’s attentive to detail and lyrics. That has rubbed off.  Working with someone like that I am always thinking that if I write this and he hates it I am in trouble. You want to live up to expectations and what you have been around.  Patti Smith – another huge influence on me.  Being able to work with her and see her process is inspiring and you hold on to that inspiration when you are trying to create something yourself.

NS: It is interesting that you mentioned Bob Dylan because when I first listened to your album, he was the first artist that popped into my head.  I thought of R.E.M.’s Everybody Hurts when I heard ‘My God’ and Johnny Cash.  I felt those influences. Do you have a favorite performance?

JM: I have a few. The first time I ever played with Ian Hunter was very special for me. Being on stage with the person who influenced me to play the guitar and write songs was great.  I was not officially in his band, but after that he asked me to join so that was a special night.

I once did a show at a mental institution in New Jersey, Greystone, where Woody Guthrie spent his last days. It was an incredible. There were people there with issues but I saw how music affected them. They were so free. It was medicine.  You could see the instant results of what you were doing and it was beautiful.  It was not a high paying gig and there were not thousands of people there, but it was something very special.

Another one that comes to mind is playing with Patti Smith in Athens, Greece. I am of Greek descent so it has always been my dream to play in Athens. The highest mount is Lycabettus and you can see anywhere from there – it is taller than the Acropolis.  We played there and Patti was like, ‘talk Greek to the audience’ (laughs) so that was a special night for me.

NS: the sound must have been so amazing. I could just imagine…

JM: Up there with the gods… (laughs)

NS: It is interesting that you mentioned the mental institution because music is used as therapy sometimes.  Also the fact that you did something of service without thinking of getting something in return is a beautiful thing because a lot of people are like ‘what’s in it for me?’ I think that is awe-inspiring.

JM: It is something that I keep trying and keep generating. It’s always moving as a performer when someone comes up to you and says this song really meant something to me. And it can mean something to them totally different than what it meant to me. You are getting someone else’s perspective and from that you learn more about yourself.  For example, they see something one way and you say, “I didn’t [see it that way], but now I can.” It is about keeping your antennae up and helping.

NS: Have you mentored other musicians?

JM: I have produced a lot of records for people so that would count as mentoring. You are not only helping with the music side, but you are a psychologist in that you are trying to get the best out of someone and inspire them.

NS: What advice would you give an aspiring musician?

JM: You have to love what you are doing and if you want to do it, do it for the right reasons. I found the most success I have ever had with anything was not based on money. It was because I felt it was right, or I knew I would enjoy doing it, and the success followed from that. I found that when I did something for money, I got a great paycheck, but it was not as satisfying. Success is being happy so if you are making yourself happy, you are already successful.

NS: What would you say to someone who lacks confidence?

JM: Going back to your mention of “Everybody Hurts,” I think people like Bob Dylan, or big stars, still lack confidence. I have been doing this a long time and there are still moments when I am like, ‘am I ready for this?’ but if you have gotten that far you just proceed and what is the worst that can happen? You are going to learn from your mistakes and that is kind of what the title of my album is about – Dawn of a new Error – I know I am going to be making a lot more mistakes this year (laughs). What does not kill you makes you stronger. So, have confidence in yourself – you are great.

NS: Have you ever made a mistake during a performance, and if so, how did you overcome that?

JM: You do all the time. Without fail, you are going to make a mistake; at least I am (laughs). Usually if I make a mistake one night I’ve learned and I won’t be making it the next night. How do you overcome it?  It is like being a painter – you might put a wrong color up there, but then you look at it and you say if I add a dab of green to this, it’s going to turn into something else. Sometimes the mistake is going to lead you to something better. That is the other thing about not being afraid to make mistakes and about having confidence.  Mistakes are not terrible and it is not a bad thing to make a mistake. Look at it as empowering and a different road that you have to travel.

NS: How would you describe your work ethic?

JM: I work a lot. If I’m not working on my things I’m working with other musicians’ so I’m always learning other peoples songs. I will learn my songs in a different way, since I won’t be playing with the band. I am playing acoustics so there is a lot of work to be done, but it keeps me motivated.

NS: What do you do in your down time… if you have any?

JM: (laughs) Reading. I love to read. And walking my dog is my therapy and my time to daydream. Even though it is downtime, I am still thinking, so it seems like I am still working a bit. Also, finding a good British murder TV show is a good chill for me.

NS: You mentioned instruments plural.  What other instruments do you play?

JM: Besides guitar, I play the mandolin, basic keyboards, and bass guitar. With Alejandro, on this tour, I am doing a mix of everything.  It helps keeps my brain going.  I learned saxophone a few years ago for a tour that I had coming up which was great. My neighbors probably didn’t think it was great, but I really enjoyed it. It was something totally different for me and scary because the first show I was standing in front of 15,000 people playing saxophone thinking I’m a poser and someone is going to find out.  But it worked, no one threw anything at me and I liked the challenge that gave me.

NS: Favorite instrument?

JM: Guitar

NS: Going back to your album is there any song that was most difficult to make?

JM: “My God” was the most difficult, and it was the first song I wrote for the record, not intending to make a record.  It set the tone for everything that followed. It was difficult because I had never written anything like that and it seemed too childlike and simple to me. I had doubts all the way thinking, ‘is this just dumb?’

At the time I was working on it, I was working on and off with Patti Smith subbing for her guitar player so I had her ear.  I sent her a rough draft and I asked, ‘is this bad?’ and what she wrote back was encouraging enough for me to finish it. That gave me some confidence to keep going with it and it has turned into a special little song for me.

NS: Yes, that is my favorite song.  Especially the part where it says God is love, God is kind and the other part where you and my God are one, just different names under the sun.  Also with “Right Words to the Wrong Song” you are talking about things that are happening in the world.  And then “Someday Someone Will Turn Your Head Around”, just the faith and hope.

JM: Yes, I am trying to make myself feel better when I am writing these songs.  That is the journey.