Diane Gentile Talks Stage Fright and Sailing The White Sea

Diane Gentile was touring in Italy shortly after recording wrapped on her sophomore record when she was sidelined by a freak traffic accident; a large rock crashed through the windshield of the car she was riding in and struck her in the face, forcing her to delay the release as she went through a lengthy period of surgeries and recoveries, both abroad and at home in New York City.

That was 2018, and the album, titled The White Sea, was finally released in April of 2020. It’s her first record with a backing band as Diane and The Gentle Men, and that gives her the space to stretch out and explore a wide range of styles, from the windswept indie rock sounds of “Motorcycle” to the piano-driven balladry of “Second Hand Heart.” That in turn shows her vocal versatility; she knows how to turn from ’70s punk attitude to folk singer sincerity on a dime, and keep the catchy melodies coming at every step.

Gentile’s rock roots run deep–her sister Elda was a member of The Stilettos alongside Amanda Jones and future Blondie frontwoman Debbie Harry. She brings her own lineup of all-star collaborators on The White Sea, including guitarist Jason Victor of The Dream Syndicate and production from the likes of Steve Wynn, Jesse Malin, and Matt Basile.

Shortly after the release, Gentile spoke to The All Scene Eye about the changing musical landscape in New York City and beyond, plus the tough financial realities of life in the music industry.

How are you weathering this pandemic situation?

Oh, [laughs] I’m weathering it like everybody else. You have your up days and your down days, but to be honest, my life kind of focuses on writing and creating, so I do spend a lot of time home these days working on music. Right now, I would be out performing shows or on tour in support of the new album release, so I’m a little disappointed that I don’t have the ability to do that. Instead, I’m using the time to finish writing a new record, and I’m so close to being done, I can’t believe it.

How has it impacted your habits in terms of writing and rehearsing new songs?

I don’t get to see the band, which is a bummer, and I don’t feel free to get in the car, take a drive, and listen to my recordings. A lot of times when I write music, I record onto my phone, and then I’ll go for a really long drive–like, a two and a half hour drive–and listen to everything I’ve recorded, which gives me a really good perspective on where I need to take the song. When you’re writing in your living room and you put it down, you’re like, “Oh, that sounds great,” but then when you take the song out of your house and you put it into your car or you play it for a friend on a phone, you get a completely different perspective. I haven’t gotten to that point yet, but right now I’ve been holed up in the living room and in my studio room just playing, working on lyrics, and listening to a lot of other great stuff too. I love the fact that Dylan just released two new tracks–he’s my favorite lyricist of all time, and I think probably most people would agree with me. He’s amazing.

When your new album came out, you did a Facebook livestream from home to celebrate the release. What was that like?

That was interesting. Everybody kept telling me that my phone was sideways, [laughs] but I didn’t see the comments because I promised myself that if I looked at what people were going to say, I was going to get myself nervous. I have a little bit of stage fright, so I decided not to look, and of course, I should have, because I would have figured out that I should have turned my phone around. [laughs] But it was a fun experience.

Is it the kind of thing you want to continue doing?

I will do another one, yes. I really want to do another one and use my piano, because I’ve written some songs on piano, but my piano is so out of tune, and I forgot to get it tuned. I mean, I didn’t expect that we were going to get grounded. I thought I had a week or so to call in a piano tuner, and then all of a sudden we were grounded. Now I can’t get a piano tuner to come into my house, which is really kind of weird. There’s definitely more than six feet available between me and another person in this house, and secondly, I have tons of alcohol that I could wipe the whole piano down with. I have gloves, I have a mask, and anyone coming in to tune my piano I would hope would wear gloves and a mask. Then I could pay them, and they would make money and be able to give me a tuned piano–I don’t see anything wrong with doing business that way, but nobody will come. I’ve been turned down by six people so far. [laughs]

Your last full-length album, Caught in a Wave, came out about five years ago. When did you start working on the songs that became your new record, The White Sea?

Well, after I finished Caught in a Wave, I needed to put a band together to play the songs live. I had met Matt Basile and Colin Brooks, who play bass and drums with me. I was looking for a guitar player, and I found Jason Victor, who was playing with Steve Wynn–he is now in The Dream Syndicate, but when I first saw him, he was playing with Steve Wynn and the Miracle Three. Anyway, I saw Jason play, and I thought he was an amazing guitar player, so I asked him if he had time and wanted to join me, and he did. That became the band The Gentle Men, and once we started doing shows for Caught in a Wave, I started writing a lot. That’s where the songs came for the new record.

What happened is that when you’re a developing artist in today’s world, you don’t really have a lot of money. You have to go to work during the day to support yourself and then figure out how you could afford to go make records in studios if you don’t have a home studio. Even if you did have a home studio, it would take you a long time because you’d most likely either be paying an engineer or you’d be engineering the project yourself, and that’s a big ordeal for a musician. I mean, some musicians have a natural ability to get right into recording, and some don’t. It depends on what kind of an artist you are. I’ve never been super technical or had a natural ability with gear, so that’s not my strong suit. [laughs] That’s why it took me such a long time to put this record out.

This record was initially supposed to come out in 2018. I had the songs, but I wasn’t super happy with everything, so I delayed it to maybe give myself one or two chances to beat it. Then in the end of 2018, I had come to a final decision on the record–I still had two songs to sing, but they were all recorded–and I got into an accident. That delayed the record for another year and a half.

Before the accident, what was holding you back from putting out these songs?

Well, I had a song called “Valentine 13” that was supposed to be on the record. I had another song called “Gambler” that was supposed to be on the record, but then when I listened back to them, there was just something about the lyrics. When you first write a song, sometimes words just fall down on the paper. For me, to get them where I want them to be, I have to be able to go back and really labor over them, and I have to be in the song at the time to do that. I wasn’t able to do that with those particular two songs, for some reason. Every time I went back, I wasn’t getting anywhere, and I was hitting a wall.

When you hit a wall that way, the best thing to do sometimes is to put it to bed and say, “I’m going to move on from here.” I had written new songs that I was excited about, and every time I wrote a new song, I wanted to go into the studio and record it. Every time I did that, it cost more money, so I’d have to wait a little while to get the money to be able to record the songs, but that’s what happens with me. So I put “Gambler” and “Valentine 13” in the vault of unfinished songs, and we recorded “Joe” and then “Memories.”

What was your day job at that point?

I was working at a music venue called The Bowery Electric. I was booking bands, and worked there a lot. I used to work at night, I used to work during the day, I put in a lot of hours, and, you know, those kinds of jobs don’t pay a ton of money. I don’t know why people think that those businesses make so much money, but live music venues can only pay what they bring in. You can bring in a lot of money, but you pay out a lot too, especially in New York City. It pays good, but it’s not the best-paying job, is what I’m saying. It’s not like I was making over $100,000 a year. I was making enough money to live comfortably in New York–not extravagantly, for sure, but comfortably–and I would put away $200 here or $300 there. Then I’d take all the money that I saved, and it would basically cost me about $2000 for three or four songs.

That’s just recording them. Then you have to mix them, then you have to master them. The mixing could get costly too because sometimes you get somebody to mix something, and they do a great job, but there’s something that bothers you about the particular vocal, or the way that they mixed in the cymbals, or how they’re utilizing the backup vocal–it’s definitely a process.

How has working at a venue influenced what you do on the other side of the industry, as an artist who tours and plays in bands?

Well, I understand the dollars and cents that are involved in touring, booking shows, paying band members, promoting shows, and how to get people to come into shows. Like, I’m not a big, popular artist, and in New York City, maybe I could bring in 100 or 150 people, but if I go to Boston, I don’t know how many people will come to see me. But I did have a Boston show booked, and when I booked that show, I was really understanding in the fact that I’m not going to ask for a ton of money when maybe I’m only going to be able to sell ten tickets. As an artist, I’m understanding to the fact that venues don’t have bank-loads of money to give to artists. It’s what comes in that goes out.

You recorded at Atomic Sound, a studio in an old fire house in Brooklyn. Can you tell me about that space and how you found out about it?

Merle Chornuk is the owner of the Atomic recording studio in Brooklyn, and it’s opposite the Navy Yard. It’s a really cool place. Merle had worked at a studio in New York City called Pilot, where one of the artists on the record–Jesse Malin produced two songs on my record. He had done some demos, and Merle was the engineer at the time. I met Merle when I went into the studio to listen to the demos that Jesse had made because he was my friend, and later on, Merle opened this amazing studio out in Brooklyn. We had been in touch, and he said, “You should come see my studio,” so I went out there. Oh, it’s great. It’s really my favorite place.

What was it like recording there?

We had a blast. I actually have photos of the whole band dancing in the recording studio while we were listening to some of the tracks as they went down. They have a great piano there, and they have a beautiful rooftop. Paul Storey came and took some photos–he’s a photographer, and he stopped by. We just had a really good time.

You worked with a couple different people on producing this album–Steve Wynn, Jesse Malin, and Matt Basile, who you’ve mentioned. What was the dynamic like working with them?

They all have something different and interesting to bring to the table. Steve really has an ear for phenomenal guitar work, and you can hear that on his own records, especially The Dream Syndicate records. The guitar work is just stellar. That’s what I think I had in common with Steve–for some reason, I have an affinity to the way he puts guitar melodies together and utilizes guitars in recordings, so that was great.

Jesse is really gifted lyrically, so working with him was special because he pays attention to lines and lyrics and words, and I respect what he has to say about them. That was pretty key for me. 

Matt Basile just has a good aesthetic. Matt actually mixed a track on the record for me called “Just Pretend,” like, eight or nine times. I had other people mix it, but Matt Basile’s last mix is the one that we used on the record, and that’s because I went into the studio with him, and I told him, “I hear this specifically being a certain way. This song really should be stripped down in the beginning–it should just be beautiful acoustic guitar, and it should slowly build, and when we get to the instrumental place in that song, I want it to be more like a Wilco track.” He was able to listen to me and work with me in getting it to the place that we really wanted it to be.

You co-wrote the title track, “The White Sea,” with Alfonso Velez. How did that come about?

I love Alfonso because he–you know, he was with me when I had the accident in Italy, and when you go through something like that, there’s even a deeper bond. Because the experience was pretty traumatic [laughs] for the both of us, especially the person who was driving the car at the time.

I can’t imagine.

[laughs] The poor guy. But he’s an exceptional musician, and he has a great aesthetic. We happened to be in the rehearsal studio, and I had “The White Sea.” I was unhappy with the chorus, and he just started working with me on it. He said,”Why don’t you try this?” And I said, “Oh, that sounds really good.” And he said,  “What about this?” and I said, “Oh, wow, that’s really good. Okay, this is what we’re going to do,” and that was it. Sometimes things happen that way. You’re just in the studio with somebody and you’re working on something that you’ve written, but it’s not quite exactly where it should be, so you’re looking for their input, and that becomes a co-write.

You went through so much in the making of this album. Has your relationship to these songs changed throughout the process?

It has, actually, because when you first write a song and record it, you bring it home, and if it’s really good, you want to hear it over and over again, until you get sick of it. Then you’re out playing these songs–like, I went on tour with Jesse Malin and Joseph Arthur in November 2019. We went out for 15 dates, and we played great markets. We played San Diego, Tucson, Austin, Houston, Dallas, Oklahoma City, Detroit, Cleveland, Chicago–it was a great tour, but you’re playing the same songs night after night, and you become closer to them. 

You start to find things that you never found inside of the song itself, and that continues to happen for me. I love playing “Boyfriend.” I love playing “Motorcycle.” I’m enjoying learning more about them, and I learn more about them every time I play them. It’s a very strange thing. Of course, there’s always that one song every once in a blue moon that you play too much, and you decide it’s just a song that you don’t want to play anymore.

Is there one of those on this record?

Right now I’m leaning that way with “Joe,” and I don’t know why. Literally two months ago, I was leaning that way with “Memories,” but I’m not anymore. Then again, somebody called me the other day and said that he heard a college radio station in Chicago playing “Joe” during the day. He got really excited about it, and he found my number–he called me up and said, “I work for this company, and we would really like to give you a licensing opportunity,” so that was nice to hear. And that’s from a song that I’m not feeling [laughs] particularly great about today, but I will probably change that feeling in 30 days or so. It depends sometimes on your mood.

You’ve said that you’re getting close to a new album. Is that just a consistent writing process for you, or was there something that jump-started the next record?

I had started writing the next record around the holiday time, which is always a good writing time for me. For some reason, I write in November and December a lot. It’s just kind of something that I’ve always done, and there are artists like Ronnie Spector who are synonymous with Christmas, in my opinion. I don’t know why, but she was on my mind–I started writing a song, and I ended up calling it “Phil Spector,” so that’s for the new record. I’m really excited about that.

I heard you play “Phil Spector” on your livestream, and I was curious about that.

I don’t know what that song is going to sound like when I make the record–I have no clue. [laughs] I really don’t know whether we’re going to rock it up, or whether I’m going to make it more of a ballad, or whether I’m going to make it piano-driven. I initially wrote it in A#, and it’s a more difficult key for me to play it in, but it’s a cool-sounding key. Then I changed it to A for the live show I did the other day because it’s easier to play, and it works for my voice anyway. It was only bringing it down a half-step, but it gives it a different type of a feel. Like, doing it in A makes it feel a little bit more rock and roll. When I was playing it in A#, it sounded more modern to me–more indie–so I’m not sure how I’m going to do it yet, but I’m excited about the lyric. I think the hook in the song is really good.

Usually, I get two songs written in one sitting, if I’m in a good space. Like, “Motorcycle” and “Boyfriend,” I wrote back to back. I wrote “Phil Spector” and then wrote another song called “The Writing’s On the Wall,” and that was in the same sitting, so, you know, that happens sometimes.

I bet that’s really exciting when it does happen.

Yeah, it’s thrilling, because then you think, “Oh, wow, I’m on a writing roll!” [laughs] Until you go to write your next song and you’re stuck.

But it was good, and I’m excited about the songs on this new record. Some of it is pretty dark. I wrote a song called “Vanessa,” and it’s a piano ballad, and it’s a very sorrowful song. It’s dedicated to my girlfriend Vanessa, who was very young and had a tragic accident just last year and passed away.

I’m so sorry to hear that.

Oh, thank you. The story’s just too heartbreaking–I’m not going to go into it–but that’s what would be on this record.

You’re somebody who’s played CBGB’s and worked at Bowery Electric, and you come from a very musical family–how have you seen the New York City scene change over time?

I can’t even begin to tell you how much I love live music, and I love being in the clubs. I think that there’s nothing better than going to see a band. I recently went to see L7 out in Brooklyn, and I had the best time ever. Watching those girls sing those Motörhead-esque songs, it was just fantastic. There are so many different style musicians and bands, but there’s one thing about going to a club that gives a variety of performance–like, it’s not just a hip-hop club, or not just an indie rock club, or not just a singer/songwriter club.

New York has gone through so many different changes. They used to have a club called Sin-é, and Sin-é would only play artists like Chris Whitley–it was like the club that played only solo singer/songwriters. Then you had The Living Room, and now you have Rockwood Music Hall, who started out as being only a singer/songwriter place, but now is playing more than that. But if you think back to a club like CBGB’s, you know, you could see the Bad Brains at CBGB’s, which was off-the-wall phenomenal, or Richard Hell, or Television, or Blondie, obviously, Talking Heads, obviously, but then later on, you saw Living Colour at CBGB’s. There were so many amazing bands that went through that, and then there were singer/songwriters that started playing there in the later years–when they opened up the side room, the CBGB’s Canteen. Now you go into New York, and it’s like, you go to Rockwood for singer/songwriters, you go to Bowery Electric for variety, and you go to Berlin for the coolest of the coolest, Brooklyn-type indie rock.

I like being in clubs that feature all types of music because I think that you get a broader, wider perspective, and it’s not so niche. The one issue I have with the internet–well, I don’t know if it’s just the internet. I guess it’s the world. There’s so much going on right now, and everything is divided into a specialty of some sort. If you’re an indie artist, are you a folk indie artist? Are you a rock indie artist? Are you a folk rock indie artist? Are you a hip-hop folk rock indie artist? [laughs] You know what I mean? Everything is in little boxes today.

I know things are uncertain right now, but what’s next for you now that this album is out?

I just can’t wait to get back on the road, actually. I really want to go out and do shows and support the record. I think the songs are really strong, and according to what people are telling me, they like them, and I think there’s an opportunity for me to build a larger fan base off this record. That would be my number one hope, and the second thing I want to do is get into the studio as soon as I possibly can and make a third record.

You know, I do need to make some videos. I probably need to focus on some more online content–this is what I’m told by people–but recently, I only have a love for writing music, playing music, working out songs, and really getting my vocal back again strongly, which, I think I’m getting there. That’s what I plan on doing.

I never know whether these things are coincidental or not, but the very last interview I did before this was with Steve Wynn about the new Dream Syndicate record. When I got your record in my inbox, it was a nice little segue.

Wow, that’s wild. I’m really a big fan of–the last record I haven’t listened to yet. I know he just dropped it last week, so this week I’m going to order it, but the record that they did before that, they had a song called “Like Mary.” It’s such an amazing song. It’s like putting on a Neil Young record and going, “Wow.” His writing is really strong.

I did a show with him once–he dared me [laughs] just to go with him to Pennsylvania, to a place that’s now closed. It was called Tin Angel, and we both played acoustic. He played acoustic, and I opened for him acoustic. I had played solo before, but it was definitely something that I was not enjoying. I had such bad stage fright that when I would get up to play, my right hand would freeze–it would be terrible. It would be terrible. Anyway, I was telling Steve about that, and he said, “Well, I dare you to come play solo acoustic with me at the Tin Angel.” And I said, “Ok.” [laughs] So I went, and we did, and it worked out really well. I wasn’t afraid that night. I was able to play a full set, and then we did “Femme Fatale” by the Velvet Underground together. It was great.


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