THE INTERVIEW: Singer/Songwriter Lyle Divinsky
Quick story: About two weeks ago I’m at the 14th Street L station in Manhattan waiting for the Q train but I’m also trying to ignore this guy, who’s singing and playing his acoustic guitar a few feet away from me. I was feeling good that day, so I gave the guy a break and turned off my iPod to get a better listen. In general, I never do that. Even in a good mood I ignore most everybody in the tunnels. But then he starts whaling with all this emotion like he was pulling it from his soul, and I started thinking “Wow that sounds nice.” Long story short, I bought his CD that he was selling; a week later, caught his performance at Rockwood Music Hall. And a week after that, this interview transpired. The musician: Lyle Divinsky.
Mr. Divinsky is a Portland, Maine-native but Bushwick-based singer-songwriter who’s been making his rounds in the New York music scene for over a year now. His debut release, Traveling Man is a mix of blues, folk and soul. Think “Sam Cooke meets Crosby, Stills & Nash” or as I like to call him “a soulful Jack Johnson.” We had the chance to chat right before his performance at Arlene’s Grocery on the Lower East Side.
Obvious question: Where the hell did all this soul come from?
I gotta tell you, I get it from my dad. My dad is the most soulful Jew you’ve ever met in your life. He’s 55 now, but he’s from Little Neck, Queens and sounds like a 300-pound black soul singer…I hope that’s doesn’t offend you…
No, of course not…
I get what you’re saying. But yeah, he’s definitely where I get it from. He’s the smoothest motherfucker I’ve ever met in my life.
Earlier you said the Portland music scene is pretty insane, what makes it so different. And why did you leave it?
To be honest, I haven’t really been living it for the last five years. I mean I went to Skidmore College, so I’ve been away. But every summer I come back home and it’s an amazing place [for music], especially in the summertime.
Unbelievable, it’s a utopia. It’s always low to mid 70s, nice sea breeze, you got beaches. I mean Portland’s a peninsula too, so you got beaches every which way. Drive five minutes in any direction and you’re in the woods. But when you’re in Portland, it’s like everything you could want from a big city [music, culture, art] but in a small town atmosphere.
You said you attended Skidmore.
Yeah, which is up in Saratoga Springs, NY.
Did you graduate? What was your major?
Yeah, Music and English. Two rules to break but I’m happy.
When I met you at the 14th street station that was so random because I rarely pay attention to the musicians playing down there, was that the first time you’d done that?
No, that’s what I do for a living. I don’t work. That’s usually the station I try for…but I’m not as diligent as I should be because I’ve done like a couple of little tours, so I’ve been off for awhile. But I try to do it usually from the 1 to 4 timeframe, so that’s a good time.
Right. Kinda during rush hour.
Slightly before rush hour. Rush hour gets stupid. It’s crazy. The trains come too often, and there’s too many people.
But you know what got me to listen to you, the acoustics. I mean it blew me away.
When it’s silent and when there’s no trains coming…
That’s what it was…
Oh my [groans] it’s beautiful! I just close my eyes as if I’m just sitting at home alone. And just vibe out.
I’m sure you get comparisons or labeled as a “white boy with soul.” How do you feel about that? I mean how will you make yourself standout?
Honestly, as cliché as it might sound, I don’t really give a shit how people label me. What comes out comes out.
How do you label yourself? How do you see yourself as a musician?
I’m just a guy trying to do what he loves. People compare people as much as they want. I grew up listening to what my dad listened to like Stevie Wonder, Otis Redding, Sam Cooke, Donny Hathaway, all that kind of stuff. My mom liked Crosby, Stills & Nash and James Taylor. And my dad still plays acoustic primarily, and so I just kind of grew up around it. I didn’t start playing music until I was like 17.
Word. How old are you now?
Get out…dude, I thought you were my age, I’m 34!
Hell, I thought you were my age. [laughter]
So how did Traveling Man come about. When did you start recording it?
Actually, the recording process was super quick. We laid it down…probably with a total studio time of like four days. The first two was just getting all the instruments together; making sure everything was in order. I had my dad’s blues band from back home. It was primarily mid-50-year old blues guys. And then my band from back home [The Model Airplane] I had the drummer and bass player, and the keys player is a 22-year old dude that we call “The Golden Child” [he plays the keys on that track]…it’s the intro to track 13, “Last Goodbye.” I told him to lay down like a minute-long intro and he put that down like in the first try. It was pretty much a collection of the songs I’ve written over the last year, year-and-a half.
That was my next question, are all the songs recent?
There are a couple that are older than that like “I Care,” which is the first real song after the intro. That and “Warmth of Her Arms” I wrote my freshman year in college. And “Where Do We Go,” the last song on the album, is one of the only songs I’ve ever written with another person. The drummer that plays on “I Care” and “Last Goodbye”…I’ve known him since I was 5-years old. It was the only one I’d ever written with anyone else and it’s one of my favorite songs. I guess all the other ones were in the year.
Well, my personal favorite is “Take This Chance,” is that a true story?
Okay, so that was basically the words that I *wanted* to say to the girl that I was chasing. Alright, I’m gonna be real [laughter]. I do a lot of my writing when it’s like two o’clock in the morning like high off my ass, you know what I mean. That’s kinda like when inhibitions go out the door. It was actually about the girl from the track “Billyanne.” Which is another crazy story; actually, a lot of the songs on the album are written about her. But um, this was basically what I wanted to say to her…but never quite had the balls to.
Yeah, you got sexy on that one…
I mean I listen to a lot of D’Angelo. So that was basically me trying to be him.
So which do you prefer: performing or recording?
There’s beauty in both. When you’re performing live, it’s all in the moment; there are no inhibitions, you’re out there. You’re there with the audience, there’s no going back so you might as well put it all out there. But then with recording its great because you can really hammer out everything, you get down to the nitty gritty. You may have a little bit of vocals, one note, and one guitar. It’s like I like what I’m hearing, but where can we take this and make it into something beautiful. A lot of the stuff on the album was recorded live. We spent like three days beforehand, rehearse, rehearse, rehearse; so we’d be super comfortable with it. And then once we got in the studio, we just went for it.
Is that kind of how your writing goes, you hear the music first and then write; or do you write and then hear the music?
A lot of the time it starts with the guitar, just coming up with a chord change. And then from there…or a lot of the time, I’ll sit with GarageBand and just press record and see what comes out. And then other songs like “Warmth of Her Arms,” “Billyanne,” “Take This Chance” as well … actually a good amount of the songs took me about 10 to 15 minutes to write.
Wow, that’s awesome. So what’s next for Lyle Divinsky? I know you’re out doing the tour and you have the album out.
Right now I’m trying to book up the summer. I just made the audition for the MUNY; it’s the Music Under New York for subway artists, so that’s cool for me.
You actually have to audition to do that?
I mean you can play on the platforms and stuff but with the MUNY stuff, you can basically book times at Times Square, Penn Station, Union Square, all the hot spots. You book three-hour increments every two weeks. You’re playing in front of a lot more people; so you’re getting a helluva lot more traffic; and you’ll probably make more money. But its not necessarily about the money, but I’m not working a job, so it’s kinda nice to have. But I’ll probably be putting out an EP of about six or seven songs midsummer. I also have some side projects going on, too. A good friend of mine Alex Bilowitz and my boy Nat Osborne [who played right before me at Rockwood, who I sang backup for]; we’re doing a little like…I don’t want to say it’s Gnarls Barkely-esque. But Alex is an incredible producer; he’s working with another great producer, Scott Jacoby, but he’s an incredible beatmaker as well. A lot of the time it’s like commercial hip hop but we want to do more out-there kind of stuff. I mean it’s for fun but we’ll still release it. I don’t know how far we’ll push it, though. Then I also have another side project that’s called Solar Express, which is a funk group…
Are you serious?
Yeah, we’re playing April 24th at Cameo Gallery over in Williamsburg. We’re opening for this group called Turkuaz; they’re like this 11-piece funk band. But they’re like my favorite band in Brooklyn or New York, I’ll just say that. They’re just non-stop energy. You should come and check them out.
I’m so there.
In the meantime, for more on Lyle Divinsky, check him out at www.lyledivinsky.com. Traveling Man is available on iTunes now!