By John Philip Wyllie (San Diego Troubadour)
While he used to tell his childhood friends that he one day wanted to become a rock star, Josh Damigo might be more remembered by his San Jose high school friends for his athletic prowess. A three-letter guy in high school, Damigo went on to star for the San Diego Christian College Soccer Team and entertained thoughts of playing professional baseball once he graduated. A torn ACL/LCL/meniscus in 2004 put those dreams on hold. The injury however, turned out to be an unexpected blessing in disguise.
“That is where music really started for me. I was sitting on my couch bummed out that I wouldn’t be able to play the next season and I just started writing some music and singing. Then I put it all together,” Damigo said on the eve of his May 15 Raw CD release party at Lestat’s.
It wasn’t quite as easy as all that. At the age of six, his achievement-oriented parents decided that he should take piano lessons. While he hated the steady diet of classical music, scales, and chord progressions, he now admits that learning to play the piano was a key to unlocking his creative potential.
“After learning to play the piano, I was able to move to any other instrument, pick it up, and go with it because of the foundations my teacher had set up for me. After the piano I went on to the trumpet and then to the baritone. Then I picked up a guitar at the age of 16 and taught myself to play that.”
Coming from a conservative Christian home, Damigo spent years performing in church choirs and worship bands while listening to the mostly Top 40 pop and classic rock sounds of the Beatles and Beach Boys. Both the musical influences and the participation in various church ensembles had a positive effect. He still performs weekly at the Fellowship of San Diego on Park Blvd.
“I attribute a lot of my skill to being allowed to play in the church every Sunday. Church music has a place in my life and my own music is kind of a separate thing. The hard thing for me sometimes is differentiating between my Christian life and my music life. I have always had pressure and comments that I should be doing Christian music full time, but my heart is really into writing and telling stories through my own music.”
As a songwriter, his early classic rock and Top 40 pop exposure were bound to come out in his songs.
“I only listened to popular oldies tunes as a kid. My writing style comes from listening to non-stop hits on the radio. I tend to judge all of the music that I write by the Top 40 music that I have heard. I go back and I rewrite and rewrite and rewrite tunes that I think have potential. I am never really happy with a song until somebody can sing along with me after the first verse.”
Damigo’s participation in sports provided him a competitive edge and a level of relentlessness rarely seen. He found that that relentlessness transferred well to music as he began to take it more seriously.
“I did a program that I call “52 Songs in 52 Weeks.” Basically, I just challenged myself to write a new song every week. I posted all of the lyrics on my blog. Out of those 52 songs I think I like about three or four of them.”
Songs like “Sleeves” and “Pocket Change,” which are featured on Damigo’s new CD, Raw, demonstrate that there is no substitute for hard work. The entire CD benefits from clever songwriting, meaningful lyrics, and Damigo’s unique ability to switch gears. It captures Damigo doing what he does best: performing, not just singing.
Damigo once saw other musicians as the competition. He initially wrote all of his own songs and showed little interest in collaborating with anyone. He has since done a complete 180 in that regard. Raw is the beneficiary.
“A lot of people around San Diego used to know me as somebody who wouldn’t play unless there was money involved. I think people used to see me as cutthroat because I would see them as competition. What I came to realize about a year and a half ago is that music is supposed to be shared with everybody. It is better if it is. A lot of songwriters in Nashville, L.A., and other places, even though they have that cutthroat (mentality), still collaborate with other writers. I wrote most of the songs on this album by myself, but four of the stronger songs feature Rob Deez, Allegra Barley, and Jeremy Rubolino. There is no way that I could have written any of them by myself, they just aren’t my style. Sometimes writing with somebody else takes all the pressure that I usually put on myself off of me. There is a give and take with ideas. Sometimes the more people you have working on a project, the better it turns out.”
Shawn Mayer adds her beautifully pure voice to “Something’s Telling Me.” Damigo co-wrote “Sugar” and “Cougar” with roommate/ rapper Rob Deez and co-wrote “Indescribable” with Allegra Barley. The 14-song Cd’s final cut, “Shooting for the Sun,” is another collaboration, this time with Jeremy Rubolino. The different styles of Mayer, Deez, Barley, and Rubolino make Raw interesting and varied.
Damigo credits producer Aaron Bowen with capturing his live sound on the album.
“People have been hearing me around town for the last three years (and prior to Raw’s release) and the only thing I could give them was a little six-song EP that I made, using one take. I had never recorded anything so the EP wasn’t really anything that I wanted to get out, but it did. It got on to iTunes and I sold 1,000 copies. That was great, but then I got emails from fans saying that they loved my show, but when they heard my CD they were really disappointed. With this CD I wanted to give back to anybody that had given me anything and I wanted to make it sound the way that I sound when I am doing coffeehouses. It is basically just guitar, a little bit of fluff, like cello and lap steel, and the raw vocals. We didn’t auto tune or do anything special. There is not even a whole lot of reverb on it. All of the songs on the album sound the same way as they would if I was playing them in your living room. It is done, though, to a level where it still has the professionalism that I am looking for. Aaron Bowen was really a great choice to produce the CD because that is what he is all about.”
The charm of Damigo’s music is in the way it reaches people. He is somehow able to impart the emotion he feels when he is performing a song. There is an authenticity in his delivery and a sincerity in his voice that clearly comes across. Damigo is obviously at home on stage. He knows how to work an audience and have them eating out of his hand by show’s end. But then maybe that is not surprising. After all, Damigo has had lots of practice helping people to get in touch with their inner feelings. He has been playing at church since his youth.
“At church your goal is to make people in the congregation experience a spiritual high through the music. What I learned from that is when I get up on stage to be the master of all my movements. Everything that I did had a purpose. Now when I get up on stage my goal is not just to play a song and get on to the next one. It is to really take my time and help people to understand the emotion behind it and the feeling. There is little that comes out in my show that hasn’t been thought through. I am not really one who likes to experiment a lot on stage. Every move that I make has been played over in my head three or four times a day.”
Having already performed with such celebrities as Jason Mraz and Jon Foreman of Switchfoot, Damigo would love to be the next San Diegan to follow in their successful footsteps. With talent to spare, plenty of charisma, and a deep-seated desire to excel at everything he does, Damigo may soon realize his long-held dream.