Gem Found: An Interview with Damon Castillo

Artist/producer PC Muñoz mines for gems and grills the greats.

"The scene was littered with glass and band equipment, so we went to work salvaging our gear as the paramedics arrived. That's when I had one of those life-defining moments. I found my vocal microphone out in the middle of the freeway, and I knew right then that music was what I was supposed to be doing. The mic still works; I sing on it every show."

This is how Damon Castillo, songwriter and vocalist for the San Luis Obispo, California-based Damon Castillo Band, describes the revelation that visited him after a freeway accident in which his band's van flipped over a number of times. The group later memorialized the moment for their fans by including an image of the wrecked vehicle on a t-shirt: a celebration of a serious and life-changing event... with a sly grin.

This kind of interplay between the deadly serious and the humorous, and the steely perseverance required to keep-on in spite of it all, is something Damon Castillo does with deceptive ease. His gorgeous voice, which can alternately caress a melody with a tender jazz feel, seduce a crowd with slow-jam sizzle, or spit rhymes with rhythmic yet characteristically laid-back precision, is a real-life wonder; one of my personal favorite discoveries of the past decade. His lyrics run the gamut from the whimsical ("Annie Hall") to the quietly philosophical ("Revolving Door") to the confrontational ("Claim to Fame"), while his ridiculously tight band cooks like a living, breathing, road-tested, California-pop-soul organism.

Laurel Lane is the name of the Damon Castillo Band's latest recording; it takes its name from the group's studio in San Luis Obispo. Produced by Grammy-winning producer Ross Hogarth (Ziggy Marley, Melissa Etheridge), Laurel Lane features guest shots from greats like Sheila E., Rami Jaffee (Wallflowers, Foo Fighters), Lee Thornburg (Tower of Power, Supertramp), Lon Price (Elvis Presley, Allen Toussaint, Ziggy Marley) and Sean Hurley (Alicia Keys, John Mayer).

What was the first song you fell in love with, and what is your current relationship to the piece?

I can't remember the exact song now, but as a four or five year old, I remember needing to jam Barry White! Yes, I was a romantic dude, even back then. Recently, I had the opportunity to play with a ProTools session for one of his songs. It was genius. The arrangement and performances were incredible to hear with the individual tracks soloed, and it was inspiring to play with the mix. When you've grown up with a song, it can be so difficult to try and hear it again for the first time. I was lucky to have that opportunity.

Who is your favorite "unsung" artist or songwriter, someone who you feel never gets their due? Talk a little bit about him/her.

I love many artists that somehow stay under the radar for whatever reason, but I have to say Dominic Castillo is my favorite. Whenever I hear a new song of his, it moves me to write and play music too. He's my biggest inspiration. I always come away telling myself, "I wish I had written that!" There's a new song that he just released called "Nobody Falls in Love Anymore" that just kills me. The music and the lyric are inseparable: "Everything that we say, like an L.A. freeway, slowing us down, honking those horns... Nobody falls in love anymore."

Is there an artist, genre, author, filmmaker, etc. who/which has had a significant impact/influence on you, but that influence can't be directly heard in your music?

Woody Allen! His films just speak to me. I would have to say, that I am his ideal viewer. Although I did write a song, "Annie Hall", you can't really say my songs evoke Woody in anyway. There's no clarinet in them.

Do you view songwriting as a calling, a gig, a hobby, other...?

Songwriting is an itch. I'd be writing songs whether I had a band, studio, gigs or not. It's an urge that can't be fought, and there's nothing more satisfying that scratching that itch.

Name one contemporary song that encourages/inspires you about the future of songwriting/pop music.

"Brandy Alexander" by Ron Sexsmith and Feist comes to mind. It really is a perfect little pop song. Just like the drink, it goes down easy.

The artist Damon Castillo named as his favorite unsung artist/songwriter in the second question above, Dominic Castillo, shares the Castillo surname because the two are identical twins. Dominic Castillo is an artsy indie rocker based in Portland, Oregon, and also just happens to be a massive talent worth checking out. He wrote the excellent "Is it True?" on Laurel Lane. Check out song samples from Laurel Lane, photos, tour info, and more at Damon Castillo's myspace page, and peep the video for "One Life Stand", the second single from Laurel Lane, below.

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