Jon D’Agostino - A Little Bit City, A Lot Bit Country

Storytelling comes naturally to Jon D’Agostino. The Holmdel resident’s innate ability to  do so with lyrics has enabled him to dent the country music scene as an up-and-coming songwriter. Although he may seem a bit out of place in Nashville, having grown up on  Staten Island, the 47-year-old attorney and father of three, has always loved music.  From standards to disco to classic rock, his influences span generations. But it wasn’t  until listening to a few Garth Brooks records in the late 1980’s that Jon turned into a country music fan. Although he had always tinkered with songwriting, the passing of his  father in 2002 inspired Jon to write a song about the experience. Dabbling quickly  became a passion, and Jon was soon travelling to Nashville on a regular basis.
Jon was no longer simply a successful attorney with offices throughout New Jersey and  New York. He was trying to turn his love of songwriting into something greater. He  joined the Nashville Songwriters Association International (NSAI), improved his craft,  and made connections in the country music industry. Publishers soon began picking up  his songs, and independent artists recorded them.
In 2010, he won the NSAI “Christmas in July” contest with his song, “A Christmas  Kiss.” He finished as a top 10 finalist in Country Music Television’s songwriting contest  in 2011 and repeated the feat again this year with his alternative rock ballad, “I Try to  Let Go” (written with Chris Corley). Recently, his song "Freedom Train" (written with  Tim Maggart) was named Patriotic Song of the Year at the North American Country  Music Association International Awards. He has also had songs featured in the movies  Thin Ice with Greg Kinnear, and Dark Horse with Christopher Walken and Selma Blair.

LIH: Did you always know you wanted to be a lawyer?
JD: No. The funny thing is that my family business was construction. It was my father’s business with his  brother and my cousins. I worked there every summer from age 13 until 21 as a laborer in every capacity  you could imagine out in the field. I worked there long enough to know that it was not what I wanted and I didn't know how to tell my father that I didn't have an interest in doing what he did. I did notice they had lawyers who worked for the company.
I got very lucky because Skidmore College had a special program called J-term where you did an  internship and would keep a journal. So for the month of January, during my sophomore year, I got an  internship for a law firm, and I just fell in love with what they were doing. I approached my father and said  that I was thinking of going to law school and then I could be an attorney for the firm. My father never got  past the seventh grade, so for him it was a proud moment. I was scared to death to tell him though. So I  worked part time for his company as I built my own practice and eventually phased out of his company.

LIH: Was there any particular reason you wanted to become a lawyer? I can imagine that studying  English and philosophy in college could have inspired some interesting thinking on your part.
JD: When I was a little kid, I was very argumentative, hard-headed. I was always told I should be a lawyer.  As I grew up, I was always a pretty strong writer. When I was in college, hearing about what they were  looking for in law students, I was told they wanted a student who could think and write well. Since those  were my strengths, I thought law school would be a good fit.

LIH: Why did you get into personal injury law?
JD: I think it comes from, one --- having interned for a personal injury firm and seeing how they were  helping so many injured people, and two - having grown up in a home where my father had lost one of  his legs in a construction accident. I could relate to the nightmare of the breadwinner being incapacitated.  My mother had to go work in a restaurant. It was just a good fit.

LIH: What was your first law-related job?
JD: I worked while I was in law school for a law firm called Richard Neimark. At the time I thought I was  very lucky, because he was moving to Rockland County and was interested in branching out and opening  his practice there. He asked me to get more involved with the Brooklyn practice, and I was going to law  school right across the street. It was a great opportunity. I was learning a lot. But unfortunately when I got  licensed, things didn’t work out, so we had a nice parting of the ways. I did more work for my father’s  business and then went out on my own.

LIH: How were the first couple of years starting on your own?
JD: The first years are so tough because you know so little about running a business. They don’t teach  you how to operate a business and don’t teach you much about the practical side of law in law school.  You read a lot of law and learn a lot of law, but drafting documents and filing documents and all those  little things – you just have to get out there and learn it. I was lucky enough to have a couple of mentors  who were there to help me and answer questions, but it was challenging. I was working out of a trailer  that was attached to my father’s company in a construction yard. It was in a real bad neighborhood in  Brooklyn. I would never let a client come to my office. I would go to everyone’s home. I started to put tiny  ads in local newspapers and a business card ad in the Yellow Pages. That’s how I got started. I tried to  form relationships with people who could generate business for me.

LIH: Do you remember your first client?
JD: One of my first was a woman who tripped and fell on a broken sidewalk and broke both her elbows. I  thought that it was a great case. Unfortunately, I was only 25, 26 at the time. I think she started to doubt  my credentials, and she was probably being told to get someone else by her fiancé. So she left me, but I  remember that case because I did a lot of work on it and got a small part of the fee. A lot of the first cases were soft tissue auto accident cases that someone would refer to me, or a friend who had been in a  fender bender. And even though I was 25, 26, I was telling people I was 31, because I was young and  looked young. One thing I started to do was put my face on my ads. I did it because I would show up at  someone’s door and they would ask where Mr. D’Agostino was and I would tell them that was me. I could  see the look in their eyes wondering how long I had been doing this. I had to go through my resume for  them. Now I still tell them I am 30!

LIH: So what brought you to Holmdel?
JD: We had two children at the time. My son was in third grade and my daughter was in pre-K. Staten  Island was changing. They were doing a lot of building and traffic was crazy. It was hard to commute. It  was taking my kids 45 minutes to go eight miles to school in the morning. My wife and I decided to look in  New Jersey, and we were looking for a good school system. We heard so many good things about  Holmdel. It’s really not that far from Staten Island. We loved the neighborhood. We made friends right away.

LIH: You and your wife, Jade, were high school sweethearts. How did you two end up meeting?
JD: In 1979, when her freshman Spanish class and my sophomore Spanish class were sharing a bus to  go see Evita. We had a mutual friend who was sitting between us, and that’s how I met her. We became  friends, and the following year in 1980, that September we started dating. We dated for seven years and  got married in 1987 after my first year of law school, which was crazy. I would not recommend that to  anyone. We had my son in my second year of law school. Those days were just a blur. I was going to  school. I was working. I had a baby.

LIH: How do you look back on that time now?
JD: I look back on it as a crazy, wonderful time in my life when I didn’t have time to think. We were just  young and working on instinct. My wife was working part time for her Dad, who was a pediatrician and  part-time for my firm with bookkeeping, taxes, etc.

LIH: So how does a lawyer from Staten Island get into country music?
JD: I get asked that all the time. It makes no sense. The best way to explain it is that I have always been  into music. I’ve collected all types of music. I grew up in a home where my Dad loved the standards. I  was always listening to Sinatra, Tony Bennett, and Cole Porter. I have a sister who is 10 years older, who  was listening to The Doors and The Beatles and Motown when I was five years old. That was all part of  my life. Then disco hit, and I grew up through the disco age and classic rock. I loved all that. The sounds of the ‘70s were really my adolescence. I just found over the past 15 to 20 years that kind of music was  going away. You just couldn’t find that type of song anymore.
At that time, Garth Brooks was all over the radio. He was all over the charts. I just didn’t understand it. So I  went out and bought a Garth Brooks’ greatest hits album. I expected to hate it. I figured, like everybody else, that this is going to be something hokey. The first song was some rockin’ song, and it just hit me.  The next song was a real meaningful song called, “Unanswered Prayers,” and I just loved the writing. It was just like I discovered something new that touched me. So I started listening to more country. The  more I listened the more I liked. Then I started to listen to other artists, and they reminded me of the  artists of the 1970s like James Taylor and Jim Croce, the singer/songwriters that I loved. Songs like  “Cat’s in the Cradle,” which would never be written today, were being written in Nashville.
Then 10 years, ago my Dad died, and I wrote a song about him. That’s where the real songwriting  started. I had always dabbled in writing songs. I wrote a song about him and I didn’t know what to do with  it. A friend of mine suggested I go to a small studio in New York and record it. Everybody was telling me to  do something with it, but I didn’t know what to do with it. It was a keyboard-based ballad. I just gave  copies to everyone. So I just began to write more and more.
My wife saw I was interested in writing, and that I was trying to write more of what was in country music.  She surprised me with a trip to Nashville and that changed my life. We started going to the little clubs and  watching the songwriters perform the songs they had written for the artists. That really affected me. I went  back the following year and joined the Nashville Songwriters Association International (NSAI). That changed my life even more since NSAI is really at the heart of the Nashville music scene and is there to  help song writers. They have song camps I attended. I attended seminars and workshops all through  NSAI. I was going down there every three months. I started to network. I started to meet other writers who  were interested in writing with me. The songs started to get better. I started to meet publishers. The  publishers started to get a little interested in my songs and offered me single song contracts. I started to  meet people who owned studios and we recorded demos there. I started entering songs in contests and  winning a few. It just kind of snowballed. The best part of it all is that it’s just a passion. There’s no  downside.

LIH: What kind of reaction did you get from the people in Nashville since you were a bit of an outsider?
JD: You ever see My Cousin Vinnie? That was me in Nashville. When I spoke I heard myself speaking like  him, and I wasn’t taken seriously at the beginning. Eventually your songs speak for themselves.  Originally, I would write a song, bring it into a studio, and I would sing the demo, but I sing more like Billy  Joel than Tim McGraw. So it’s hard for people to take that song seriously if it’s a country song. It doesn’t  sound country. I started to use demo singers in Nashville, who for a few dollars will sing your song. These are super talented singers who are trying to make it as artists. So they didn’t take me seriously for  a while, but then the song speaks for itself and they want to know who wrote it.

LIH: Was it culture shock for you going down there?
JD: It was actually very pleasant going down there since life was a little bit slower-paced. The people  were a little bit nicer than up north. If you were at a red light and it turned green and you didn’t move  instantly, someone didn’t blow their horn. It was really nice. I did step on a few landmines when I got  down there. I was in a new town. I knew nobody. There were some people early on who told me they  could help make my songs sound better, and I would have to pay them some money. There were some  who said they could take my songs to some people to listen to if I just paid them some money. Those  were just the sharks in the town who are feeding on people like me, who come into Nashville with these  dreams. I learned my lesson. Thank God I didn’t waste too much money.

LIH: How did you learn how to write a song?
JD: Instinctively, I am a lyricist. I can write a story; I can tell a story. A great song is a great story. Some of  the greatest writers of all time are great storytellers. Nobody had to teach me that you’ve got a verse and a chorus. I knew that. A lot of it is just shadowing songs that you love. If you say one thing, what should the  chorus say? What is the hook of the song? What should it be about? If the verse melody is very short and  choppy then you know the chorus melody should be long and soaring. But what happens when you get  into songwriting, you start learning the rules, and country songwriting has a lot of rules. You learn them by  making a lot of mistakes and writing a lot of songs that you think are good, but are not. You keep banging  your head saying: Why didn’t I see that? Or, Why did I do it that way? But you learn the rules. One writer  said that you learn them so you can break them. That’s where the really great songwriters come from.  They know the rules so well that they know how to break them, write the song that comes from outside  the box, and it becomes a smash that doesn’t sound like anything else.

LIH: What about writing the notes?
JD: I can’t read music. I can play acoustic guitar and keyboards, but I really like strong musicians, so I  would sing a melody into a recorder. I would then write an entire song to that melody and then would sit  down with my co-writer to figure out the chords. I thought that was kind of weird until I read that Madonna  writes her songs by singing into a recorder. Phil Collins sings into a recorder and fills in the blanks later.  So, I figured I was in decent company. The point is that I can’t play the chords that I can come up with in  my head. I am not a performing songwriter like some people are, although I would like to be someday.  Yet, it’s a thrill to see my co-writer go up on stage and play our songs. A lot of them are incredible  musicians with incredible voices who are trying to achieve something different than I am. My dream job  would have been to be like Bernie Taupin (Elton John’s lyricist). I think that guy had the best job in the  world. You just write a great lyric and hand it off to someone who can put it to an incredible melody, and  sing and tour.

LIH: What do you personally get out of the songwriting process?
JD: Some people keep a journal. Others have lengthy discussions about things. I like to write about  them. It’s challenging. You only have three or four minutes to tell an entire story or make a point or make  somebody cry or laugh. I have written some songs that are pretty deep and some that are fun. It’s  cheaper than therapy. If you’re going through some rough times, you can lay it out in a song. It gets it out  of the system. If you set it to a great melody, it can be a great country song.

LIH: Where do you get your ideas from?
JD: Everywhere. You may say something to me right now that may sound like a title to a song to me, or I  may be watching a movie and think of something. I may take a word, like serendipity, and say that would  be a great title of a song. So I wrote a song called “Serendipity,” since I knew I wanted a song called that. I  went to see the movie Crazy Heart and in it Jeff Bridges was having a conversation at the bar. He was  talking about the family he abandoned and said, “I wasn’t there even when I was.” I said, that’s a song title! I wrote that down and wrote a song with that title.

LIH: Do you ever stop what you are doing or pull over to the side of the road to write down something?
JD: Yes. Before the age of smart phones, I used to pull over and call my answering machine and sing a  lyric or remind myself of a song idea. Now I just speak into my phone or put it on the notepad in my phone  when I am not driving. I do joke that I write at red lights. If I am in the middle of a song I love, a lyric that I  love, then I am in the shower thinking of the bridge to the song while I am shampooing my hair.

LIH: You recently worked with Chris Corley from Middletown as a cowriter. How do you find him?
JD: I found Chris on Craigslist to give my daughter guitar lessons. I had never used Craigslist in my life. I  didn’t know anyone locally who would come to my house and give guitar lessons. She wanted to learn.  He gave her lessons. He is not a country musician. He’s more of a pop/rock musician. After a few  months, we started talking, and he told me he likes to write reggae. I said we should try to collaborate,  and I can put a lyric to anything. I love the challenge of it all. He sent me something that I loved. When you hear a great melody and you’re a lyricist, the melody just kind of speaks to you. I wrote a lyric to it called  “Leave Our Worries,” and it was a great reggae tune. Then we started writing other songs together. We  wrote a few rock songs together and we’ve had a lot of success. He’s purely a melody guy. He trusts  what I have to say.

LIH: That song “Leave Our Worries” recently made it into the movie Thin Ice, which starred Greg Kinnear  and Alan Arkin. How did you get one of your songs into a movie?
JD: I have access to listings of companies looking for particular songs for film and TV. This song got  picked up by Crucial Music, which is a publisher that concentrates on film and TV. They fell in love with it  and started pitching it to a lot of studios. The next thing I know, they are contacting me, letting me know it  was picked up for this film. And the next thing I know, they are telling me it’s in the opening scene.

LIH: You also entered a song, “If I Try to Let Go” into the NSAI Song Contest presented by CMT (Country  Music Television), where you were one of 10 finalists for the Listener’s Choice Award. How were you able  to get so far in the contest?
JD: It’s a worldwide contest and can be any genre. The song that won last year was a pure pop tune. I  entered last year for the first time and wrote an up-tempo fun song, called “Just Being Me.” Next thing I  know, the song was a finalist for the contest out of 3,000 songs. I knew we had virtually no shot against  some of the others who are full-time writers in bands that tour and have a fan base. That’s what I am up  against. The lawyer from New Jersey who has songwriting as a passion is up against that element.  When it’s a popularity contest, I am happy to be a finalist. We made it on to the finalists’ CD, so more doors opened for us.
This year, the contest came around again. I entered again with a song I wrote with Chris, and I was blown  away when they contacted me and said I was a finalist again. Last year, I considered it just luck. Last  year, I was so thrilled to be in the top 10 and I didn’t think I had any chance at all, so I didn’t tell people to  vote for me. This year, it kind of validated my songwriting since people could look at me as someone who  did it two years in a row. A lot of people started voting for me --- friends, clients, my mother was telling  people in the beauty salon and her building to vote for me. As long as I like the song and I am proud of it,  what happens after that is whipped cream on the ice cream.

LIH: What is the experience like, trying to get a song published?
JD: It’s incredibly hard. The challenge when I was first in Nashville was learning to write a song well.  Then it was learning to write a great song. Then it was learning to write a hit song. Then it was trying to  get a publisher to listen. Then it’s hoping the publisher thinks your song is good enough to get invited  back again to play another song. It’s really about building a relationship. People have the perception that  they are going to ride into town and have a song recorded by Carrie Underwood. It doesn’t work that way. You can have the greatest song in the world, but you have to work your way through those relationships.  There are different types of publishers. You have low-level publishers that are small and don’t have quite  the access to the artists that the larger ones have. At first, you start with getting one of those interested in  your music and then you get one of the mid-level publishers talking to you, and then, if you are lucky, you  get Sony, Universal, and Curb Music interested. You learn how to properly pitch your songs. Every single  top songwriter that I know in Nashville put in six, seven, eight years of building those relationships and  writing the best songs they could. I am really about six or seven years in. I now have a little place in Nashville that I stay in and I go down every six weeks for a few days instead of every three months. I squeeze a thousand things into those three days. I have co-writing sessions, publisher meetings, networking events, and visit my daughter at Vanderbilt. I am lucky she is there and gets to be part of the  music scene with me.

LIH: What would be your ultimate music dream?
JD: To have my songs recorded by major artists. I have had a lot of songs recorded by independent artists, and they are still being recorded by independent artists. I will get the CD of artists and see my  songs in there and that’s a thrill. You never know. There’s a 14-year-old kid who has been on Disney  whose management team loves two of my songs so far. Is he the next Justin Bieber? Who knows?  That’s just the luck of it all, but that’s the dream. It’s more of a dream for my family.

LIH: Did you even envision this type of success when you began songwriting?
JD: Never. It wasn’t even in my mind. I wrote a song when my Dad passed away and wanted to get better  at writing songs. It’s like asking someone who takes up golf and starts loving it if they would ever make it  to the Pro Tour. I had no idea I would get to a point where my songs are being played for major artists. My  songs are in the loop being pitched to artists who are on the radio. It’s a matter of the stars aligning, and  it’s just a thrill when I get an email saying that someone like Jo Dee Messina listened to my song, but  passed. You know how hard it is to get to her ears?

LIH: Do you ever think of a day when you can quit practicing law and do this full time?
JD: It’s a dream. I will be turning 50 in a few years. I have a son, Jonathan, in his first year of law school at  Charlotte; a daughter, Jenna, who’s in her third year at Vanderbilt; and a daughter, Jessica, who is in the  fifth grade. Something tells me I’m going to be practicing law for a while, unless a couple of my songs  make it to number one!

Favorite Movie Jaws
Favorite Music Billy Joel
Favorite Restaurant Peter Luger Steakhouse in Brooklyn
Pet Peeve Tip jars
Three people for dinner Mel Brooks, Walt Disney, Garth Brooks

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22 Sep 2016

By Chad A. Safran