An interview with Manayunk's rising star
NewsWorks Contributor Darren Hunter recently sat down with Manayunk's own Carmen Magro to discuss his music and the release of his new video, "America."
Carmen is the lead singer, guitarist and piano player for an area band that also includes local guys Chuck Scarpello (bass guitar), Rob DeSimone (guitar), and Dave Murphy (drums).
His story is uniquely Manayunk as his original concert was more than 20 years ago at Manayunk's Hillside Playground where he was a band mate of Scarpello's.
The latest video for "America" was filmed at Andorra's Houston Playground. Always one to keep it local, Magro is currently recording a new song entitled "Take Me Back" which is also about growing up in the local area. Carmen's story was so unique and inspirational that it seemed to lend itself to an interview.
1. When did you discover your music talent?
As a child I experimented with just about any instrument I could. We had an old accordion in the house that I played sometimes. I learned trumpet and played the reveille in the boy scouts and a church hymn for my mother's choir. I experimented with a recorder "flute" that I remember taking with me just about everywhere.
We had an old upright Cunningham piano in our house which my father used to play with one finger when I was very young, but I never really took interest in it despite my mother wanting me to.
My father passed away when I was 10 after having me late in his life. At 13, I developed this strong desire to play drums and begged my mother for a set. She refused to get me drums at first...but after I beat up on her pots and pans and Tupperware for awhile, she surprised me with a set of Pearl Drums for my 14th birthday.
I joined a band 2 weeks later and played drums in various cover bands in the Philadelphia and N.J. area. My desire and inspiration to write original music came later though. While in the cover band, my mother always encouraged me by giving me praise on drums but she would love for me to play what is in my heart, learn piano and sing music. She really felt I had it in me to do that.
2. What inspired you to write your own music?
At the age of 16, my mother developed the awful disease of breast cancer which she fought for three and a half years. Being a teenage boy in the Philadelphia neighborhood of Manayunk, I didn't really develop a "close" relationship with my mother early on. She was very lenient but strict...meaning she allowed me to do things I wanted to do but certainly kept strong discipline in our house. I could be away for days at a time as long as she knew where I was and what I was doing.
But I never really told her I loved her until a certain moment in our life. I had developed such an independency after my father passed away that I just kind of did my own thing. In addition, I got so used to her taking her pills every day and going through the ups and downs of cancer treatment that it became the norm in our home. It just seemed that it would go on forever like that.
One day, however I came home from school (I was commuting to Penn State Ogontz campus in Abington at the time) to see her at the hospital where she was for some tests. She wasn't in her room so I went to her doctor's office. I overheard her doctor talking with my aunt and uncle and it didn't sound good. I interrupted asking them why they haven't told us the truth about what was going on. It turned out that my mother was terminal at this point and she didn't want us worrying about her.
I can remember my vision getting very tunneled and my world simply coming crashing down. I had no idea it was that bad with her disease. I kept this to myself, but when she came home from this visit I sat down with her and told her I know what is happening and how sick she is. She broke down in tears and just put her arms around me. She told me she never had any worries about me and that she knows I have a special talent in me that she hopes I learn to use. It was the first time I truly told my mother that I loved her. She lived only 17 days longer after that point.
The day she died I walked home from Memorial Hospital in Roxborough and wrote my first song. I learned that I could play what was in my head on the piano and that it was my original music. It truly felt like a gift...one I had been ignorant to for too long. I began to write music and play piano as much as I could as I learned everything by ear.
3. Why break out now with your music?
I don't know the real answer to that question except that my music is the result of many things that have happened in my life...stories I hear from others, things that have happened to me and people that inspire me...just strong feelings I have for life itself.
I believe that I can't sing a tune if I don't truly feel the passion behind the story in the song. There is no way I could have written the music I do now at any point in my past...and I have dozens and dozens of songs all with a passionate story behind them.
A couple of years ago, I followed a story of a young man who had stopped for a moment to give someone directions at an intersection near Penn State University in State College PA. He was traumatically injured after being hit by a drunk driver where another gentleman was killed. He was not expected to live but had been moved to Bryn Mawr Rehab hospital.
After reading how his family had been devastated by the tragedy, it inspired me to write a song called A Miracle in Me which I recorded at home and sent to the family as a gift. They later thanked me and invited me to meet their son at the hospital. I did and it was truly moving. He gave me a fist pump which was cool but he pretty much lost many functional abilities which is truly sad.
His family asked me to perform my song for a charity event they were having to raise some money to build an addition on their house to bring him home. Until this point, I had never performed any of my original music in public. I played my song at the event and it was very well received. I brought 50 CD's with me that I made at home and they all sold for $10 each. All of the money went toward the family fund raising efforts and it felt good to help. But I think this moment made me realize that people enjoyed hearing my music. So I began really organizing my originals and writing as many as I could.
4. What inspired your debut single "America"?
I was thinking about a story my uncle told me about my father. He had come to visit my mother when she was very sick and not expected to live much longer. He tried comforting me asking me how I was holding up and I remember telling him that I'm really disappointed that I never really knew my father well and that now, just when I am getting close to my mother, I'm losing her.
He said "let me tell you something about your father...and never forget how much your mother loves you." He went on to tell me this story about how my father only wanted to have a family some day and wouldn't marry anyone until he found the right woman. He waited until well into his 40's.
When Pearl Harbor was bombed, my father told my uncle that he wants to fight in this war because someday he wants to have a son and that he will never want to raise a family in a world of terror. He joined the war within a week of Pearl Harbor being bombed...in fact, many of his friends and family all joined the war for the same cause. I felt that I could put that story into a song and do all of the servicemen and women that have fought for this country, past and present, honor by telling the story like my uncle told it to me.
It is truly a special song to me and it feels great to sing it knowing that I can carry my father with me and a great vision of him. He waited a long time to find and marry my mother and although I didn't know him long, he has done more for me than any father can ever ask to do for his son.
5. How did America get recognized?
I searched for a professional producer that would accept unsolicited demo material and who may specialize in artist development. I found a gentleman named Arty Skye in New York City who has produced many artists including Madonna, Alicia Keys and Philadelphia native Will Smith. I sent my CD express mail and the next day I received a response from Arty. He asked to meet me in person and I took the ride to New York the next day.
In our "discovery" meeting, he told me he likes what he hears and that "it is rare anymore that you find an artist that has passion, can write it into an original song and perform it as well without losing any of that passion...I believe you have this talent and I'd like to work with you." He was especially interested in America. So in October 2010, we recorded it. I continue to work with Arty on an extended play CD of my work, due for release by the end of this summer.
6. Do you have a political position?
This is a question I believe my mother told me to always try to avoid as it may only turn up criticism I don't know that I have a position one way or another as far as positions go. But I do know this. We have a country that is built on the premise that we are to live free, make choices at will and be able to express ourselves without suppression from terror or any other anti-productive action. That is worth defending and fighting for without a doubt in my opinion...whether it means defending our home, our family or the land and materials that are dear to us. I look at the dreams that shine in a child's eyes...and we should do everything in our power to insure those dreams never die or that fear overpowers them.
7. How did you form your band?
As fate would have it, early last fall a friend of mine who I had not seen in several years (Chuck Scarpello)...and who was a bass player in a band I was in as a drummer earlier in my life contacted me after getting my phone number from someone else. He was trying to get a message to me that a bunch of people from my old neighborhood in Manayunk were getting together for a "reunion" event and he thought I may want to attend it.
He went on to ask me how things are going and what I've been up to. I remember telling him that I don't know where the last decade has gone but I'm writing music and getting ready to record in New York City. He asked me to send him some tunes I did. After I sent them to him, he called me up and asked me where I have been...he could not stop giving me positive comments. So we contacted the guitarist from the same teenage band and decided to perform out at some open mic events. My music was very well received.
We later added another guitarist through a friendly relationship and a drummer who was an in-law relative of my bass player. Since then I have friends from past and present all contributing in some way to help get my music out there. It is amazing to me that I am receiving so much support and positive feedback wishing me well. It's a really nice feeling.
Ironically, we have only rehearsed a handful of times yet I have had the opportunity to perform live on CBS 3's Talk Philly show, been the highlight band at an Armed Forces Day performance in Harrisburg and now been slated to open for a national artist, Crystal Bowersox (former American Idol runner up) at a big show on September 10th at Stabler Arena in Bethlehem PA where I will perform a set prior to Crystal and also a special performance of my debut single America in a 9/11 ten year anniversary tribute.
I'm very excited about this. It is a dream come true to just have the opportunity to perform on a big stage professionally and I am hoping that doors are opening to do it for a living.
8. How did the making of your "America" video come about?
Again...I think this is my mother working her magic and sharing some grace. I feel the message that "America" carries and the one I tried to insure gets instilled in the music is one of inspiration and gratitude for all of the sacrifices that have been made to give us the America we love.
If we can put aside every complaint and every blinder that gets in the way of recognizing what a great country we have, we can all benefit from sharing the beauty that surrounds us. I have 2 young daughters and a third child on the way. There is not a day that goes by that I don't think about what kind of world they will grow up in...and how will I make that world better.
I am blessed to have my wife Michele who I love dearly and who supports every bit of this dream of mine. I believe that music can move the world and I'd love the opportunity to do that.
Anthony Werhun of 23rd Letter Films did my song "America" much justice in capturing that message and its inspirational story in the video...and I cannot thank him enough for doing that.
After I performed the Harrisburg Armed Forces Day concert which helped to raise money for the Wounded Warriors Project, the coordinator of the entire event relayed my performance with my band to a company called 320 Productions in Allentown, Pa. which was organizing the Sept. 10 event. He told them that he may have found the artist they are looking for. I'm happy I received the call from them to do the show in September...and I don't take any of it for granted. I just hope that people recognize me as a humble artist who loves to share his passion through music.
9. Where does Carmen Magro go from here?
A lot has happened in a short period of time...but it feels like it is a lifetime in the making. God willing, I hope to be able to make a living performing my music for fans near and far. It is truly a desire of mine that comes from well within my soul.
There is not a single performance I have done where I don't literally sing my heart out...I don't know any other way to do it. I'm grateful that I have a band of musicians who all want to do what it takes to help me succeed...and who believe in my music and the messages they carry.
I am recording a single titled Take Me Back right now which is a story about growing up in Manayunk. It gets the crowd going every time and people, young and not so young, really know how to relate to it. I have another song titled Our World which relays a message that this world should not be taken for granted and that we all have to contribute to insure we pave the right path into the future.
My children understand the power of music and what it can do to help one person or many. They are both very musically inclined which is really cool with me. Where I wanna go from here is anywhere music can take me. I've had a dream of being able to perform on a grand piano on the David Letterman or Ellen Degeneres show....although Saturday Night Live, the Today Show, Jimmy Fallon or any of those shows would probably be very cool! I welcome any opportunity to perform...anywhere, anytime. I only hope that the world gives me the opportunity to do it.
Carmen Magro is living proof you don't need to go further than Manayunk to find people to be inspired by. You can find Carmen on Facebook where he provides information on his local shows and new musical releases. You may just end up in his next video! He'll also be performing at Dawson Street Pub in Manayunk on Aug. 12.