It’s not everyday you see an artist dedicated to his own artistry as much as he is committed to inspiring and enabling the artistries of others. A true artistic inspiration beaming with promise and positivity, Cole DeGenova shares his musical journey from the age of 16, his philanthropic efforts in Chicago, and insight on his anticipated 4th album, REALLY HUMAN.
Stream: “Full Grown” – Cole DeGenova
Cole DeGenova is a pianist, vocalist and composer whose music is “somewhere between a soul pop concert, South Side jazz club, slam poetry reading and punk rock dive bar.” A performing jazz pianist since his teenage years, a Chicagoan through and through, and a studio musician in LA working big artists, DeGenova exudes commitment ⏤ to his own music and to the communities he engages in.
Since the release of his third album in 2015, THE RADIO HERO MIXTAPE, DeGenova has been focused on finishing up REALLY HUMAN, an electro-soul jazz album that moves away from the psychedelic rock sounds of his previous release. In late March, he dropped the first single off REALLY HUMAN, an electro-soul record titled “Full Grown.” The track has “Dancing on My Own” vibes with themes of growth, empowerment and strength woven throughout. You can’t help but put a little strut in your step when listening to it.
Speaking to Atwood Magazine, DeGenova shared, “[“Full Grown”] represents musical growth, but also spiritual, sexual, consciousness growth. It’s about coming into your own as an individual as you get older. A lot of my songs do deal with those themes in some way, but that song really hits it on the head.”
Traveling between LA and Chicago, DeGenova has experienced how both environments influence artists: LA encourages a culture of competition, while the scene in Chicago values collaboration and community.
Putting his musicianship into service keeps him humble. When he’s in the studio with big names like Lupe Fiasco, Brett Dennen, Chance the Rapper, Gallant, Paula Cole, and James Carter, he has to leave ego at the door and take an empathetic musical approach ⏤ listening to and understanding the artist he’s working with, and creating accordingly.
Although LA clearly has its perks, DeGenova’s roots are firmly planted in Chicago ⏤ it’s his home. And for all the city has given him, he gives back. To support both his city and his fellow artists, Cole and Rico Sisney created The Gala, an artists union of sorts. Cole describes The Gala as “an alternative space (which took the form of a monthly event) where we could simultaneously shine light on the great artists that were coming out of our local scene, while also connecting our artists with those from other scenes within the city, while also making sure they got paid.”
Atwood Magazine spoke with Cole DeGenova about his journey as an artist from a young age, his philanthropic efforts in Chicago, and the collaborations and processes of creating his anticipated album REALLY HUMAN, set to be released at the end of the summer. Read on for the full interview!
A CONVERSATION WITH COLE DEGENOVA
Can you talk a little bit about being a 16 year old jazz pianist playing around Chicago? How do you think that experience influenced the artist you are today?
Cole DeGenova: I think those were some of the most formative experiences of my life. On the one hand, it helped teach me how to find work as a professional musician. On the other hand, it taught me a lot about how to express myself musically, and spiritually, really. Some of the spots I would hang out at, like Fred Anderson’s Velvet Lounge, had such a powerful energy and history, especially within Chicago’s black avant-garde community. It really left a mark.
When did you start learning how to play the piano? Who taught you?
DeGenova: My parents were musicians (they met in a band), so they were my first teachers. I started taking piano lessons when I was 4 years old from an old friend of my dad’s, Dennis Nuccio, who lived on the southwest side of Chicago. His family was from New Orleans so that was a big part of my education as well.
As a musician who studied at Berklee College of Music, how do you think that sort of education influenced the artist you are today?
DeGenova: I certainly learned a lot from Berklee, particularly about a lot of music from other countries. But the most valuable thing you get from a place like Berklee, at least for me, is the network of musicians and fellow artists you meet. That continues to be a source of opportunities and inspiration for me.
You’ve worked with quite a few big names. What’s it like being a studio musician? Do you find it strengthens your career as a solo artist?
DeGenova: I don’t know if it specifically helps my career as a solo artist. I mean, meeting new people never hurts in this business, though. What it does strengthen the most, I find, is my musicianship. Being a studio musician means having to come up with a part on the spot that supports another person’s vision, and then executing that part flawlessly within a few takes. It’s a fun challenge that also doesn’t allow for too much ego. I really like it.
Can you talk a little bit about The Gala?
DeGenova: Well, to continue the conversation of community within the arts in Chicago, that’s exactly what The Gala was seeking to bolster. I don’t think The Gala could have existed in a place like LA, for example, or at least it would have turned into a different thing. It came out of me and Rico Sisney’s (emcee with Sidewalk Chalk) involvement with the Occupy movement. We wanted to create an alternative space (which took the form of a monthly event) where we could simultaneously shine light on the great artists that were coming out of our local scene, while also connecting our artists with those from other scenes within the city, while also making sure they got paid. We even talked about turning the collective into something of an artists’ union. We had a lot of lofty goals for sure haha. It was an inspiring time.
REALLY HUMAN will be your fourth album, correct? Was THE RADIO HERO MIXTAPE in 2015 the last solo album you released?
DeGenova: Yeah that was. And yes, this will be the 4th release.
In terms of overall sound and vibe, how do you think REALLY HUMAN will compare to THE RADIO HERO MIXTAPE?
DeGenova: THE RADIO HERO mixtape had a little bit of a throwback psychedelic rock sound. That was the product of experimenting with a bunch of studio musicians in LA. REALLY HUMAN is definitely moving into a more electro soul world, which reflects a lot of the music I’ve been listening to the last couple years. That’s why I reached out to Georgia Anne Muldrow. She sort of embodies all aspects of that sound for me — electronic, soul, hip hop, jazz, experimental, etc. A lot of this album I also did completely on my own, like production and instrumentation, which is an exciting and terrifying direction for me haha. I get to dig more into my Stevie Wonder roots.
Is there a reason behind your album titles being written in all capital letters?
DeGenova: Ha, I think that’s how we learned to denote book titles back in my 7th grade English class. It just stuck with me I guess. I think it looks kind of cool now that you mention it.
Can you talk a little bit about where REALLY HUMAN is at right now process wise? What inspired this album? Any tracks you’re particularly excited to share?
DeGenova: We just have 4 more songs to mix and master, and then I’m sending it off to get pressed to vinyl! So I’m thinking the release will be the end of summer/beginning of fall. Sonically, like I said, the album was inspired by the music I had been listening to. But also the time spent on the road with my Chicago band was getting me excited to get back in the studio with them. I’m excited to share the whole thing! There are definitely some musical choices that might surprise my audience, so I’m anxious to see what the response will be.
Can you talk about the process of creating “Full Grown” in terms of recording and production? And can you talk a little bit about the people who collaborated on the track with you (Georgia Anne Muldrow and Greg Magers)?
DeGenova: It was definitely an honor getting to work with Georgia, who has been one of my favorite artists of the last 10 years or so. She’s a genius for sure. We did everything via email and over the phone, so we would send tracks and ideas back and forth for a few months. Besides the vocals and some extra keys stuff I did, she performed and programmed most of the song. Greg is an old friend who is also my favorite mixing engineer. He knows exactly what I’m looking for sonically without me having to say much.
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