by Dan Reifsnyder, GSC Reporter
I sat down to interview John in his writing studio – looking over us are CDs of his numerous indie cuts and past projects. Also present is his ever faithful co-writer, his dog Micky.
Dan Reifsnyder: So what is the speed of an unladen swallow?
John Cirillo: A little faster than dog speed, but not as fast as God speed. * laughter *
DR: How did you get started in music?
JC: I was a junior in high school and we had just moved to this tiny town in Connecticut who hated people from California and I was a very shy introverted person to begin with. So I spent 10 long months by myself down in the basement. I used that time to teach myself how to play guitar, and that was the year I was really introduced to music for the first time. Capital Records used to have a thing where you got the first 12 albums for a penny and in my first group of albums I got Jim Croce, Gordon Lightfoot, I got John Denver, James Taylor, Carole King, Carly Simon. It was the golden age of singer songwriters and it just spoke to me. I don’t know that I was much of a poet growing up, songwriting never even crossed my mind really. I dunno, I just got bit. That’s how I started.
DR: How did you get hooked up with GSC?
JC: I moved out here in 2011. I was an NSAI member, and unfortunately for most of the time after I came out here, Sheree was still recovering from back surgery. So I didn’t get to know her very well until near the end, when she came back and I got to meet her. I was in the GAP group, and got to know her a little bit and of course heard so many great things about her. Then when she went off and started GSC; I don’t know her numbering system but I have to be one of the first people to join up because I just believed in what she was doing. Sheree is someone who does it for the love of the songwriters and she lives for the success of her writers. And there’s an honesty and a truth there that kind of speaks to her as a person. It speaks to the authenticity of her organization.
DR: I suspect I already know the answer to this, but who are some of your musical influences?
JC: Easy. Gordon Lightfoot, Jim Croce. Those are my two biggest heroes. As much as Jim Croce and Gordon Lightfoot are my biggest influences I think my sound was originally most similar to John Denver. But yeah, James Taylor too. That might date me a bit, but I’m a lyric guy and those are great mentors for the craft of songwriting. And I believe that’s part of what I bring into a co-write today and why I’m still relevant as a songwriter.
DR: What are some songs you wish you had written?
JC: The House That Built Me. Operator, by Jim Croce. There’s a song by Gordon Lightfoot that not too many people really know, it’s called Beautiful. It’s a very masculine, beautiful love song if that makes any sense. I could go on and on. Rocky Mountain High…it’s a song that still gives me chills every time I hear it. Garth Brooks, Much Too Young To Feel This Damn Old. Of course The Dance. That’s like the pinnacle. And George Strait, one of the biggest people that got me into country music, with his Amarillo By Morning. Very simple, but I just loved it. The prosody of it. I’d probably say The Dance is one of the best songs ever written.
DR: I would agree with that. Now, you have a frequent cowriter named Micky. Tell me about Micky.
JC: He greets everybody at the door. He stands guard. And anytime we’re getting ready to do an iPhone recording he makes sure his voice is on there.
DR: He’s got to get his percent.
JC: It’s amazing how many songs, especially in the last year or so, how many lyrics that have turned into some of my favorite songs have come from just taking him on a walk. He’s a big muse.
DR: What are some of your goals for 2019?
JC: I’ve been working really hard on learning the sync world. And I realize that everything I’m doing is a marathon. So I always try to move one step closer every day to whatever my goal is. I’m very goal driven. I want to get at least one sync this year. That’s my goal – it’s a modest goal, but that’s my goal. And every year my goal is to get a cut with a major artist. I won’t stop going until I get my first cut. Then my next goal will be my second cut.
DR: I understand you’re also working with Matt Lindsey!
JC: Yes! I’ve been working with Matt for the last year or so, and he’s been repping my catalog. And he’s probably one of the hardest working publishers in town. I went with him because I knew he would never pitch a song of mine just because I asked him to. He would only pitch it if he felt it was good enough to stand up to his reputation in town and that he felt it was appropriate for the artist he is pitching it too – that way I know that I have someone out there who is only pitching my songs if he believes in them. We haven’t gotten a cut yet, but we’ve gotten a little close. I plan on staying with him and hopefully we will get that big success.
DR: You’ve actually had a lot of cuts since you’ve been in Nashville. Can you tell me about some of your successes?
JC: Well, I had my “welcome to Nashville” moment I think about a year and a half in. I wrote a song with Chip Martin called One Of Those Nights…it was in the Top 10 for the NSAI competition. As soon as the voting started, this artist – he’s just coming up in the world – named Tim McGraw, put out a song called One Of Those Nights. And that just killed it, killed my chances in the competition! Anyway, a few months later, Taylor Hicks’s (American Idol winner-season 5) producer called and said “Taylor Hicks is recording your song!” I was really excited, I thought this was really cool. Over the course of the year I got some updates every now and then, and finally…nothing happened. Taylor Hicks got dropped from the label, even though he had finished the whole album. Never got to hear what it was like…so that was that. And then you, Sarah Spencer and I had our first pretty good cut with Tori Martin – Woman Up. It was a single and a video. Got our first Grammy nomination (I’ll let you decide how much of that story you want to reveal!). Then this year, you, Sarah and I – there’s a theme here – wrote If You Drink, which was released by Chris Turner. He put out a music video, and it’s taken on a life of it’s own. It’s to support veterans and anyone else who are suffering from PTSD; which I know all three of us feel is a great honor. Had this young gal named Jennifer Belle who just released her first single, Moving Day, that Sarah, Sam Gyllenhaal and I wrote. She did a really good job on that! I have two other cuts on that album that hasn’t been released yet. I have 6 co-writes on Sam Gyllenhaal’s album, and Dan O’Rourke; who is just an amazing artist, I think I have 3 songs on his last album and we have a lot of great stuff that hasn’t even been recorded yet. Those are probably the highlights. The successes to me are just the relationships I’ve been building in this town. You and I first wrote on my back porch here…
DR: We did!
JC: Like 6 years ago! And look what we’ve accomplished together. It finally hit me over the weekend, how I feel about living here verses how I felt about living in Santa Cruz (where I moved from)[CA]. Santa Cruz is beautiful country. I love Santa Cruz, I love the weather, I love the beaches. Here, it’s the people. Nashville is great, it’s not for me – I don’t do a lot of night life stuff, and summers kill us. That’s why we leave. But it’s the people, it’s the friendships I’ve made while I’ve been here that make Nashville a special place for me. So my biggest success, to me, is just the people I’ve gotten to know and the friendships I’ve made. I’ve come to redefine the word “success” for me – and that has probably been my biggest success. I was always trying to be an overachiever and never satisfied with anything I did. No matter what my accomplishments were in anything, I never enjoyed them. I was always striving for something better so I never got to appreciate those little successes. But I’ve been able to redefine success for me, especially when it comes to songwriting. It’s enjoying the process. It’s loving the people I’m working with in the process. After that, you put your song out there, you do everything you can to get it out there, but it’s out in the ether and there’s nothing you can do about it after that. You have to let it go. Still, you know me – I work really hard at getting cuts, at working my catalog. I won’t stop that, I’m very ambitious. But my success is just being able to have people come in here, my friends, and we write and we start from zero and end up with a song we all love. That, to me, is my new definition of success.
DR: Great thoughts, as always, John. Thanks for talking. And Micky, thanks for sharing your co-writer with us!