"Being good at being poor has allowed me to do what I want to do--and it's allowed me not to be hamstrung by a lot of things," says singer-songwriter Micah Ciampa. "It's a good thing, in a lot of respects. If you live like a monk and plan on it, you can get away with doing what you want musically and holding out until the circumstances improve or you put yourself in better circumstances--as opposed to doing something because you need more money, or spending more time making more money."
A quiet fixture on the local acoustic-music scene during the past few years, Ciampa is finally stepping into the limelight. Cut to the Chase: Human Behavior Commentary, his debut CD, is a first-rate offering--a seventeen-song recording that offers a wealth of Ciampa-penned talking blues and bare-boned monologues that are raw, thoughtful and brimming with personality. But what makes the disc even more impressive is the environment in which it was made. Ciampa played and recorded every instrument on the platter, whose deliciously primitive feel suits the material perfectly. "An expensive studio wouldn't have had any benefit in this for me," he notes. "I wouldn't have been able to do things over and over to my satisfaction, because the meter would have been running. Besides, I try to be a minimalist about these things. It fits the character of the project."
The studio where Cut to the Chase was cut is multi-purpose; the ten-foot-by-eleven-foot room also serves as Ciampa's residence and record-label office. ("Well, I'm more of a stamp than a label," Ciampa admits while brandishing a rubber block that he uses to apply text to his CD sleeves.) Standing in the center of this modest space, Ciampa can easily lay a hand on any and all of his possessions. A mattress sits flush to the floor just beyond the entrance, and a closet at the end of the bed holds a makeshift kitchen consisting of a refrigerator, a microwave, a convenience-store pizza oven and a vintage two-burner electric stove. Pots and pans hang overhead, drying after a wash in the bathroom sink, as Ciampa's cat, Miya, sleeps against one of the apartment's two windows. Below them sits Ciampa's musical arsenal: two beat-up acoustic guitars, a well-worn Kay model cello and a tiny banjo whose ringing tone contrasts markedly with its diminutive size. As for the geographic center of the room, it's occupied by a boom box, a Yamaha four-track and a thousand copies of the album he recorded on it.
"Everything's close at hand," says Ciampa, a fresh-faced thirty-year-old wearing faded jeans, construction boots and a work shirt. "If the water's boiling, you can get to it while answering the phone. Or you can put your guitar down while feeding the cat--and for me and the cat, it's perfectly comfortable. It'd be a lousy place to raise your kids, I suppose, but then again, considering whole families in Brazil are raising their kids on the streets in shanties, this is very luxurious and practical. It all depends on how you look at it. I mean, how much room do you need?"
Judging by the quality of Cut to the Chase, not much. "Dog Song," the opener, sets the tone for the disc, telling the tale of a greyhound who decides to escape the track only to perish in a head-on collision with the mechanical rabbit the canine despises. Spare, bouncy and darkly humorous, it tickles both the funny bone and the deeper recesses of the psyche. Elsewhere on the album, Ciampa offers insights into America's grayer regions: Bar culture, relationships, street urchins and the perils of traffic, consumerism and other social ills all fall under Ciampa's wary pen. Bolstering these giddy observations are the semi-swampy tones of Ciampa's rustic instruments (most tuned to open E-flat and frequently played in slide fashion) and his curbside-philosopher vocals. The result is a refreshing blend of slacker folk blues and back-alley oratory that's funny, disturbing and several proud steps outside of the mainstream.
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"I've had a terrible time trying to describe it--although I've come up with 'spoken new ragtime,' and that almost gets it," Ciampa says. "It's got the traditional folk elements, and musically, it's inspired by pre-electric rural blues and ragtime. It's really a hybrid, because whole elements of all of these aren't usually combined. But lyrically, it's a different animal. I've been inspired by a spoken album of William Burroughs--I love his deadpan style of reading his stuff--and other talking blues. You know, Woody Guthrie, Johnny Cash, John Prine and Loudon Wainwright, those kinds of songwriters. So some of it's spoken and some of it's sung, and some people say they can't tell the difference--and that's all right. It isn't exactly operatic singing, but it's meant to be very legible, because the words are important."
The Pennsylvania-born Ciampa's interest in speech has genetic origins; his family tree is filled with Methodist ministers, including his father. Ciampa disagreed with many of the religious views espoused by his ancestors, and because he often found himself in disagreement with his teachers as well, he dropped out of high school at sixteen in order to work around airplanes--one of his true loves. He subsequently earned his pilot's certificate and spent three years manning single-engine flights or co-piloting larger Douglas DC-3s in the Midwest. But the pressures of the job eventually became too much for him. "I love the feel and sound and sight of the old machinery," he says. "In fact, I was drawn to it kind of like I was playing a big instrument. But I loved the sight and sound of it a lot more than being on call 24 hours a day." He adds, "I was on the way from being a dropout to being a yuppie, so I decided to take a detour."
Following a piloting gig in South Dakota, he relocated to Denver in 1991 and shifted his attention to the acoustic guitar. After learning a few chords and teaching himself how to write songs, he became a regular on the local coffeehouse circuit. (For the past three years, he's co-hosted an open stage on Tuesday nights at the Washington Street Exit.) These days Ciampa supplements his earnings from selected club dates--he opens for Christine Lavin at Swallow Hill Music Hall on October 24 and hosts a CD-release party at the same venue on October 31--by working as a soundman and delivering the New York Times. "I have late hours and early hours both," he says. "It's a freaky thing. I sleep in two strange, short shifts to accommodate it. I get a couple hours' sleep before the route and a couple hours after--and every once in a while, I sleep all day to try and recover from it. It takes all of my time to get eight hours this way." Such career choices are "kind of misunderstood by some people as a lack of ambition," he admits. "But some of what people call 'ambition' I call 'sick,' so it just depends.
"I'm the thirty-year-old paperboy in the elevator every morning with people riding to the office jobs," he continues, "and to anybody in their position, that guy with the newspapers has the appearance of being some low-ambition goofball. The truth is, I just don't have the kind of ambition they do--and I don't want that kind of ambition. My brand of ambition is hard enough to just understand. In a way, I am the no-ambition paperboy. But in another way, I'm using my time to do something that takes a lifetime to do the way I want.