Wailing City Spotlight: Interview with John Speziale of Sweet Mercy!

Published February 16, 2023
Interview by Meghan Killimade

Sweet Mercy! is a roots Americana influenced band, lead by John Speziale of Stonington and featuring multi-instrumentalists from all areas of New London county and Westerly, RI. The band performs as an acoustic trio or quartet and sometimes as a full band featuring electric guitar and drums. Sweet Mercy! has opened for prestigious acts, including The Hoolios and The Carleans and they’ve shared stages with such talented song writers as Dan Blakeslee and Haunt the House. The band’s hot licks and harmonies earned them a New London, CT Whalie Award for Best Roots Rock Band in 2016. More recently, Sweet Mercy! have been playing shows around the area in support of their new self-titled album released in September of 2022. 

From their bio: 'Sweet Mercy!’s first album, appropriately titled 'Sweet Mercy!', is a compilation of songs reflecting the cultural, regional, ethnic and musical influences that have combined to make the Americana genre. Nola’s in there, along with blues, Cajun, Tex-Mex, rock and roll… There’s a murder ballad, and even a song inspired by the circus. Eight of the songs were written by John, the ninth song is a rocking rendition of a traditional Americana classic.'

Wailing City recently asked John Speziale about the band, the songwriting/recording process and what's coming up for Sweet Mercy!...


Interview by Meghan Killimade


Sweet Mercy! has been playing around the area for quite some time – how and when did the band get started and who are the other members?
 
I settled in the Westerly area a little over 20 years ago. I’d been a professional musician, on and off, since the age of 15. Cover bands, solo gigs – every kind of gig imaginable. I’d had some success playing my originals up in Gloucester, MA (North Shore coffee house scene, some radio play), and I’d done a solo album with some heavy hitting Boston session musicians. I was eager to try out my stuff here. I got a couple of regular gigs, playing for tips and free food. I met Gene Parise of Wheelhouse and Jim Tarbox of many local groups; they liked my stuff, so we started a couple of bands, and one of them, The Friends, secured a weekly residency at Perks and Corks, Westerly. We hosted guest artists. Craig Edwards showed up one night with his fiddle. We discussed starting a folksy, mostly original band, and he recommended Jaime Duquette on bass. It was a great fit! Over the course of a couple years we’d added Jim Tarbox on electric guitar and Chris Gonsalves on drums. Eventually they moved on, but Sandman Allen (songwriter and member of The Hoolios) joined us. Now we perform as a trio, a quartet, and Jim and Chris still jump in for six-piece shows.

There are many different sounds and styles in your  music such as roots country/Americana, Cajun, folk... how would you describe Sweet Mercy! to someone that isn't familiar with your music?
The easy answers are Americana, New Folk, and Roots. But I grew up listening to everything, and I have a real love and feel for rock and roll, so, yeah, we’re folksy, but we’re a lot more edgy than you might expect. Our definition of Americana includes rural blues and traditional folk, but we cover everybody from Muddy Waters to Bob Dylan to Lou Reed and The Ramones. My songs fit into that grouping nicely. We won a Whalie Award awhile back – “Best Roots Rock Band”. I had yet to hear that label, “Roots Rock”. But, yeah, that’s us for sure.

Sweet Mercy! just released an album – what was your experience with the recording process and where did you record the album?
Sweet Mercy! released its first album last fall. It looks, sounds, feels and smells like a big deal record company release, but it was home made. And it took a few years to make it. Craig engineered it on his digital home studio machine, learning as he went. We recorded it in my Pawcatuck cellar studio, in the living room and sun porch of a Misquamicut beach house, and in Craig’s living room. It’s mostly live, with some overdubbing. Great memories! Including waking up at the beach house at 7:30 am, walking downstairs to make some coffee, and finding Craig adding some fiddle licks in the living room. There’s tons of love, devotion and talent in this project. Shawn Allen, The Knickerbocker’s amazing sound man and a good friend, mastered it in his home studio. I wrote the liner notes and designed the cover and insert. The photos were taken by friends. The CD label is a rubber stamp imprint (thank you, Jaime!) and the cover art was professionally printed – on stickers—and they had to be hand applied (thank you, Jaime!). I duped it, two at a time, on my home duper. I only provide all this detail because I want people to know that, in these crazy hi-tech, low-income music biz-times, you CAN make your own album.

Photo by Keith M. Cowley
You mentioned to us that you’ve written all the songs on the album yourself, (excluding one cover song) - what is your songwriting process like and what do the other members of the band bring to the music?

I tend to write songs sporadically. Sometimes it starts with a melody I find myself humming over and over; and I try to find words that fit. Other times it starts with a phrase or sentence that I think I might be able to turn into a song if I can just find the right melody. Memories, deep feelings about something, news reports, stories I hear or invent… I’ve read interviews with songwriters I truly respect in which they’ve claimed to have channeled their songs – the music and lyrics just come to them, they write it all down and do very little editing. I’ve experienced this occasionally. A couple of my best songs were written that way. I don’t really have a regular “process”, but I do favor a certain subject matter. I write most often about the human condition, attempting to explore the way we handle the ups and downs of life. I seem to be able to do it with some humor, irony and sympathy. At least that’s what people tell me.

I tend to be pretty liberal about the way my bands handle my songs. I have a preference for how I want them to sound. But the people I play with are pros who possess both the technical talent and the sensitivity to understand what the song means and what it should sound like. So I’ll play them the song, describe how I hear it in my head, try it out with their musical contributions, sort through all of it… I don’t find myself rejecting many of their ideas. I’m lucky.

What are some bands/musicians you listen to for inspiration/motivation?
After seeing Elvis Presley on The Ed Sullivan Show I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up! (Yeah, that’s how OLD I am!) My dad had been a sax player in the Duke University college dance band, so we had all that swinging jazz in our home. The radio was always on, playing the latest popular artists (Frank, Dino, The McGuire Sisters, The Four Freshmen, and then, finally, Elvis). Rock and Roll eventually took over the airwaves and I’d use my allowance to buy the latest singles. I was learning to play the piano and guitar. Then, just around the time I was trying to sing like Fabian or Bobby Rydell – BOOM! -- The Beach Boys and The Beatles made it cool to be in a band -- and the music got really creative and exciting.

I started writing songs after listening to early Donovan, and then started trying harder to write songs after listening to Bob Dylan. I practiced on my Farfisa organ while listening to The Animals. The Stones introduced me to the great blues artists. The Rock Renaissance of the sixties and early seventies inspired young songwriters to open their minds to melodic and lyrical possibilities we’d never imagined. I took it all in, experimented with some of it. But, looking back now, I’d have to say that I was most influenced by Leon Russell and Randy Newman’s keyboards, Bob Dylan’s wild, brilliant harmonica, the crystalline sound of The Byrds’ guitars, and the songs that spoke to me personally were written by Dylan, John Lennon, Newman, Elvis Costello and the late, great John Prine. Conor Oberst is in my head, too. But I still listen to all kinds of music, grabbing inspiration from the legends and a lot of contemporary artists.

Is there any message or feeling you’re hoping to get across to listeners?
Mostly we just want to provide the kind of musical experience that delivers a good time to our audiences. Hopefully, they’re also getting a message about how great this roots stuff really is! We love getting applause and cheers for almost every song we play, but the best thing is when, after a show, people whom you wouldn’t expect to do so come up to you with compliments, good wishes and questions about all the instruments we play. It’s a great surprise when young adults –they’re kids to me at my age—come up with compliments and sincere questions about the music and instrumentation.

How did the pandemic affect you as a musician and how did it effect what you were creating? Also, now that we’ve returned to a somewhat “new normal” – do you find that the live music scene has changed at all?
During the Pandemic my wife Linda and I holed up with our dog in our own, cozy little COVID bubble. We read, we cooked a lot, we watched a lot of Waltons episodes, and I wrote a series of Facebook posts called Plague Times Thoughts, which was an attempt to help folks find some humor in such a strange, frightening time. I had kind of a breakthrough with my songwriting, coming up with these long (maybe too long?) story songs. Still not sure if they’ll see the light of day.

Sadly the music scene changed drastically because of COVID. Sweet Mercy! had bookings well into the summer. We lost those gigs, and, once it was safe to go out again, three venues we’d been playing decided not to present music any longer. The places that still have music are trying to recoup their losses now by booking the popular, more established acts. The bigger venues hire lots and lots of tribute bands. And who can blame them? Unfortunately, a band like ours, slightly under the radar, has to struggle.

What are some of your favorite places to gig/hang out in the area?
I love playing The Tap Room at The Knickerbocker. It’s intimate, and there’s NO television! I also love the big room and have been fortunate to host an annual Christmas Rock and Roll show there for the last ten years. It’s a benefit for Westerly’s animal shelter. And, have to say, playing anywhere in New London is always fun. We’ve played on the pier, at The Telegraph, and in the Hygienic’s beautiful park. Yo, New London! You guys support the music!

Any local bands/musicians you’re really digging these days or want to shout out?
I’m a huge fan of The Hoolios and The CarLeans. Very proud to have shared the stage with them a number of times. Gene Parise from Westerly has been a band mate and is a great friend. He’s started doing a solo thing that’s been generating a lot of well-deserved interest. Ramblin’ Dan Stevens is the man to see for a solid dose of acoustic blues. Almost everyone I’ve played with is playing good music in other bands. Sandman Allen has a solo act that everyone should see. He’s the “real thang”. And relatively new to the scene is Olivia Charlotte Black, a singer-songwriter with a lovely sense of melody and a voice to match.

What’s up next for Sweet Mercy?
We’re recently engaged in a promo blitz for the album, approaching music magazines, radio stations, and performance venues. And we’re telling everybody: find us on the Internet, listen, download, maybe purchase the album; check out my website for videos and event announcements; and TELL YOUR FRIENDS!


Catch The Show

Sunday February 19, 2023
35 Railroad Ave - Westerly, RI
7pm / FREE / 21+


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