Best Musician: Joe Camerlengo

Joel Oliphint
Joe Camerlengo

Early on, music wasn't a part of Joe Camerlengo's life. He didn't care much about it. In fact, he didn't even hear the Beatles until his 20s.

Instead, Camerlengo wanted to draw. In grade school, he'd illustrate entire comic books. Then, in between seventh and eighth grade, lightning struck his Worthington home, destroying the roof right above his bed. Fortunately he and his family were out of town at the time, but the home was uninhabitable. When they temporarily moved into a family friend's house, Camerlengo and his brother were forced to share a room, and his brother happened to have a huge, purple guitar.

“I attribute this moment to the whole reason I accidentally play music,” Camerlengo said. “I was this shy little weirdo, and I picked up my brother's guitar. I was holding it the wrong way, and my dad walked in and was like, ‘Oh, you playing Nick's guitar?' And I wasn't, but I was like, ‘Yeah.' And he's like, ‘You look cool with that thing. You wanna get lessons, too?'”

Thinking back on the moment, Camerlengo imagines a little datebook popping up next to eighth grade Joe's head, and every page in the book is blank. “So I was like, ‘Yeah, I'm free,'” he said. “I had literally nothing going on. I didn't play sports. I had no friends. So sure, I'll play guitar.”

With only one guitar lesson under his belt, Camerlengo began telling his dad about the band he was going to form. “I didn't need to know how to play guitar to make a band, and I feel like that's still my theory today,” Camerlengo said. “My strongest musical asset is being a candy-striper and ringleader for the projects I lead or work with, rather than saying, ‘I'm the best guitarist.' I like my personality and my brain and sense of creativity and artistry and my belief in people and rock 'n' roll more than I believe in my musical prowess.”

From middle school on, music has defined Camerlengo's existence. From his very first show at Midgard Comics opening for Something Corporate, he has stuffed all the motley pieces of his pogo-stick personality into his songs and performances, rolling around on stages and treating his guitar like a wild beast that should never be tamed.

“I don't know how to read music. I'm not interested in learning it,” he said. “I think there's two things that would break me. One is taking acid, and the other is learning to read music.”

In 2004, Camerlengo began to turn heads with the outrageous carnival-rock of feline-friendly local act This is My Suitcase, and then a few years later with his solo project, Joseph Anthony Camerlengo. In the last 10 years, he's played integral support roles in some of the city's best bands — Mary Lynn, Counterfeit Madison, Brat Curse — and fronted projects like Van Dale (fuzz-pop on Xanax), Blanket Boys (a bedroom-pop collab with Lisa Brokaw of Grunge Dad and Van Dale), Sam Pellegringo (a recording project) and his newest outlet, Classical Baby, which sounds like a comfortably scruffy collage of all those bands.

No matter the project, Camerlengo seems only capable of writing songs that implant themselves deep into your brain folds and remain there, happily, listen after listen. (I, for one, have made a habit of listening to Blanket Boys'Monday EP every Monday.) And despite a full-time nursing job, he seems to casually release new songs from one of several projects every few weeks. On Thursday, March 29 (his 33rd birthday), Camerlengo will gift us another ridiculously good Classical Baby EP,Welcome to the Future.

“Most of this, to the populous, is unpopular music,” Camerlengo said. “Not because it's bad or not worthy, but unless you're the luckiest band in the world you don't get anywhere with intentionally wild-ass music performed wildly. So you either tone it down and try to shapeshift yourself into something else, or you just tone it however you want — you give up on the idea of being a rock star and get a chance to make something good. And I feel like I'm finally making good music.”