Marcella Di Sandro always asked the same question of her boyfriend.
“Greg McGarvey, when are you gonna write me a song?”
The Levittown musician always had writers’ block when it came to Di Sandro, a painter from Churchville with a beautiful soul. There was just too much to unpack, from her strength battling Fanconi anemia and beating cancer twice, to the selfless act of chopping off most of her hair and donating it to Locks of Love.
When Di Sandro passed away peacefully on Sept. 23, 2014, at the age of 28, the song she so often requested still hadn’t been written. But McGarvey decided she didn’t deserve a song. His beloved girlfriend’s spirit could only be captured through an entire album.
On Aug. 21, McGarvey’s six-year labor of love Count the Colors was released, with each of the 10 tracks serving as a small tribute to Di Sandro and the unforgettable moments of their two-and-a-half-year relationship. McGarvey’s nephew and “good luck charm” Nolan, who was born two days after Di Sandro’s funeral, provides introductions to all of the songs.
While writing Count the Colors, McGarvey, 37, drew inspiration from journal entries penned during Di Sandro’s final days fighting Fanconi anemia, a rare, inherited blood disease.
“The motivation there was, I wanted to make sure I didn’t lose myself emotionally at the time. I got really, really serious about writing down different stories that came to mind, what was going on when we were traveling but she was not well,” he said. “That helped me to organize some of my thoughts about how special she was, what I loved about our relationship. By the time I started songwriting, I had some idea about how I wanted to do it.”
McGarvey began writing Count the Colors in 2015, drawing influence from his favorite childhood band The Everly Brothers and their album Songs Our Daddy Taught Us.
“They showed me it’s OK to be direct emotionally at times,” he said. “The Everly Brothers showed me that it’s OK to wear your heart on your sleeve a little bit.”
After penning the title track “Count the Colors” and first single “Something So Beautiful,” McGarvey knew he was on the right path.
“I got to a new plane that I’d never been to before as a songwriter, and that I was actually starting to write stuff that would be worthy of Marcella, who was just a great woman,” he said, adding that the first single was born after writing the words “in the beginning, in the middle and in the end” on a piece of paper. “I wanted to go chronologically just as a way to force myself to remember everything because it’s that sense of, you’re the only person left from that partnership, so it’s on you to get all the stories done. I don’t feel that I left too much out, which I feel very happy about.”
Unprecedented hurdles were encountered by McGarvey while trying to complete the album, including the devastating loss of both parents, lack of funds and, most recently, the COVID-19 pandemic. But with the support of loved ones, and after yielding $2,500 through a GoFundMe page, he got it done.
A Facebook Live concert streamed on the day of the release saw McGarvey at Di Sandro’s old house on Bristol Road, where her sister still lives, singing the sentimental songs. Several pieces of Di Sandro’s artwork sat behind him, while her jacket hung off the arm of a chair nearby.
“The support of her friends and family almost six years later, that’s the reason I feel comfortable putting her name in a song, telling the story of her,” McGarvey said. “They told me it’s what she would’ve wanted me to do with her memory.”
Count the Colors encompasses sadness and joy, and ends on a fairly upbeat note – a direct reflection of McGarvey’s outlook on life. He will always miss Di Sandro and his parents, but McGarvey believes they have a bird’s eye view of earth and want to see him thriving.
“There’s always been a lot of extreme stuff with my family and sometimes my circle of friends, and my tendency is to just figure it out. As much as there are times of sadness and depression, it’s basically not an option to give up,” he explained. “There’s just so much new life around me. And that, combined with my natural tendency to want to find the next adventure, it was never going to be an option sitting around thinking my life was over at 31. My tendency is to keep looking forward and find the silver lining in things.”
Visit gregmcgarvey.bandcamp.com/album/count-the-colors to listen to Count the Colors. A portion of proceeds from the album will benefit the Fanconi Anemia Research Fund.
Samantha Bambino can be reached at email@example.com