What started as an assignment in Steven Schiraldi’s music appreciation class at the University of Arizona two years ago has landed the 24-year-old a spot on a nationally released album.
His self-penned country song “Born in the O.R.” is one of 22 on the just-released HillTop Records CD “America,” a compilation that celebrates songwriters. All of the tracks are sung by unnamed studio musicians and the only artists credited on the disc are the songwriters.
“This is a dream come true,” the New York native said, admitting he never dreamed his very autobiographical ballad would get him anything beyond a passing grade.
But soon after he finished it, Schiraldi knew he had something that deserved life outside of a classroom.
“During the process, I fell in love with it and I wanted to make something of it,” he said.
Schiraldi finished “Born in the O.R.” in spring 2012, weeks before he was to go back into the hospital for surgery No. 45. This surgery, like many of the ones before it, would fix a shunt to drain fluid off his brain. Shiraldi was born with spina bifida. He is a paraplegic and uses a wheelchair to get around.
“My disability is not my life. I try not to let it overshadow,” he said. “It’s only one part of my life.”
And it serves as the starting point for his songwriting. “O.R.” opens with his birth and being whisked way from his mother and into surgery the very same day. Each verse views life from the prism of his disability, from watching kids play during recess to avoiding the eyes of strangers and feeling like “he’s on display” as he’s “living his life in a rollin’ chair.”
“Now it’s been twenty-two years of struggle and strife / And forty-five times he’s been under a knife / But his heart of steel will survive in spite of the O.R.”
“This kid has been to hell and back,” said his mother, Shari. “He had more surgeries” — 16 in his first year, she says — “CT scans and MRIs by the time he was a year old.” The family moved to Tucson when Schiraldi started his freshman year at UA to study journalism.
Throughout it all, there was one bright spot, one constant in Schiraldi’s life: music.
“I know every word to every song from the 1960s until now,” he said, sitting in his living room wearing his favorite “Music is My Life” T-shirt. His favorite genre is country music.
“I think it’s just the lyrics,” he said. “I connect them to things I go through. That’s why I think I love country music so much. It is about real people.”
He was once a karaoke regular. “I used to think I was a lot better than I was. My ears have grown over the years,” he said.
Until he took that UA music class, Schiraldi had never written a song. But he knew someone who had: his uncle Ron Dardis, a songwriting hobbyist who lived in California. Dardis, his mother’s brother and his godfather, had penned 100 songs by Schiraldi’s count, very few of them shared with anyone outside of his close circle of family and friends. He had state-of-the-art recording equipment and a little studio in his home outside Los Angeles.
Schiraldi reached out to Dardis soon after he finished the song and asked for some help putting his words to music. He emailed his uncle the lyrics and the pair began a months-long collaboration over the Internet that was interrupted by that 45th surgery.
Dardis convinced Schiraldi to enter the song into the Nashville Songwriters Association International contest. Without his nephew’s knowledge, Dardis also entered a couple of his own songs into the contest all on the deadline day in early November.
A week later, Dardis died of a heart attack. He was 60 years old.
Schiraldi was devastated.
“We had it all planned out,” he said, eyes welling with tears. “This was supposed to be a duet. We knew who would sing what part. I wanted (musical duo) Thompson Square.”
Neither Schiraldi nor his uncle won the contest. After the funeral, Dardis’ girlfriend sent Schiraldi a recording of “O.R.” that Dardis had made. He sang vocals and played acoustic guitar and the song sounded richly neo-traditional and unpolished, adding an emotional depth.
Schiraldi copyrighted the song to fulfill his uncle’s wishes. On the day he received the copyright certificate in the mail, he also received a letter from the Hollywood indie label HillTop suggesting that he submit his song for a possible recording. It landed as the third track on “America.”
“Everything happens for a reason,” mom Shari Schiraldi said. “I think his death brought to life this song.”
Schiraldi, who is taking online classes for a master’s degree and works part time as a social-media manager for a Los Angeles-based consulting firm, said his ultimate goal is to become a music critic. He would like to find a way to create an income-producing blog and write reviews based more on the emotional connection of the music than performance nuances.
In his spare time, he’s playing around with a few song titles and lyrical hooks that he said he may flesh out as songs someday.