Well, I noticed two guys first: Jeff Buckley and Kurt Kobain [if I’m not wrong]. Two happy ones! Along with your beloved Nick Drake and some others in the shelves (the great Jackson C. Frank above any other), I may euphemistically say that you’re not scared by musicians whose lives are interwoven with tragic elements! Or it’s just a case?
Wow! That isn’t exactly the first question I expected from you!
Well, as a former best girlfriend used to say: I’m an expert on dead singer/songwriters. You may also add Serge Gainsbourg and Johnny Cash to the list (long live Nick Cave!).
Let’s start from Kurt. I was never a Nirvana fan. That picture was given to me as a present: the photo was taken in Rome, in 1994, just a few weeks before he died, I believe he was outside the Grand Hotel near Piazza della Repubblica. Nirvana were on tour and played in Marino, just outside Rome. I didn’t go, because I wasn’t into them. In Rome he tried to commit suicide swallowing blisters of Roipnol and was taken to the Policlinico Umberto I. My boyfriend used to work for their record company. It wasn’t fun. Although I wasn’t a fan, I was really sorry when he died. You are definitely right: not only am I not scared, on the contrary I am definitely attracted by tragic figures! It’s the fatal mixture of huge talent and tragic destiny which seems to be interwoven with it. It is a very Romantic myth. Kurt, Nick and Jeff were beautiful, had a huge talent and found it very difficult to cope with life. They were in pain: physical, existential, psychological pain and none of them could be saved. Even today after nearly 50 years since Nick Drake died, it is very difficult to treat people with depression or bipolar disorder. Curiously, the new drugs to treat that kind of disease come from psychedelic substances.
My liaison with Jackson C. Frank is via Nick Drake. I was asked to write a book about Drake’s songs, I said yes before I could say no, the rest is history. The time I spent writing “Journey to the Stars” was the most beautiful period in my life: I was totally immersed into his music, I travelled to the UK to talk with relevant people, like the producer Joe Boyd, Nick’s sister Gabrielle, Robyn Hitchcock. I dreamt of Nick, and I wrote and studied and ideas kept coming to me. Today when I read my book, I ask myself: did I really write it?
Jeff Buckley is a long story, but to make it short suffice to say that it was a musical coup de foudre: I bought “Grace”, I was transfixed. Later, when he came to Italy to promote the album, I travelled with a small media group from Rome to Cesena to interview him and see him play. That’s when I got the CD signed. That road trip has become legendary among us: we got lost, we arrived late, the group was waiting for us, very embarassing I saw him again the following year in Correggio: he looked different, desperate, too intense, everything was too much. I knew he wouldn’t last and he didn’t.
I also see a nice box of Billie Holiday, that also didn’t properly had a happy life, but now we can move to another topic, as I see that many of your records are from singers. It seems (but maybe it’s just a shallow impression) that you’re not that much into instrumental music. You like listening to voices and… well, I don’t want to flatter you, but your voice is really special and beautiful (at least listened through the radio!). But… do you also sing? I mean, on your own maybe? You really love music and you work in the music environment, but have you tried to play music also?
Well, a lot of musicians led unhappy or difficult lives, jazz musicians in particular, so we’d better leave it to Nick, Kurt and Jeff and move on. It is true, I am not particularly into instrumental music, although we play a lot of that during Sei Gradi. But me, I’m a voice/singer kind of music fan. It is the voice you fall in love with, it was the voice in a foreign language that captured me as a child and made gravitate towards Brit pop, i.e. The Beatles: I remember singing “iello sammarì” at the bus stop waiting for the coach to take me to school, singing without knowing the meaning, attracted by the sound, the mystery of a foreign language. My interest in foreign languages (which I would study much later at university) started as a child with the Beatles. I’d love to be able to sing! I took a few singing lessons once and I can still remember the joy I felt when I succeeded in singing a short piece. If I were a singer, I’d be a jazz singer: I’d be Ella Fitzgerald. I would LOVE to sing but am not a natural singer like my mother. We have a similar voice, but she has a perfect pitch, I don’t. Neither do I play music. This is frustrating, I envy the composers for their brilliant mind: I admire what music can do to your brain. At the same time, listening to music without being a musician makes me a sort of a cavewoman listener: my approach and enjoyment of music is totally non intellectual, very physical although I’m hard to please and very choosy. I perceive music as a whole most of the time, without breaking it up, without dissectioning it, although I can listen to “What’s goin’ on” following only Jamie Jamerson basslines. Also, being more “primordial” means that I have a strong instinct: I can recognize and associate pieces of music more easily because my database is limited. That’s very useful too.
So your mother was a professional singer? Or she just loved singing? Did you somehow inherited your passion for music from her?
No, I don’t come from an artistic family, my mother just loves singing. I guess my interest in music was aroused by my aunts collection of 9”, mostly singles by The Beatles.
So I see, even if you’re working in the music field you do your efforts in keep listening with your ‘belly’ and soul maybe. Something that others, such as Stefano Isidoro Bianchi of the Italian magazine Blow Up now can’t. But how does it work at Sei Gradi in terms of choosing the music you play and the way your incredibly varied show are built? How do you interact with the authors, like with Nicola Catalano?
The truth is I’m very hard to please. I am rarely enthusiastic about new music, I don’t think I can fall in love again like I used to in the past. But that’s something we say in other circumstances too. The reason I sent you the pictures of the wall shelves is that today they’ve become totally useless to me. I got those shelves made many years ago when having thousands of cds meant a lot to me. I don’t listen to them any longer. I could probably throw away half of them. You can see lots of copies among them: I needed as many as possible for the radio programmes. Now I don’t. To listen to music with devotion I plan to go back to where I started from: vinyls.
The secret of Sei Gradi lies in the team work. Nicola Catalano prepares most of the playlists, I usually do one a week and other people contribute as well. I take great care in preparing the texts: I’m curious and that helps a lot.
I’m very fascinated by the other stuff that pops out from the picture that poeple sends me. What’s this wooden (I suppose?) bird among your books? A sort of idol that protects your shelves? Someday I will probably dedicate a post about all the puppets and pets features here on CS, and Simon Balestrazzi’s “Brap” will most probably be the master of them all!
That’s a Christmas decoration which overstayed its time! It’s cute and it’s the closest thing to a pet I own! I’m not a “ninnoli” woman, I don’t like to see lots of stuff around, I need blank walls, clear surfaces, empty spaces to let the house breathe.
Paola De Angelis is a writer and broadcaster from Rome. She started working for RAI in 1998, hosting programmes for the three radio stations. She’s the author of Journey to the Stars – The lyrics of Nick Drake (2007) and Rockitchen (2009, with Andrea Tantucci). She writes regularly for Il Manifesto. In her parallel life she is a certified Pilates practitioner.