By Michael Traversa
That’s a quote from a song, New York for life, written specifically for the retrospective compiled for the American market by Italian superstar Lorenzo Jovanotti.
Jovanotti has been building up a nice following in United States in the past three years with countless shows in small clubs and big music festivals, such as Bonnaroo and Austin City Limits. “A new challenge”, those are the words used by the artist who sells arenas and stadiums in his homeland. Jovanotti understands his music cannot break big numbers in America since it’s spoken in a different language, but he is also aware of the power of music beyond the words. The same power that drew him to hip hop when he was a little kid, “To me it was the sound, the fact that the song could be about nothing and anything, that you didn’t have to have a good singing voice to do it”. Getting to play in front of people who don’t know all the words to the songs, who needs to be conquered has been refreshing and a learning experience that he has been able to apply to the shows in his own country where he can count on a 25 years relationship with his fans.
So it was obviously a great honor for Jovanotti to be invited to the Grammy Museum (“I cried when I saw Michael Jackson’s jacket”) and have a QnA moderated by Scott Goldman.
The talk spanned several subjects, including the dance oriented beginnings, the introduction of rap music to Italy along with more political fueled lyrics, his love for New York, where he has been spending this past summer and his big influences in music. “Coming here I took a taxi from Gabriele Muccino’s house who’s been hosting me and the taxi driver was a Russian guy who was listening to Pavarotti in the car. So the first thing I did was showing him the picture of me and Pavarotti I have on the iphone. He took the phone, looked at the picture and then turned his head to look at me, which was also dangerous, look at me not paying attention to the road [laughter]. I told him I knew Pavarotti. I saw that as a sign coming here to the Grammy Museum, Pavarotti’s blessing”.
His relationship with New York started as little boy when his father, who often visited the city for his work with the Vatican, would come back with Super 8 videos to show to his family. “I always say I live in my music. I live in my language. But I have a connection with New York. I went there for the first time after the military service, which in Italy was mandatory at that time. Some people find a way to avoid it but not me”. To which the moderator replied “What did you do in the army?” “Nothing”, Jovanotti said getting a big laughter from the audience. “Literally nothing. Supposed to be in the tank, please don’t make me touch any buttons… Anyway I went to New York after the military but it was like coming back to it, not discovering it for the first time”.
Goldman asked him how he started making music and how he was able to bring rap and hip hop to Italy. Jovanotti said, “I started as deejay because I wanted to make music but I didn’t want to learn how to play an instrument. I would see my big brother spending hours studying how to play guitar, I didn’t want to do that. So my producer at the time was doing dance that’s how I came to sing in English. Italy has a big tradition of dance producers, think of Claudio Simonetti. Then when the time for a second album came my producer told me I should sing in Italian because my way of communicating, which was already big, would be enhanced if people could also understand the words. But the songs for that album were a mix of rock, hip hop, dance. They were made of slogans, they way I chose words was if they would be good on a t-shirt”.
“Then they became political, commenting on social issues and sometimes they got you even in hot waters”, prompted the interviewer.
“Yeah but I didn’t do it because of that. I always did what I felt was right at the time, not because of the political impact. The thing with Drop the debt for example; I wrote to Geldolf saying that I was an Italian Super Star [laughter]. I actually said that [more laughter], that I would like to associate my voice, lend my megaphone to that message. It’s always easy to speak about what was not achieved but harder to speak about what was achieved. Even though the primary goal was not reached a lot was accomplished with hospitals being built, parts of Africa where children now can go to school. Now it’s harder because with the global crisis people don’t want to hear about others problems, other countries’ poverty”.
Jovanotti is always been on the front line of helping those who were in trouble. From the audience came the question about the song he wrote with the help of about 60 other Italian artists to raise funds and rebuild the city of L’Aquila, struck by a devastating earthquake. “I wanted to do something so I called Giuliano Sangiorgi of Negramaro and told him I wanted to record a song but I wanted everybody to come the same day in the same room, not by phone or by email. We wrote the music in one day and the second day we got the lyrics down. And they all came but because in Italy there’s this bad tradition of stealing we wanted to control the money, make sure they were gonna go where they were supposed to. So we attached it to a specific task, the rebuild of the church in this case. We were probably over controlling it and that’s why the money got stuck for three years but it was necessary to ensure they will get it. And honestly the money was not the reason why we did it. You know, when somebody in your family goes through a tragedy or something bad happens you make a call, you send a txt, let them know you’re there for them. That was our txt. Saying I’m with you”.
Although Jovanotti’s influences have often been linked to the Beastie Boys and the hip hop from the Eighties two names came up in the conversation: Bob Dylan and Frank Sinatra. Two voices that mean everything for Jovanotti “And Dylan is still relevant today, his latest album is excellent”. He has often collaborated with artist from different countries and he has a special relationship with Michael Franti and Ben Harper. “How it came to be was nothing magical, really. I was a fan of Michael’s music and through common friends, I knew somebody who knew somebody who could get to him, I sent an email saying – do you want to collaborate with an Italian artist? – Simple as that. No magic; although sometimes an e-mail can be said to be magical. I’m still surprised when I can send a finished song with an email. We now have a sort of brotherhood. Sometimes we find out that we were listening to the same music at the same moment without knowing each of us was doing that. With Ben Harper I also have a strong connection. He is somebody who can make a blues album and the next one is a rock album and the problem is that they don’t know what section of the music store to put it. Here they need to put a label. They wanna know who you are, what do you do, and why. And how much you’re making. That question is not so much asked in Italy. In fact Ben has a bigger following in Europe where the diversity is more appreciated than here”. Then he cracked a joke “In Italy we don’t put the cds in the store by genre, we just put them in alphabetical order”.
When the moderator opened the conversation to the crowd I got to ask a couple of questions myself. What I wanted to know was as Jovanotti’s audience in United States grows bigger does he think there will be space for a bigger production instead of small shows, to which somebody else in the auditorium even suggested the Hollywood Bowl.
“I would like it, I’m not saying no to it. In the future who knows, but right now I like playing small clubs, with no setlist, all improvised, we rent drums and other instruments on the spot. I like the idea of going with the flow, feel the room even if it means lose money for the time being”. The second question I asked was in regards of the upcoming collection titled Back Up, set for release in November in Italy. If one of the dvds would include the historical Jovanotti-Carboni tour, something a lot of fans have been craving for years. Jovanotti said, “The two dvds, one includes all my appearances on tv. It’s a blob of all my appearances. The other one is a collection of videos, so it will not include the Jovanotti-Carboni tour”.
Another important question was posed by good friend Vladi, who asked “Since you started your career singing in English, why not sing in English in United States?”
The answer was even more interesting, “When the time comes. Now it’s not that time. Because I don’t want to translate the songs, I wanna be able to write directly in English and especially my songs translated, they don’t have the same impact, not because my songs are the best, on the contrary it is probably my limitation in song writing. One day perhaps”. Jovanotti’s song writing, I assure, is excellent but it’s true that there’s a lot to be lost in translation.
The night concluded with an acoustic performance, accompanied by his guitar, “I’m not a guitar player, think of this like a group of friends gathered on the beach around the fire”, of some of the songs included in Italia 1988-2012, the aforementioned cd ATO Records released for the American market.
Piove, Sulla Frontiera, an astonishing stripped down version of La porta è aperta, Serenata Rap, Come parli l’Italiano, Mezzogiorno were the songs played.