Carmen Consoli: intellectual rocker, Italian flavour

Article published on Aug. 17, 2015
Article published on Aug. 17, 2015

Italian singer-songwriter Carmen Consoli has always broken the mould - from being first female artist to play in Rome's Stadio Olimpico, she's also founded her own label and become a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador. A glimpse of this passionate, complex and intellectual artist. 

Carmen Consoli belongs to that breed of artists who actually have something to say that's worth listening to. Her signature sound was developed over a career spanning more than twenty years and a discography comprising fifteen albums. It follows in the steps of traditional Italian singer-songwriters, yet distinguishes itself for its guitar-driven melody, at times rock, at times more gentle. Her voice, low and warm, spells words in ways often more suited to the melody than the grammar, like a poet putting words to music.

Her contribution to music also comes in the form of the record company she owns, Narciso Records. That is an enterprise, she says, that creates more in terms of expenses than returns, but in cultural terms it gives her an enormous satisfaction, contributing to the creation of a certain cultural movement, as she puts it.

Her latest album, L’abitudine di tornare, includes ten songs dealing with issues ranging from cheating, young love, violence against women, mafia, and immigration. As part of the tour, she performs on stage with two other women (no gender politics about it, she says: they were simply very talented people who happen to be women - though she’s all about helping women, too), her concerts taking place all over Italy and Europe. We had a chat with an artist who's surely worth an addition on your iPod, Italian or not:

Tell us about the album title, L'abitudine di tornare, which can be loosely translated with The habit of returning. What does that mean to you?

An Italian philosopher, Gian Battista Vico, had developed a cyclical theory of history, in which he thought of history as a cycle, thus we can learn from the past to avoid making the same mistakes. From my perspective, I strongly believe that we come back to things, in good and bad - for instance, my song is about a man who keeps coming back both to his lover and to his wife. I wanted to extend this theme to the idea that at the end, people always return - you travel long and far but eventually you keep coming back to the starting point. I always wish for a return that implies a change during its course. If we go back to our daily routine, we'll see it with new eyes - that's what the abitudine di tornare means to me - coming back to things with new eyes.

Which place do you like going back to?

I enjoy coming back to Sicily. When I travel, I leave my beloved city, Catania, for years at times... But when I come back I come back with new eyes, different eyes. Seeing other places allows me to appreciate what I had, which has stayed the same, while I have changed. I always leave with a suitcase of roots - my identity, but this identity unravels and through different trips it becomes embedded with new human experiences, which inspire new ideas, new creations - as it happens with medicine too, where the union of different minds can find cures for terrible diseases.

What differences do you find in playing at home in Italy and abroad?

The difference is more like between playing in Catania and anywhere else! In Catania I have all my friends, my mother, my family, so it's always a house party! In the rest of the world it feels like a house party too, but one with different friends coming from all over. Playing in different places always gives me that feeling of excitement, whether I play in Asti (ed. a small town in Northern Italy) or in London.

Can you tell us about a performance that particularly moved you?

Whenever I get onstage, I always try to be extremely motivated. I don't want to give a performance "with the left hand" as we say in Italy - every concert I do has to be it, because I am deeply thankful to the music, and I want every performance to be intense. I remember a few performances that have affected me deeply, I guess one of them is the one I did in Ethiopia, where I was part of a festival celebrating Bob Marley. I remember I sang L'ultimo bacio (ed. The Last Kiss, the main score of a 2001 Italian film of the same title) and two other Italian songs, with an audience that was mostly African-American or Ethiopian. No one could really understand the lyrics, but there I understood the power of music, carrying its message through even without speaking the language of the country.

Why do you think Italian singer-songwriters are so successful abroad?

I think Italian singer-songwriters represent Italy's origins. Italy's origins are rooted in melody, in the way you use harmonies, it's always a beautiful cultural heritage. I also really enjoy Italian folk music - so the music from Italy's different regions, the Neapolitan, the Sicilian, to name a few. Music is enjoyable also because it allows you to get to know the world through a different language. I think a lot of Italian singer-songwriters could make a British person feel the flavour of pasta alla carbonara with just one song!

But what about translations? Which song should we translate from your album to have an idea of current issues in Italy?

I wouldn't think it necessary to translate songs about current affairs, these topics affect the whole world. The whole world is sick with ignorance. All the bad stuff we see - it's because we are swimming in a sea of ignorance. The strong feel entitled to prevail over the weak, because of this neo-fascist law that is now everywhere - some places more than others, but in the end the worship of money decides everyone's and everything's fate. I can talk about mafia, but the mafia is also that which declares, for instance, war at the expense of a people for their own interests. Those who said they were going to save people from dictatorships, to set them free, are now unwilling to help them. Now these migrants knock on Sicily's doors asking for help, but no one cares. Indifference and insensibility are prominent more or less everywhere. I would advise instead a song by Franco Battiato that talks about love, called Tutto l'universo obbedisce all'amore (ed. The Whole Universe Obeys Love). For me, that should be the main motivator - not money, but love.

YouTube: Carmen Consoli - L'Abitudine Di Tornare

Carmen Consoli plays at Meltdown Festival, at London's Southbank Centre on August 21st.