When I first met London-based singer, composer and improviser Maddalena Ghezzi, I was fascinated about the many eclectic interests that inspire her and that converge in her art. I immediately felt a deep connection between us; a common way of wanting to explore the world through our voices and sounds, manipulating them for the pleasure of discovering new artistic universes. Maddalena has an amazing preparation and background. She has performed at Milan Jazz Festival and the Southbank Centre, The Migration Museum London, Vortex Jazz Club and Hundred Years Gallery and many other places. Additionally, she gravitates towards organizations that champion women in music, working toward supporting art and beauty, crossing gender/race boundaries and every sort of limit.
She was featured on online platform “Women Of Music Business” and her work with her trio “Stanza Da Tre” has been covered by the The Islington Gazette. She has released lots of beautiful music that has been picked up by international radio, as well as the major UK stations – including BBC Radio 3, BBC Radio 6, Radio Popolare and RAI Radio 3 (Italy), Pure Jazz Radio and Jazz Is NYC (US). Her latest release “Emerald” – in collaboration with another splendid talent, Maria Chiara Argirò, and supported by Help Musicians – is a pure summa of her musical expression and is part of her series of collaborations with musicians called “Minerals”. Maddalena has strong and intriguing opinions about everything: from being a woman in the music industry to being an immigrant artist whose role is always questioned by society’s standards and expectations and I wanted to share with you all the many thoughts of this beautiful, artistic mind.
Let’s talk about your musical influences and our common love for Jeanne Lee (this was one of the first things we talked about!). Jeanne Lee was an artist that used her voice and vocal improv in a very different way from the usual jazz scat language that we are used to listening to in jazz.
First of all, thank you for having me Germana! I suppose I never kind of thought of myself as the, you know, particularly ‘jazz’ singer so when I found Jeanne Lee, I thought “you can be a jazz singer in this way!”. I think what was powerful for me when I discovered her was her storytelling, as I always found it a little bit difficult to connect to some of the American songbook or jazz standards and I thought that she was really speaking to me…I felt the text as well as the music and her tone. I still remember when I first listened to her interpretation of “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” (on her album with Mal Waldron): she just immediately grabbed the attention of the audience with the first two notes and I thought “Wow!”. The tune has been sung so many times but the way she interprets it is very unique! Particularly with her, every time I listen to her voice, it is the storytelling that comes to mind. She improvises in such an interesting way, a bit more exploratory compared to others and even her scat to me is still a storytelling kind of scat. There is another singer in the jazz sphere that I love – Sathima Bea Benjamin. Obviously, she and Jeanne Lee approach the music in different ways but the storytelling is so present that I feel captivated by their world – whether they are using lyrics or not – so I just want to know more.
Talking about storytelling, your stories start from sounds and music but also from nature, literature, visual art (I loved your idea of the ‘Concertina Errata…beautiful creation!) But also, socio-political issues. So, tell us about your creative process and how you manage to express a lot of ideas in a few minutes of music.
Well, I try! To me, everything is storytelling. We have a story about everything. Stories are sort of the salt of what we are doing in our lives…almost the salt of the earth. You can tell a story in so many different ways so I’m intrigued about stories that can change our perspective. It could be a story from the point of view of somebody else, somebody that is not you, or the wind, or the water but also stories that give a different narrative.
Recently I was talking to a friend of mine that is absolutely not in the music business but is in the aquaponic business; he is trying to save the world from catastrophes so we were talking about how the storytelling of something to do with climate change, for example, can completely change the approach of people: it can give you an idea of “we’re doomed, that’s it, we’re done” or it can kind of promote wanting to do something and having energy to tackle certain things. Because I’m very aware of this, the way I approach my music is finding the stories that I want to tell; for example, the new music that will come out next year is about the Dolomites, the mountains, and what they meant to me..my latest EP with Maria Chiara (Argiró) was all about reclaiming our spaces as women artists but also having that joy of “I’m gonna dance to it”. I don’t always have to be political and every story can then give the sense of how the music will develop.
Are you always the main character of your stories or do you sometimes become water, fire and other characters?
Recently, as I feel very connected to nature, I’m writing from the point of view of nature’s objects, but it’s quite hard. I try to imagine – for example – what mother fox would say to her little fox…would she say: “look at these weird humans…they definitely talk about oxygen”? You know, I’m intrigued by these relationships that we’ll never really understand. I also started to write a little bit for solo and sampling electronics and those pieces were inspired by books: one is about trees (which are definitely a love of mine!) and the other one is inspired by painting, which is something that I always find extremely intriguing. Thanks to family connections as well as having friends that are in the world of painting, street art and typography, I have a big connection with these worlds and these kinds of things are really inspiring. Painter Edward Hopper, for example, really inspires me and sometimes I find there are no other ways in my mind to tell stories than having an image and trying to make music around that image.
I was very fascinated by your latest solo performance and watching you work with visual scores. Tell us a little about how you approach a solo performance.
You actually saw my first – and so far only – solo performance! I’m not sure if I’m in love with playing solo: it’s great to have full control over your electronics and your voice but also it feels like losing the beautiful connection that is created with other instrumentalists, which is something that I love. I wouldn’t say solo performance would then replace the ensemble performance but it’s definitely a different experience. Also, I think London is a difficult city to find concerts in ensembles, particularly for what concerns fees and ticket selling, so you can’t always play with as many people as you would love to. The idea of a solo performance came out of an offer that I received for a good gig that, however, wouldn’t have been paid enough. I’m always very conscious of asking other professional musicians to play underpaid gigs and I knew that I wanted to get a sampler and have some pieces that can be performed as a solo so I thought to set myself a challenge that would have inspired me artistically, while I was getting rid of a problem. In the end I was thankful because this experience helped me to know my instrument better as a voice but it also pushed me into using a sampler. I feel more courageous now with regards to not only pushing my musical boundaries but also to explore more “unexpected” venues.
“Minerals” is because I was searching for an umbrella term as I embarked on this idea of doing X amount of collaborations; a term that would allow me to say “this is a series and it’s also clear for my audience”. A series of events that are all part of me experimenting within the world of music. I’ve been in bands a lot of times and I enjoy being in a band but I also wanted to find out a little bit more about how I wanted to write, so I wondered, if I was to write from scratch only what I wanted to write, which way would I go? When I was a child, with my father, I had a collection of minerals that we used to buy from the newsagent. We would just go to the newsagent and then home to read about the minerals – I still have the whole collection! It was a regular occurrence and this regularity that I had with a person I love meant a lot to me. More than the minerals in itself, I enjoyed the process and I think that has taught me a lot. I spent a lot of time with a person that I love that since then unfortunately passed and I think the fact that we started this process together and we finished it together, for me was very important: it taught me to start and finish things. I had and have all these collaborations in me, I have these people in mind and I really wanted to see how my music can develop by collaborating with these people; so I embarked on this idea of opening the process, as a mega work in progress – that every collaboration can become a step for me to experiment with a specific instrument, with a specific person, within a specific world of music. With Thodoris Ziarkas, we literally improvised some ideas, we kind of had a rough shape in mind but that was it. With Ed Blunt we played songs and then with Francesca Naibo we composed a song each and then we did two improvisations on specific themes that we gave ourselves. Maria Chiara Argiró was more like “I send a line to you and you send a line to me” because we worked during the various lockdowns. I think of the idea of minerals as something that can endure time, so there’s more of a wish that my research and my music can be longer than my life!
With Maria Chiara Argiro, you’ve released Emerald (which is your latest release and has been supported by Help Musicians) and you’ve described it as a ‘sci-fi feminist EP’ so we need to know more about this definition!
(Ghezzi laughs) So, I love sci-fi movies, books and graphic novels and I follow a lot of women in the world of sci-fi. I really like people like Ursula Le Guin and Octavia Butler (but also men like Brian K Vaughan) and I’m intrigued by everything to do with sci-fi and those stories. Brit Marlings’ movies to me are very important! “A sci-fi feminist EP” because when we wrote these tunes, to me they’re a bit sci-fi..I don’t really know how to explain this but they are a little bit like “parallel universe” things. The title of the EP with Maria Chiara is “Land briefly on the outside of the flower”; the phrase is not by me but by Ross Gay, a writer whose books I really love. He’s a fantastic writer and very positive, he’s got a lot of hope in nature, he’s a gardener – which is something that I enjoy – and “Land briefly on the outside of the flower”, gave me the idea of somebody sitting on the outside of a ginormous flower, in a flower forest, during the night. Maria Chiara uses a lot of like bendy and kind of detuned synthesisers and that brings to life the idea of the petals going up and down in the breeze. For the second song, ‘On the Outside’, I collaborated with artists’ collective Libri Finti Clandestini and Tanguy Bombonera.
I don’t like the narrative that sometimes feminists are boring and that for them it’s all about problems; they can’t have a party or a laugh and “On the Outside” for me was a sort of ‘eye from space’, looking into our world: a world in which there was no patriarchy or limitations for women, in which you can have short hair and you wouldn’t be told that you are not in contact with femininity – which has happened to me. In that world, you would be who you want to be, embrace the gender that you want to and no one would have a problem with that; like, there wouldn’t even be a conversation about it. It’s almost the world that we are sort of building but these things are already there: it’d be the world that we are living in right now but without that veil that sometimes it feels like it is blocking some people. That, in a sense, is me imagining this and it goes back to storytelling: I wanted to tell a story in which this veil had been taken off already. Particularly these women in sci-fi; to me they are very inspirational because they create books that are going really deep into things to do with gender and equality as well as parallel worlds.
This is an excerpt from an interview originally published in the Women in Jazz Media July 2023 magazine. Click here to read the full interview.
Last modified: August 28, 2023