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There is indeed a sense of purpose and freedom to the music; the listener is caught by the soaring vocals and warping, gently rhythmic synths, a little like the steady beat of nature, swaying in tune to music and creation. […] The music is profound and simply gorgeous.
Hailing from Milan, Italy, Maddalena Ghezzi is a London-based singer, composer and improviser. Passionate and curious about using her voice in creative ways, she has been working in the field of jazz, improvised and experimental music since moving to the UK in 2009. Her work draws inspiration from the natural world, literature, visual arts and the socio-political status of our world.
As a leader she has released four EPs, Amethyst (Thodoris Ziarkas), Halite (Ed Blunt), Opal (Francesca Naibo) and Emerald (Maria Chiara Argirò, supported by Help Musicians) part of her series Minerals, and one album, Eŭropo:sen limoj (Europe With No Borders), with her band FUWAH.
Maddalena has performed her projects at Milan Jazz Festival, the Southbank Centre, Vortex Jazz Club, the Hundred Years Gallery, and more.
We caught up with Maddalena to talk about her solo and band work, inspiration, different projects and much more.
Hi Maddalena, so nice catching up with you! Congratulations on all the work you’re doing; we see you exploring many great projects including collaborations, band work, and more.. How do you manage to balance such varied and rewarding work you’re doing?
I work on what I am interested in and at the moment this is an eclectic mix. I am enjoying the process of creating in so many different ways but sometimes it is hard to give a clear picture of who I am and what kind of music I do. Recently talking to my Help Musician’s fund mentor, Justin mcKenzie (Jazz re:freshed), we have tackled the eclectic artist approach and what does that look like in my case. I have been very thankful to this exchange with Justin because before that I was thinking: “do I really always have to make these unusual choices?”. I don’t have a strong answer on this one but I want to go this way, so I am doing it.
Congratulations on your recent project ‘Minerals’ – we loved it! As you mentioned, it’s a series of various collaborations with the musicians you love. You describe the ‘Minerals’ series as a ‘dual journey’, could you tell us more about it, what ‘dual journey’ means, and how it came about?
I believe collaborating is enriching not only on a musical level but also on a personal, more emotional level, in this sense it is a dual journey to me. Musically, I like what sprouts when creatives are put together in a room and when we have the luxury of exchanging without genre boundaries and time constraints. On an emotional level, I have learnt loads about how I approach a collaboration, what to expect, how to communicate with different people and how to wait. Sometimes it has been hard to wait, I am not a very patient person. Some collaborations just worked so smoothly and some others didn’t, two were interrupted. One because we didn’t have much to share, the other for a deep disagreement. In collaboration there are so many things to manage or accept: egos, expectations, schedules… When sharing ideas sometimes it is hard to balance listening to oneself and listening to one’s collaborator. But ultimately listening to the music, this might sound a bit weird but sometimes I have the feeling the music gets there first. I mean, it kind of cuts though our structures and veils and tells you: “hey, this is a good path or no don’t go that way.” Getting to the mastering of this act is hard and it requires work on oneself musically and emotionally. Hence this duality.
The ‘Minerals’ series is built on numerous collaborations; how easy was it to connect and work with a variety of artists, and what is the secret to mastering the art of collaboration?
I am trying to get to the secret, I am definitely not there yet. A lot of respect, patience and knowing when to let go and say: “you know what, you were right on this one!”. Also I find knowing one’s place is essential. I often find myself undermining my points of view and thinking I am wrong. Recognising that sometimes this is not the case, it is essential.
I think the act of connecting with people is hard to master because it is related to where we are coming from emotionally ourselves. I do a lot of practice on this. I like connecting with others and finding ways to open up and feel comfortable with one another. It takes work. A London drummer and friend Cosimo Keita Cadore told me once, that it’s all about rhythm, one would expect this from a drummer but he is so right, it is about locking in with someone and finding the beat that works. Obviously it is not always possible and even when I have not succeeded in the process of collaboration I have learnt a lot both musically and emotionally.
Additionally to your studies in jazz singing you’ve also explored and learned many singing styles (Mongolian throat singing, Yiddish and Russian songs, Maquam music, and more). How have these experiences shaped you as a vocalist?
I love the voice and how flexible it is as an instrument. I love how different sounds feel in my mouth. When I sing I always feel like my voice is drawing a path in my body. Scratching the surface of all these different approaches to singing has helped me to better understand my palette of sounds. When I was a kid I used to imitate people’s way of talking and record them on a tape machine to my parent’s delight. I think I haven’t lost that approach. Also I love languages and the way humans master different sounds according to where they grew up. Some can master so many sounds and that it is intriguing to me. English is my second language and I studied Mandarin Chinese, I have sung in French, Spanish, Japanese, Hungarian and more…when I prepare a concert in a language I am not familiar with I often find a speaker of that language and sit down for a bit to try to get closer to the specific sounds of that specific language. This is something I love doing, it is a form of encounter too.
While your expertise is in jazz, and even though jazz is already an open genre where improvisation and exploration is core, you’re not afraid to incorporate electronic and experimental music into your work. How did you decide to combine these two areas and do you feel that both of them have a similar approach?
I love jazz from the classics to the more experimental. I love the jazz approach to improvisation and I am inspired by the connection jazz has with protest, rights and the experience of Black people. Jazz has definitely shown me that it is possible to improvise and has been an entry point to experimentation. I have been studying this tradition and I keep on feeling very attached to it and in awe of it. I like the sweet spot between jazz, contemporary classical and experimentation. I also love rap and hip hop and I love the way rappers approach storytelling.
I love the music of Björk, Sara Serpa, Meredith Monk, Jeanne Lee, Jean Grae, Sathima Bea Benjamin, Matana Roberts, Milford Graves, Ennio Morricone… I think all these composers have influenced me in some way or another.
At the moment I am listening to classical, contemporary and baroque composers. I find it crazy that I didn’t approach these genres before and was not exposed to them in my music upbringing both in Italy and the UK. Loads of learning to do! I think I am most interested in what’s the story I want to tell, whether it is a sci-fi feminist story like in Emerald or a tale of finding clarity like in Opal, then I am not too fussed about which genres or whether I use electronics or not.
Some people say that improvisation is composing ‘in the moment’ and also refer to composing as potentially improvising ‘slowly’. What connection do you feel exists between improvisation and composition?
In my practice and understanding of music, improvisation and composition are super connected. I like the idea of improvisation as composing in the moment. It is so true! Also I like to have improvisation as a starting point for composition. I love limitations too, when one sets some rules to an improvisation to restrict the free flow, sometimes this really helps creativity. I like when composition has improvisational moments and vice versa. One of the things that I love the most is seeing and hearing how other musicians compose, how they access their creative ideas and how they share them with others. Everyone has got their path, and in a creative medium like music I think it is only fair that we accept so many different ways to tell stories whether written, improvised, drawn, embodied…
My interest in composing in different ways, scoring using different methods (from graphic scores to rolling dice and numbers…) and improvisation is one of the reasons why I started my series Minerals.
Despite working within different group projects, you’re also an acclaimed soloist artist in your own right; how do you integrate your solo experience into collaborative work and vice versa?
I have only done a little solo work, mainly during the pandemic and mainly paired with videos. Those works have helped me to make sense of what was going on in me and also to spend time with myself.
My series Mineral is an externalisation of a process that is going on within, I want to find strength in writing for bigger ensembles and writing for a variety of instruments. So I guess collaboration is leading me towards solo work. When I use the word solo I mean writing for all the instruments in my future ensemble. I am writing something like that at the moment, but it is in its early stages.
I like collaboration and solo work and find excitement and fulfilment in both approaches. I am also learning to balance how much to write and what to leave to improvisation.
We really loved your solo work ‘Loss of Face’, which discusses how the pandemic divided many societies and it’s amazing to see you showing this through music. With so many things happening in the world, as ever, where do you think music/art stands, and how can it help society?
During the pandemic I had the privilege to meet up online weekly with some amazing women composers in a group set up by composer, singer and improviser Sara Serpa. Loss of Face was what resulted from one of our weekly assignments. Creating this short piece of music and video helped me to process my feelings. I think music and art have a pivotal role in our societies and they can help society heal, find new paths and transcend. One of my favourite screenwriter, director and actor, Brit Marling, talks a lot about what are the stories to be told, how to have an ear on the ground and feeling what is pulsating in you and in the wider society. I like this image, I like the idea of creators feeling these things. I also like the idea of societies that take care of creators and cherish their ability to imagine worlds, push new ideas to the surface and lead the way.
I am a singing teacher too in two secondary schools in Hackney and Newham, I feel strongly that my role is to use music as an enabler. This year I am leading The City Academy Hackney choir and I was able to arrange Black Gold by esperanza spalding for the school black history’s celebration concert and to organise a women composers’ recital, which is happening in March, inviting rapper Shunaji to school for a workshop and asking students to perform pieces written by women composers. A big shout out to Terri Lyne Carrington for her super work NEW STANDARDS: 101 LEAD SHEETS BY WOMEN COMPOSERS. This has definitely been a great source of inspiration both in my practice and in schools. It helps to be a working artist. I find it fulfilling to bring into schools what’s happening in the music world, particularly ear opening ideas and opportunities.
It’s inspiring to see you being an eclectic spirit – you courageously touch such controversial topics as intersectionality, feminism, etc. Why is it important for you to talk about it in your music work?
Because I am trying to figure all these things out myself and music is my way to do it. I was taught that we can all contribute to change, even a little. I like that concept. So I think music is my way to find a voice and help address things. Eŭropo:sen limoj (Europe without borders), my work with my band FUWAH, was my first attempt to include a more women led narrative, all the lyrics are by women writers. Then I met Sara Serpa and I started opening up to a more inclusive feminism thanks to exchanges of articles, being part of This Is A Movement, seeing what a collective like Mutual Mentorship For Musicians can do for women in music.
All of these experiences taught me that I can also be the facilitator, the person that opens doors for others, that includes women and non binary musicians in my bands etc. It is hard to be a woman in music, there are many barriers and I sometimes feel women are promised change but actual support and change doesn’t often happen. There is great work being done by institutions but I think more can be done. I am very keen to keep on talking about these topics because I believe that the more inclusive music is, the more diverse stories we hear being played, the more we all win.
With so many projects going on in your musical career, some might experience what is called an ‘artist’s block’. It’d be interesting to hear where you draw your inspiration from.
I am not sure I have ever experienced an artist block as such. Tiredness is definitely the enemy of my creative process and finding time. So rest is essential and having down time in nature. But I think at this moment in time I found a good balance. Sport and movement help me to keep myself healthy physically and mentally. I do yoga, cycle everywhere and do some mindless workouts. I have a music practice routine and I set up a practice system for myself. Also I have recently been given the opportunity to share a studio, this means that once a week I go outside of my own home to create and experiment with gear. It is the first ever time I have this opportunity and I am looking forward to seeing how this will impact my creativity.
My inspirations come from many different places: conversations with people, books and articles, exhibitions, nature etc.
Chatting with creatives and reading about creatives’ processes is definitely something that gives me loads of insights into how others create and empowers me in my own creative process. I think that blocks can sometimes be eased by diversion, what I mean is. If I feel blocked in a certain field or with a certain idea, instead of carrying on and getting stubborn about that and feeling frustrated that I am not achieving, I put it at the back of my mind and start practising something else or working on something else for a while. It’s like allowing that idea to simmer, let it be for a while and come back to it later. Also asking for help, I have never been very good at this. Well, in fact I found that when I have asked for help I have often received a great deal of support. But it is important to find a real support network.
In your day to day creative work, you’ve created your own world full of art, music, and writing. What does this world look like on a daily basis, and how can others make it a reality as well?
Sometimes we think that to create we need all so many things. But we don’t. I sing loads of my bike and sometimes I stop and record on my phone the ideas I like. I bring a notebook with me when I go for a walk, or go to the cinema or to exhibitions and gigs. I write, draw, colour and in that mess sometimes I find something good. I read loads and listen to other people’s music. I study and practice regularly, even for five minutes if I have a busy day. I think creating and creativity is a practice and something to cultivate daily in whatever ways one finds conductive. Sara Serpa told me: “Stay with your art daily!”. I find this idea very beautiful and I guess it summarises what I’m trying to do.
One thing that I have always been told is that music cannot be a reality, it is for the few and if you don’t gig 365 days a year you’re not a musician. None of this is true, obviously! As in everything, reality is so much more diverse and interesting than these silly ideas. I think the key is to find a way to be as close and possible to where one wants to be. Have one’s head in the clouds and the feet on the ground. Do the art and learn about the business.
What are your plans for your solo/band work in 2023, in addition to any expanded projects, so that our audience can check out what’s happening for you going forwards?
My next Mineral is going to be a collaboration with bassist Ruth Goller and it is based on our connection with Seiser Alm, an Alpine plateau where Ruth was born and I spent the summers. I have created a 35 minute video for which we are creating the soundtrack.
From Opal, my EP with guitarist Francesca Naibo, a new collaboration has sprouted and it counts Francesca, me and Beatrice Arrigoni. This is an exciting project based in Milan and it is for three voices and a guitar. Elena Cornaggia is an Italian poet who has asked us to put her work into music. So far this has been a very exciting work under the supervision of Luca Xelius, our producer, and taking place at Nitön Lab, an incredible creative experimentation studio in Varese. This is the first time for me working with a producer and I am finding the experience very enriching. Also this project is helping me to reconnect with singing in Italian.
Finally, where can people come and listen to your music?
I have a lovely gig coming up in Milan with Francesca Naibo and Beatrice Arrigoni on March 4th at ExAlge.
Also I am in conversation for a couple of gigs presenting my recent EP Emerald with Maria Chiara Argirò and a super guest.
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