PopMatters Books Editor
How does a musician release 13 albums, sell roughly 2,000,000 copies of each, record with the likes of B.B. King and Eric Clapton, headline the biggest charity events on the planet, and still remain practically unknown outside his own home continent? It’s not that American audiences are entirely unfamiliar with Zucchero, it’s just that beyond his native Italy and surrounding European countries, the singer is kind of a blurred memory of the “I think I know who you mean” variety. America’s blues devotees might disagree, but, on the whole, success in the world’s biggest musical market has, for the most part, eluded Zucchero.
With any luck, the release of Zucchero & Co. will change that. Out in the UK since last year, Zucchero and Co. is an album of Zucchero’s duets with King and Clapton, along with Andrea Bocelli and Luciano Pavarotti, Sting, Sheryl Crow, Dolores O’Riordan, Miles Davis, Vanessa Carlton, John Lee Hooker, and others. It’s been repackaged and tweaked (duets from the original release with more UK-based artists have been dropped) to appeal to American audiences.
The tweaking comes courtesy of Zucchero himself, and the Starbucks/Hear Music initiative. Concord Records and Starbucks made the same deal with Zucchero that helped find audiences for Ray Charles’s Genius Loves Company and Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill: Acoustic. Zucchero & Co. has been on sale in Starbucks coffee houses since mid-July. It’s already selling well, and time will tell as to whether or not it reaches Ray and Alanis heights. Zucchero hopes so, but not for self-promotional reasons. It’s time, he told PopMatters from his home in Italy, that America finally acquaints itself the surfeit of musical joys Italy has on offer.
“The world thinks that Italy is only melodic, romantic songs or traditional songs with mandolin, so it would be great [if this album helped chance that view]. For an Italian artist, it is not easy to be distributed properly in the United States. We don’t have many examples of artists, apart from someone that is coming from lyrical opera, like Bocelli or Pavarotti, but that is another kind of stuff. Is not easy to make something happen in America—it is very difficult as a market. So, I’m very pleased and I am very surprised and very happy about what is going on [with Starbucks]. It is the first time in my career that I’ve had this exposure. “
Though predominantly categorized as a blues artist, Zucchero’s style is not overly bluesy. His voice has a distinct croaky cadence and his songs, more often than not, evoke a deeply-felt sadness with concentrations on struggles in love and life, but his Mediterranean roots seep into every tune, shifting his style of blues into the pop/rock area, and sometimes a more neo-classical opera mode.
“There are two parts in me,” Zucchero says. “When I grow up, there was two different souls in me, one is blues, the other one is Puccini or Verdi—opera—so that’s why the mixing together is something different because I have the rhythm, or the roots, for the [blues] sound but at the same time I have Italian melody, especially in my ballads.”
Zucchero & Co. is really an exhibition of the best of Zucchero, with the added bonus of familiar voices in accompaniment. The collaborating artists, though as much a part of the collection as Zucchero, don’t sway its focus. Indicative of the singer’s ability to merge with practically any musical style is just how comfortably the album’s songs fit together. Alongside the more internationally recognized artists, Zucchero & Co. also features Mexican band Man´ on the excellent “Baila Morena” and Algerian performer Cheb Mami on “Cosí Celeste”. Zucchero’s vocals work as a guide through these alternating styles of music, seamlessly linking them. On a listen right through the album, distinctions otherwise so clear between Sheryl Crow, Dolores O’Riordan and Cheb Mami disappear. The effect is breathtaking.
Performing and writing songs with such diverse artists, Zucchero says, is natural for him because his own songwriting considers so many styles. “That’s why I put together this album. For example, there is a track with Pavarotti and Bocelli, and there are tracks with Eric Clapton, B.B. King, and Solomon Burke and Macy Gray. Even Miles Davis.”
Zucchero credits his appreciation for world music and desire to use all his influences in his songwriting for his winning fans across the musical spectrum, including Miles Davis. “When Miles Davis came to Italy on tour and he heard ‘Dune Mosse’ on the radio, he fell in love with it. It’s a blues tune, but it’s got Mediterranean melodies and he was influenced, at the time, by Mediterranean music.”
Is there any distinction between Italian blues and American blues? “The blues is the blues; the soul is everywhere. I think that even for an Italian artist, if your soul is in the blues you can make good blues. I love black music, I love soul, I love blues. I grew up with this kind of music, with Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles. I don’t know why since when I was very young I loved this music and I played this music with my first bands.”
With Zucchero & Co., the singer clearly aims to showcase world blues and lyrical opera, but he says the album’s pop elements are key to introducing music lovers to these other genres. “There are a lot of opera artists that cross over between pop and opera, and [Italy has] a lot of artists that are rock or pop artists. It would be great if [American audiences] start to be impressed not only in opera regarding Italian music, but other styles. I remember when I was playing in a stadium in Italy, I took [Andrea] Bocelli with me and he was completely unknown and he sing for the first time with me—“Miserere”, which is between pop and opera—the young people that didn’t listen to opera, they was very impressed and they start to be confident with opera also.”
“Miserere”, featuring Bocelli and Luciano Pavarotti, is included on the CD. How does Zucchero feel about his discovery—Bocelli—finding the American audience that has eluded him? “You know I don’t want to be a talent scout, but sometimes when I find someone very talented and very unique and different, if it’s possible to give him a chance, why not? I’m very happy and very proud to find someone young—a great musician or singer that I can write a song for and help him in a way.”
As well as finding common ground with Bocelli, Zucchero says that the biggest thrill in recording duets with big name artists has been their humility. He considers it almost a lesson for him in how to deal with the pressures of fame. The music, he discovered, transcends fame and money and record company pressures. In the studio, collaboration is about respect for the music and the music maker. “I was lucky to work with people that are very beautiful and good human beings. Very simple, very straight, not many managers around or record companies involved. So if [the artists] likes to do something they don’t need to ask anybody, and that is for exactly what happened with Eric Clapton, with Bono, with Pavarotti, and all the artists that are, more or less, on the album. I understand that they are big but in the meantime they are still humble and very simple, very pure in a way.”
Zucchero’s first foray into musical collaboration was in 1988 with Miles Davis—no doubt a trial by fire. Was it intimidating working with Miles? “Of course, because I was at the beginning of my career. For me, as a musician, to have a chance for an icon like Miles Davis to play on one of my songs was something unique and unbelievable.”
Unique, too, he says, is the feeling derived from hearing new interpretations of his songs from performers like Davis, but contemporary artists like Sheryl Crow (on “Blue”, the album’s most gorgeous track) and Macy Gray (on “Like the Sun (From Out of Nowhere)”) as well. “Macy Gray gave to the song something completely unexpected. The song became very sensual, very modern. I was surprised when she came out with this way to sing my song. Even Sheryl Crow did a great interpretation of ‘Blue’.”
Still, Zucchero says that he was confident magic would happen in the studio because of his appreciation for his singing partners on Zucchero & Co.. “Because I asked to my favorite singers to sing on this album, I knew them very well and I knew that the song could achieve something more.”
Are any of the album’s duets extra-close to his heart? Almost. “Miles Davis and Eric Clapton—they are my two favorite artists on the album, Sting also. Miles Davis, BB King, and Eric Clapton, definitely. And Macy Gray.”
With so many favorite artists and almost all of them lining up to record with him, is there anyone Zucchero desires to duet with? “One of my dreams would be singing with Aretha Franklin. I hope one day for it to happen, because for me she is still the Queen.”