The Sicilian singer and songwriter Carmen Consoli has called herself “una piccola cantantessa” — a little girl singer — but now that she’s 35, the self-deprecating diminutive hardly fits anymore. Then again, maybe it never did. Since she released her debut album, Dueparole, in 1996, Consoli has been a formidable artist with big ideas and ambitions, and the talent to realize them.
Italy’s leading female singer-songwriter, Consoli has been gradually building a following in the United States, with appearances at showcase venues like Joe’s Pub in Manhattan and rock festivals like South by Southwest. In 2007, she performed at Central Park’s Delacorte Theater, home to the New York Shakespeare Festival. Her January 2010 show at City Winery in Manhattan sold out, further evidence that Consoli is making inroads in the U.S. market.
Raves from other musicians haven’t hurt, either. After catching her and her band at Joe’s Pub, Elvis Costello remarked that Consoli “played more original musical ideas in her first three songs than most American, or for that matter, English bands manage in a whole evening” (as quoted by Jim Bessman in Global Rhythm, 3/13/07).
Consoli is a gifted lyricist with a woman-centric viewpoint and a musician equally adept at tender, introspective ballads and fierce, roiling rockers. With her powerful voice that can go from a breathy purr to a Joplin-esque wail, and her strong stage presence, Consoli cuts a compelling figure on recordings and in concert. She also can be alluringly subtle, exuding a slow-burn sensuality.
She’s given reign to the latter side of her musical personality in recent years, releasing, in 2006, Eva contro Eva, an album that was a major departure from her previous work. Instead of electric guitars and rock grooves, Consoli created something new — a pan-Mediterranean folk-rock with acoustic guitars, mandolins, violins, accordions, bouzoukis, and even a string quartet. The tempos were slow to medium, and Consoli’s vocals were more conversational than declamatory.
The change in direction continues on Elettra, Consoli’s latest release. Like its predecessor, Elettra is a concise work, 10 songs in some 40 minutes. It also sounds much like Eva,” with mainly acoustic instrumentation and stylistic influences drawn from Sicilian and other Mediterranean folk music.
In an October 2009 interview with Panorama magazine, Consoli said that although “Eva contro Eva is the direction that I want to follow,” the new album is focused more on lyrics than on sonic exploration. (She sings in Italian and Sicilian dialect, but in concert she introduces the songs in fluent English.) What’s most on her mind is women’s lives and experience, including their complicated relationships with men – lovers, fathers, and uncles.
The album’s opening track, “Mandaci una cartolina” (“Send Us a Postcard”) was inspired by the sudden death of her father Giuseppe last year. Though there’s obviously deep feeling in the words, there’s also irony. Death is likened to an unplanned holiday, a surprise vacation. Consoli wonders, “Of all the days on which you could’ve left / why did you think of Monday?” Then, she asks him to, “send us a postcard and a nice photo of you taking the sun on the beach.”
There are no warm feelings, ironic or direct, on “Mio Zio” (“My Uncle”). The narrator recalls the eponymous uncle, now dead, as a sexual abuser who used to put “his greedy hands between my legs.” But the niece’s revelation of the abuse brought her only disbelief and scorn. Here the music is more agitated, angrier, reminiscent of “Matilde odiava i gatti” (“Matilda Used to Hate Cats”), Consoli’s memorable portrait of explosive female rage from her 2002 album, L’Eccezione.
The album’s title character is not the Elektra of Greek mythology, who instigated her brother to matricide. Instead she’s a prostitute who, though she practices a trade that subjects her to “indignant gazes”, is moved by genuine emotion and passion. She craves a lover who will “embrace me, in the light of day.”
Though Consoli has said that words and stories are central to Elettra, the music is as sophisticated and captivating as her lyrics. Backed mostly by members of her excellent touring band, Consoli sings with warmth, subtlety and vivid emotion. On “’A Finestra” (“At the Window”), her staccato phrasing and earthy timbre recall the great Sicilian folksinger (and Consoli role model) Rosa Balestrieri.
Consoli displays her chops on electric guitar, bouzouki, and bass on “Marie ti amiamo” (“Marie, We Love You”), co-written with the Sicilian composer Franco Battiato. Sung in Arabic, Italian, and French by Consoli, Battiato, and guest vocalist Said Benmenni, “Marie”, with its allusive lyrics and pan-Mediterranean ambiance, provides some of Elettra’s most arresting moments.
Cerebral and passionate, tender and angry, inward looking but acutely attuned to social realities, Carmen Consoli’s Elettra captures a remarkable artist at a crucial stage in her career. The former “piccola cantantessa” is now mature, but still evolving, rooted in a particular place and culture yet universal in her concerns and, as I like to think, in her appeal.