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Levante Rising: From Barista to International Pop Star

The Italian singer-songwriter captured the national mood in her breakout single. With a new album and US tour dates, she's about to go international.

"What a shitty life!"

When Italian pop singer Levante sang those words (che vita di merda!) in "Alfonso", her 2013 smash hit, she caught the mood of her generation and her country. The song dominated the airwaves and social media that summer, and for good reason. It's a totally infectious piece of pop-rock, but there are dark undercurrents to its surface sunniness. Levante sings about a boring birthday party, where she doesn't even know the titular guest -- but she wishes the "asshole" a happy birthday anyway.

The party people are today's Italy, aimless and uncertain, wanting to enjoy la dolce vita but joblessness, political corruption, and economic stagnation are spoiling the fun. Levante sings that if there's a "train" she'll probably "jump on the tracks". The double entendre refers to a conga line but it also suggests suicide, while additionally bringing to mind the scene of decadent Roman partygoers forming a "train" to nowhere in a film released the same year as Levante's hit single, Paolo Sorrentino's La Grande Bellezza (The Great Beauty).

So Levante sings, "It's the year 2013, drinks in my hand... and nothing more. What a shitty life!"

It's no mean feat to capture the sour mood of a generation and a nation in a metaphor-rich, hooky pop tune. But as she proved with her debut album, Manuale Distruzione (Destruction Manual), she's no one-trick pony. The album, which entered the top ten in Italy in 2014, signaled the arrival of a distinctive tunesmith and lyricist, as well as a captivating singer whose style melds Italian folk and pop and Anglo-American indie rock. Her tunes are so catchy and her vocals are so vibrant that language is no barrier to entering her musical world.

Levante (the name means both "east", as in the Levant, and "rising") was born Claudia Lagona in Catania, Sicily. She often sounds like another artist from that eastern Sicilian city, Carmen Consoli, who, since the late '90s, has been Italy's leading female singer-songwriter. Levante, 27, cites Consoli's Mediamente Isterica as the album that changed her life. Besides Consoli, she counts Italian pop diva Mina, Tori Amos, and Janis Joplin among her muses.

Levante took up songwriting in her early teens to deal with two painful experiences, her father's death, and her family's relocation from sunny Catania, on Sicily's Ionian coast, to the industrial, northern city of Turin. After a sojourn in Leeds studying English so she could write in the language, she returned to Turin, and to writing in Italian. She was working as a barista in Turin when "Alfonso" became the song of the summer two years ago.

This year she will release her second album, Abbi cura di te (Take Care of Yourself) and this month she makes her U.S. performing debut, with two shows at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas (18 and 19 March), followed by appearances in Los Angeles and New York.

When an interviewer asked Levante to describe herself in Twitter's 140 characters, she replied with a series of antinomies: "Good, bad, eclectic, eccentric, shy, friendly, solitary, melancholic, superficial, fucking deep." Nowadays, she might revise that list to include "famous", as the ex-barista is now a recognized figure in her country. In a recent blog post, she recounted an experience she had in the Catania airport: "In just 30 seconds, two bartenders called me 'joy, beauty, mother nature and treasure.' All this while serving me a juice and a coffee."

Whatever else may be going on in Italy, for rising star Levante, life nowadays doesn't sound much like a "vita di merda".

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