Experience Turned to Song: An Interview with Chiara Civello

Jazz is the most incredible diving machine when it comes to going really deep into music. But I knew I couldn’t be the new Ella Fitzgerald; I couldn’t be the new Shirley Horn. I learned all different kinds of music and then I said to myself, ‘I need to find my own voice. Time to unlearn now, time to be free.’ It’s like a hot air balloon: To be able to fly you have to throw off the sandbags. I want to be as light as I can.
— Chiara Civello, Verve Music Group biography

With self-imposed expectations like these, and a clear understanding of their importance in creating sustainable, exceptional jazz, it’s no great shock that Chiara Civello’s debut CD, Last Quarter Moon, sounds like work of a pro. Whether she accepts them or not, comparisons to Ella and Shirley are valid. The same fluidity of expression exists on her record, the same intuitiveness, and ability to surprise in most simple and predictable melodies. These days, Civello’s more likely to find herself compared to Norah Jones and Diana Krall and Lizz Wright, but that’s okay — those women, too, evoke images of Ella, and they’ve all had to start somewhere.

Chiara Civello was born in Rome and moved to Boston in 1994 on scholarship to the Berklee College of Music where she studied under Harold Crook, Ed Tomassi and Jerry Bergonzi. On her own, she studied Mediterranean music, delving so deeply into the sounds of the region that she ended up learning Spanish and Portuguese as a result. It wasn’t until members of her live band began collaborating with Paul Simon and, in turn, Simon’s producer Russ Titelman, that she was able to put her study into practice. Titelman so adored her song “Parole Incerte” that he instructed Civello: “You are a songwriter … You have to write.” Soon, Civello was writing and co-producing Last Quarter Moon, recording backing vocals for James Taylor’s October Road and dueting with Tony Bennett along the way.

A superior start is the best way to describe Civello’s record, as, according to the artist herself, jazz is simply the kick-off point for what she hopes to be a career spanning genres. “I don’t really consider myself a jazz performer; jazz marks my entrance in music,” she recently told PopMatters, listing among her influences Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell. Last Quarter Moon, though considered a jazz release, is flavored with as much folk as jazz, and even manages to slip in some Brazilian beats and a gritty mood or two no doubt inspired by her years on the Boston club scene.

The album’s gloomiest spots are its best, notably “Trouble”, a ballad of broken love co-written with Burt Bacharach, with a killer melody and lyrics to match:

“I can feel you everywhere
You’re like venom in the air
I know the way out of you

Civello’s own writing seems less patterned after the best of Bacharach, rather James Taylor, or even Billy Joel. She has a knack for inserting in her songs strong images to support the more standard love-song lingo. The album’s closer, “I Won’t Run Away”, for instance, has a line about “my tears flow[ing] to you”, but it also describes romantic weakness as such: “All I know is that soon it will snow / When summer is covered / The cold will take over / And freeze the land and anything that grows”.

Same goes for the exquisite “The Wrong Goodbye”, with Civello’s conversational approach seeming to deliberately battle the backing piano, refusing to follow the instrument’s lead. The song is full of images (“If you only knew / How you made my day last night / I walked in surprised / You looked like a movie star / Spilling all your beauty in people’s glasses”), with no distinct melody through its verses. Here Civello’s lilts, the breaking notes completing her couplets, work like rhymes tying the complex verses to a simple chorus (“All I have is one request tonight / Please don’t send me home with the wrong goodbye”).

Civello’s ear for melody is her best asset on the album’s non-English tracks, including “Ora”, “Samboroma”, and the standout, “In Questi Giorni”. There’s a meditative quality to the songs, which is as much about getting lost in the sounds rather than stumbling over lyrical meaning as it is testament to Civello’s skills at song construction. As affecting as these songs are even if you don’t know what they’re all about, Civello’s phrase-turns in her English songs make translation of these a prospect too exciting to overlook — though, trust me, a better source might be needed than Babelfish. For now, I’m content with the mystery.

In July, Civello returns home to Italy for a selected number of shows, including several at the renowned Umbria Jazz Festival where she will share billing with Elton John and Diana Ross. “You have to be prepared to feel lonely,” she says of touring, but with upbeat optimism, she can’t help but find harmony in even the darkest corners: “But loneliness is a great place to start a song.” Civello spoke briefly to PopMatters on her way to Japan to promote and perform songs from Last Quarter Moon.

PopMatters: What’s your favorite song?

Chiara Civello: Well … “Moon River”. First of all I love Breakfast at Tiffany’s. The scene where Audrey sings by the window? Wow — what a melody Mancini wrote. Not to mention “Huckleberry Friend” — the lyrical genius of Johnny Mercer.

PM: My favorite song on your record is “In Questi Giorni”. Not speaking Italian, I have no idea what it’s about — why do you think songs like this work regardless of language and a listener’s understanding? Is it important to understand a song’s lyrics, or is reacting to the music enough enjoyable or powerful?

CC: I think that if just the melody can move you, it’s great. It will make it easier for the lyrics to come. I grew up listening to music without knowing what the lyrics meant, so I guess this translated into my writing, by letting me always start with composing the music first. All power to melody. Melody can move mountains.

PM: Can you put into words what it was about jazz that made you want to be a jazz performer?

CC: I don’t really consider myself a jazz performer. I can say that jazz marks my entrance in music. I studied jazz at Berklee [College of Music] for a while and loved it obsessively until I felt the urge to explore different styles of music, music from different parts of the world, more representative of the times and place I live in, like New York, the city where you find 20 different ethnical roots in one subway car.

PM: Why is jazz important?

CC: Jazz is important because it’s a manifestation of freedom, and this is the element I decided to keep in my music … freedom.

PM: Your bio notes you studied the writing styles of Bob Dylan and James Taylor. Was this a deliberate study? What did this do, in the end, for your songwriting?

CC: Everything in music comes from an intuition, from a strong feeling taking over you. Just like when I wanted to learn jazz, I transcribed the jazz masters’ solos until I got the vocabulary and developed my own sense, when I realized I was inevitably being drawn to writing songs, the best thing I did was hearing how the masters developed their craft through their records — a long research until I found my own voice.

PM: Do you have a language preference? Do you prefer to compose in your native language? What different challenges do writing in different languages present?

CC: I don’t have a preference. When I write a song I always start from the music. Once the music is complete or almost complete it dictates what language the lyrics will be in. Italian is more suitable to certain melodies and English to others. The same for Spanish and Portuguese.

PM: What was behind your decision to include Italian and English songs on your album?

CC: Well, I am Italian, and I have lived in the US for 10 years now. So these are my languages … this is how I express myself.

PM: How are you feeling following the album’s release?

CC: I have many different feelings about the release of Last Quarter Moon. It’s my first album and it represents an official step into a deeper creative ground where my experience is turned to song. That comes with lots of joy for being able to go for it — and a lot responsibility for knowing that this is just the beginning.

PM: Explain a little bit about processes involved in putting this record together. How you chose certain songs, etc.

CC: I started writing songs for the album in 2002 and entered the studio in 2003. [Producer] Russ Titelman was the person that really encouraged my songwriting and helped me prepare the repertoire and give it the right shape with my friends who played on it. As far as the cover songs go, I wasn’t interested in covering anything that had been covered a million times before. I was very fascinated by “Caramel” when I first heard Suzanne Vega singing it at a live show and decided to sing it.

PM: How exciting was working with Burt Bacharach?

CC: Meeting Burt Bacharach was like meeting The Song in person. He is one of the most elegant and simple human beings I’ve ever met. He is a true craftsman, an artisan of sound. Working with him gave me a lot of strength and encouragement.

PM: What do you think of contemporary popular music? Considering the success of Michael Buble and Norah Jones, for example, do you think younger people are opening themselves up to music previously considered “adult”?

CC: Yes, I do. I see it happening all around me and I think it is a great opportunity for audiences and artists to establish modern sounds that rescue the quality and freshness from getting lost in the “bubblegum” world.

PM: Do you find different reactions worldwide to your music? Do Italians react differently that Americans, for example?

CC: Yes, reactions are different and this is the beauty of doing what I do. Promoting a record is also conducting an anthropological research. In Japan, for example, people love [the record]. I have been there three times already and the audience is amazing. Very different, very quiet and sentimental.

PM: What do you think draws a listener to a particular style of music?

CC: The honesty, the truth of a performer. At least that’s how I’d love it to be.

PM: What are your long-term career hopes? What’s important to you to achieve as a singer/songwriter?

CC: A singer/songwriter is a storyteller. Storytellers are observers and interpreters of feelings, through sound and silence, through words and pauses. My journey as a storyteller has just started and I want to be the best I can be. As of now I’m busy taking gleams of Last Quarter Moon in every home and preparing new stories to tell.