During my time at the Press Center in Düsseldorf this year, I had the great (and often surreal) pleasure to get to know a number of 2011’s Eurovision performers. I sipped tea with the Greeks, chatted with the Icelanders, danced with the Armenians, practiced my Portuguese with Homens da Luta, and raised a few toasts with the Bulgarians. However, one of my favorite artists to work with was Italy’s Raphael Gualazzi. After having the chance to interview him for ESCKaz, we would often run into each other as he went from rehearsals to press conferences to interviews and back again, always sharing a quick smile and a “ciao”. I sat in the second row during Raphael’s intimate showcase at “Jazz in der Alten Schmeide”, and saw firsthand how much he and his bandmates truly feel their music, a fantastic, soulful blend of old-school stride piano fused with modern blues, funk, and jazz. When “Madness of Love” defied expectations and quietly climbed up the leaderboard on May 14th, ultimately making its way into a surprising (to some, anyway) second place finish, I may have been celebrating louder than the Italian delegation itself. I had the chance to catch up with Raphael this week before his gig at the Teatro Tenda in Vascon, near Treviso. Despite an often-fuzzy cell phone connection, I was able to get a few questions in.
ESC Insider: It’s been over a month since we’ve last talked…how has life been since Düsseldorf?
Raphael Gualazzi: Well, we were very busy before [Eurovision]…a lot of gigs around Europe. And now, after that, we are in a lot of different countries, so a lot of work on promotion. And at the same time a lot of concerts around Europe, like Belgium, Switzerland, Austria, France, Germany, all around. You can check [the tour schedule] out on the Internet, for sure
. Also, there’s been some television in Munich, Hamburg, and Berlin, and we’ll have also a tour in October, from the 1st
to the 15th
in Germany that will start in Stuttgart, through Berlin, Hamburg, and it will stop in Frankfurt on the 15th
. And now, I’m just doing a lot of work, touring around festivals in France…
EI: So, is there any possibility of you coming over to this side of the Atlantic?
RG: I really would like that! We’re just building our way, and probably, I hope, soon…I think we will!
EI: It sounds like you’ve been so busy since Eurovision…well, really, since Sanremo! Have you taken any time to take a deep breath and relax? When you take time off, what do you do?
RG: Well, I’ve had not so much time and, you know, I like to compose, so I ask to bring in a piano to the hotel room, so I can practice or write down something…
EI: Thinking about the Eurovision experience itself: out of twenty-five songs in the Final, you came in second place, and the Jury put you in first. The huge scale of it: the arena held over 30,000, and the night of the final had over 70 million people watching. Has it sunk in, how huge of an experience it was? When you look back on it, what do you think?
RG: Well, I think it was amazing…I’ve never believed in competition, but I think it was a great occasion to be in front of so many people and viewers. Just three minutes to express yourself. We worked very hard…weeks just for three minutes in front of so, so, many, many, many people. And I just said to myself, ‘I just have to do my best for my music, and be thankful for the possibility to express myself in front of so many people.’ For three minutes, I had the possibility to bring back Jazz to its full popularity. That’s what I think I did! People around me were nervous…‘oh, we are in first, second, third’. I didn’t really care; I just had a glass of wine! For me, it was a game…the same atmosphere you can have with your parents after dinner in Italy, around the table when you play Tombola or Bingo or something like that. [laughs]
EI: You were at Eurovision for a little bit over a week. What was your favorite memory from your time in Düsseldorf?
RG: Well, the memory of joy from seeing people from different countries joining together and making music. I know that with popular music, you get different kinds…but to see more than forty countries just joining together…you see how much power can be with music. I don’t believe in contests, but it can help people meet and cooperate with each other, like I did with the 3Js and some other people. But it’s great, the most important thing!
EI: You mention working with the 3Js [2011’s representatives from The Netherlands]. I read on another website that you’re planning another collaboration with them; is this true?
RG: Well, why not? I have no official news on that, partially because I’m so taken up by my work, I cannot say. I have some things to talk about with my label, but I think so! I think we’ll have some gigs together. I don’t know what’s going on, but if I have some news, for sure I will communicate with you.
EI: Is there anything you would change about your experience [at Eurovision]?
RG: At the moment, about this experience in Germany, I wouldn’t change anything! I was that everything was perfectly set and perfectly organized. It was amazing…it’s certainly not so easy to work with so many people and their delegations, so I think that it was great. It was all very good, and I wouldn’t change anything.
EI: Now, when you came from the Sanremo Festival and were selected to go to Eurovision, you didn’t know very much about the competition. It’s not very well known in Italy, and even this year, only about a million viewers watched the Final. But now, with the possibility of Italy taking part more often in Eurovision, what advice would you give other Italian singers and songwriters about your experience?
RG: What I can tell is, for sure, that we didn’t take this opportunity, and we didn’t have this choice for so many years, that many people probably, a little bit, forgot about it. Today, one of the questions that people often ask me is ‘how many people waited for you at the airport [when you came back from Düsseldorf]?’ And the answer is ‘nobody’! Very few people…they really follow Sanremo, so [Eurovision] is not so popular….I can say to the Italian people that the Eurovision Song Contest is a contest of pop songs, but it’s very good experience. First of all, it gives you the possibility to express yourself in front of an amazing audience of viewers, and an amazing audience live. At the same time, it’s an important occasion of collaboration. I always say, like that song…[singing] ‘Always look on the bright side of life!’ [laughs] Like that, you know? So big of an experience…people really need to know that. If you have the possibility…it’s part of our business. It’s a great occasion to…bring your music to so many. It’s three minutes of magic.
Since the release of his album “Reality and Fantasy”, Raphael has topped the iTunes Jazz charts all over Europe, and has even made an impact on that chart’s Australian counterpart. He’s touring all over Europe, booked almost solid at least until November, selling out venues from Berlin to Strasbourg to Rome and back again. (For fans on the other side of the Atlantic, however, patience might have to be a virtue. Raphael did, however, express a definite interest in coming to the US for a few dates, especially considering his successful performance at the “History and Mystery of Jazz” festival in New Hampshire and Vermont back in 2009.)
Some might think that such success, even in a niche market like the world of Jazz (or, for that matter, the world of Eurovision), might go to a man’s head. But when Raphael and his delegation returned to the Press Center after the Final, with dozens of people crowding around the newly-minted silver medalist, the soft-spoken pianist from Urbino with the old soul and boyish smile took the camera flashes and sudden attention with the same quiet humility that he showed on the stage at Sanremo only a few brief months earlier. For Raphael, it has always been about the music, not the fame or the spectacle. At one point, when a small group of volunteers asked him for a photo, he quietly took their camera and pointed it at the four young women, seemingly unaware that they wanted him to be in the photo, as well. After I took the camera from Raphael and snapped a group shot for his giggling group of fans, I gently reminded him that yes, he was the celebrity here.
(MAJOR thanks go out to Raphael and his team at Sugar Music, including his manager Francesco Pasquero, for their help in getting this interview arranged. Grazie mille, ragazzi!)