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World Music Features

Carmen Consoli

By Jim Bessman
Published March 13, 2007

She’s been likened to Ani DiFranco and Alanis Morissette, and with Italian album titles that translate into “Moderately Hysterical” and “Confused and Happy,” she clearly fits with the best of today’s English-speaking female rock singer-songwriters.
ITALY

She’s been likened to Ani DiFranco and Alanis Morissette, and with Italian album titles that translate into “Moderately Hysterical” (Mediamente Isterica) and “Confused and Happy” (Confusa E Felice), she clearly fits with the best of today’s English-speaking female rock singer-songwriters.

In person, Consoli speaks carefully and deliberately to an English-speaking interviewer, never batting a piercing eye even when asked why the cover shot for her U.S. debut, Eva Contro Eva (“Eve Against Eve”), is cropped at the top of her lips and the bottom of her breasts. “I wanted to portray myself taking off my face because I don’t like to stay under the spotlight,’” she responds endearingly. Consoli is happier singing in her native Sicilian dialect than catering directly to American audiences—which she could just as easily do.

Indeed, the strikingly intense brunette is proud to point out that the aforementioned cover was shot by Elliott Landy, official photographer of the historic 1969 Woodstock Festival.

“I start crying whenever I watch Woodstock images because it was such a heartfelt concert. I can’t forget Richie Havens singing ‘Freedom,’ or Crosby, Stills & Nash.” She might have added the Jefferson Airplane, Jimi Hendrix, Creedence Clearwater Revival, or especially Janis Joplin—as all also played Woodstock and are among Consoli’s many American musical heroes, along with Aretha Franklin and B.B. King.

Of Joplin she explains, “She was my muse. She had no boundaries and sung with her soul. From this giant of American music I went to the charming healing power of bossa nova and jazz, and came back to European music like Portuguese fado and French music. My father spoke fluent French and liked composers like Serge Gainsbourg and Jacques Brel. He was a blues and jazz guitarist and taught me chords and tunes and gave me albums, so I listened to this enormous barrage of music. I was like a sponge.”

She would also absorb the work of such regional legends as “prince of the night clubs” and composer of the classic “Estate” (“Summer”) Bruno Martino, singer-songwriter-actor Luigi Tenco, and powerful Sicilian singer-songwriter Rosa Balistreri. “If Janis had been Sicilian, she would have been like Rosa Balestrari,” Consoli says.

Her first band was a blues cover band. “I was 15, and sang ‘Piece of My Heart’ with feather boas around my neck.”

But while she would earn comparisons with Joplin and Joni Mitchell from Italian critics—and has been called the Ani DiFranco of Italy since early in her career—Eva Contro Eva remains an Italian work with heavy Sicilian influence. At a recent New York show at Joe’s Pub, she performed a set almost entirely made up of Italian-language originals, save for an introductory snippet of Bob Marley’s “Get Up, Stand Up.” The gig had a large homeland contingent present and singing along; all reveled in her riveting stage persona and the versatility of a band that has backed her for 10 years with instrumentation and energy that expertly varies according to the material. At one point, she threw in a centuries-old, somewhat controversial Sicilian song, “Mala Razza” (“Evil Breed”).

“It’s about a servant praying to Jesus to destroy the evil breed of his master, and Jesus replies, ‘Grit your teeth and fight back’ instead of turning the other cheek—which is against Italian tradition,” says Consoli, whose own songs, while rooted in her unique homeland, can be similarly confrontational.

The idea of “rediscovering your roots—being yourself 100 percent and recognizing your cultural heritage and DNA” is of utmost importance to Consoli and is further reflected in her songs’ content. “While I sing in Italian, I talk about Sicilian traditions and characters. I can’t go away from my precious, wonderful homeland, where it’s always summer.”

Quoting from an unnamed poet, Consoli wistfully describes her country as<