Gemma Genazzano is a NYC based singer-songwriter that has been receiving a good deal of attention lately for an unsigned artist. Her debut CD Si Me Quieres (If you love me) is a soulful blend of Latin rhythms, almost old school progressive fusion, and some stax-like funkiness. Making it all cohere, like smooth jazz that is all butter and no cheese (iness) is Gemma’s languid, liquid passion of a voice. A voice that will undoubtedly be compared quite often to Sade’s, but this comparison while complimentary, is not wholly accurate to my ears. I hear a journey of exposure in Gemma’s voice that is not present in Sade’s, a vulnerability and interior grace that comes across in song-forms that are predictable, and I mean that in the most complimentary manner…prediction as a quotient of comfort and connection.
Gemma and her band, one of the engines of which is Marlon Saunders (Bobby McFerrin, Billy Joel, etc), producer, multi-instrumentalist and professor of voice at Berklee College of Music, made recent appearances on the Today Show, as well as at the legendary Blue Note in NYC, and continue to work on other live and recording opportunities world wide as we speak.
I took the opportunity to talk with Gemma at a time in her life that is punctuated by change; music, relationships, vocation, and was impressed with her grace, poise, warmth, and ability to draw people into her orbit with honesty and kindness. What follows are some excerpts from a two hour conversation that initially took place in a noisy café some blocks from the MOMA, and then moved to the more quiet environs of a hotel lobby.
PH I’d like to ask your views concerning the manner in which artists and musicians have to interface with the business side of the music industry from the perspective of a person who has experienced some success relatively quickly.
GG I think today you have to be creative. The big labels signing a lot of people doesn’t exist any more. The labels are disappearing, and the ones that are left are focusing on the major acts that they know they are going to sell. So for the rest of us it rests on building an independent audience… all of us (musicians), we need to figure out how to do that. I think the way to sell, the way to come across is the internet. Digital and playing live. You have to get a hold of it but you also have to get all the pieces in place which I think is the hard part. You have to have the desire to want to do it. Having the faith that this is what you want for your life and move on. As musicians we tend to just sit on the creative vibe and this is very annoying to have to figure (the business stuff) out. It’s not the way we think. We only think about how to create, so we need to revise ourselves and align ourselves with people who help you think like that. I’ve been fortunate, also I believe in magic. Let’s put it this way, I really believe that you have to believe. You just have to see it happening somehow. The more doubt you have, the farther you are from it, the less doubt, you get closer. You have no doubt and you’re in, but who has no doubt?
PH What were you doing for a vocation prior to becoming a musician?
GG I was in Spain where I studied photography and I was an assistant to a Blues concert promoter for a person that turned out to be my Godmother. The minute I saw her I was like, man, this is what I want to do. So I was studying photography. I was going back and forth to Italy. My father was Italian and I was into the arts. Not really focused on music, but I did play classical piano since I was very little and then stopped because I did not find the right teacher, the right creative person. I stopped and focused on traveling and photography until I saw her singing and I was like, yea, this is what I want to do. I quit everything I was doing, I was teaching photography, and I dedicated myself to music. I started singing then; I was 24 and living in Spain. My godmother invited me to some shows. I was so nervous. I had cotton in my mouth just being out in public. It’s not one of those things that was easy for me, it was not like that. Then I started a journey of discovering a place in music where I Knew I had something to say and I moved to Boston. Accidentally, because originally I had wanted to move to New York, where I have been for the past several years.
I went to Boston and found myself enrolled in the Berklee College of Music. It’s a different culture, being in Europe than being in the States. I’ve been in the States now for 12 years and I see it different than I did in Spain. Everything that came from America was shiny and different.
PH So, when you were Berklee, did you go through the entire program?
GG I went through the whole program but I think it was a mistake. I was lucky that what saved me was that I joined a gospel choir for three years. That is what kept me going. We were working a lot. We were doing a lot of opening acts for major tours through Boston. It was tricky for me going full time to college and balancing my life.
PH When you look back to that time do you value the musical education you received at Berklee, or do you see it as something you would have avoided in retrospect?
GG I think Berklee was set up originally as a jazz school. I think it’s a great place, but I also think it’s a place that you go to when you’re at a different level. You go to learn what you want to learn, take it and come back. I think as a five year program, it’s too much information, there’s just no way you can process everything. I don’t think I would ever be ready. Maybe now if I could go, I would do some improvisation courses. The problem was, it’s not a school focused on creativity, but on the music industry. So I found that I was writing a lot of music at the time and it’s not what the school wanted me to do.
PH One thing I noticed about your music is that the arrangements are stellar, and that they swing. They seem carefully created with a thematic approach, but have a strong improvisational energy to them. When you’re writing and you translate that to your rehearsal process and take the rehearsal to the stage how much of the improvisational energy stays?
GG We keep a lot of that, and I have to thank my mentor from Beklee, Marlon Saunders, who is a member of the band, the arranger, and very important. He’s a master of improvisation and he’s worked with a lot of people. We met in Boston and I kept in touch with him. I reconnected with him when I moved to New York and asked if we could work together. We did two projects, and he said ‘You know, this is great but you need to bring your culture within the music.’ I was singing in English which is not my first language and I have an accent. In order to do this you need to bring yourself in, you need to write lyrics. Which is something I had not done before. So the way this happened was in a very creative manner. I was bringing my melodies, he was bringing melodies to my lyrics, and he was bringing soul. The band was bringing their ears. We would just try the songs and refined them with input from everyone. It’s really like soul music from the 70’s.
PH That makes sense to me. To me that’s where the sense of swing comes in. When I first listened I noticed that it’s constructed but the musicians really get to use their own voice on the instruments, so you and Marlin are not saying “play this”.
GG No, I do not believe in that because every musician is an artist. They need to have the creative space to be themselves. And you can tell when they simply play what’s on the paper…That can work sometimes, but the way we created this CD. What we played on the CD was live and on the spot. We all got together, we rehearsed, and then we recorded.
PH: There seems to be a lot of focus by the media on your physical appearance. One writer even described you as “total babe that does her seducing in English and Spanish”. Does this irritate you, this taking the focus off of some very good work?
GG: “Well Photoshop IS amazing (LOL!)! I have a blog called “Men sex and Chocolate”, because life should be fun, and music is just one more expression of who you are. I like to be beautiful, to treat myself. I think that I am very comfortable with my femininity, and I think in Latino(a) cultures people can be a little more comfortable with this in artistic contexts. So, I don’t worry about it. As long as they listen to the music and they like it….
PH So you are pragmatic about it.
GG: Yes, and it’s not something I overly concern myself with. The attachment to beauty is natural to me, something to celebrate, and sometimes we forget this. My concept of beauty is very large, and I can see beauty everywhere in almost everyone.
PH: I’m very interested in hearing about how you, as an independent and relatively unknown artist were able to appear on the Today Show. How did that happen, and what was the impact?
GG The Executive Producer of the Today Show was a friend, 20 years ago or so, of one of the members of the band. They reconnected through Facebook, and the guy loved the music and said, “This is what I can do for you; I’ll put you on the show”. This is how it happened.
PH Please tell me a bit more about the business part we talked about before….
GG Right! (LOL) nothing happens for free. There is a cost to appear on the Today Show. Labels pay for the slots to appear on the show, it is a marketing vehicle, so the Today Show charges for the slots. It used to be that they would hire the bands, etc, but there is so much demand for bands to get the exposure…
PH So you had to pay a fee to be on the Today Show!
GG Right. So now we want to be on other shows, but…..I t was a good move overall, due to the exposure.
PH I think people would be interested to know what the immediate impact to enhancing the artist’s profile, i.e. Facebook requests, CD sales, etc might be due to such an appearance?
GG Within the next few days there was a tremendous impact. We were able to capitalize on this because we were set up to capitalize; FB, Twitter, Myspace, etc. People have t he right to be able to access you and see what part of their life relates to the artists story. The more you bring of yourself, the better off you are.