“If songs do not live and move listeners on their own, played simply on guitar,” Italian singer-songwriter Gianmaria Testa remarks, “then no arrangement or gimmick can save them.” Testa’s songs live out the lost loves, huddled immigrant masses, and quirky characters that flit across the station platform. They are soft-spoken scenes captured by Testa’s astute observation as a former train station manager, backed with a bite of subtle insight.
Their tango-tinged, bossa-blurred elegance, rendered in Testa’s potent gravelly voice, pulse and sigh on Testa’s latest album, Solo-dal vivo (Produzioni Fuorivia; April 1), a live recording from one packed and powerful solo performance in Rome last year. And now New York listeners will get a chance to catch Testa’s mix of grit, introspection, and melodic politics at Joe’s Pub on April 1, 2010.
His solo work highlights his essence as an artist and his roots in the Italian countryside. Though deeply moved by the folksongs sung by his parents and the rich chords of the local church choir, Testa started unwittingly to forge his own path as singer and storyteller when his father gave him a guitar as a reward for good grades.
Working alone was how it all began for the singer-songwriter: As a son of farmers in Italy’s agrarian Piedmont region, his ventures into music were often isolated ones. As soon as he taught himself a few chords, Testa began writing original material. “With time,” he notes, “I cobbled together a technique of my own that worked for my songs. My guitar, then, was a means to an end, though it also kept me company.”
“People like me get their start doing lonely battle with a guitar until the varnish wears off the wood and the strings dig burrows into their fingers,” he explains. “The greater part of the work is a stubborn calling to tame something that you find feral and anarchic.” So, with a quiet resolve, he developed his passion for songwriting, soaking up the big-sky country landscapes and rustic pulse of his surroundings.
He also absorbed the low-key worldview of his native region. “There is a certain approach to the stage—quiet, discreet—that may derive from having been born in Piedmont,” Testa reflects. “I always say that I don’t ‘put on shows,’ because there’s nothing showy about the way that I take the stage. I simply give concerts.”
Testa’s approach to songwriting is similarly sincere and simple. “Most of the time, my songs come into being with me playing the guitar and trying to capture in words, melody, harmony, something that at that moment may not be defined or even definable. I don’t write anything down: I sing the song and then allow it to settle in the back of my mind, sometimes for a very long time,” Testa explains. “Once I know that I have a new song on my hands, I approach my work as a craftsman, refining the song, stripping away everything that seems useless or redundant.”
These carefully polished gems brought Testa, who was working for the Italian railway, his first recognition. Testa won first prize in 1994 at the Recanti Festival famous for showcasing talented young songwriters, and a record company offered to produce his first album with one condition: He was told to “step up his rhythm a little,” presumably to make his music more appealing to a pop audience. Refusing to comprise, Testa turned the company down.
He instead returned to his job as a station master. Yet the songs could not be silenced. A year later, Testa began working on what would become his debut album, work based in his own vision and evolving sound as a performer. Featuring richly personal material, this recording reveals his keen observation of human interaction as he recounts fleeting moments and passing glances from the Italian train station where he worked.
Yet Testa is about far more than poetic musings on everyday life, as his 2006 release, Da Questa Parte del Mare (From These Shores) reflects. He envisioned this album as a novel, with each song as a chapter, drawing with philosophical aplomb on current events and Italian history. “All the songs \were born of a sense of frustration with the way the Italian government and segments of Italian society have responded to the desperate cry for help of men and women who can’t survive in their own war-torn or impoverished lands,” explains Testa. “When they seek refuge in our country, doors are slammed in their face, and they face laws that I consider unworthy of the nation that, more than any other in Western Europe, forced its own citizens to emigrate. There is an Italy outside of Italy—an Italian diaspora—and this should make us mindful of other peoples’ struggles.”
Along with his more ambitious explorations of Italian experience, his first arpeggios and observations continue to inspire. Testa has revisited many of his compositions throughout his career, re-inventing himself and finding hidden spaces in his familiar tunes. In New York, audiences can expect to hear re-imaginings of several songs from his first album that appear on his recent solo project, including a heart-wrenching version of “Dentro La Tasca Di un Qualunque Mattino” (“In the pocket of no particular morning”) and a introspective rendition of his classic “Un Aeroplano a Vela” (“A paper airplane”).
Even if one is unfamiliar with his music, Testa is known for quickly convincing the uninitiated of his remarkable talents. In February 1997, five months after the release of his second album, Testa became one of the last artists to perform at the legendary Olympia Music Hall in Paris. Although relatively unknown, audiences couldn’t help but recognize the composure, confidence, sincerity and utter lack of self-importance with which he delivered his material. He was an overnight sensation in France, and this enthusiasm then swiftly spread back to his native Italy, where the press unanimously hailed him as one of the most important voices in the Italian singer-songwriter tradition.
Testa leaves a lasting impression upon his audiences long after his appearances. On his most recent album, Testa reworks numerous compositions from this recording, singing haunting versions of “Biancaluna (White Moon)”, “Gli Amanti di Roma (Roman Lovers),” and “Polvere di Gesso (Chalk Powder)”. This material is a poetic meditation on the emotions of forlorn lovers and lost souls who struggle to find permanence in the fleeting moments of their lives. Breathing new life into his originally recorded works, the more recent renditions leave out strings, piano, and accordion, allowing Testa’s poetry, gritty voice, and spare guitar playing to carry the weight of these deeply poignant ballads.
Although he says that he performs the same with or without an audience, he feels, “for me, live performances are encounters to be honored—encounters with people who have come for a reason, with some who have come by mere chance, whom I must not disappoint.” Testa’s artistry and subtlety speak volumes, though he wonders at the connection he manages to forge with non-Italian audiences: “I’ve often wondered why people who don’t understand Italian come to my concerts. I think that song is intrinsically and powerfully evocative, just as the Italian language is musical.” It is precisely his sense of humanity’s plight and its inherent musicality that lends to the profundity of his art. Speaking about his creative process, Testa told altremusiche.it, “I never write for beauty. I write because there is an emotion that moves me to do so and because not everything can be put into words. It is not a passion; it is an urgency.”