It was one of those cold evenings in New York City and the snow on the ground had announced the beginning of winter. I had just returned to my hotel room looking forward to a calm evening after walking all day in the cold, when my travelling companion stormed into the room.
“You’ll never guess who’s in town!”
“Who?” I asked thinking of another friend of ours.
“Laura who?” I replied, suspecting his enthusiasm was related to an old girlfriend of his.
“Laura who?!!?” Marcello cried, as if he thought I suddenly had dementia. “Laura Pausini, who else? She’s releasing her first English album here in the US. We’ve got to go!”
“Does she still sing?” I said sarcastically, as I had no intention of leaving the room in that cold, not even if Janis Joplin was back from the dead and touring.
“Of course she does! She’s greater than ever!” My friend and I obviously had quite different tastes in music. And I was adamant I did not want to go out, much less to see an Italian singer whose songs I only vaguely remembered.
I knew she had won the San Remo song contest (which the Eurovision contest is based on) almost a decade earlier in 1993, with a song about a teenager who looks longingly at the empty desk beside her in school where her boyfriend Marco used to sit. The song is a lament for Marco who’d moved away when his father had got a job in another town. That song, “La Solitudine” (“Loneliness”), became a teenage anthem and it was aired so much on radio and TV it was impossible to avoid it. I have to admit though, sometimes I found myself singing along to the catchy tune – Chissa se tu mi penserai… (“I wonder if you’ll be thinking of me…”) – but it was just not my cup of tea. Besides which, the singer was a rather plain, shy 18-year old girl from Solarolo, a small provincial town in the Emilia Romagna region. She seemed destined to become nothing more than a one-hit wonder.
This raised Marcello’s patriotic ire. To arms! Stressing our duty as Italians, Marcello persuaded me to leave my cosy room and go and support her. Once inside the venue, we waited quite a bit before she finally came on stage, at around 1:30 a.m. – obviously the organisers wanted to have a full house. The lights dimmed and Laura Pausini was announced. To my surprise, I saw a woman in leather trousers and a corset bounce onto the stage, grab the microphone and shout to the audience in perfect English. –”Hey New York City! I’m Laura Pausini. I come from Italy and I am here to introduce you to my new CD From the Inside!”
My jaw dropped. I caught sight of my over-excited friend, who had started dancing along to the up-tempo track. “I can’t pretend anymore cos …”, Laura sang, and I felt almost embarassed for her as the audience looked totally unimpressed. There were some South American folks that seemed vaguely interested but were a bit shy as they saw how the New York locals were not particularly blown away.
I was not sure about this rock leather version of Laura even if the outfit was by the king, Giorgio Armani. What had happened to her naïve, sweet and shy look? I guess it had all been thrown out. God, I thought, she’s got guts to take on an audience of Americans who are used to a totally different sound. It struck me that being a singer was not all fun and glamour after all. Perhaps to Americans, she came from this “obscure” country, Italy. I shuddered to think that my friend and I were the only two native Italians there to support her! The up-tempo number “Surrender” warmed up the audience, however, and then she did some numbers in Italian as Marcello sang along in the crowd. Her voice sounded good and at the end, after a set of five songs, she reprised “Surrender.” During the number she gave away some promo copies of her CD and T-shirts to the audience, who at that point finally were beginning to dance along. He had to fight his way, but Marcello – being taller than the rest – managed to get a few of the freebies. “Surrender” later reached number one on the US dance and club charts ahead of artists like Madonna, Whitney Houston, and Justin Timberlake.
A few years after that night in New York, I went on a working trip to South America. We started in Chile and continued on to Argentina, Colombia, and Brazil, and ending up in Venezuela and Mexico. The leitmotif in all these countries was this song that was hammering away on the radio: “Volvere Junto a Ti” (“I’ll Come Back to Be With You”). It was impossible to escape that romantic melody with its beautiful voice. Really, I must get that CD I kept saying, but I didn’t know who the singer was. Towards the end of the trip I decided that, instead of flying back immediately to London, I would go to Cuba, rent a car and visit Trinidad, the old Cuban capital, now a UNESCO World Heritage site.
It was an enchanting place. I liked it so much I decided to stay for a few days more and instead of going to another hotel, I checked into a casa particular, the Cuban equivalent of a B&B. It was managed by a lovely old couple in their seventies. Their children had left home and to supplement their state pension, they offered this service in their big house. They essentially adopted me. The lady – Titty was her name – brought me coffee every morning and prepared the best breakfast you could possibly imagine, everything made from papayas.
In their house, that song –Volvere junto a ti – was always playing in the background. Titty and her husband Juan were celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary that year. He told me that he would never have made it through a serious illness, if it hadn’t been for the love of his wife. Titty, looking back at him, replied she would never have made it through life without his love and then she started singing Volvere junto a ti, just to tease him. They were quite a couple and you could really feel their love everywhere. Titty seemed to adore the song, as I would catch her singing it as she did the washing up in the kitchen or doing some gardening. I might have put down the song’s omnipresence to the aura in Juan and Titty’s house, but it also reverberated around Trinidad’s main square and followed me on the radio everywhere I went.
Still, my focus at the time was on Cuban music and I took every opportunity to shop in any town square I visited during my trip. It felt like I was the guy from the Buena Vista Social Club. I don’t know how many CDs I bought but, in collecting the superb local music, both old and new, I never availed myself of the chance to search out the song and singer that had so charmed my hosts in Trinidad.
On my way back to London, I had a four hour stop-over in Sao Paulo airport in Brazil and once again, in the airline lounge I was parked in, I heard the song come on. I said to myself, “I guess this is it. I’ve got to get it.” I asked the lady at the reception desk where I could find a CD store in the airport and she pointed me in the right direction. But even then, I didn’t know the singer’s name, so I had to sing the tune in the shop, much to the amusement of the shop assistant, who went and found me the CD.
“Are you sure it’s her?” I asked, when he showed me. I could not believe it – maybe she’d done a cover, I thought. But the guy smiled at me and said, “Pretty sure, sir. That’s the one and only Laura Pausini. I also got you her first “Greatest Hits” with all her other songs, in case you’re interested.”
Needless to say, I got them all. She sounded so different in Spanish to me. Then I discovered she also sang in Portuguese and French! Her number “Cuando se ama” with Gilberto Gil, an institution in Brazilian music, was absolutely amazing. And her list of duets goes on forever. It includes Michael Buble, Celine Dion, and the late Luciano Pavarotti, to whom she dedicated her second Grammy award. She now has four under her belt. She’s also contributed to soundtracks like the song “One More Time” from the film Message in a Bottle with Kevin Costner and Robin Wright; and “The Power of One” from Pokemon 2000. The shy girl from Solarolo had made waves around the world, selling more than 70 million CDs world wide and captivating audiences everywhere since that US debut.
Back in London, my friend Marcello had another surprise for me – two tickets for Laura’s first concert at the Apollo Hammersmith. This time I was more easily persuaded. My reluctance diminished by the day as my curiosity about this artist grew.
I was completely won over on seeing the show. Laura, live on stage, was beautiful. She had a sophisticated, high-tech back projection that changed to match the mood of her numbers, but that was almost beside the point. Her voice was exactly as you heard it on the CDs. I’ve been to many live performances here in London and I often have been disappointed because the singer’s voice suffers by comparison to the CD recordings. What is even more irritating, critics do not seem to care, almost as if they forget that concerts are about the singing, and not about all the often-confusing and distracting “production” surrounding it. But I put it down to a clash of cultures. Maybe Italians, with their tradition of opera, like to hear, as well as a good melody, meaningful lyrics and a strong voice.
Laura is the definition of this musical approach. She sang beautifully all the way through, mixing her old hits with more recent tracks from her new album. She was on stage for almost two and a half hours, talking to her global audience in their own languages. It was simply amazing to see the variety of her fans reacting to her. The quality of her voice seemed to be enhanced as she moved with agility from one language to another.
How could I have failed to appreciate such a beautiful and unique artist? And here I was thinking I knew so much about music! Was I a victim of the grass-is-always-greener syndrome, unable able to see what was in my own front yard?
I suppose my excuse is that living in another country does not make it particularly easy for me to stay up-to-date with what’s going on in my own country, but since the Apollo concert I have learned my lesson. While back in Italy I even got my niece hooked on the Pausini phenomenon. She now keeps me up to date with the latest news about Laura. She even started to learn Spanish because she heard me singing along to the Spanish version of “Tra te e il mare”. one of my favourite hits of Laura’s. She stayed up all night (without her mother knowing) because she wanted to listen to the radio broadcast of the massive “Amiche per L’Abruzzo” concert that Laura organised a few years ago, bringing together 43 Italian female artists to raise funds in aid of the people of Abruzzo, who had been hit by a terrible earthquake.
When I got to ask Laura herself, how she had managed to get the performers to set aside all those personal rivalries you always get in that very competitive environment, she admitted it had been one of the most difficult projects of her life but also one that had given her the most satisfaction because, “to see the San Siro pitch, where normally only Milan football teams play, packed with 60,000 people singing along was the best present our fans could ever have given us.” They managed to raise 2,947,916 euros and last January they opened a new wing at Abruzzo’s Coppito University.
But Laura is not unused to new challenges and I asked her whether she had found it more difficult to sing in front of Pope John Paul II or Barbra Streisand. She described the emotion of singing for the Pope as “a life-time experience. He was a man of extraordinary charisma and it was a real honour for me”, even if sometimes she admits to not feeling fully in tune with Catholic policy on certain issues. I know she is referring here mainly to the Catholic Church’s attitude towards homosexuality. She has been quite outspoken about it, in fact. “I think God is Love,” she says. “I was taught to respect everybody. That’s the kind of God I believe in.”
As for performing for Barbra, she said, “When I was invited to sing at her birthday party, it was the greatest accolade, to be recognised by one of the biggest singing legends. I will never forget that day.” She also adds she’ll never forget when Pavarotti invited her to sing with him on Pavarotti and Friends. “I miss him so much,” she says. “He was a very humble man despite his fame.” She dedicated her Grammy award for her album Io Canto to him. Io canto is a collection of covers of her favourite songs from different Italian singers.
“I’ve been so lucky in my life”, she tells me. “I’m doing a job that’s beyond my wildest dreams.” The girl from Solarolo had only wanted to sing in a piano bar just to be near her father, who went around Italy performing with his group. Now she sings in front of thousands of fans every night.
Laura kicked off her new Inedito world tour on December 22, 2011 in Milan. The tour came after two-year break when she spent some needed down-time at home, enjoying the simple things of life with her family, and even catching up with some of her old school friends. She didn’t neglect her music and her fans, however, and now she ‘s back and ready to give her best as usual. “I want my fans to consider me as their friend and I’d like to think I can be a good role model for them.”
The show has been sold out everywhere and she’s had to add some extra dates. As for the team behind the show, Laura chose as director Marco Balish, who’ll be the executive producer for the Rio Olympics in 2016; as set designer, Mark Fisher, who has worked for Cirque du Soleil, Pink Floyd and U2 and as lighting designer, Patrick Woodroffe who has worked for the Rolling Stones, Depeche Mode and on the unfinished Michael Jackson show “This is It!” As for what Laura’s wearing on stage, that’s Italian sosphistaction at its best. Roberto Cavalli, who designed her costumes, said, “I have always admired her passion and the strength of her voice. She’s just like my style: energetic, positive and vibrant.”
Together with Andrea Bocelli (with whom she duetted with in “Vivere”), she is the top-selling Italian artist, with more than 70 million CDs sold worldwide. Artists such as Phil Collins and Madonna have written numbers for her. Tim Rice wrote the English lyrics for her first hit “La Solitudine” and on her last album before Inedito, she sang a duet with James Blunt on “La Primavera in Anticipo” (“You are My Early Spring”) which she won her fourth Grammy in 2009 for.
However, despite all these accomplishments, she is still practically unknown to the wider British audience. Of course, she doesn’t make for good tabloid material. She doesn’t come from a broken family. She hasn’t been forced to donate to charity the fee she got for giving a private concert to the son of a disgraced dictator, and she hasn’t been beaten up by any of her boyfriends. Nor has she been claiming to be a reformed drug addict or been seen drunk coming out of a party. There is absolutely no scandal attached to her. But what is abundantly clear is she doesn’t need PR stunts to boost her record sales – her CDs sell in the millions, despite her not being constantly in the public eye.
How does that come about? A critic friend of mine suggested a possible answer when she said the UK has just started to discover Pausini as part of a new melodic revival that swept the Grammys recently in Los Angeles with Adele. About time I’d say! In a world facing serious challenges, and in view of the recent losses to the world of music, it has seemed only artists that are six feet under have been able to reverse the music industry’s falling sales.
Music must be able to reach people on all levels. An ethical and truthful role model that can cut across generation gaps and nationalities is a sign that audiences are getting tired of the “bad girl” style and want a more authentic, less preciously self-conscious approach.
Laura fits this bill extremely well, not only because she is an amazing performer, but because she has worked hard to reach her fans everywhere and in their own language. She is also always ready to help whenever a good cause needs her support. She has been involved in numerous charity projects involving children around the world. She even received a letter from Kofi Annan, the former UN Secretary General, thanking her for her contributions to UN-sponsored aid initiatives. These projects are not something she does with a lot of surrounding publicity. Her feeling is that actions speak louder than words.
For all her success, Laura insists she is still the same Emilia Romagna girl who’s just managed to make her impossible dream come true. It’s easy to believe her. When you talk to her, it is clear she has not lost that genuine, almost innocent sense of reality. Her dream is still the same as it always was, she tells me – to sing. In the beginning, she wanted to do it so she could follow her father, now it is her father who’s following her around the world! Whenever she can, she invites him to sing with her on stage and the feeling, she assures me, has not changed a bit. “La Pausini”, as she is commonly referred to by Italians, has an authentic and real story – that of an unassuming singer who has grown into an unassuming superstar.[/three_fourth]
Laura ends her European tour the 22nd of May at the Royal Albert Hall – London Uk.
For other dates, check www.laurapausini.com