Interview with Italian singing legend Zucchero

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For a guy born in a little village in Italy, Zucchero has done wonders in spreading his own brand of gospel and blues to the rest of the world. Having sold over 40 million albums the globe over, he’s teamed up with an army of musical icons as diverse as U2, Queen, Eric Clapton, Sheryl Crow, Vanessa Carlton, Joe Cocker, even the late Luciano Pavarotti.

Antonino Tati chats with the man who seems to be two degrees separated to everybody else in the rock fraternity only to find Zucchero is one down-to-earth dude…

 

Ciao Zucchero. Whereabouts in Italy are you from?

I was born in Roncocesi, a village in the Province of Reggio Emilia.

 

A man from a small village going on to sell over 40 million albums worldwide. That’s impressive. Do you feel compelled to keep making music?

Yeah, I keep going because I love music. For me, music is my life and I can’t see my life in any other way.

 

It seems like you were born with a guitar and microphone in your hand. Did you start at a very young age?

Yes, I started when I was nine years old. At the beginning I was very impressed with black music – roots, soul, rhythm and blues… Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding… Then I started to play my own version of rhythm and blues and got a band together. When I started making records, I thought it would be good to mix black music with Italian melodies.

 

Indeed you entered the industry quite radically, combining genres when they weren’t often being combined…

I like to experiment and don’t like to do the same record twice. I think the most difficult thing for a musician is to be different but remain yourself. You have to change but you have to keep your personality intact. The records are always me, but different. For example the last album I recorded, I made in Cuba with Cuban musicians. It’s still my style of music but with a different flavour.

 

That desire to see the music evolve has obviously driven you to work with an army of different artists, from Queen to U2, Joe Cocker to Eric Clapton, Vanessa Carlton to Sheryl Crow. What is that duets and collaborations bring to your discography?

The duets and collaborations all came about naturally. I still don’t know why I have so many collaborations with such great artists, and ones that I really love. It started in 1987 with Miles Davis, just because he heard one of my songs on the radio, loved it and asked my manager if we could work together. Then Eric Clapton invited me to tour with him. As artists we meet each other and share our love for rock music and decide to do things together – sometimes not even involving the record company! If you do involve the managers and the record companies, it’s just not gonna happen… so we work on songs ourselves. Once something has been recorded, then the record company has to be involved, of course.

 

You’ve crossed borders in music so far that you’ve even worked in opera with the likes of Luciano Pavarotti and Andrea Bocelli. Your voice is really a rather gritty rock timbre while their’s was more of a high note. Is it a matter of complementary vocals on your collaborations with opera singers?

I wrote a song in 1992 after feeling very depressed. I was divorced and so on. So I wrote a song called Miserere that came out sounding like a Puccini gospel. I sang my part, and there was a tenor part which is why I tried to find a young tenor for. I hosted auditions with 10 tenors and found Bocelli to be the best. Then I did a song with Pavarotti which became a big hit.

 

A lot of people have commended your voice, including Bono of U2 who describes it as an “age-old whiskey”. What do you think of that comment?

Ah, my friend Bono is always very sweet with me. I love him. He’s a genuine person and a great artist. I like what he said; it was a great compliment. We’ve known each other since the early 1990s.

 

Indeed, you’ve both lasted the long haul!

We have, we have [laughs].

 

Most people would be aware that your name, Zucchero, means ‘sugar’ in Italian.

Yes, that was a nickname that was given to me when I was at elementary school at six years old. The teacher noticed that I was very shy and she just started to call me Zuccherino. I suppose to her I was very sweet.

 

Well many of your peers would agree you’re still quite a sweet guy, despite all the radical rock music you make…

You’ve got to stay sweet. I don’t like the arrogance of some rock stars. I like genuine people. I believe in the love of the common people. I don’t like the VIP treatment and all that stuff. A lot of people might think that all rock stars are snobs but this is not true. From Pavarotti to Bono, Sting to me, we’re pretty humble people. Very straight, and we don’t like bullshit.

 

So it’s not all about big limousines and cocaine-taking?

No, this is another myth. I myself prefer a good glass of wine.

 

Tell us what we can expect from your tour coming up in Australia in April.

We’ll be playing for more than two hours. Most of the set list will be lifted from the last two albums – La Sesion Cubana and Chockabeck – with a lot of musicians: strings, horns, you name it. It’s going to be fantastic, I know, because everybody was out of their seats last time in Australia, singing and dancing. It was like a fiesta – a massive party.

 

At once concert the audience got so out of hand in the aisles that the police were forced to stop the music.

Yes, yes, yes [laughs lots]. I definitely remember that time. The music shouldn’t be stopping this time, but it is going to be a very special night. Great, positive vibes.

 

Will you be playing some of your previous hits, too, like your Paul Young duet, Senza Una Donna?

Of course. All the bigger hits will be there, too. But lots of the new stuff.

 

Having just mentioned Paul Young, the poor guy got a lot of flack for his voice having run dry at concerts in Australia a few years ago. I’m wondering, what do you do to ensure your voice stays in shape?

I don’t do anything that damages it. I just drink and smoke! Thanks god I don’t need anything at the moment to keep it as it is – my voice is still there.

 

Have there ever been times on tour when your voice has just given out?

Again, thanks god, no, but twice I had to take cortisone because my voice was a bit sore.

 

Thanks for the honesty, there, Zucchero. On a final note, could you tell us who some of your favourite contemporary artists are?

At the moment I’m loving Lana Del Rey, Coldplay, Adele and Gotye. And of course I still like the legends, like Eric Clapton, Sting and I’m just waiting for the new album by U2. I’m very curious to see where they’re all going.

 

Zucchero’s plays the following venues and dates in Australia:

 

PALAIS THEATRE, MELBOURNE - Friday April 12, 2013 -

Bookings: Ticketmaster 136 100 or http://www.ticketmaster.com.au/

 

STATE THEATRE, SYDNEY - Saturday April 13, 2013 –

Bookings: Ticketmaster 136 100 or http://www.ticketmaster.com.au/

 

REGAL THEATRE, PERTH - Wednesday April 17, 2013 –

Bookings: Ticketek 132 849 or http://www.ticketek.com.au/

 

THEBARTON THEATRE, ADELAIDE - Thursday April 18, 2013 –

Bookings: VenueTix (08) 8225 8888 or http://www.venuetix.com.au/

Photography by Ari Michelson.