Do you see your new album as a chance to travel back in time?
It's part of our foundations, part of all our pasts, no-one can deny that - and I'm someone who enjoys digging around in the past a lot. Having said that, though, I feel I'm relatively modern too, particularly when it comes to music. People are a lot more open to the idea of fusion these days, but fusion is nothing new. Liszt was already experimenting with fusion in his Polonaises, reinventing traditional folk melodies with his variations. And I'd say I'm doing more or less the same thing – although I'm obviously not Liszt!
You don't actually have any Italian origins, do you?
Maybe if you were to go back far enough you'd find a bit of Italian in my family's blood!
Before setting yourself the task of recreating 13th-century Italian lyric poetry you experimented with an impressive variety of musical genres – including hard rock!
Yes, and it was particularly hard too. I worked with groups like Queensrÿche. But the reason I got involved with them was because the group's lead singer, Geoff Tate, came from an opera background. He's got a real voice! And I loved the care he took over his texts. His songs were always totally macabre, but they were always beautifully written…
How did you manage to make such a radical switch of genre?
Well, maybe it's not a case of seeing things in those terms. I like to think more in terms of essences than musical styles. In any case, I can't say I waste too much time worrying about different styles. Music's always a fusion of different things. It's always made up of so many inspirations from so many different horizons. It's got so many layers that it's like a set of Russian dolls you can just go on and on opening!
Is there a lot of difference between ancient and modern Italian?
Well, you have to take into account that it's not just the language that's changed but our way of thinking too. What I'm trying to do on this album is express today's thoughts using yesterday's language. And that often gives the songs a poetic, dream-like feel, as well as an unreal tragic edge at times. I love the expressions they used in that era. They're so rich and opulent. It's like the title of the album, Etterna – in modern Italian the meaning's exactly the same ("eternal"), but you spell it with one 't' rather than two. For me, spelling it with two "t's" was like a little nod towards Dante because that's the way he wrote. Dante lived in an age where the Italian language, born of Latin and Provençal, was going through huge changes. It's not rare looking back on an ancient text from those times to find three different ways of spelling used within the same document. Personally, I wanted to give a special meaning to the word 'etterna' and spelling it the old way meant deliberately placing it back in Dante's time.
You write both music and lyrics for your own songs. Do you have a particular songwriting method?
Well, I come across as being a very muddled and disorganised sort of person, but I do have my own internal sense of order. What happens is I work on everything at the same time, writing the music and the lyrics together right up to the last minute. That's obviously a major headache for musicians and the people who work with me. I understand how it can make them want to tear their hair out sometimes!
I'm not like a lot of other singers who sit down and write 50 songs and then select a final 15 from them. With me songs can be inspired by so many different things. They can come from a musical phrase I've heard or a line of writing, an image, an idea or the evocative power of a character I imagine in my head. I generally go through this period where I go round gathering my ideas like little white pebbles, then I put them all in a bag, shake them up a bit and sort them out. After that it gets a bit more complicated; you have to start structuring things.
One of the most striking things about Emma Shapplin is to see such a small slip of a woman belting out songs with such extraordinary vocal power…
Well, I think that's all down to the fact that I spent so many years being withdrawn and introverted that the day I broke out of my shell and decided to express myself I wasn't going to do it quietly! I'm someone who's very passionate and I throw myself into things 100%. I hate the idea of grey areas – with me everything's either black or white! If there's one thing I'm always trying to avoid it's insipid charm and prettiness. But it's funny sometimes when I listen to what I've done I hear traces of that creeping in. I don't know what I'm looking for really. It's like I'm on a permanent quest – like I'm an old alchemist playing around with my secret brews!
Emma Shapplin La notte etterna (Polydor/Universal) 2003
Translation : Julie Street