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Annonce Goooogle
Annonce Goooogle

Album review

Emma Shapplin

A Vocal and Commercial Phenomenon.


17/01/2003 - 

With her unclassifiable second album, La Notte Etterna, French singer Emma Shapplin makes a successful comeback to the international charts. Emma, whose past musical styles have evoked comparisons with everyone from Klaus Nomi to Nina Hagen, has gone for the unexpected this time round – reviving the lost world of 13th-century Italian lyric poetry! RFI/Musique meets up with.

RFI/Musique: How did you go about reviving a language that had been dead for more than seven centuries?
Well, I've always had a real passion for poetry. I love Italian, German and French poetry. And, besides speaking French and English, I also write in Spanish and Italian, and by that I mean ancient Italian. I've always had a passion for languages. I love words– even though I often find myself hating them too because I think sometimes it's better to let yourself get carried away by an emotion or the sheer musicality of the words! The way I see it, music is the primordial language. Words come after music for me.
I don't like the meaning of words being imposed on me or limited to one sense either. My songs always have multiple layers of meaning. It's like they've got lots of secret drawers that people can open as they choose. It all depends what mood you're in. I've got so many different characters buzzing round my head. There are so many facets and fantasies to me I could never fit myself into one mould.

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!

You were born in Paris though?
Well, to be exact I was born in the suburbs south of Paris, in Savigny. Savigny was a very grey, urban place to grow up, although it was obviously nice and peaceful too. I was attracted to nature and poetry from an early age. For me, music is poetry and poetry is music. I was very withdrawn and introverted when I was younger. I spent a lot of time on my own – as a young girl I'd often sit in the corner and be off in my own little world. My head was full of my own little phantoms all the time.
I'm someone who enjoys using my hands a lot too. I love painting and drawing and writing. Oh, and sewing too! For this, my second album, I came up with all my own costumes. I designed them all myself!

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!

Did it take a while for your new album to come to fruition?
Yes, a lot of research went into it. But I'm not the only one experimenting in this direction. In a way Kate Bush has gone along that road too – although she chose to sing in 20th-century English which people obviously understand a lot more easily than pre-Renaissance Italian!

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.

So it's a bit like a puzzle?
Yes, it can be a bit like that too. The thing with the new album was that we didn't do everything in the same place. I recorded my vocals in France at the Studio Davout, but we recorded the orchestra – the London Philharmonic - at the Abbey Road studio in London. That was a totally amazing experience.
I knew I didn't want to work on this album on my own. I like it when there's a real sense of exchange. That's why I got in touch with Graeme Revell, who's done a lot of interesting stuff like the soundtracks for movies like The Crow, Tomb Rider and Human Nature. I feel I can recognise myself in his music. Anyway, I went out to Los Angeles twice to work with Graeme and explain exactly what I wanted in person… After I came back from LA we exchanged tons of faxes and e-mails with me trying to express things I wanted him to translate in the music.

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

Gérard  Bar-David

Translation : Julie  Street