For Chiara Civello, the Italian-born singer/songwriter, pianist and guitarist, a series of happy accidents, long training and the ability to forget have been the ticket to finding her own voice.
Just take a look at a few of the music world’s icons this young woman has already wowed. Producer Russ Titelman, who’s worked with the likes of Paul Simon, Eric Clapton and Rickie Lee Jones, produced her first CD, Last Quarter Moon. Songwriter Burt Bacharach collaborated with her on a song for that release. Singer Tony Bennett has praised her as “the best jazz singer of her generation”—though jazz is but one color on her palette.
Just listen to her latest release, The Space Between, whose influences stretch from Joni Mitchell to Jobim, and then try to get the melody from the song “Night” out of your head.
Civello’s musical abilities were noted at an early age, and she was encouraged to develop them. “First, I joined the choir when I was 5, but I didn’t like it,” she says. “Then I started studying classical guitar, and I didn’t like that, either.” She sat on the guitar and broke its neck.
Meanwhile, she had already developed a fascination of sorts with jazz. “My father had a jazz encyclopedia at home, with all the famous photos, like the famous photo of Dizzy with the super-swollen cheeks.” Civello would page through the book, mesmerized by “these people, with their instruments and their hands, who had made the history of this kind of music.”
“A series of encounters and coincidences”—among them, the book and a family friend who overheard her singing with a record—“led me to a tiny jazz music school that was near my house in Rome,” says Civello. “That’s where I started.”
Winning a scholarship to Berklee College of Music in Boston, Civello embarked on the next stage of her education, studying primarily with instrumentalists. “Sometimes, they have a deeper approach in the music, as far as inside the music. At the time, I wanted to get really in the grinds of music,” she says.
Through the study of improvisation—“a form of exploring,” says Civello—she learned the harmonic language of jazz, and after years of schooling, she says, she began to work hard on forgetting her studies.
“The best part of singers is when they find their own voice,” Civello says. “It’s sort of an inner quest.”
For her, finding her voice had to come after she had studied a wide variety of music—from bebop to bossa nova, from Bob Dylan to Latin jazz—and had a well-grounded understanding of musical language.
“I started academically,” she says. “Slowly, I realized that it was very important to really find what are my assets, what makes me me, unique. I realize it’s because I am Italian. I come from a culture that is very somehow dramatic and melodic at the same time. So you have to define what defines you. ... It’s sort of an intellectual consideration, but it’s a lot of listening to yourself, your heart. So forgetting all the things you learned—like the scales and the range you sing in—you go with your heart.”
It’s a process she has compared to dropping sandbags off a hot air balloon in order to fly. No doubt about it, Civello is soaring, and she’ll happily take your heart along for the ride.