Italian Pop Star Jovanotti Attempts U.S. Crossover

In Italy, the music of Jovanotti is on radios and TVs everywhere. He's the most influential pop star the country has produced in years. Last month, he left the stadiums of Europe behind for a few tiny clubs in New York City, where he served as an artist-in-residence. Jovanotti talks to Guy Raz about finally introducing himself to U.S. audiences.

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GUY RAZ, host:

They gave us pizza, we gave them hip-hop. And here's what one Italian superstar has done with it.

(Soundbite of music)

JOVANOTTI (Musician): (Singing in Italian)

RAZ: This is Jovanotti. In Italy, he has few peers. He's arguably the most famous pop star they've produced in generations. The magazine Time Out compared his fame in Italy to Bruce Springsteen's here. And for the entire month of July, Jovanotti was playing small clubs in New York City, where his fan base is, shall we say, a bit smaller.

Jovanotti's real name is Lorenzo Cherubini, and he joins me from NPR's New York studios. Welcome to the show.

Mr. JOVANOTTI: Hello, thank you. Thank you for inviting me. I'm very happy to be here, thanks.

RAZ: We're happy to have you. Why has it taken you so long to play here in the U.S.?

Mr. JOVANOTTI: I came here when I had the chance to spend some time, you know, and to develop a sort of relationship, you know, with the small audience that I could imagine to have here. And so it was, for me, like a sort of laboratory, you know, was a sort of workshop that I wanted to do to get back to the roots of my job, you know?

I am a musician. I like to do music. And music starts from a small room, you know, with a crowd of people that want to have fun and feel deep emotions, you know?

RAZ: Let's hear a little bit from one of those more intimate concerts you had. This is from Joe's Pub, a club in New York, and the track you're singing is called "Tanto Tanto Tanto."

(Soundbite of song "Tanto Tanto Tanto")

Mr. JOVANOTTI: (Singing in Italian)

RAZ: And let me read the English translations of what you're singing here: There's a fever that can cure you. There's a silence that can make you hear. DNA is longer than the equator. There's a spirit even inside of a motor. Italian hip-hop...

Mr. JOVANOTTI: I never listen to my live gigs, you know? It's great. I like it, yeah.

RAZ: Well, was it strange performing hip-hop music in the city where hip-hop was born, in New York City?

Mr. JOVANOTTI: It was a big thing, you know? I discovered music, and maybe I discovered also to be a human being through hip-hop, you know, when I was a small boy. You know, and I listened to this music coming from here, you know, Afrika Bambaataa, the Zulu Nation, you know, Grandmaster Flash for me was like a sort of musical epiphany, you know?

Coming here to play, you know, it's like - I always say it's like for an American priest to go to the Vatican.

RAZ: To the Vatican.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JOVANOTTI: It's something like that. You know, you go to the Vatican and you rediscover, you know, where everything started.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. JOVANOTTI: (Singing in Italian)

I go around here in New York, and I really feel at home. You know, it's like my spirit belongs to this town. You know, and this town is belonging to my family in a certain way because my father was working at the Vatican. He worked at the Vatican for 50 years. And so he used to come here when I was little, the holy, you know, how you say, St. Patrick, you know?

RAZ: St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York.

Mr. JOVANOTTI: Cathedral, yeah, yeah. He used to come here. Once, he came back home with these Super 8 films, showing us, you know, New York. And so New York was in my family since when I was a child. And, you know, but New York - it's very easy to love New York, actually. You know, everybody loves New York...

RAZ: I thought everybody loved Rome.

Mr. JOVANOTTI: Yeah, it's true, you know, but...

(Soundbite of laughter)

…it's different, you know? Rome is, you know, Rome is - everything is connected with the past, you know, while this town is called New York. You know, we don't have any city in Europe that is called new. And for a young guy, you know, this word "new" was influencing his life, you know, his vision of life.

RAZ: It turns out that hip-hop sounds pretty good in Italian.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Can you explain what it is about the Italian language that sort of makes it sound so rhythmic and musical?

Mr. JOVANOTTI: It's strange because when I was starting doing rap in Italy, it was sounding very strange, and everybody was refusing this, you know, the record companies. English is very good for written, while our language is like casa, amore, figlio, famiglia, tempo, ritmo.

RAZ: With vowels at the end of the word.

Mr. JOVANOTTI: Yeah. And it's very comfortable for melody, you know, and for long melody, in fact opera. In fact, big melodies comes easy in Italian. To use this language for rhythm, syncopated language, music, was much more difficult, you know?

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. JOVANOTTI: (Singing in Italian)

My first album was in English, actually. If you were doing opera in the 19th century, you had to do it in Italian, you know, because Italian was the musical language of the world. Today, the musical language is English. If you want to do pop music, actually, you should do it in English. And I tried to do it in Italian, and actually, it was working. The people loved it. They shot me to number one of the chart.

RAZ: My guest is Italian singer and songwriter Jovanotti. Of course, your music isn't just about hop-hop. In the 1990s, you started to incorporate different sounds from around the world into your recordings. And I want to play one of your most popular songs. This is "L'ombelico del Mondo."

(Soundbite of song "L'ombelico del Mondo")

Mr. JOVANOTTI: (Singing in Italian)

RAZ: "L'ombelico del Mondo," the bellybutton of the world, is what that song is called. I remember hearing this song when I was backpacking around Europe in the mid-'90s. This is, like, the universal party song. Can you tell us what it's about?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JOVANOTTI: It's a universal party song, so it's not about anything. You know, actually it's about energy. It's about energy. You know, l'omblico del mondo means, you know, the belly button, the center of the world, you know, where life and energy concentrated, you know?

I came back for a big, beautiful travel down in Africa, in Guinea gulf, you know, for a couple of months, a big - backpacking, like you. And so I went home, you know, with a different vision, like a different landscape, musical landscape that I wanted to develop. And so this song is the fruit of that tree.

(Soundbite of song "L'ombelico del Mondo")

Mr. JOVANOTTI: (Singing in Italian)

RAZ: I want to ask you, of course, about your most recent album. It's called "Safari." I was struck by a particular track on this album, the title track, called "Safari," because of its energy, and I want to hear some of that song.

(Soundbite of song "Safari")

Mr. JOVANOTTI: (Singing in Italian)

RAZ: There's a kind of an urgency in that song, and I'm wondering what kind of feeling you wanted to try and capture in that sound.

Mr. JOVANOTTI: You know, the most important feeling that I was trying to capture in general in my music over the last period is a sort of inspiration, is energy in itself, you know?

Somebody asked me, what do you want to communicate? And I always answer, I want to communicate communication, you know? I want to communicate the chance that human being have to communicate each other, you know, to share ideas, to share feelings, you know?

My last album is much less political or social than in the past. It's more concentrated in this primal instinct. You know, there is communication, you know?

RAZ: You mentioned a lot of your recorded work is political. Is there one of your songs, a political song in particular, that got you in trouble or upset some people?

Mr. JOVANOTTI: Yeah, there was a song about Mafia, you know, when they killed the judge Falcone, for Italy was a big, big, traumatic experience, a deep, traumatic experience. So I wrote a song called "Cuore." That means heartbeat. And that song is still used by the young people when they do some kind of demonstration against the Mafia, you know?

(Soundbite of song "Cuore")

Mr. JOVANOTTI: (Singing in Italian)

RAZ: And here's a rough translation of the song "Cuore." Thousands of children in the piazza at Palermo to pay tribute to Judge Falcone. They need an answer, and they need protection. They're tired of the bosses. They cannot stay and watch their gardens burned and every one of their ideals destroyed.

(Soundbite of song "Cuore")

Mr. JOVANOTTI: (Singing in Italian)

RAZ: The song is called "Cuore." It's by Italian singer-songwriter Jovanotti.

You've been in the U.S. for a few months now, and presumably you're going back to Italy soon?

Mr. JOVANOTTI: Yeah, I'm going next week.

RAZ: And are you going to continue to tour this album, or are you already working on your next project?

Mr. JOVANOTTI: I'm not still working, actually. Now, when I go back to Italy, I rest a little bit, and then I start getting in the mood of writing a new album. I'm not the kind of artist that can write while he's working, you know, I have to stop and I have to forget. For this reason, I came to New York to do these gigs because they give me the sensation to be a total new act, you know what I mean, and I will start to write from this.

(Soundbite of music)

RAZ: Lorenzo Cherubini records as Jovanotti. He's just wrapping up his artist in residency at two New York clubs. His latest album is called "Safari." Jovanotti, thanks so much, and come back soon.

Mr. JOVANOTTI: Thank you. Thank you. Grazie. Grazie a tutti. Ciao.

(Soundbite of song "Mezzogiorno")

Mr. JOVANOTTI: (Singing in Italian)

RAZ: This song is called "Mezzogiorno." Our interview with Jovanotti was produced by Phil Harrell.

(Soundbite of song "Mezzogiorno")

Mr. JOVANOTTI: (Singing in Italian)

RAZ: In case you missed the program yesterday, we have a winner in our Three-Minute Fiction contest. Our judge, literary critic James Wood, chose a story written by Molly Reid of Fort Collins, Colorado. It's called "Not That I Care." You can read it at npr.org, where you can also find some of the runners-up. Stay tuned. We'll have information for you soon about our next three-minute fiction contest.

(Soundbite of song, "Mezzogiorno")

Mr. JOVANOTTI: (Singing in Italian)

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