FRACTURED AIR

The universe is making music all the time

Chosen One: Stiv Cantarelli

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Interview with Stiv Cantarelli.

Richmond Fontaine’s Dave Harding talks to Stiv Cantarelli about his latest album with The Silent Strangers entitled “Black Music/White Music”, a fiercely personal album made with the combination of blues, folk and punk traditions. Stiv talks to Dave about songwriting, performing live and finding his own voice in music. 

Words: Dave Harding, Illustration: Craig Carry

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Stiv Cantarelli has been making music since 1999. In that time, Cantarelli has fronted the bands Satellite Inn, Gold Rust, The Jimmy Cooper Club, The Saint Four, as well as releasing records under his own name.

Cantarelli, who lives in Florence, Italy, has a deep love for American and British rock music. Throughout his career, he has forged these musical elements with his tightly wound, novelesque lyrics. Each release by Cantarelli finds him exploring another avenue of his artistic vision.

I spoke with Cantarelli (via email) on the eve of the release of his latest record, the stunning Black Music/White Music. You can read my review of the record below.

Cantarelli and his band, The Silent Strangers, were preparing to embark on a tour of the UK and Holland.

In full disclosure, I have known Cantarelli for a number of years, played in one of his bands, toured with him, and maybe even shared a pint or two of Guinness with him.

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‘Black Music/White Music’ Review:

Stiv Cantarelli’s new record Black Music/White Music is his most forceful and fully realized record to date. With strong support from his band The Silent Strangers, Cantarelli melds blues, punk and folk music to create an intensely personal journey through the dark night of his soul.

Black Music/White Music starts with the gently strummed, lilting ballad “The Boy Draws on the Steamed Window”. In a dreamy voice we are told by the singer: “I’m a King, I’m a liar, I’m a kid that’s lost inside, I’m everything I want along this ride.” This song starts the record off like a hazy dream one has when just waking up.

The following track ‘Captain’s Blues” comes barreling in and jolts the listener out of their slumber, a reminder that the force of the real world is always just around the corner. Over an urgent rhythm, Cantarelli sets the scene of a soldier who is starting to question what he is fighting for: “Oh my Dear Captain/In the red, white and green/Oh my Dear Captain/Would you stop the machine/I know it’s for duty/Not fortune or fame/I know it’s our duty/To be the ones they will blame.”

“Deconstruction” starts off sounding like a long lost outtake from The Stooges’ Fun House, before arriving at the anguished cry of “I Don’t Know Where I’ve Lost You”. Cantarelli screams this line over and over, like a man clinging to a life raft, exorcising all the demons of his soul. It is a very powerful performance.

The heart of the album, for me, is “Cornerstone Blues”. Over an insistent, hypnotic riff, Cantarelli offers a retelling of the classic story of a man selling his soul to the Devil at the crossroads. The song burrows itself into the listener’s brain: “The Devil was blowing on a black trombone, I know I was headed to the Cornerstone/To the Cornerstone, I walked with the Devil to the Cornerstone”.

“Under The Red Star” slows down the pace a bit, telling the tragic story of a friend who has lost his way. This song and “Hundred Thousand Stones”, a hauntingly beautiful song about the plight of a restless factory worker, highlight the more melodic, folk-based side of Cantarelli’s songwriting.

The playing on this record is amazing. The rhythm section of Antonio Perugini on drums and Fabrizio Gramellini on bass swings and undulates in, under and around these songs.There is a real live feel to all of the songs. The lead guitar playing by Petrushka Morsink throughout the record is incredible, with a tortured, howling feel punctuating the desperation of the lyrics.

While not a blues record per se, the spirit of blues music is the undercurrent of this record. Themes commonly found in blues music populate these songs, and we can hear Cantarelli using the confessional nature of blues music to unload some demons from his soul.

This is Stiv Cantarelli’s best record to date. It’s good to see an artist who continually pushes himself and his craft. Black Music/White Music deserves to be heard by music lovers everywhere.

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‘Black Music/White Music’ by Stiv Cantarelli & The Silent Strangers is available now from:

http://scandthess.bandcamp.com

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Interview with Stiv Cantarelli.

Dave Harding: The new record, Black Music/White Music, has a great live feel to it. How was it recorded? 

Stiv Cantarelli: Well, actually the best part of it was recorded live. I always liked the feeling of live-in-studio albums, but this time I just wanted the songs to grow up in a different environment.

We spent a long weekend in this old church house on the hill near Forli, Italy, my hometown. We locked ourselves in for 4 days. I had the songs in my head, but I let them develop in a live situation. It was a great experience; no pressure, no distractions (except for some Jagermeister!). Just us (Stiv, bassist Fabizio Gramellini and drummer Antonio Perugini)and our music.

After that long weekend, I added the other instruments where I could do it, with the help of my good friend Robert Villa. With him I was able to record overdubs at a few different places.

Then I sent everything up to Petrushka Morsink, who has a studio in Enschede, Holland. She has played with Willard Grant Conspiracy and Transmissionary Six. She’s a real genius. She played all the beautiful guitar parts throughout the record. She can hear notes that no one else can.

She did everything else: adding her guitar parts, mixing, mastering, searching for the dark soul of the record. There’s no doubt that the record would be a lot less inspired without her contribution in terms of playing and arrangements.

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DH: You mentioned to me that you had been listening to a lot of blues music while writing this record. Who are some of the musicians who influenced or inspired you for this record? 

SC: It’s been part of a trail that I started a couple of years ago. I wanted to change my approach to composition and to do that I had to change the way I played guitar. I started learning fingerpicking. This lead me to a lot of new music, especially pre-war folk and other popular genres like spirituals, or popular songs. It was at that point that I became interested in delta blues and country blues, listening to the music and learning about the musicians who created it.

I don’t know if that really inspired me when I started to write the new record, but I guess I learned a lot from the feeling of isolation and oppression that you could easily breathe just listening to some of Mississippi John Hurt’s or Sonny Boy Williamson’s records. I listened to Robert Johnson and John Lee Hooker, but I became really addicted to Son House’s guitar style. He and Mance Lipscombe are probably my favorite artists. It’s probably their stories that impressed me more than the fact that I could include some of their style in my music.

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DH: The songs on the new record have a very personal feel to them. Some of the songs (for example “Deconstruction”) sound as if you are exorcising some evil thoughts. Care to talk about some of the lyrical concerns on the record? 

SC: I guess I never wrote a song that’s not really personal to me. Most of the time I write about fictional subjects, but they’re all based on something personal.

On Black Music/White Music I tried to write about some things that really hurt me as a human being. Like “The Boy’s Drawing on the Steamed Mirror”. That kid really exists, it’s a school boy who I see on the bus sometimes, early in the morning when I go to work. Usually he’s alone and I really saw him drawing figures on the bus’ steamed windows. In the song, I imagined him left alone by his mother, waiting for her return, as a result of a divorce or abandonment.

“Captain Blues” is more of an anti-military song about soldiers who don’t believe anymore in what their officers were trying to sell them when they got in the Army.

Some of the lyrics, unfortunately, are based on strict actuality: “Mahogany Jones” is about losing your lifetime job, and being sacked just because somebody wants to make some money over your life, and the story ends in blood.

The only song I wrote for this record which is something different from all the others and that I have never tried before is “Cornerstone Blues”. It’s a classic blues theme about hanging out with the Devil in a fiction scenery populated by strange persons and serial sinners.

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DH: Would you mind enlightening me on what the ‘Red Star’ in the song “Under The Red Star” refers to? 

SC: This is a tough one. I’m not sure people really want to know about this, as it’s really easy to misunderstand. The Red Star has been the symbol of an Italian terrorist group called Brigate Rosse (Red Brigade), a Communist-inspired bunch that in the 1970’s ruled Italy under terror, with many people killed in terrorist acts against the Establishment.

I didn’t intend to make an elegy to a terrorist group that killed innocent people, but just to recreate the same feeling of believing in something so hard to be ready to do everything it takes, including horrible acts. And also to write about the feeling of isolation that comes from living in hiding. It’s a pretty tough and claustrophobic song.

When we play the song live, I introduce it by saying: “Something that talks about fighting for things you believe in, even if you know they’re wrong”.

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DH: You’ve been known in the past to move from style to style from album to album. From punk to ‘classic rock’ to folk to more experimental stuff. All of these styles suit you, and your personal vision always shines through. Your new record is more blues-inspired. Is this a direction you see yourself pursuing for a while, or do you think your next record will see you turn to another style? 

SC: Well, I don’t know. For sure, I believe that the inspiration I got from listening to old blues won’t go away for awhile. I found this state of mind really interesting, being able to write my own page of what’s called “blues”, with my rules and my feelings about it.

I’ve always been concerned about finding my own voice in music, you know, of course without denying the obvious inspirations I took from the people around me. In that sense, I believe that this “research” I did on blues music is kind of an added power in order to help my ability to write more music. Blues music allows me to go deeper on my sensations, or try to find an even darker, or harder, or cynical side of my music.

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DH: Who are the musicians you are taking out with you on your upcoming tour? 

SC: Even though I put my name on this project, Black Music/White Music is a band thing, we are The Silent Strangers. Even more, it’s a family thing. After all of these years, we are just like brothers, with both the good and the bad. We take it all, we don’t really care.

Fabrizio Gramellini has been playing with me since day one of my career with Satellite Inn, and he’s a hell of a bass player. Antonio Perugini stepped in on drums for Satellite Inn when we played SXSW a few years back, and he’s been with me ever since. He’s a great friend and a great drummer.

As a three-piece we have played together for over a decade now, so we know each other well as musicians and even better as persons.

For our Holland gigs, I believe we’ll add Petrushka Morsink as a second guitarist. We’ve done that before and it’s been magic.

I’ve played with many great musicians during my career, most of them better than me, and I thank my lucky star for that. I’ve always wanted to create a gang feeling more than just establishing a musical connection. Being in a band and being on the road together is more than just that hour and a half you’re on stage.

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‘Black Music/White Music’ by Stiv Cantarelli & The Silent Strangers is available now from:

http://scandthess.bandcamp.com

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Dave Harding is bass player in Portland Oregon’s Richmond Fontaine; who have released ten studio albums to worldwide critical acclaim, their latest LP is ‘The High Country.’ Dave is also a singer-songwriter in his own right, and has released two albums to date; his debut ‘Across The Road’ (2007) and ‘You Came Through’ (2012). (To read Dave’s other contributions for us, please see: here, here and here.)

Dave Harding’s bandcamp site: http://daveharding.bandcamp.com

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  1. […] for Fractured Air to accompany an interview between Stiv Cantarelli and Richmond Fontaine’s Dave […]


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