Aria-award winner Kavisha Mazzella has carved a strong reputation as a performer, songmaker, composer and teacher. She talked to Ruth Allen ahead of her concert at Wauchope Arts later this month.
Your songs have wonderful evocative lyrics that draw on your family heritage, Kavisha. How did that influence you?
My father comes from an island in the Bay of Naples; my mum’s from Burma. They met in England, which is where I was born, and migrated to Australia when I was three. In the ‘60s and ‘70s, Australia was not as multicultural as it is now, and I had a sense of embarrassment about being different, of wanting to be blonde and blue eyed. I went to art school, and I heard amazing Italian folk for the first time, so I learned that music was a path to explore my father’s heritage in a meaningful way.
Then I met a whole group of Italian migrant women in Fremantle, and I was singing these folk songs with my brother and they were singing back to us with voices that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up; it was really so incredible, that I wanted to form a choir. I didn’t know anything about being a choir leader at that stage; I was just following a seam of gold that I had found.
When did things really start to take off for you? How did you become a songwriter?
To start with, I wasn’t really a song writer. I was playing lots of cover songs of that era, like most musicians do – Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Steeleye Span, Fairport Convention. We did a project for the Fremantle Festival, and as part of the project the migrant women were telling their stories about arriving in Australia, and I became a songwriter because of them. I wasn’t really thinking, “Wow, I want to be a songwriter”; I just thought the stories were too amazing to not tell them.
I basically made a suite of songs, and there was a documentary by Franco di Chiera which was shown on the ABC, and then everything got hectic! I wasn’t expecting that the women and their stories was something that Australia would be so interested in, but it was just huge.
It was 1993, and I kept writing; I love stories that are the kind people don’t usually hear about – the invisible stories – so I’ve just kind of kept going.
How has your choir work developed?
Now I direct a community choir for people whose lives are touched by mental illness, The Moon’s a Balloon. It started as a carers’ choir, and then it opened up to everybody, because everybody is touched by mental health issues on some level, either them personally or maybe because they know someone with issues.
I was inspired by an Italian doctor who had an art programme in a psychiatric hospital – he opened it up to the whole town, and they found that the patients got better quicker when there was a diverse group of people around them, when they got out of the mental illness “ghetto”.
A diverse group come to the choir, but there’s a sensitivity to mental illness; people who haven’t been touched by it begin to understand those who have, and vice versa. I’ve also taught in a prison with guys who had no idea how to sing, and that’s when I got into the listening exercises I use in my workshops; I learned a lot from the prisoners!
And for five years I’ve been leading a cultural tour to Italy every May. It’s called Cantiamo, which means “we sing’’, and we eat, drink and learn Italian songs in the Tuscan countryside!
And you’re also working on a new album?
Yes, I’m going to be recording an album somehow, before July! I’m currently studying sound healing, and I’m really interested in the power of mantra and chanting. I do a programme called Empty Sky, which is meditative chants from sacred traditions around the world, so I’m going to do an album of songs from that – which will be different!
Tell us a bit about your current collaboration with Andrew Clermont.
I’m very excited to be working with him. He’s a great arranger and a fantastic musician. I first played with him at the Supper Club in Tamworth a few years ago. He’s a real musical chameleon; he’s been a bluegrass guitar champion and a director of the Golden Fiddle Awards in Australia.
He’s going to play both guitar and fiddle with me, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he pulls out other instruments at the last minute; you never know with him.
Andrew’s also going to be running a song-writing workshop on the same day, showing people how to take stories and turn them into songs, how to relate melody and chords to lyrics and vice versa.
You have a reputation for blurring the boundary between audience and performer; what can we expect at your concert?
It’s a must! You don’t get a Kavisha concert without people joining in at least a chorus; there will definitely be people singing along during some of it! I’ll get the afternoon workshop participants to perform a song with me as well.
Can anyone come to your workshops? Do you believe anyone can sing?
Yes! If you can talk, you can sing! But I also believe that once you get someone singing, it’s important to teach them how to listen. Getting people to come and out and sing, that’s the first breakthrough, but for singing to be musical and sensitive, you have to listen, to tune in to your fellow singers, so I teach a lot of listening games. Usually I go to a place (to teach) and I feel what I reckon is gonna be the right thing for the people who are there.
A lot of people are passionate about protecting the land, and they long to have songs that express the spiritual feelings they have from the country, and I’ve found that when we learn and sing these songs it hits a spot for them.
Kavisha Mazzella in concert with Andrew Clermont at Wauchope Arts, 23rd March, 8pm.
Choir workshop with Kavisha, 1 – 3pm. Songwriting workshop with Andrew Clermont, 3:30 – 5:30pm. Tickets from Trybooking.com
Kavisha: photo credit Maurizio Salvati.