Rome class of ’55, bassist, guitarist, session man, author, composer, record producer and teacher – Massimo Calabrese has much to say. After all, his musical career has spanned over fifty years: from the “Santa Cecilia” Conservatory of Music in Rome, to Sanremo, onto the Zecchino d’Oro (that of Mago Zurlì). Then Discoring by Gianni Boncompagni, to Festivalbar and an infinity of Italian and international artists, including: Riccardo Cocciante, Luca Barbarossa, Mike Francis, Jeanne Mas, Tosca, Billy Preston, Steve Grossman, Chet Baker, Fred Bongusto, Marco Mengoni, Paolo Fresu, Steve Swallow etc. But his heart beats first and foremost for Giorgia and the late Alex Baroni.

In the end the public won't screw it over.

Massimo Calabrese

When did you realize that music was your true calling?

It is a passion that manifested itself very early on. At the age of eight, I won the preliminary rounds in Rome for the Zecchino d’Oro (at that time each region selected a boy and a girl who would then perform in Bologna, accompanied by an orchestra). Unfortunately, I got sick at school and was unable to attend. It’s really too bad because the audience of the show was gigantic. Around ten, twelve years old – together with drummer Alberto Bartoli and singer Fernando Ciucci, with whom we would later give life to La Bottega dell’Arte – I formed my first band: I Pronipoti. The final key role was filled by my brother Piero Calabrese. He dreamed of playing drums like Ringo Starr, but instead had to learn the guitar (which, thanks to my father, we had at home), while I devoted myself to the study of the electric bass.

Which category of producer do you feel you fall under?

In my opinion, there are two types of producers: those who run after a record doesn’t launch their own career and those who aim to enhance the artists’, aiming to understand their expressive intentions. I belong to the second category. Even when I write songs, I always do it with reference to the artist I find myself producing. If I have my brother to thank for whatever degree of intuition and experience I have today.

What are today’s musicians missing?

There’s a lack of patience and willingness to make sacrifices. I smile at the thought of a kid who, after being featured on a few episodes of a TV competition, feels ready to tackle this incredible job. I remember that behind Giorgia’s first audition there was a four-year-long job. Today, it’s all about views and numbers, not value or content.

Today we often succumb to the pressures of the record industry which hinders the production of meaningful music. Do you agree?

The term “pressure” has, for me, a positive meaning. The path of a record company is always precise and well-timed; we must try to keep up, to respect the times. Of course, we have to admit that even the industry has become “void”: it expects someone to win a talent show or have hundreds of thousands of followers on social media, otherwise they don’t invest. This search for sure gain confirms the stasis of the majors. But sometimes the opposite happens: artists with thousands of followers end up selling very few tickets and end up being forced to feature … The context has changed. Before, a radio single lasted a whole season, today – if all goes well – thirty days at best, after which another one must be baked immediately. It’s necessary to optimize the work, to be clear about the steps to follow, to manage social networks in a real way to consolidate the relationship with the fans.

La Bottega dell'Arte, Sanremo Music Festival, 1980
La Bottega dell'Arte, Sanremo Music Festival, 1980

Did musical prejudices do damage in Italy?

I have an enlightened view of this. I like to think that in the end, the public won’t screw it over. It’s like this; it’s not enough to be “pushed” or to benefit from those who are in the right place at the right time. Either you improve over time or you get lost. In a moment of crisis like the one that Italian music is going through, everyone tends to cultivate their own “garden”. We no longer open ourselves to what other artists can offer. Abroad this thing does not exist. I have worked for a long time in France (and beyond) and I have been able to see that it only happens here. I remember when I started producing Giorgia, Baroni (with Marco Rinalduzzi) and Mengoni (with my brother Piero) – I considered, after many years, that they might one day be defined as three major Italian productions – we sent out some auditions (songs like E poi, Un giorno qualunque etc.) but several record companies responded negatively. Then, fortunately, it went differently.

Someone said that in the current situation even a young Lucio Battisti would have difficulty making it. How and why did this come about?

There was a time when not only Battisti would have had difficulties. Now we are going through a phase where vocal uniqueness is returning. You need a thick, recognizable tone. Without the “meat” (as we call it in Rome) it is hard to win over a large audience. If Lucio had had the tool of the internet, most likely we would have seen something exceptional, like his timbre.

Giorgia, Alex Baroni… how do you know when a song will become a hit?

If you talk about songs like E Poi by Giorgia and Cambiare by Alex, we realized it immediately, as soon as the recordings were finished. It was clear already at the end of the mix that they could become hits. However, we must keep our feet on the ground and keep a cool head because although it happened – and my great friend and partner Marco Rinalduzzi knows this – other, more beautiful songs than the famous (and better written) ones, did not have the same success. It happens that particular alchemies are created in a team, but we could not foresee that they would enter the history of Italian music.

Over the course of your career you’ve varied a lot: rock, jazz, pop, funk, soul etc. Where does all this versatility come from?

I was lucky enough to experience one of the most prolific eras (the 70s) ever. We played continuously and the basements were places of creation. Progressive had led the way, creating a style that had taken hold of young people, academics and workers. It was a form of protest against the music imposed by Sanremo. Each tool was important; we confronted each other, we hunted for sound, for detail. And then there were the specialized magazines … The bands took different directions. The most varied contaminations took place, without rules, instinctively, but not naively. I’m talking about “technical” intuition. I will never forget events like “Controcanzonissima” (1972-73), organized by the famous weekly Ciao 2001. You came in at three in the afternoon and left at three in the morning. Crazy bands performed: PFM, Banco del Mutuo Soccorso, Delirium, Osanna, Rick Van der Linden & Ekseption, and many others. You could find Jimi Hendrix and Colosseum at Brancaccio, Duke Ellington at Sistina, Sam & Dave and Joe Tex at Titan, Genesis and Kenny Clarke Big Band at Piper … The best “field research” I could hope for. These are things that forge you inside, making you versatile. And then you apply that versatility to this profession. versatility into this profession.

Massimo Calabrese with Stanley Clarke, 1979
Massimo and Piero Calabrese, 2010

To fight and not to give up… please elaborate.

In other words, all the artistic and experiential heritage accumulated over the years should not be thrown away. There may be times when I think of ‘wrapping it up’, enjoying my family and grandchildren, walking by the sea… But I am of the opinion that it is useless to bask in memories (what I was, etc.). In Italy you always have to prove something, otherwise you end up on the back burner.

Do you feel you can give concrete help to the new generation?

Absolutely yes. A few years ago – and now in collaboration with Marco Lecci, Marco Rinalduzzi, Lorenzo Meinardi – I founded “Accademia Spettacolo Italia” in order to prepare young people who intend to approach this profession seriously. We represent, after all, the next step to music schools. We show our students the basics to deal with stages, recording studios, producers and, more generally, team work. We teach them the importance of being followed by a group of professionals. In the past, for us, all of this was a dream. But we also work on moral aspects. We try to instill in them the message of gratitude. It is a widespread defect in the sector, which mainly concerns singers, at least those who made it and were immediately surrounded by yes-men looking for money. Being grateful means remembering where you come from, who loved you and gave you the right advice to make the leap.

Finally, would you like to leave us with a particular anecdote?

I certainly have a lot of stories and some I couldn’t even tell (laughs). But there is one in particular that concerns an artist who has remained in my heart: Alex Baroni. I’ll tell you, it was just a few days before Christmas and Marco Rinalduzzi was traveling from Rome to Bologna for an appointment at Red Ronnie’s Roxy Bar, while Alex was arriving from Milan. Once we entered the hotel lobby, Alex came to meet us holding two letters, one for me and one for Marco. He said he wrote them in his own hand and that the content was more or less similar. Such beautiful words: he thanked us “because you have found me a place in Italian music, my place! And no one can ever take me away”. There is nothing more rewarding for a producer.

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