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Italian Pop Star Tries on a New York State of Mind

Oct 16, 2012 | Updated Dec 16, 2012

The Italian explorer Christopher Columbus came to America and discovered a new world; the Italian rock star Jovanotti came to New York to discover himself.

After 25 years at the top of the Italian charts, the stadium-filling singer-songwriter Lorenzo "Jovanotti" Cherubini has moved to New York City to try on a new life, to jar his music-mad mind into seeing things anew.

Sipping an "American coffee" at an Italian sidewalk café in Manhattan's West Village, the effortlessly charming 46-year-old explains his experiment in self-discovery, moving to the city whose music sparked his career.

"The core of my passion is music, is researching, experimenting to be adventurous in my path," he says. "I'm looking for life, I'm looking for light, for something that shines and I have to follow that. Music is always first for me: creating, finding a new idea, writing the next song."

In between settling in with his wife and daughter, releasing his first U.S. album, performing a few dates in American cities and tending his career back in Italy, Jovanotti has been walking the streets of New York City, taking it all in without pressuring himself to produce new songs. He says he is not even writing down ideas. "If [an idea] is good, it will stay, it will wait for me."

After several weeks in New York, he says, the move is giving him a new perspective on Italy.

"I'm looking for a relationship with my Italian-ity," he says. "Being far away is refreshing my desire. I've never listened to so much Italian music...I'm falling in love, deeply, with my language. It's beautiful; it's strange."

"It's like when you take a class of yoga or Pilates and they make you move a leg [in a new way]," he says, "and so you have to think about that and you discover that you have a leg."

As a teenager in Italy, Jovanotti deejayed in discos, but then he heard something that transformed him. "Hip hop changed my life," he says definitively. "Hip-hop made me think about doing music, not just being a listener."

Even though he couldn't understand a word of what Grandmaster Flash and Africa Bambaataa were saying, he loved "the rawness...It was simple, it was fun."
"It was different from everything," he says, "And I felt different from everybody."

He began copying hip-hop fashion and started rapping in Italian in clubs over instrumental tracks, eventually releasing an album in 1988.

"[Critics] considered me evil. They look at me and say: 'this guy is destroying our musical mainstream.'"

Jovanotti says he didn't know anything about harmony or melody and didn't want to. "Chords were my enemy."

While he is glad to be different than that young rebel, he says, "If I meet that me of 25 years ago, I'd be a fan of this guy. I would like the energy of this guy....It was real wild."

But hip-hop proved to be just the big bang for Jovanotti's musical creating, and his music grew to become more personal, idiosyncratic and complex.

"Sometimes I feel like a wild animal that is hunting ideas," he says. "I tell my musicians, let's take our music from the future, from something that hasn't happened yet."

"Now I want to build music," he says, making an analogy to Frank Gehry's architecture. "It's new, it's beautiful, it gives you a sense of future."

He says his music-making represents a particular kind of optimism where "You have to wake up in the morning with a day to build in front of you; something to do for yourself, for your family, for your people."

"I still have a lot of things to learn. Maybe in Italy people feel this," he says, adding that for people of his generation "we grew up together."

"I have this strong relationship with my Italian audience," he says. "Sometimes I feel like I have 50 million relatives."

Jovanotti's stage name is the Anglicized version of giovanotti, the Italian collective noun for "young people." In front of an audience of Italian fans at New York's Terminal 5, it's easy to see him as the tall, skinny embodiment of that collective spirit. On one side, his fans sing along, call-and-respond, clap out rhythms; on the other, a tight group of hot musicians; in the middle, a sweat-soaked, perpetually moving Jovanotti seems less the rock star and more the community organizer, bringing the music for everyone - including himself - to share and enjoy.

He jokes that he would like the job description on his gravestone to read: "Jovanotti - Direction in Music."

Though Italy has never been viewed as a farm system for American popular music, Jovanotti wonders if he can change that. While he praises his country's songwriters for satisfying domestic audiences, he says, "Americans have not been interested because we haven't been interesting."

For Italians, he says, "There is still a mythology for us [in America]." Then listening for the hum of the new world around him, he says, "What I would like to do is see if there is a way to communicate with this country."

Jovanotti's 1990s hit "Piove"

Jovanotti in a Seattle radio station playing "Penso Positivo"

"L'ombelico del Mondo (The Bellybutton of the World)," an early hit that sounds more like Brazil pop than hip-hop: