#IWD Profiles/Interviews

#IWD2023: Vocalist Francesca Confortini

Francesca Confortini is a vocalist, songwriter, arranger and educator. Born in Milan, she initially studied musical theatre, then moved to London to study first popular music at the Institute of Contemporary Music Performance (ICMP) followed by a masters in jazz at Guildhall, where she also spent a year as a Junior Fellow. She now performs regularly in both London and her native Italy, and teaches music performance and contemporary vocals at ICMP. A new album of original songs with the title “All the Way” will be released this summer. Profile for International Women’s Day by Sebastian:

Francesca Confortini

LondonJazz News: You seem to enjoy the chance to work in a wide range of contexts… gypsy jazz groups… Brazilian-inspired groups… your own bands. What’s the secret to making it work?

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Francesca Confortini: It’s not a secret: I simply don’t believe in pigeonholing when it comes to music, or life in general. Even though I agree that specialising in something could be important, I don’t feel like I particularly belong to one single category – I love collecting different experiences and exploring different contexts, all in respect of their tradition and background. Music is the ultimate means of expression I chose for myself, and I feel grateful to be able to use it in so many different ways, learning something new every time.

LJN: There is a whole process of “finding out who you are as a musician” and it is never simple. To which you have added the challenge of doing it in another country. You must like challenges and the energy you can bring to them?

FC: I see a connection with the previous question here – I am always down for a challenge! I basically follow three main rules with my decisions, the best pieces of advice I was ever given: 1. It’s better to live with memories than with regrets; 2. Try to never be the best musician in the room; 3. Don’t believe in the cooking time written on pasta boxes – always take it out a bit earlier!

Jokes aside, I had been looking for a specific “label” for years, until I realised that versatility and hybridity are my very own label already. Having said that, I am a workaholic and never stop, which is also dangerous – since the pandemic, I have been learning how to take care of myself more. It’s a work in progress, but everything is. With no challenges there is no growth.

LJN: Was Guildhall important as a stage in the process?

FC: Incredibly. First of all, it gave me knowledge and support from amazing musicians, educators, colleagues and human beings; most importantly, it gave me the confidence to stop shyly knocking on the door of the “musicians” and simply turn the handle, go in and say “hi, this is my music”. Most of the people I met at the Guildhall are my colleagues today: a great network of creatives that I will always be grateful for.

LJN: What is the story of your regular residency at Bardo and what do you sing there?

FC: Whilst working with so many different projects over the years, I developed a big network of musicians who are into jazz as well as old Italian music. Me and my colleague Daniele Antenucci (who also plays drums in my original band) have created what we like to call a collective of professionals that perform regularly around town, and Bardo is our main spot, where we play regularly and send musicians to the stage six nights a week. The “dine and music” concept is not new, however the opportunity to have an Italian themed place to bring that has been amazing so far, and it meant I have been revisiting a lot of old songs my grandma used to sing to me as a kid!

LJN: What do you think of as the higlights of your career to date?

FC: I believe the highlights of my career so far have been various and for various reasons! I sung my heart out at a sold out Ronnie Scott’s gig last year with an incredible project put together by amazing musicians and friends in a 17-piece band. I worked for the legendary Yusuf Islam (Cat Stevens) during the pandemic, recording backing vocals for him and reproducing some of his songs in a rearranged production – some of these songs were meaningful to me when I was growing up, so it was a magical experience. I’ve performed with the BBC Concert Orchestra at the Barbican Hall, singing in an amazing choir and sharing parts with people I admire and respect as musicians.

My personal highlight though: I’ve played my own music to sold out audiences at 606 Club and Pizza Express club multiple times, finding new nuances and ways to hopefully transmit something that is only mine to an audience. This for me has incredible value and so far has been the scariest and the best experience ever.

Francesca Confortini at 606 club

LJN: Some people say it is impossible to be a musical theatre singer and a jazz singer. Are they right or wrong?

FC: Who said that? I’ll send them my album when it comes out, let’s see what they think!

Take the majority of old standards and legendary composers – most of them are related to musical theatre shows, that’s where they come from. The two styles are deeply connected. When I was looking at musical theatre to build a career in, I felt limited by strict parameters in my singing – with jazz, I was able to be more free and convey my storytelling through improvising, but the concept is the same in my opinion. I believe there is actually a strong connection with musical theatre in my songwriting. 

LJN: You are now a teacher. What impact has that had on how you think about your own work and the things you got right or wrong?

FC: I absolutely love being a vocal and performance teacher. The human voice is such a fascinating instrument, made up by muscles and mechanics but connected deeply to our brain and emotions. The more voices I hear, the more my ears get refined. 

Teaching vocals is like working on a special sports training, with the additional element of goosebumps if something real comes out from the deep core of the person in front of me. I have the luxury to be teaching at undergraduate and postgraduate level, so the people I work with are willing to build a career with their instrument. This is essential for me, as I invest a huge amount of energy, passion and time in this, but it needs to come from the student as well.

When I started, I wasn’t fully aware of this and I was investing too much energy in it – not really doing anything beneficial for anyone. The student wouldn’t be pushed to learn on their own, and I would be exhausted. I wanted to create a good example for my students by showing them I knew everything and could never be tired/grumpy/ill. Turns out it’s a lot better to be human: if I don’t know something, I would admit it and then go research about that. People don’t expect teachers to be infallible, but they rely on their expertise to grow together.

LJN: Tell us about the new album.

FC: I’m very excited about it! It will feature nine songs: none of them is a standard – I have chosen two covers (funnily enough, one is from a famous musical theatre show, the other one is a beautiful ballad by Ralph Towner) and the rest are all originals. Even here, I know that usually an album of standards is the common thing to do when putting your name out as a jazz artist, however there is time to do that in the future, I didn’t feel the need to incorporate any traditional songs for this record.

It’s a collection of songs inspired by a reflection I had during and after the pandemic: the main theme is the concept of “home” – looking for a place to belong to, physically and spiritually. I have been recording with my quintet, featuring Daniele Antenucci on drums, Giovanni Cresseri on bass, Chris Bland on piano and Giulio Romano Malaisi on guitar. Once it is out, the plan is to have a launch gig in London before starting to bring it outside. I’m already looking for concerts in Italy this summer, but the wish is to have the chance to play it live in as many places as possible.

LJN: This is an IWD feature. Are things getting better / easier for women in jazz and popular music?

FC: I think there is definitely more awareness now about the role of women in the music industry. The younger generations are finally finding a little more open mindedness and more opportunities for women that are purely based on meritocracy rather than just being there as something to tick a box, without actually changing anything. With the gender and identity debate being under the spotlight in recent years, I feel like women are being taken into consideration more than we were years ago, however we somehow still feel the need to prove ourselves more, and this unfortunately is a cultural heritage we will be carrying for a long time. 

Just as an additional thought, I think those of us who are in London are also incredibly lucky to live in a diverse environment where change is tangible – it’s important to look at the bigger picture as well and see how much harder it is in the majority of cities and countries outside of our small bubble.

LINK: Francesca Confortini’s website

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