Italian-born chanteuse and songwriter Rosita Kess is a truly international musician, one who has absorbed the musical influences of each of the many places she has lived since leaving her birthplace near Venice. By way of London, Paris, Barcelona, Berlin and New Orleans, Kess finally arrived at her present-day home in Brooklyn, where she and her husband, singer/songwriter Richard Julian, will soon open a music bar.
“Rosita is kind of a sultry Euro-bohemian chanteuse with a kind of magical style,” said her friend and collaborator, singer Carol Lipnik. “She’s always working with great musicians and it’s fun to come and hear her and see what she’s going to be wearing —she’s also quite the clotheshorse! And she loves hats.”
Longtime NYC musician Clark Gayton played trombone on Kess’s second record and often joins the band at her live shows when he is not on tour with Bruce Springsteen. Calling her “a wonderful musician,” Gayton described her music as “beautiful, sexy and romantic. One thing that stands out to me is her delivery,” he said. “Patient, and at the same time confident, while remaining supremely feminine. “
Kess is preparing to release her third solo record early in 2014. Titled F.L.O.Y.D., an acronym for For Love Of Your Desire but also the name of her year-old son, the record is a charming mélange of many of her musical enthusiasms. Over beats from blues to bossa nova and tango, she weaves her dusky voice around 11 mesmerizing tunes with lyrics in English, Italian, French and Portuguese. Most of her songs sketch tales of love lost, found, remembered and hoped for; others describe betrayal and disillusion reaching beyond the heart. Kess also plays guitar and piano on the record, as part of a stellar band of musicians who give each track just the right seasoning.
F.L.O.Y.D. was recorded primarily in New Orleans, a city for which Kess has a particular affinity.
“In New Orleans the sky is everywhere, dominating everything,” she said. “The rest seems to come straight from it. The wild nature: the live oaks, the Spanish moss. The mix of styles, cultures, the smoky bars, piano sound coming from people’s houses… and the silence of that magical place.”
F.L.O.Y.D. is infused with those elements, particularly through the musicianship of pianist and New Orleans icon Jon Cleary, who plays with Bonnie Raitt and Taj Mahal among others. Cleary’s sparkling piano on songs like “The Sweetest Thing” and “Boat on Fire” always adds a touch of magic, but he is also heard on guitar and background vocals. The hypnotic “Creole Moon” demonstrates how she has internalized the New Orleans mystique.
Music grabbed hold of Kess long before she inhaled the perfume of Louisiana. She began playing piano at 6, and also received her earliest exposure to the musician’s lifestyle at a very young age.
“My father had a jazz club in Venice and played Hammond B3 in a band when I was little and I spent the first years of my life travelling with him for his tours,” she said. “I grew up moving back and forth between Italy and England, where part of my mum’s family is from.”
In 2007, Kess released her first record Almost…me, recorded in Germany, at the same time that she received a scholarship to study music in New York City. Upon her arrival, she began meeting local musicians and started a band that played at a number of Lower East Side clubs. Within a few years, she began a close collaboration with one of them, Richard Julian, who was playing with Norah Jones and her band, The Little Willies.
“I immediately fell in love with Richard’s vision of the world reflected in his writing —a mix of poetry, romanticism, humor, sarcasm,” Kess said.
Kess recorded her second record, Northern Sky, in early 2010; it was released in 2011. Produced by Julian and Kess’s friend and bass player Jesse Murphy, the CD features funky keyboard man Brian Mitchell, Brazilian percussionist Mauro Refosco, guitarist Jim Campilongo and singer Beth Hirsch.
After finishing the record, she had her first encounter with the alchemy of New Orleans.
“In May of 2010, I was travelling down south and stopped in New Orleans for a few days, “ she said. “There I met Jon Cleary for the first time. He took me for a ride and showed me the Bywater, one of the most gorgeous neighborhoods I‘ve ever seen. Jon showed me the places and played the music that made want to be there. Once back in New York I couldn’t stop writing and dreaming about New Orleans, and after only four months I moved down there.”
Julian came along on the journey, and he and Kess immediately started writing new songs. She also began a serious collaboration with Cleary.
“Jon and his wife Trish were our closest friends down there, they lived a few blocks from our house on Louisa St in the Bywater,” she said. “They used to come by and what was supposed to be a quick visit always turned into a big night of food, margaritas, and music. We started jamming together until late at night several times a week. Jon is one of the deepest musicians I’ve ever known, and I was in love with what he was bringing out of my music.”
In four months time, she had enough songs to make two records. F.L.O.Y.D. was recorded at The Living Room, a studio in Algiers Point, right across the river from the city, while Kess was five months pregnant.
“The studio felt like home and the three days we spent recording were magical,” she said. “We cut the 11 tracks live, in the most relaxed and intimate atmosphere. I had a very focused sound in mind and decided to work with a small number of musicians who are also close friends.”
The record was produced by Brad Jones, who also played bass (and Moog) and prominently featured Cleary. Andrew Borger flew in from New York to play drums and percussion, and Julian, who co-wrote some of the songs, played beautiful guitar and Hammond B3. Craig Klein played trombone on the lovely “Boat on Fire.” Another four days were spent in Nashville, at Jones’s studio where they recorded strings and finished some vocals.
The result is an enthralling musical experience, each track expressing its own mood and outlook, from the lilting tango/samba love song “Just Because of You” to the Parisian waltz “Le Jeu De Hasard,” which could have been sung by Edith Piaf, to the bluesy “A Night Like That” with Cleary’s spooky slide guitar and the dark indictment of “Mud and Gold.”
Kess wrote all the songs, either solo or just with Julian, with two exceptions:
She wrote much of “Island Of Regret” in Paris while touring for Northern Sky in 2011.
“I wrote it for Marianne Faithfull and I hope she’ll record it one day,” Kess said. “The idea of the song took shape while I was reading Kubla Khan by Coleridge. The ‘Island of Regret’ is a sort of purgatory, a place where wounded souls that weren’t able to communicate with their lovers in life are condemned to longing. I called la Chanteuse Carol Lipnik, who is one of the artists that I admire the most, and I asked her to help me write the lyrics. The collaboration was perfect, I think. “
“It’s sort of a song about not falling into a trap of regret and lost love and longing, using the metaphor of being on an island on what should have been a beautiful vacation but it just rains and rains and escaping from that into another chance,” Lipnik said. “I had written a kind of African guitar part to it but then it became a kind of flamenco style on the record. It was a lot of fun, I love collaborating on songs.”
The other non-familial collaboration was with Eduardo Hebling, who helped with the Portuguese lyrics to “Quiero Ser Feliz.”
“Brazilian music has always been a big influence,” Kess said. “Caetano Veloso, Jorge Ben, Jobim, Gal Costa, Elis Regina —I spent time in Brazil, but most of my connection to Brazilian music comes from the records I had in the house when I was growing up.”
The sultry “Golden Storm” shows the influence of Kess’s Argentine grandmother.
“She used to play records by Mercedes Souza and Ariel Ramirez when I was little, Kess said. “Tango has always been a big influence in my music. It‘s the music of the immigrants and reflects their profound sense of loss and longing for the people and places they left behind. It was born in African-Argentine dance venues where polkas, mazurkas, and waltzes were mixed with the popular Habanera from Cuba and the Candombe rhythms from Africa. These are the major influences in my music.”
“I live in a constant state of motion and I think my music reflects this,” Kess said.
“I travel a lot and return to Europe at least twice a year. Over time, I have been able to work with a lot of great musicians there and I have a band in almost every city where I tour. “
In New York, Kess and her new band, which includes Julian, reed player Doug Wieselman and Andrew Borger on drums and percussion, play at Rockwood Music Hall and Nublu. For details and more information visit Rosita’s website
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