Ilaria Capalbo (Interview): "I like the things that don't come to you immediately"
Updated: Apr 13
There is this famous quote by Cato the Elder: "Ceterum censeo Carthaginem esse delendam" — meaning "Furthermore, I consider that Karthago must be destroyed". In the case of Ilaria Capalbo's new album "Karthago" this quote shall be modified into: "Ceterum censeo Carthaginem esse audiendam", now meaning: Furthermore, I consider that "Karthago" must be heard.
"Karthago" is Ilaria Capalbo's debut record as a band leader — and to the Italian-born and Stockholm-based composer and upright bass player, the ancient city of Karthago is more than just a catchy album title. Karthago (or Carthage, so the English form) serves as a metaphor not only for the creative process but also life itself: The courage to build things from scratch and start over again, as Capalbo explains in our interview.
"Karthago" is a remarkable record, ranging from classical compositions to experimental jazz (with some Rock flavor) and improvisation. It features a core trio consisting of Capalbo, Fredrik Rundqvist (drums) and Andreas Hourdakis (electric guitar) and is augmented by a woodwind section consisting of Thomas Backman (alto sax/clarinet) and Frederik Nordström (tenor and baritone saxophone). On one track the ensemble is even bigger, featuring Tobias Wiklund (cornet) and Mars Äleklint (trombone).
Read the full interview with Ilaria Capalbo below.
Markus Brandstetter: Let’s talk about the ancient city of Karthago — which is not only the title, but also the underlying topic of your new album. What fascinates you about it?
Ilaria Capalbo: My fascination with Karthago lies in the motif itself. The special thing about this city is that it was founded and brought to power by a queen. When it was at the peak of power, it was engaged in a very long war. Actually in three wars against Rome. The Romans saw it as a big threat to their own development. Eventually, it was burned to the ground.
To me, "Karthago" serves as a metaphor for having the strength and maybe the courage to pursue a vision, even if in the end, it is against all odds. Even if you are confronted with something that is bigger than you are, even if it puts you in a position that is not as good as you hoped. I also thought it was a good metaphor for these times, actually. It’s about not being afraid to begin again, and start from scratch and erase — if that was what it takes to grow strong.
And of course, I was very much fascinated by the figure of the queen of Karthago, Queen Dido. That is the legend part of the story, most likely. She was a good leader to her people. Maybe that's a bit big to say, but I saw her as a kind of an encouragement and a bit of a role model, even if it's from past times: a woman who wants to lead and build the project and lead some people into her vision. Which can music in my case, or, you know … building a city in hers.
Which is very fitting, as this is your first album as a band leader.
Yes! So I guess it was a way of saying, 'Okay, even if everything goes wrong here, the important thing is to make the effort and be true to your vision'. So that's what I was wishing for when I picked the title.
The ruins of Karthago still can be seen and visited in Tunisia. Did you ever go there?
I haven't been there, but it's actually on my bucket list!
So did the motif of Karthago inspire the compositions themselves or just serve as a starting point for the creative journey?
I think it was more an influence on the methods of doing it. Composing is a work of practice. People are used to imagine musicians locking themselves in a room and practising their instruments. But when they think of composition, the general idea is that there is some sort of inspiration that arises. You grab it — and then that’s it, then you have it! That can be the case, but I think it rarely happens that way.
My method was one of sitting and writing maybe a few bars, and then beginning again. Then I’d write another small part and then begin again. After that I’d maybe think of orchestration, which instruments could play what. There was a lot of going back and forth. Deleting things, starting from scratch, a lot of editing. That was the inspiration behind it: not to be afraid and not be linked to the first attempt, but to progressively try something. I also tried to have a narrative quality in, especially in the album as a unit. With the titles I tried to encompass a few of the motives. That in my personal experience brought me back to that sort of history. And I found a lot of analogies. If you read those very old stories, you find out humans have changed very little.
Let’s go back to your beginnings. You are from the Italian city of Napoli, but you live in Sweden now.
I come from the center of the city of Naples. It is hard to imagine a place that is more different than Stockholm, where I live now. I have studied at the conservatory in Naples. Then I moved to Stockholm to study, went back to Naples after that … and roughly two years ago I permanently moved to Stockholm.
Tell me a bit about Naples.
If we're talking about history, then it's a very good place to be. It’s a very old city. You can almost feel it is older than Rome. There is a kind of vibe there that comes from being such an ancient place and being built on previous layers of it. There is a very strong link to the sea and to the Mediterranean, which was another reason that I actually picked "Karthago" as a title – because I wanted to have a link to my roots. Also geographically speaking.
How important was classical music for your musical upbringing?
II studied a lot of classical music in the beginning. I started with the guitar, later then the cello. When I started playing bass, I was already listening much more to jazz and free music. I was around 16, 17, when I started with that. Besides from classical music, I was also listening to a lot of rock music in my formative years. But I guess the two big pillars in my life are classical music and jazz. When I studied at the conservatory, I was studying jazz. And later, when focusing on composition, I got back into the classical world.
What brought you to the upright bass?
I started with electric bass. That was because I was a big fan of all those funk records and Motown music in the beginning. Someday a friend gave me this record and introduced me to the Jaco Pastorius Big Band, “Word Of Mouth”, and that was an eye opener. That latter brought me to Bill Evans, in particular the record "You Must Believe In Spring". That was when I said: I want to play upright bass. I had a lot of fun, except when carrying the upright bass. It was challenging, but probably that's what made me stick to it. It was big, it looked hard to play and it took some time to get a good sound out of it. I often like the things that don’t come to you immediately. And that’s what I ended up doing.
Was there a good jazz scene in Naples when you grew up there?
Yes there was. Naples also always had a big rock and pop scene. But a lot of kids were into jazz because it was a more imaginative music, it seemed to be more fun. I think what brought a lot of us together was the fun to explore. You didn’t necessarily need to stick to some pre-organized things. There was this collective with which we met bi-weekly and played free music. A lot if it. It was a good time, it was a social thing. A lot of great musicians came from that scene.
So was that were you developed your improvisational skills.
Yes and that’s also where I met Stefano [Falcone] and the members of the trio, Kosmos. We have one album, another one will be out quite soon, this spring. That’s also a part of the story. In a way that was what kept me interested. It’s nice to play improvised music, but it’s also good to play with others in more traditional patterns. In my case, it served the purpose of honing my skills on the jazz language and the bass especially.
Did you study composition in Sweden or was it also jazz studies?
That was jazz, too — a masters degree. I did pick a lot of composition courses, though. In Sweden it’s very organized, everything works very well in the education department. The school had a lot of resources, they have a very good library and you could study a lot of cross subjects from the classical fields. And that’s what I did. I enjoy it a lot.
You play upright bass, cello, guitar…
And piano as well.
Do you compose on the piano?
Yes, it’s the best way. It gives me the largest picture. Sometimes I’ll come up with a bass line on bass. But if you’re writing for a bigger ensemble, the piano is the best option, because you can play a lot of voices at the same time and see how they work together. That’s harder with bass, you have to use your imagination.
When you present your music to your musicians — are the pieces already fully fleshed out, written-down ideas?
Sometimes they are, most of the time they are not. To give you an example: The first tune of the record is arranged for seven instruments. There's two extra horns, one trombone and one cornet. That one was totally arranged. I mean, they didn't play one note that was not written, except in the solos. Those forms were very neat. But most of the time I bring music that is arranged up to a point – and I am very open for suggestions. That was actually the hardest part in this project: To find musicians that I wanted to play that music with, knowing that I am not the kind of person that writes down every note. I wanted to involve musicians who have strong personal voices and who could play that kind of music and give it the direction that I had in mind. When composing I have the person in mind who I am writing for — rather than just writing down a lot of notes.
It’s an interesting line-up indeed — having the trio as a fundament and then augmented by the reeds.
Actually it’s even double reads! I love the sound of woodwinds and I wanted to give it more depth and a little less brilliance, so to speak. Whenever brass gets into the scene, it uplifts everything. When you think of symphonic orchestras, the brass section is the one that pierces through the wall of sounds. I like the timbre of the woodwinds — and there's a lot of reeds. There’s baritone, there's alto, even bass clarinet. We have recently also added alto flute, so it becomes a reed fest on stage (laughs). That's a lot of horns. Also, I wanted no piano on the record. I have Andreas Hourdakis on guitar, he’s very recognisable. He has the same background as me, we were both Heavy Metal people when we were growing up. He brings that with him, he’s not afraid to go full distortion and burn. That’s fun!
Andreas Hourdakis was also part of Magnus Öström’s band.
Yeah! He also had his own trio and he’s part of a lot of bands over here. He also has this metal band, they’re called Bitch Hawk, you have to check them out!
Sweden (or Scandinavia in general) has a very distinct jazz sound and culture.
Yes, it also has an enormous folk background. Choirs are very big here. When I started listening to a bit of the folk and choral music, I was very struck by it. As you said, it has a very distinct sound. When you listen to some of the folk music, it has odd rhythms, often times not very simple harmonic progressions. And the melodies are just beautiful. Of course they also have a very own jazz sound. When you think of Nordic jazz: that’s a very specific idea. There’s a lot of space, a certain melancholy that is inherent to Swedish music. Which is very special — and not sad, but more contemplative. There’s also a very rich scene here, a lot of projects, a lot of bands. Generally, people are not afraid to have a vision and go for it. This was probably the greatest thing that impacted me when I moved here: I felt that I was among peers, in a situation in which I should not be afraid to make my voice heard. It gave me the necessary confidence to put out this music that I had in mind.
I’ve always had the impression — and that might of course be a stereotype in itself — that a lot of Swedish musicians are generally very fond of experiments and do not necessarily cling to the Real Book that much. Which I always found rather refreshing.
Yeah, I totally agree. And that is paired with the proverbial Swedish niceness. Everybody’s nice, you don’t have a harsh crowd. That encourages you to come out, because nobody’s afraid of experimenting. There’s also a big free scene in Stockholm, I have seen some really special stuff here!
Ilaria Capalbo's new album "Karthago“ is out January 14th, 2022. You can find more information about the artist on her official website.