Italian musician Stiv Cantarelli released his first album way back in 1999, although he had been making music for some years before that. Cantarelli, along with band mates Antonio Perugini and Fabrizio Gramellini, who perform under the moniker of the Silent Strangers, recently issued ‘Black Music/White Music’, which has been warmly received by music critics everywhere.

The striking cover of ‘Black Music/White Music’, a sepia tinted collection of intriguing images that gives little indication of just how the powerful music contained within is going to sound, is the type of album cover you can lose yourself in. As is the music when you finally get past that cover and listen to the album.

For those who knew just a little about Cantarelli’s musical journey so far, expectations were that ‘Black Music/White Music’ would be rooted in the Americana genre, albeit with a punky twist. As the opening song, ‘The Boy’s Draw on the Steamed Window’ unfolds, Cantarelli’s raspy, folky vocals do little to dispel this belief. At just under two minutes, it is certainly an attention-grabbing introduction to the album. Over the next few songs Cantarelli and his band expand on this sound, mixing in more blues leanings than were expected and also, on tracks such as ‘Annie’, show a darker side to Cantarelli’s music. It makes for a fascinating and, for the most part, unique sound.

With Petrushka Morsink adding her magic touch to the tracks, ‘Black Music/White Music’ has proved to be one of the most rewarding albums of the year so far, being one of those albums that genuinely throws up new surprises and sounds months after that first captivating listen.

With such a unique and fascinating vision we felt that, with a tour planned for the end of May (it actually starts in Holland on 22nd), the time was right to try to dig a little into Cantarelli’s musical background and ask the obviously talented musician about how he originally got started in the business, how ‘Black Music/White Music’ came to be and his plans for the future. His answers were detailed, and give a real insight both into his past and how he creates his music. If you get the chance try and catch Cantarelli and The Silent Strangers as they tour the album. There is a feeling that these songs are going to work just as well on stage as they did in the studio.

PB: Your new album, ‘Black Music/White Music’, has been the introduction for many to your music, but it’s your second “solo” album and you have been in other bands. Can you tell us a little about your musical life before ‘Black Music / White Music’?

SC: I started my first band at the end of high school with two longtime friends, mainly influenced by English punk rock, the Paisley Underground movement, and classic blues bands like the Fabulous Thunderbirds. After a little while we fell in love with neo-rockabilly and with that sound we played our first show in our hometown of Forli, on the East side of Italy.

We spent much, much time looking for our truer voice, something that could contain our influences but not sound too derivative, but we still were in the middle of different music genres. Everything came together when we first listened to Uncle Tupelo, back in mid 90s. In their music there was everything we wanted to play... punk, garage, folk, blues, classic country.
At that point, we became so focused on our musical career that we started recording demos and sending them to record companies… Since I was sure there was no chance to find someone in our country that could appreciate such non-Italian music, I started spreading the word abroad, especially in the US. I sent a lot of emails and a lot of demos…Funnily enough, at that time MoodFood Records was trying to find someone that could replace Whiskeytown (who were gone to a major label) in their roster … They liked our sound, and they signed us for a four-record deal.

Our first record as Satellite Inn came out in 1999, and had promising reviews. We still were very derivative at that time, but we sure could hold our own with most of the American bands of the period. We did two American tours, participating in the CMJ Festival in New York and SXSW festival in Austin, so I decided to move to Boston and start a career there. Then, like in any story which is good for a great artist bio, everything fell apart: MoodFood filed for bankruptcy, and I couldn’t play a single note in Boston as I had to work hard to survive in one of the most expensive places of the USA.

I came back home to Italy before 9/11, and started a new musical project called Gold Rust with some old friends, mostly playing 70’s-influenced pub and classic rock. Our goal was just that, being a bar band and travelling, playing our music all over Europe whenever there was a crowd willing to listen to our songs.

I still had some good connections in Holland because of Satellite Inn, so we started playing mainly in northern Europe. Italy still wasn’t interested. We weren’t a cover band and that didn’t work for the lousy Italian scene. We did great for some years. We played in the UK for the first time in 2006, but then the band simply couldn’t carry on. We all were living different lives and music took its toll on our families.

I started thinking about a solo record in 2009, but I wasn’t sure I was good enough. I mean, I knew I was no Dylan… then some good friends of mine, Richmond Fontaine, invited me to open as a solo act on their European tour in 2010. I learned my lesson the right way, in front of a different crowd every night, who wasn’t there for me, but I did alright, I guess. So, after a night of heavy drinking in Barcelona, the guys in Richmond Fontaine offered to back me back as a band on my solo record, and to put it out on their personal label.

From that, it’s probably been the greatest period of my musical career. I received an invitation to open for a Bob Mould solo tour in Italy (and Bob wanted to listen to my songs first before saying yes… and he said yes!), then I opened for Son Volt and Langhorne Slim. Those tours, and the word that spread from there, paved my way to my first record, ‘Innerstate’, that came out in November 2011 and did good all over the European waves.

I opened (as a band, for the first time billed as Stiv Cantarelli and the Silent Strangers, as I rejoined with my two old fellas Antonio Perugini and Fabrizio Gramellini, who had played with me in both Satellite Inn and Gold Rust) for Richmond Fontaine’s European tour again, with also some UK gigs on our own as headliners.

After that, it’s been turning the page and starting something new. I knew I didn’t want to do another ‘Innerstate’, and switching on some more rock-oriented sound along with darker landscapes has been just natural to me. At that point, Stovepony Records and Gerry Ranson entered in my life: I had always wanted to work with a person as dedicated as he is, and also he seemed the only one to encourage me to move on to something different from the old Americana legacy that I always worked on. That was just music to my ears, and that’s why this new record is probably the one I’ve put the most of myself in.

PB: ‘Black Music / White Music’ is billed as being by Stiv Cantarelli and The Silent Strangers and it sounds very much ‘a band’ album. Were Perugini and Gramellini your first choices as the other musicians for this album?

SC: Definitely it is ‘a band’ album. Unlike ‘Innerstate,’ where the collaboration between me and Richmond Fontaine was developing through the wires, with me providing demos and them recording their parts in the US, ‘Black Music/White Music’ was created in a three day-long alcoholic session with the full line up composed by me, Antonio and Fabrizio. So there hasn’t been any doubt in my mind about how the sound had to be defined or who was better to develop it… I didn’t make any choice. It was just the mutual work of three people that came together from the start.

We closed ourselves in an old church-house on the Romagna hills, just a few miles away from we were all born (as now we live in different places, many kilometres away from each other). I brought my ideas, and they brought theirs (and the booze). We ended up with all the songs almost done (we even did some basic recordings, that ended up on the record). And a massive headache, of course.

PB: Petrushka Morsink is credited as providing space guitar, ethereal vocals and harmonica on the album. Would you agree that Morsink’s contribution really took the overall sound of the songs to another place?

SC: Without any doubt. The album wouldn’t be so good without her contribution. That has been the second, and probably the most important, part of the recording process. We needed someone who could really find the sound of the heart and soul of the record, and we knew Petrushka was the right person for the job. We knew her since she was the sound tech for the Willard Grant Conspiracy, and we were opening their gigs in Italy with Satellite Inn. She was also a big fan of Gold Rust, and helped us a lot putting on gigs in Northern Europe when we needed to play.

Not only did she find the right sound, but also her parts and her contribution on the arrangements took the songs to a whole different level… She has this unique taste that allows her to find out where and when to put a dissonant note in a context that may seem inappropriate, and make this sound so good that you end up asking yourself, “Why didn’t I think about it from the start?”… She’s awesome. We are very lucky to have her as a friend and a band member, when possible.

PB: How important was it to you to record the songs in the Romagna Hills? Do you feel the surroundings played a part in the overall feel of the album?

SC: Well, it has been important in the sense of the isolation of the location. It is uphill on a side road, and it’s not very easy to reach. The church hasn’t been a church for a very long time now, and we could have recorded everything from the pulpit if we wanted to (We didn’t, though…. There was too much reverb…). All we knew before the start was that we wanted the isolation. We wanted to stay there alone with our ideas and our music, basically not taking any influence from the outside world. It happened that the location was very close at hand, and there was no one using it. But I guess it could have happened in any other part of the world and which could provide the right amount of isolation that we needed.

PB: There’s a wonderful live feel to these songs. How complete were they when you started recording?

SC: I always have this method of recording that I have developed all over these years: I start with recording most parts of the songs, basically the core of bass, drums, and a guitar live in the studio. Playing all together, along with each other, keeping the little noises that occur while you’re playing… This record has been no different.

After the sessions we did at the church house, the songs were all finished and the basic tracks were all done. We recorded them the old way, with a reel-to-reel machine and a couple of very good vintage microphones. We chose one of the rooms with the best ambient sound, and started recording. Right there in the hills, all together. Then we moved to a friend’s studio, not very far from there, in the infamous town of Predappio, to add everything else.

Another part of my recording method is that I rarely arrange the guitars before the studio… I simply step in at some point and play along the basics until I’m satisfied, and so I did. Roberto (my studio mate) helped me a lot with mics and mixers and channels, but I’m usually good at finding the right sound. Then Petrushka came in from her studio in Enschede to add the magic.

PB: The album has been rated by those familiar with your earlier work as your best album to date. Would you agree with that?

SC: It’s definitely a good record. I’m proud of it but, as with everybody else involved in songwriting and recording music, you always have a feeling that you could have done something better. Don’t get me wrong! I love ‘Black Music/White Music’. It’s probably the most personal album I’ve ever made but, as soon as the album is finished and you can’t change it anything anymore, I’m always in the mood of the “What if?”... Probably it’s just because I’m always demanding more from myself and from the way I write songs, and I can’t help but feel there’s something missing.

PB: There’s a definite blues feel to some of these songs although the punky take on folk that you’ve been associated in the past is never too far out of sight. Would you agree that you’ve introduced more blues elements to your songs this time?

SC: I sure agree with you. I fell in love with delta blues and down-home blues one year ago, after searching for some soul-related music. Something that could help me express the dark side of me in a way I never did before, and I think there was no better feeling than the one the old bluesmen taught me with their songs.

I’ve spent a lot of time trying to listen to every artist I could put my hands on, from Robert Johnson to Alvin Youngblood Hart, as well as trying to learn some of their guitar techniques. It’s been a very joyful and satisfying ride, and I am at the point that I believe that the blues will never go away from my future compositions. I don’t want to say I’ll be a blues musician, but I’ll sure try to find a way to play my blues or what blues means to me. That I think was the original purpose of the masters. Right now I’m obsessed by Son House and John Lee Hooker, but I’m sure there’s a lot more out there that I just need to discover.

PB: While your story-songs like ‘Mahogany Jones’ are obviously not totally autobiographical (hopefully!), there are lines scattered throughout most of the songs that sound incredibly personal. It’s like you’ve put at least a small part of yourself lyrically into each song. Would you agree with that?

SC: Well, I guess it’s something related with being a songwriter, or maybe the way I see being a songwriter. Though most of my subjects are fictional, on almost every song you can find a line, or part of the story that comes from a personal experience. Or, better, a way I thought those experiences could be handled, or come to an end. Writing fictional endings on real stories, that may have happened to me or to someone I know very well, it’s always been something I tried to develop a song around.

Mahogany Jones is a fictional character, but the guy that has been kicked out from the company he dedicated his life to is not fictional at all. The fact that, on the song, everything ends in blood it’s obviously a product of my imagination. Or my wishes. Who knows?

PB: Do you have a favourite song on ‘Black Music / White Music’ or one that you enjoy playing live more than the others?

SC: You know, the fact that on this album we switched from the more-known Americana landscaped to a less-known territory of blues and post punk makes me appreciate more the songs where those new influences are more evident, like on ‘Captain Blues’, or ‘Dark Times Blues.’ Writing those songs has been a real turning point for me, I discovered I was able to write something more than the sad ballad I learned so well during the years of Satellite Inn and Gold Rust.

As for the live show, I’ve always been a punk rocker so fast and short, raw songs just suit all well on me… but again on the last tour we discovered that stretching out, changing the pace, putting the dynamics up and down on a song like ‘Dark Times Blues’ has someway reached our audience too, so we ended up doing it better and better on every live show. Right now, I guess ‘Dark Times Blues’ is the more fun to play. Just because we can do a different version of it every night. So we don’t get bored…

PB: Taking a more blues-based base has set this album apart from your previous work, taken it in another direction maybe. It has proved successful, so do you have any plans for a follow-up keeping the same feel or are you likely to change direction again?

SC: Like I said before, now it’s really hard for me to see a direction that could run away from the blues influences I have learned during the last year. It’s been a kind of natural development of the dark side of my music, and god knows I’ve always been interested in the dark side of things.

One thing that now I couldn’t know is if some other of my early influences could have such a massive impact on my compositions… You know, the blues (even if in a different, lighter form) has been there since I started learning my first three chords, and it’s been hidden for a long time just to come up on top when I needed it to supply more inspiration. But there’s a lot more out there: I just started exploring my early post-punk influences, or the fact that such very different genres as 50s music or hardcore had both a huge influence on me when I was a kid.

It’s very unlikely I’ll try to change everything like I tried to do with ‘Black Music/White Music’, but I’ll sure try to better develop those sides I discovered I could handle pretty well on this record. After that, what the future brings… no one really knows. I hope to be able to write the best record possible…

PB: Does the music you are listening to at the time influence your writing? What music currently excites you?

SC: To be honest with you, I don’t get interested in new music in the same way I did when I was a kid. You know, it’s not because of the music, or the genres, or the times. Every era has had its masterpieces and its rubbish. I simply find that digging in the past satisfies me more than discovering new bands. Maybe it’s a consequence of the age, or maybe I’m getting lazy, but I can’t name more than a few bands that really made me say, “Wow! I wish I would have written this!”

I love the Black Angels a lot, and also the Drones. Jack White is another guy that I’m interested in everything he does, he’s a bloody genius. Other than that, I stick with my past champions: The Who, Husker Du, Richmond Fontaine and Gun Club. And every delta blues singer I could put my hands on.

PB: There are some intriguing images on the CD inlay; can you explain why at least some of them were chosen? One feels that there’s a story behind each picture.

SC: Well it’s always been one of my ideas, to put some images on the inlay card that could connect the listener to some of the songs, even if they’re not strictly related… ‘The Greenwich Foot Tunnel’ is about my love for London and all the music that came from there. There’s also a picture that my wife made at the English Cemetery in Florence, where the last descendants of William were buried. A Mod Shop in Brighton, which represents a culture and a place that had a great influence on me. Also, the grave of an Unknown Soldier in my favourite hiding place in the world, the Scottish Isle of Colonsay.

But most of all this record is about my family: my grandfather, who passed away last year, he’s on the front cover, during WWII. My grandmother, who died when I was a young boy, and my mother. I just thought that those images could visually match up perfectly with the sound on the record, as they represent something that has been, and still is, very important in my life. Like my music does.

PB: What’s next for Stiv Cantarelli and The Silent Strangers? Are you going to tour the album more?

SC: For sure! We love to tour. The stage is the only place where I believe we can really express ourselves. You could do great records in studios, but only the live dimension gives a clear idea of how good you are, in my opinion. We would be touring all the time if we could, but our day jobs won’t allow us to do more than a few tours every year… anyway, we’ll come back on the road to support the new record at the end of May, first in Holland and then back in the UK.

We’ll play Holland from May 22nd to 26th, and then we’ll cross the pond to play a fabulous lot of gigs in Britain… A great Bank Holiday Bash in Southend-on-Sea at The Railway Hotel on the 27th (a double set, like those days of old…), then we’ll play London at The 12 Bar Club on Denmark Street, Soho, on the 28th .. a dream for any Who fan like us. On the 29th we’ll come back to Cardiff and wonderful Wales, at Ten Feet Tall, where we have a growing fan base. Then we’ll play a very important gig in Winchester, on the 30th, at The Railway, as part of the Uncut Series gigs. After that, we’ll move up north to The Puzzle Inn on Sowerby Bridge, a place that I’m really thrilled to play, on the 31st . The last gig of the tour will be in Sheffield, on June 1st, at The Greystones , where you could drink the best ales of the whole north (and, be sure, we will…). Well, it’s a great little tour. We’ll be touching North and South, the Big City and the rough seaside… Can’t be happier than that. Last time we toured the UK it was a blast, and we hope this time it can be even more than that.

As for the future, we are about to release a new EP, ‘Three Sides’, with a brand new song that could tell a lot about where our sound is heading… Stovepony and Cargo will digitally release it from May 28th, and it is worth checking out, I assure you, at least for a spin on our Bandcamp website.

Then we’ll explore new territories for the new record. We already have some ideas which we wish to develop, and a brand new spectre of sounds that we’d like to include in our music.

PB: Thank you.

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