Culture /

Travel Through The Words of Paolo Conte

“L’artista deve essere un artigiano, deve avere degli strumenti. Se no rimane tutto una bella idea e basta.”

(“The artist must be a craftsman, he must have tools. If not, everything remains a good idea and that’s it. “)

Paolo Conte

A few months ago, the week after I came back to Italy after 10 years abroad, I received a text from my beloved friend Valentina: “Hey, do you want to go and see Paolo Conte tomorrow in Alba?” I instantly replied with enthusiasm: “WHAT?! Is Paolo Conte playing? I can’t miss him, he’s the soundtrack of my life!” We drove by Monferrato, up to Langhe and Alba, almost in silence, like we were getting ready for a spiritual experience. Mr Conte’s live set is still a perfect, well-oiled entertainment machine, where the sound of the Maestro comes to life, charming an audience of loyal fans. His music is a compelling mix of high-level genres: jazz, blues, cabaret, swings mixed with warm popular folk music such as rumba, tango, traditional french crooner melodies and Italian folklorist traditions delivered with a certain elegant aplomb and meticulous Piedmontese understatement… the shyness and discretion that reminds me of my grandfather, a true gentleman. 

Writing about Paolo Conte is a larger than life challenge. Not only because he is one of my favourite singer-songwriters, nor because he is one of the untouchable idols of the Italian music scene, thanks to his elegant style and witty songwriting, but because Mr Conte possesses the ultimate tool of the great artists, the one that only the skilled artisans can use: he can summon feelings via imaginative lyrics. Mr Conte’s thoughtful use of music and words has the capability of dragging the listener to every corner of the world, portraying ultimately distant scenarios, beautiful landscapes, dreamy lands… 

“Educated” is often an adjective used to describe his music, given the complex jazz references he uses in his songs and given the smart juxtaposition with popular music references, whose climax is perhaps Azzurro [1968] written for Adriano Celentano. Mr Conte at the early stage of his brilliant career started as a songwriter for others, the above mentioned Adriano Celentano [Il Ragazzo Della Via Gluck, 1968], Caterina Caselli [Insieme A Te Non Ci Sto Più, 1968] among others. And “educated” is also the background of the Piedmontese artist, being a lawyer and an established jazz player, since his first record in a Jazz band “The Italian Way to Swing ” by the Paul Conte Quartet [1962]. After many years of songwriting for young talents Mr Conte decided to release his first solo record in 1975, simply titled “Paolo Conte ”. Since then, he has published dozens of records, written hundreds of songs, countless masterpieces, and has helped shape the cultural reference of pop music in Italy. So much so that “Azzurro” is not only a colour, it is a way of being Italian. 

His descriptive skills, an almost figurative language, are among his many talents. Paolo Conte can fabricate music, combining colourful scenarios with the sound of instruments to convey specific feelings, like when he uses a sentimental guitar in Gli Impermeabili, metaphor of an ordinary rain falling over the feelings of the main character of the song. In music, this translates into a wise choice of instruments: a trumpet can carry the listener to Central America, and an accordion can transport us to a smoky bar in France, or a beat can lead us to the Jazz era of the roaring 20s of the 20th century. 


From a linguistic and semantic point of view, Paolo Conte choice of words can take us to the darkest bars of South America, where a musician is playing a Milonga: 

Io sono qui / sono venuto a suonare / sono venuto ad amare / E di nascosto a danzare” 

“I am here / I came to play / I came to love / and secretly, to dance” 

Alle Prese Con Una Verde Milonga 1981 


Getting lost inside his lyrics is just like spinning the globe, picking up in a random place, and living a story filled with suggestions in it. In Genova Per Noi [1975] we end up walking around the Ligurian city scared of the sea: 

“Ma la paura che ci fa quel mare scuro / Che si muove anche di notte / Non sta fermo mai” 

“How scary that dark sea is / That sea that never stops / Stirring all night long” 


Dance Halls and ballrooms are recreated by Mr Conte, in Boogie [1981]: 

“Due note e il ritornello era già nella pelle di quei due … I saxes spingevano a fondo come ciclisti gregari in fuga … E la canzone andava elegante, L’orchestra era partita, decollava…”

Two notes and the chorus was under the skin of the two dancers … Saxes were roaring behind the orchestra like cyclists on the run… The song was grooving and the orchestra was flying high…”


And in Dancing [1982]: 

“E abbiamo ripreso a masticare / Questa vecchia rumba / Ci siamo sorrisi e salutati / E siamo rimasti in pista” 

“And we were dancing / this old rumba / we smiled and greet to each others /  and we stayed in the dance hall” 


Not only sunny corners but also foggy places like the Pianura Padana in La Fisarmonica Di Stradella [1974], when he says:  

“Pianura Padana / una nebbia che sembra di essere dentro un bicchiere d’acqua e anice”

Pianura Padana / a fog that makes you feel like you are inside a glass of anise and water” 


If the words for Paolo Conte are brushes painting over canvases, our feelings are the subjects of his paintings. And so, with a touch of blue, Mr Conte can describe a sad mood and draw landscapes, just like in Nord [1982] when he gently whispers: 

“Guardando fuori un paesaggio avrai / e laggiù montagne languide / vedrai” 

“You will see a landscape / With languid mountains over there” 

…with a brushstroke of blonde he can tell us the story of the gypsies of Italy: 

Quelle bambine bionde con quegli anellini alle orecchie / tutte spose che partoriranno uomini grossi come alberi” 

“Those blonde kids with those rings in their ears / all future brides that will give birth to men as big as trees”

Diavolo Rosso, 1982 


By suggesting a burgundy car  in La Topolino Amaranto [1975] he can describe the feeling of freedom of the Italians after WWII, when he sings: 

Sulla Topolino amaranto / Dai siedimi accanto / Che adesso si va / Se le lascio sciolta on po’ la briglia / Mi sembra un’Aprilia” 

On this burgundy Topolino / Sit down next to me / That we have to go fast / When I let the car run / I feel like I am on an Aprilia”


The lyrics of Mr Conte tell stories filled with synaesthetic figures, mixing all the senses: some songs have a precise smell, such as in Boogie “Quelle drogherie di una volta / che tenevano la porta aperta / davanti alla primavera” [“Those old deli / With those doors open / In front of the spring]. Some other songs create gorgeous linguistic games like when he sings “Beviti sto cielo azzurro e alto che sembra di smalto / e corre con noi” in La Topolino Amaranto [“Drink this blue and tall sky / it looks like enamel that runs with us”]. Some other songs play with more classics topics, like Gioco D’Azzardo [1982] where words are metaphors for bitter feelings:

“Certe parole sembrano pianto / Sono salate, sanno di mare”

“Some words are like tears / salty and taste like the sea” 


All these suggestions, all these linguistic and musical tricks represent the language Mr Conte uses to express the topic of travelling. Which is, perhaps, the most important topic of the early part of his career. In his songs, men and women are escaping from their sad worlds, their ordinary lives, like in Azzurro [1968]: 

“Cerco l’estate tutto l’anno / E all’improvviso eccola qua / Lei è partita per le spiagge / E sono solo quassù in città / Sento fischiare sopra i tetti / Un aeroplano che se ne va” 

“I search for the summer all year long / And then it comes suddenly / She’s gone to the beaches / And I am here alone in the city / I hear the whistling above the roofs / an airplaine that goes away”


In Colleghi Trascurati [1990] an employee is dreaming of a better life: 

“Ma, se capita, chissà, se capita / un po’ di giungla anche per me… / e loro ascoltano…? Chissà se ridono… e se capiscono il perché…?” 

“What if this happens / a little bit of jungle also for me / are they listening to me? What if they make jokes of me / Can they really understand me?” 


Not to mention Via Con Me [1981], perhaps the epitome of this topic: 

Via via / Vieni via di qui / Niente più ti lega a questi luoghi / Neanche questi fiori azzurri” 

“Away Away / Away from here / There is nothing here that bonds you here / not even these blue flowers.” 


Songs that describe exotic landscapes that stand for inner feelings, often dreaming of freedom and emancipation. It is not by chance that one of his masterpieces is called “Appunti di Viaggio” [Travel Notes], eight songs portraying dreams, travels, heroes and stories. 

Mr Conte embodies a certain Piedmontese essence, that polite reticence in contrast to showing off, being dramatic and loud. I always admired his detached attitude in describing the world and telling stories. Like a storyteller that looks at reality, and tries to make sense of it, Mr Conte describes what he sees, and in doing so, he enters deep inside the reality, showing its roots. What’s left is often painful… there is a lot of solitude in this world, perhaps Mr Conte has found out that irony and politeness can save us all.