Visionary artist and creative powerhouse Andrea Signorelli is probably best known in his native Turin as the singer, songwriter, bass player and founding member of the Progressive Thrash Metal band Braindamage. But apart from that, he’s also a very talented painter, history buff, school teacher and writer. With characteristic generosity, enthusiasm and eloquence, he discusses his views on creativity and literature. Thanks Andrea!
- What’s the difference, for you, between the different modes of art. When you paint a picture, for example, are you intending to create a different effect than when you write a song?
First and foremost, let me thank you for defining me as a writer: Among the many appositions you used to introduce me, writer is the one I surely deserve the least, but well, thank you!
The creative process, to me, is strictly related to the idea of fighting demons and trying to bring oneiric matter to a defined state of being, (you may remember the film The Last Wave, where Aboriginals bring matter from the Dream Time). I can’t tell any difference between painting, writing and composing a song, since the three processes evoke one another. I always listen to music while painting or writing, need to draw while composing and have an image in mind while I am finding the words for the lyrics of Braindamage’s songs. It’s like cooking: you need something to drink, good music in the background, the right weather, and love for the person you’re preparing the meal for, perhaps mixing in ingredients one would never use in that recipe, unless the whispering demon suggested so. Art is for art’s sake people used to say who deserved to be defined as Artists. I create here, because something elsewhere is after me.
- Having been lucky enough to read a draft of your novel, I recognize several of its characters also appear in your lyrics (for example Queen Acadienne). I’m curious to know more about the creative process – did you visualize the entire story first and then use it as a common source for lyrics and novel, or did the idea develop as a series of songs?
I would dare to assert that each image, character, note, drawing, reminiscence of a shadow in the back of my mind or ghost in the corner of my eye, is a living thing, provided with the ability of evolving autonomously. A philosophical ideal that had a strong fascination on me was the concept of Hyperuranium. The lunar world where Astolfo finds Orlando’s wits in Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso describes a similar place, where things are lost and found. There is a model, somewhere in the dungeons of my brain, and this model is waiting to be summoned and to take part in the real world. Once an image appears it is difficult to me to eradicate it. It takes a shape, a name, features and self-defines its presence in my world through continuously suggesting to me how it could be and what it is for, passing the threshold between the two worlds to stay or to fall back and disappear into the shadows again. As for Acadienne I, just to mention one, it started with the image of a woman–I could only see her back, red dress and hair. Her face was covered by a golden mask, reflected in a small mirror. I had to paint her and she came “to life”. Then a name was suggested to me as I was reading a book about the Seven Years War, a pale vision of her features took shape, her character arose as I wrote about her and then she claimed her place in Braindamage’s songs. I sing about her pain, her bitterness against her mother, her relentless recourse to floating mirrors and tarot cards with questions about the future, and her desperate fight against her sister, the ruthless queen who reigns from Narvik to Florence, advised by a white cat, in the desperate world to be in my book-paintings-songs.
- The lyrics for Braindamage (in all eight albums!) are in English. Did you originally write them in Italian? If you wrote them in English first, did you find that composing in a foreign language allowed you to access a different voice?
At the very beginning of Braindamage, back in 1988, my English was barely acceptable, survival-level, I think. Nonetheless I was arrogant enough to think that I could write the lyrics directly in English.
I made lots of errors, but nobody pointed them out … then I got used to conceiving what I could write, skipping Italian and thinking in English, which, in the long run and when I eventually improved my knowledge of your language, helped me a lot in creating sentences that satisfied me. I love Italian and have done my best to speak it and teach it to my pupils the best that I can, but as for composing the lyrics of the songs–let alone the fact that Italian does not match with metal–English is perfect. It can express strong concepts with fewer words and has the reminiscences and resonance of a distant world, to me, both in time and in space.
- I know you’re a huge fan of Moby Dick. Why does this novel mean so much to you? Are there any other works of fiction that inspire you to the same extent?
I am shivering at this very moment, while trying to address a shape to such a meaningful question.
Moby Dick is not a book, is The Book. In my humble opinion, let this be clear. Every time my thoughts plunge into the ocean where some of the images and characters of Moby Dick (The Book, henceforth) are woven, I ask myself “Why am I so fond of it and always have been?”. A part of my inner self simply remains silent, because the answer is so obvious to it that it would not be worth the while wasting words. Nevertheless, I have to give a reasonable answer to the question, even to myself.
It all started tens of years ago, a child, watching Gregory Peck tearing the hell out of his soul, on top of the Pequod, suffocating St. Elmo’s fire on his harpoon and riding The Whale just to find his death and calling Pequod’s crew soon to follow him. That was the film, an amazing one, I think, whereas all the other film transpositions of The Book deeply disappointed me. I have Cesare Pavese’s translation in Italian of The Book, despised by many readers (“It is Moby Dick written by C. Pavese, not Melville”), although I was immediately fascinated by it. I must made clear that, at that time, I was a voracious reader of sea-adventure books, and The Book was a natural step in my playlist.
Awareness came later, many years later. The Book retains the entire path of a man’s life. It begins like Dante’s Comedy, lost in haze in the middle of his life, continues like The Odyssey, through enchantment, monsters, thirst and a desperate search for an answer, and finishes like The Akallabêth , with Ahab as Ar-Pharazon, bringing all the rest of his folk to ruin, in the meaningless task of looking god in its eyes, asking “Why?”, just to be dissolved into unanswered dust. I discovered, through time, that each of the characters could be oneself, from Ishmael to Ahab, passing through Queequeg and Tatshego. Pequod’s crew is like a tarot deck, each card depicting a character, building the fate and path that will lead to madness and ruin. Ahab has no remorse in using the capital, industry and manpower that are not his property and that he should use for the good of the people to pursue his personal revenge. He infringes the rules of Protestant society, putting himself above all reason and common sense, because he wants to know the answer to the unspoken question: did god create us for the good of mankind or is it just a remorseless, insensitive blindfolded child who plays with toys without knowing that they are living, breathing, suffering thinking and dying?
It’s important to me because it retains all the questions I always ask myself, every day. I love it because it is a timeless endeavour : “Ahab is for ever Ahab, man. This whole act’s immutably decreed. ’Twas rehearsed by thee and me a billion years before this ocean rolled.” Nothing is real anymore, aboard of Pequod, since the crew swore they would hunt Moby Dick, instead of doing their duty as whale-hunters. The men on Pequod are trapped in a time-loop, time and time again and so are we. This world is The Book, I am part of it, it is a fact immutably decreed…
- How would you describe the importance of creative expression in your life? Is it catharsis, play, meditation, or something else?
Rather than the importance of the single, peculiar moment and how would it affect a short period of time, I would like to talk about the crucial aspect of expressing oneself over a lifetime, which has actually happened to me. Art is our playful way to create things which could not otherwise exist in this world. I had an entire world to bring out and an angering tsunami that could not make its way from the depths of the ocean up to the surface. I was scared of myself, of my thoughts, of my desires, my feelings and images deep within my very soul. They urged at my door, asking for a release but I did not want to let them out. Music was the first and pivotal vehicle to give a creative form to all this. Music, particularly Metal, paved the way for my monsters to see the sunlight without causing harm, getting civilized, little by little, disarming them of their weapons, getting along with one another: myself and Them.
Starting painting and drawing was a turning point in this process, it allowed me to give a face and a shape to the demons, fixing their features but preventing them from taking a foothold as conquerors. They are sort-of allies. My creative process never ceases, not even at night, during my dreams, which are a separate world, pretty similar to that built up by Randolph Carter. But this would take another page alone…
- How do your roles of teacher and artist intersect? Do they complement or feed each other somehow? How do you encourage students’ creativity?
The role of teacher implies so many aspects it would be quite annoying mention them all, but the fact that I had so much interest in arts helped me a lot both in building a personal curriculum and in connecting with the pupils. Children have a natural skill in creating things, drawing, painting, as well as pretending to be someone they are not, in order to play games together. My duty is to encourage and protect their personalities, will for expression and to accompany them throughout the path of childhood, giving them all the necessary tools, strength and courage they need to face life. As a matter of fact, there are lots of things that I learn from them in a mutual exchange of knowledge, feelings, discoveries, fear-facing challenges and quest for the unknown. My students, whenever they have accomplished their tasks along the day (eight hours every day), are authorized to get their drawing sheets and draw, create, write, colour, build at will. I never judge any of their creations unless they don’t use all the space on the paper or waste materials. They’re allowed to hang up their creations so that the rest of the classroom can share them and every day I make them watch , for 20 minutes or more, all the classics of animation films, especially Miyazaki, but also cartoon series, old adventure films which we can later discuss. I draw a lot together with them and some of my drawings are side by side with theirs on the wall. I play some music, of various genres and read a lot of books, tales, epic literature varying the text with funny sentences and fake characters (like the menacing Cicciobello doll who rides a wicked goat ruining all the tales, and who appears here and there for the children’s hilarity). I showed them spinning tops and they immediately started building them with Lego and other materials. There was a project to make a fabulous spaceship, which they later realized with toy bricks. There is no limit to imagination and I always try to trigger their will for creation.
- Can you talk about the Tolkien school project you’re working on?
Well, I planned a project, funded by European community one year ago, together with some colleagues of mine, based on the idea of making the children act in English, with an English native speaker specialist who I would back as tutor and with a multimedia expert who would teach the kids how to prepare, film, cut and assemble a video of their own plays. The project, which lasts for two years, was accepted but not in the time I hoped, se we had to cut down on the hours which were reduced from 60 to 30 for the first year. I had to settle for it and withdraw from my initial idea (a theatre play of Tolkiens’ Bridge of Kazad-dum , from LOTR), to a more realistic The Castle Which Could Not Stand, an English legend about Vortigern, Merlin that has been very dear to me since childhood. The pupils from a 5th grade class, together with Susan, the Australian specialist and Alessio, the film-maker, enthusiastically embraced the project, realizing a short video of professional quality and the kids performed it in front of the parents at the end of the school year. Next year we have 60 hours and we shall face my original task, with more experience and the same enthusiasm that led us through the previous year. I’m already trying to write down some of the script because we start as soon as October.
- You have a strong interest in history, evident in songs like ‘Seven Feet of English Soil’ about the Battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066. What is the distinction or relationship between fiction and history, in your view? Are you a fan of historical fiction?
Many famous metal bands have written songs about historical topics throughout their careers, but most of them take a didactic attitude, describing famous events and, often, battle. I am not interested in that since History is a sacred subject to me. I don’t want to substitute books, which took years and great effort for famous scholars to write, with a twenty-line text in rhymes inspired by Wikisomething and often full of errors. My interest is to merge human feelings and history with one another, overlapping facts that actually occurred in a sort of rêverie. I’m not Manzoni or Scott, they were true writers; I can’t be anything but a minstrel, a storyteller by the fireplace, who tries to evoke spirits to amuse the audience.
The concept of time, this is important. I see time as a screw that constantly turns, which never ceases to penetrate reality, giving the impression of moving forward but actually remaining in the same place. Time brings on events so they apparently follow one another, but in my opinion they just take the place occupied by the previous one, substituting its substance with reshaped matter; it is all at the same time, same place, with the same actors with different make up.
Reality uses history to reassure itself of its existence. History uses reality to tell us a partial truth or a complete lie, we use them both to play on.
I’m not a fan of historical fiction, most of them are just as bad as their actors and directors, twisting facts and figures in order to show good-looking actors/actresses with fashionable contemporary haircuts to attract more viewers. Some of them are terrible…
- There is a hint of supernatural menace in your work, a sense that humans are more or less the pawns of higher powers. I am reminded of Giorgio di Maria’s The Twenty Days of Turin, the tale of a city famed for its sinister side. Do you see yourself as part of this Torinese tradition?
Rather than part of the Torinese tradition, I consider myself a sort of piece of furniture of Turin, a brick in the walls, a statue in its parks, one of its living shadows and ghosts which merrily stroll along its wide, empty, sunny boulevards. My mother’s forebears moved to Piemonte from France in 1696, settling in Turin after some decades. I feel lost when I am far from Turin, although I’ve often gone abroad for leisure and concerts, and I’ve visited most of England and the town of York between 2006 and 2010 for reasons too long to mention.
Turin is to me what Boston was to Randolph Carter: the world beyond the mirror of consciousness. The Twenty Days of Turin represents to my cultural formation the Milestone, together with listening to Blue Oyster Cult and reading their lyrics. Turin, in the ’60s and ’70’s gained its fame due to the presence of people like [Gustave Adolfo] Rol , [Gianluigi] Mariannini and [Lorenzo] Alessandri. There soon followed some movies like Profondo Rosso and books like La Donna della Domenica, which bolstered the idea of a Town halfway between Good and Evil. I don’t want to state what I think about this wicked aura but I must admit that it had a strong influence in my formation. I believe that we are under threat, that we are less than pawns on a cosmic chessboard: we are simply to creation what cockroaches are to us, nothing. We are schwas in the Italian alphabet, (they don’t exist) and somewhere in time, a restless power from beyond will decide to use our blue marble as a place to spend his everlasting summer, using us as carpets. Moreover, it shall become another source for boredom for them, a faceless whispering suggestion that leave us to misery and famine before it leaves in search of another plaything.