Originally written for Jazzgroupiez.com

A shot I snagged of Natalja performing at a street fair in Chicago, September 2017

I came upon the Coffee Studio on Clark Street, here in Chicago, just minutes past 7:30. At first, I didn’t recognize her, but this feeling made me lean in closer to see if the woman sitting there outside was her.  “It is you!”

Natalja looked up from her book, rose to greet me, and we discussed the noise of the traffic at that hour on such a busy street, and decided to take our interview inside where I could actually hear her. Ordering tea and a tasty roll, we found a place in the back to settle in for the next hour and half. I pulled out my phone to record and we laughed over testing the voice recorder and the screen going blank a few times before I had this thing figured out.

I had suspected, back at the Edgewater Arts Festival where I first heard Natalja sing, that I liked her. As our conversation through the evening progressed, I knew I had made a new friend—a kindred spirit in love with jazz and the world of music. So, I asked this Italian songstress how she got into performing.

“I think I’ve always known from an early age that I was on a search for something authentic, and that finding my voice was really a subtle but consistent goal of mine. Even if I didn’t state it out loud, there was a drive to find my voice, and I grew up with piano in my home, and music. And yes, my family on my mom’s side is very musical and artistic in general, specifically music, [but]…I got into sports. I’ve always been a strong athlete. I ended up doing synchronized swimming. It is one of the hardest sports. You have to be graceful, strong, and you have to perform, and you have to have discipline…you practice every day, [for] many hours. And it is physically [taxing], but a well-rounded sport. I would say that is how I got initiated into performing. When you go to a meet, you have to put on a specific swimsuit and make-up and you have to do your hair, and then you have this one chance to show what you’ve worked on for a year in front of judges…it’s pressure. And you use music and the body, and that expression through the body.

“I quickly discovered that is something that came naturally to me and I love it. [But I had to leave synchronized swimming] because I did not like the judging, and wanted the freedom of expression. And that took me to dance, and I started exploring the different ways of using my body, while staying connected to music. The component of music…always gave purpose to movement. That’s also how I got to be multi-disciplinary. And then I got into theatre because there’s expression of the body and voice needed support in terms of story and message.

“Synchronized swimming…that’s part of my childhood. But what really brought me back in terms of performing is that you have to do music, you have to create… You have to sit down at your piano. That was my grandfather. I find it interesting, every time I sit down with an artist who has a strong something…it is someone who has a strong connection with a grandparent, and that is me, too. I use his music…it was really him who appeared to me in a dream. I woke up and I sat down at the piano and, I was 20, and I started by using his music, and using his chords and re-learning how to play. Writing lyrics to his music and then connecting his work with my work and making that show. And that first show was called Return to Self. And it was just his music. His repertoire is pretty big. One day I want to record all his music.”

“So how long have you been performing, Natalja?”

“Well, I would say roughly since 2005. With small things before then, but when I came to Chicago that’s mainly when I started performing, choreographing, writing for music theatre… I wrote a musical with my grandfather’s music, and I’ve collaborated with composers and lyricists on smaller, ten minute things, and then I wrote my show, the Selkie. I have always gravitated towards original work rather than auditioning for existing shows. I wanted to be a part of the free process of making things. It’s kind of like my road. Sometimes I would do other people’s projects, but there were always elements of improvisation and creation on my part. And then I wound up going to school for Theatre Creators. That is heavily based on your own approach, and what you need to tell. It’s…what you make of it, but there are amazing tools for being in touch with your body and finding your authentic works.”

So I asked her how jazz figures into all of these things for her.

“Jazz to me means freedom within a structure. It means diversity, acceptance of differences, being able to step outside the box, and I always find that jazz musicians, at least on stage, look very happy—they look like they’re having fun. I come from a family where all music was present. I didn’t have that beautiful chance to see a lot of live music (because of living in a small town), but I at least had recordings…My family was very into, as far as their own music, the academic approach, like classical. Theory [was very important]…You play and read and try to be perfect. There was always the pressure of not messing up and playing the wrong note. My first approach to making music was that, and I didn’t quite like it. It made me feel like I was never good enough, because I was comparing myself to Mozart. And so jazz gave me the opportunity to see the music differently…not looking at it note by note, but looking at the chords, the progressions, the arc. It is about [my] interpretation and the story inside of that. And of course there is the practice and the discipline and the precision, but there is more playfulness. [Using] the body and the syncopation…and it’s fun to listen to.”

We spoke of many things through the evening, but I wanted her thoughts on jazz today and where she thinks jazz will head in the future.

“I have just come back from an intense week of cabaret,
 (her recent mounting of “The Selkie” in Paris), “[and]…it’s funny how there are moments in life when you are more into one part of life…So right now, Cabaret is more on my mind, but because I come from a love of jazz, my cabaret is very jazzy…I think that jazz is everlasting. There’s this discussion that Cabaret is dying or that opera is dying, or other musical forms. I don’t think anything is dying. There will always be someone passionate enough to keep it alive. And jazz I think transcends. Jazz is not really a style. Already within it there are so many ways to express.

“I see that there are a lot of musicians that record alone. They have maybe a studio at home and they can do anything. So maybe there are going to be a lot of one man bands in the future…Which is not great…the big band is not as prevalent and that’s what I love. And my voice really shines there. And that is maybe a little bit dying. I think mainly because it takes a certain level of management or organization that nowadays people can’t afford or don’t want. We’re independent…In the future I see again maybe more collaborations that require more technology and not people, like people Skyping in. But…I have faith that eventually people will be tired of isolating themselves. I’ve always been an ensemble driven artist, and it’s funny because now I find myself doing a one woman show. But because I am ensemble driven, my show still allows me to collaborate in different ways. [At one point] I had to put together a band. I have a sound engineer, and I have a friend who comes in and gives another ear [to my performances]. And in the future, maybe someone to help me with bookings. Initially I was thinking a full orchestra would be great. But realistically, it has to be [only] me.”

“So, what is something you would like for others to know about you and your music?”

“I would say that my music comes from my body awareness. And it’s been, and it is, a process of connecting many things. That, in my case, accumulates in the voice. [T]here’s a study behind my music that is really rooted in the body. I feel like a lot of people think of the voice as just something that comes out of your mouth, but it’s a whole operation. And I feel that the more you connect to your body, and the more you practice, and the more curious you are about your body…and you know your bones, and where the alignment is and you take care of the nutrition and exercise…the more you do that, the freer your instrument is, and then it is really connected to your soul. [That] is more authentic…more you. And what I want my music to do is to give that responsibility to each person to be responsible for their own self, and not try to imitate a voice or a movement, and to dedicate oneself to listening to one’s own way.”

Natalja is a woman of many talents and interests, dancing with a company in Chicago, as well as mounting her show “The Selkie” around the city (and Paris!). She also embarks on a brand new project in October 2017, combining the elements of the culinary arts and the performing arts from the same people group (such as Italy in this first manifestation). To learn more about her works, or maybe catch one of her shows, visit her website.