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Behind The Curtain: Rita Chiarelli

By Erin McCallum. Photo Credit: Denise Grant

With every instalment of Behind The Curtain, the purpose is to bring readers something about the featured artist that isn’t found elsewhere. The formula for achieving that goal is to feature prominent and successful artists who have made significant contributions to the Canadian Blues Collective – artists whose bios are extensive, accessible, and identifiable prior to arriving at this column. The rationale for this process is to be able to investigate artists who are established enough that any reader can look beyond the confines of this column and easily find out more, leaving this space to go much deeper than the introduction. At the same time, the artists featured in “Behind The Curtain” must be identifiable enough that readers want to know more about their processes, inspiration, advice, or anything else that provides interesting insight that can’t be found elsewhere. In some ways, that’s a tall order; looking for something unique within the biographies of well established, well documented, artists is a layered process that can sometimes take years of study before the most interesting curiosities emerge. Basically, the more that is known about the artist in question, the more challenging it can be to bring readers something exclusive. This month’s feature is one that rises to the challenge. After about 15 years of studying the versatile biography of Rita Chiarelli, it was time to have the conversation, and investigate what is at the nucleus of that successful career.

Rita Chiarelli is an easy artist to describe, for those who need introduction; the fact is that she is the most awarded woman in Canadian Blues music history. Predominantly a singer, she boasts a 3 octave vocal range that is unmistakeably hers. Chiarelli is also a prolific songwriter, and has been an actively performing full time musical artist for approximately half a century. She has won every major Blues award that is Canadian based (multiple Maple Blues Awards, CBC’s Great Canadian Blues Award, Toronto Independent Music Award, Hamilton Music Awards, Manitoba Blues Society, Hamilton Blues Society’s Lifetime Achievement Award, Maple Blues “Blues With A Feeling’ Award, and a JUNO, by my recollection), and she has toured internationally multiple times. She has been dubbed by many as “The Goddess of the Blues” in Canada, yet her portfolio is peppered with adventurous undertakings – including a traditional album (“Cuore”) of Italian Folk songs (which won a Canadian Folk Music Award in the prestigious World Music category), a collaboration with a symphony orchestra, and even delving into the film industry (“Music From the Big House”, which premiered in New York and LA, California). The aforementioned is, by no means, a full description of Rita Chiarelli’s resume, but it does provide enough information to justify the idea of wanting to know more about what it is that lies at the core of her success and longevity. Through a candid conversation, curiosities were answered; although the interview went in many directions, one truth about Rita Chiarelli was threaded within all of her answers. In a quest to share that takeaway and provide readers with that exclusive look ‘behind the curtain’, it’s important to put some of the conversation “on the record”….

The conversation started with a question that could only be answered by Rita Chiarelli. I asked her what she thinks about being the “most decorated woman in Canadian Blues history”:

“Well, I’ve been around for a long time (laughs)! As far as being the “most decorated”…I’ll tell you something. Awards and nominations are great, but what it comes down to is just being as great as you can be. That’s something that can’t be awarded, and it can’t ever be taken from you. Be great at what you do – evolve, be innovative, and be great. That’s what has given me longevity – giving someone the best live show that they have ever seen or experienced. At the end of the day, it’s about how you make people feel. Although I appreciate them, I don’t like to think about the Awards so much – it’s the REwards that are really meaningful to me. The reward is in things like playing your music and knowing that people are connecting with the music - and each other – no matter where you might be in the World, or what language people speak. Being as great as you can be – even if it’s not the most popular thing, or it’s something nobody has done before, is something that cannot ever be awarded or taken from you – that’s when the rewards come.”

In learning Chiarelli’s thoughts about her acknowledgements in the Canadian Blues music industry, it made sense to ask her if she had any words of wisdom or advice for other artists who are looking to follow the trail she blazed. She offered this:

“As far as giving any words of wisdom goes….What I hope is that my career might be what serves as inspiration for aspiring artists. I say that humbly. I really hope that people see that I’ve gone about my career just trying to be the best I can be. There’s something to be said about living it for a lifetime, and I hope that people can take pieces from my life’s work and let it serve as any advice. One thing that I’ve always lived by is to never give up, and never take any of it for granted. Maybe people can look at my career and see that going outside of what might be considered “safe” or expected can be things that are innovative and successful. The advice I would give anybody who is looking to be a full time artist is to be true to yourself, and always be the best you can be at what you are doing.”

The discussion continued, covering an array of topics that were based around the rewards and accomplishments Chiarelli has encountered over the course of her career. When discussing some of the experiences that stand out to her (Working alongside the Thunder Bay Symphony Orchestra for the highly acclaimed “Uptown Goes Downtown Tonight” collaborative production, working alongside esteemed Canadian symphonic Conductor Boris Brott, developing and starring in the documentary style film “Music From The Big House”, and stories of how rewarding it has been to make a personal impact on listeners through the connection of her music), Rita offers her thoughts:

“With respect to rewards, I’ve been lucky that way. I’ve had a number of rewarding things, and it’s hard to pin down to one or two things. As your career unfolds, the rewards look different, based on where you’re at – step by step, the rewards are something that, in the moment, are important milestones. As you evolve or grow, those milestones are different, and so are the rewards.”

While discussing milestones with someone who seems to have done it all with respect to doing things her way in the Blues music Collective, it made sense to ask Chiarelli about what her future rewards might look like:

“For the past few years, I’ve been concentrating on another film documentary called “Voices From A Concrete Ceiling”, and that’s been my main objective. It takes place in a maximum-security penitentiary for women. The goal is to have people see and hear women who have the courage to share their stories. In times of turmoil, it is important to tell an honest truth that reminds us that no matter what we’ve been through, we all start off on common ground… Where we end up, or where our stories go always looks different, depending on your life circumstances, but we all really do start off in the same place. In this film, through music, there is a vehicle to open the dialogue, and that’s an important statement in itself. The courage it takes to come out and tell stories of truth and abuse is really inspiring. It takes a lot of courage to go on when you face difficult things, and the women who tell their stories about how they ended up on a certain path in life is also very courageous.”

In context to the depth of the conversation, it made sense to ask Chiarelli to tell readers something that they might not know about her, simply by reading her biography or list of achievements. She says:

“I’m not sure that people really know what the struggle is with respect to being a full time musician. It’s always kind of like a “feast or famine thing”, and it can have different difficulties based on things like where you live, or what kind of music you play. I’ve been a professional musician for my entire life, and that struggle to bring people the music is ongoing. The main thing that people may not think about is the time and hours that are invested – it’s a lot. It’s your whole life, actually. For one show, you are sacrificing 22.5 hours of the day, just for that 1.5 hour. That’s the choice a full time musician makes – and it is the passion that carries you. Everything gears toward that hour and a half, and that might be something that surprises people. It is that passion – you love it that much - that carries you through all of the struggles that are in between you and that hour and a half.”

As the conversation went further behind the curtain, an organic question seemed to bring things entirely in focus. In asking Rita Chiarelli about the lessons she has learned as a lifelong artist, her answer shines a spotlight on a truth that, in hindsight, is threaded throughout the entire discussion.

“I’ve learned so much. One thing that comes to mind is that I’ve met a lot of adversity; it’s traditionally been a business that is not geared towards women, so you learn to be headstrong, and to have tenacity against that adversity. You learn to do the best you can, and have the courage to be true to your own self while you do it. To be honest with what you do and to be true to yourself is the biggest thing to live by – and that’s something that’s worked for me through every hard project that I’ve worked on. The lessons are ongoing though, even at a stage in my career where I’ve been established and recognized; even within the past few years, I have experienced the adversity that many people hesitate with going public about, for a lot of reasons. I do understand, through my experience, that it is important to have the courage to speak truth to power. I’m very inspired by the women who had the courage to tell the story of their life experience during the filming of “Voices From a Concrete Ceiling”, and that’s something many of us can connect with and learn from. Having the courage to be true to yourself – even if it means speaking truth to power – is an important lesson, and it’s one I want to be able to lead by example.”

The underlying and recurring theme, if one looks within the content of this conversation is: courage. It seems fair to conclude that it is the ingredient that is peppered throughout Rita Chiarelli’s career. Whether it’s the decision to release an Italian Folk album, breaking from standard practise and collaborating with a symphony orchestra, or telling stories of the human condition via film, courage seems to be the thread that ties her diverse biography into a body of work unique to Rita Chiarelli. In asking the questions that take readers behind the curtain, perhaps the exclusive answer can be drawn by looking at what the individual quotes suggest in their entirety.

As is the case with all instalments of this column, there is much more to know about Rita Chiarelli that cannot be covered within the confines of this particular forum. The objective in this feature has been to investigate and discover something about Chiarelli that offers readers insight into the nucleus of her creative process and musical origins. As this edition of “Behind the Curtain” draws to a close, I trust that readers of all varieties have gained something more about the artist of mention, and it inspires them to investigate further. Every artist featured in this column has a biographical foundation that cannot be covered here, so it is always encouraged to find out about the music and career that substantiates the credibility in these conversations. This article can be found each month as a regular contribution via the Sound Café with the intention of providing a deeper insight into the Canadian Blues artists who are at the core of the Blues music Collective.

Photo Credit: James Dean.

Photo Credit: Harry Dunbar Photography.

Touring blues musician, Erin McCallum's formal post-secondary education was in media studies (news, radio), graduating from Humber College in Ontario, she went on to be mentored by Canadian News Hall of Fame inductee, Robert Holiday, and she is a regularly published writer in music and investigative journalism, having focused on music for the last six years. Erin has an exclusive monthly column in The Sound Cafe featuring musicians and industry professionals from across Canada who work predominantly in the Blues & Roots genres.

Erin McCallum. Big Voice. Big Sound.

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