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Monique diMattina: ‘I wanted to be the best jazz piano player ever’

The singer/songwriter, radio personality and University of Melbourne alumna talks music and life ahead of the Big Blowout Festival

For the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music’s Big Blowout Festival, I’m going to play original music from my two solo piano albums, Senses and Sun Signs. Mostly when I play gigs these days I’m singing, but it’s a lovely situation, this new University of Melbourne festival, because there’s a very broad brief. Depending on the audience and what it feels like in the room, I might sing some songs, but I’m mostly planning to play because it’s going to be a lovely piano in a really sonic space.

Monique diMattina. Picture: Sarah Enticknap

I always sang but I never sang on stages. As an introvert I felt more comfortable just playing piano, but I needed to sing my own songs after a while. When you write songs you hear exactly how you want them to go, and singing seemed to be the most efficient way to make that happen. I sort of came kicking and screaming to the role but now, after three albums of singing, I’ve created a beast.

To me, playing jazz piano was always some kind of unshakeable ideal, but initially, as a classical pianist, it seemed completely unattainable. I would listen to jazz pianists and not believe what I was hearing, that it was possible to play like that. I held it as such an apex of artistic and life achievement. When I was studying law, which I was really interested in and enjoying, it bugged me that I couldn’t improvise on piano. So I thought, I’ll take a year off law and do one year at the Victorian College of the Arts if I can get in. When I auditioned there, in 1992, I couldn’t improvise my way out of a paper bag. I’m amazed they let me in.

Dig a Hole (2013). Monique diMattina.

Being awarded the Fulbright scholarship in 2000 allowed me to go to New York in support of my masters degree, which was on one of Miles Davis’s pianists, Wynton Kelly. I waited tables at the Village Vanguard and that was fantastic because I got to hear everybody I’d idolised for years, and figure out what direction I wanted to go in. I moved away from the more experimental contemporary jazz I’d been interested in and towards the more singer/songwriter-focused stuff.

I did a project orchestrating Björk’s Dancer in the Dark. That was fantastic. I think she’s a brilliant artist and I was thrilled to be working with her team on that.

Say My Name (2011). Monique diMattina.

When my first daughter was born in Harlem in 2008 I thought we’d stay in New York, but when she was still a baby I started to think I wanted to give her all the things I had growing up in Australia – a bit more peace and quiet in her days. I decided to move back, and I’ve never regretted it. Melbourne’s a fantastic place to bring up kids.

I do a 3RRR segment on Saturdays called The Dao of Dylan. I play a Dylan song, or maybe an original that’s been inspired by Dylan, and have a chat about my observations, making some tenuous connection with Daoism or Buddhism or life … philosophy around the ideas the song throws up. I’m working up some of that material for a show called The Dao of Dylan at the Melbourne Recital Centre next year.

Monique diMattina. Picture: Sarah Enticknap

I speak Italian at home with my two girls. I’m half Italian on my father’s side. I didn’t speak Italian in the home I grew up in but have enjoyed doing that with my girls – they speak it really well. It’s just a way of keeping my heritage alive and passing it on to them. It’s a lovely thing we can share.

I ran the New York marathon in 2001. I was there during 9/11, which was obviously a pretty shocking event for the city. On the day it happened I went out to Central Park and spent the afternoon just running around the park and looking at the smoke – that was how I processed it, and I did a lot of running in the stressful weeks afterwards. I was amazed to complete the marathon because I’d never run that far before – I probably never will again.

When I was starting out I practised demonically, usually for six hours a day. I wanted to be the best jazz piano player ever. And when I look now, 20 years later, that’s so far from what I’m about. Every day I play with my girls, I sing, I write … In my twenties, my music had a kind of worried, competitive feeling to it. These days, it’s something I enjoy and love to do – what a relief!

– As told to Paul Dalgarno

Banner image: Monique diMattina

Visit Monique diMattina’s website and Facebook page for tour dates and other information.

For information on studying Jazz & Improvisation, visit the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music discipline page.

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