Lasting songs have to resonate with the public

Thanassis Papaconstantinou, one of the country’s most spirited contemporary songwriters, has just released a new album, «I Vrochi Apo Kato,» his seventh studio album in just over a decade. He shared some thoughts in an interview with Kathimerini. Tell us a little about your new album. How would you describe it to somebody who hasn’t heard it? I’d say that Janacek shakes hands with Soulis Gioulekas and that Satie plays piano on a snow-covered rooftop in Chimara, while a butterfly makes the mistake of entering a Parisian brothel through the window. Are there songs on the album that may be difficult for you to play live? Many are constructed in such a way that probably won’t allow me to ever play them live. So – people – go buy the album! But at the end of the liner notes you write: «I’d like a response from the public, but if there is none, I’ll resort to the album’s opening song» – «Like lighting from afar/whatever was unable to exist/tears apart the night in a rush/silently and then goes out…». Does an artist create for oneself? I think an artist creates only for oneself. And even that probably isn’t right. The real artist creates detached from oneself. He or she is in turmoil and reaches out to the collective unconscious with the fingertips…. and, depending on the level of naivete, the result either grabs the listeners or not. What makes a project pass the test of time, and which album of yours would you classify as having done so with certainty? Time is the ultimate judge, but we’re not exactly sure of what the criteria is. How exactly does art resist the deterioration of time? A satisfactory answer I could give to that is ‘when it’s deeply linked with people.’ A project carrying this quality can move both the individual who’s unsuspecting, naive and untainted by knowledge as well as the intellectual who has managed to harness knowledge. In other words, when it is able to bring tears to both my grandmother’s eyes and those of [the late philosopher] Cornelius Kastoriadis. As for an entire album of mine, I can’t think of one. Maybe one or two little songs – and I say that with great hesitation. How much attention do you pay to criticism? It interests me, both as an artist and listener. As a listener, it helps me learn and select. The trick here is to find the critics that suit your tastes. You save time and money. As an artist, criticism helps me in a variety of ways. A good review – not one that goes over the top – offers strength for what’s to come, especially when one’s still beginning and scared. I’ll always remember the good words [local critic] Argyris Zilos wrote about [1993’s debut album] «Aghia Nostalgia» in [the local entertainment guide] Athinorama, as well as the surprise I felt when I was listening to the radio back then and heard [radio producer and journalist] Vassilis Angelikopoulos say good things about [the song] «Kakos Lykos» (Bad Wolf)… How do your 20-year-old twin sons judge your music? I won’t forget what they said when they were young kids, about five or six years old. «You’re good but Markos – meaning Vamvakaris [rembetika legend] – is better. I no longer pay attention to their remarks. I suspect that they crank me up so I can send them more money. How do you judge a good song? There’s the fundamental factor of material being able to establish a deep link with the people, which I mentioned before, as well as other subjective criteria. Just to name a few, when I listen, the song’s got to: make me feel bigger than the place I’m at; allow me to communicate with the natural environment; make me feel taller; make me want to share it with others; prompt me to grab my instrument, or let go of it… Your lyrics generally refer to death a lot. Does the issue occupy your thoughts as much as it seems? I think that, inwardly, I’m preparing myself for this big moment. And I’m probably afraid of it… You’ve said in a previous interview that you consider [Dionyssis] Savvopoulos to be greater than [Manos] Hadjidakis and [Mikis] Theodorakis. Why? More appropriately, I’d say that Savvopoulos touched me more than any other contemporary Greek composer. That can’t really be explained… But I can say that Savvopoulos is more complete as an artist – musically, lyrically and in terms of interpretation – and that, up to a certain period of time, boasts an impressive lack of inconsistency. I must also admit that from a certain point on, many of the inconsistent phases become equally impressive. In recent years, you’ve worked with [vocalist] Martha Frintzila on a steady basis. Haven’t you thought of collaborating with other female singers? Martha and I haven’t completed our collaboration yet. Once that happens, I’d like to work with Eleni Vitali. I also respect Haris Alexiou and have made an attempt to work with her, but the things I do don’t sit well with her. The truth is my material is highly personal which makes it difficult for others to handle. When working with other musicians, how much freedom to intervene do you give them? Following the song’s birth – which, until now, has been a lonely process for me – comes the time for recording. Once there, it takes a team effort and collective energy that exceeds the individual effort. After all, music is one of the few things left that can bring people closer together against the dominant trend of fearing others. So I enjoy rehearsals and recording sessions, and leave the playing field open for the musicians when it comes to the arrangements. One could say that I do this because I can’t arrange songs myself, since I’m a mediocre, empirically taught artist. But it’s not exactly that, because many of the demos I give to the musicians have already been arranged. I just like the unexpected. And I also respect the creativity of the musicians I work with. It would be a great pity to make such people play purely as interpreters and nothing more. Do you «borrow» from other artists? If we exclude the latest album, for which I used samples, I don’t like to steal consciously, just like I don’t like to cheat when playing cards. Nor do I consider my work to come from nowhere. We take the baton from predecessors and, if we take it a step further, well that’s a job well done.