Kaliopi Stavropoulos: ‘Music saved my life’

Local rock legend Kaliopi Stavropoulos celebrates 40 years as a singer-songwriter and gets ready to open the next chapter in her life, creating her version of 'Greek fusion'

Kaliopi Stavropoulos has kept her first guitar, the one she started playing when she was just a child, the scratch marks on one side paying testament to the difficulty she had, managing an instrument too large for her size. So to say that she has lived her whole life immersed in music would not be an exaggeration.

This year, Kaliopi celebrates 40 years as a professional musician, a singer-songwriter and performer, having played with legends of the rock scene, fronted bands (sometimes under the moniker Bobbie Maree), appeared in Molly Meldrum’s seminal ‘Countdown’ program, been part of the ABC’s ‘Rage’ radio program, experiencing so many highs, and also, lows.

For her, it all started when she was a teenager and decided to leave Australia and spend a year in Athens, staying with her grandmother who had raised her and who had returned to Greece.

“My life changed there,” she remembers. “In Australia, schools were teacher-centred, whereas there I went to this private American school that was student-centred; you could pick your own curriculum. So I picked all these arts courses, but also maths, which is very symmetrical and connected to music. I excelled in school, but I was also out every night with my uncle, Christos Patrinos, who was a dancer and choreographer; he had appeared in many Greek movies. He was working at these night clubs in Plaka. He was often the closing act, dancing after all the singing was over.”

At the time, Plaka was one of Athens’ most vibrant neighbourhoods; an artistic hub, where small boites and bouzoukia nightclubs were next to rock bars and the city’s first jazz club. Young Kaliopi was taking everything in.

“I saw this nightlife in Athens, this beautiful creative life, and my life changed,” she remembers.

“When I returned to Melbourne, to this school where it was all about assimilation and all Greeks were supposed to be like the Anglos, I couldn’t stand it. So when I was just 17 I started playing at a cabaret bar in North Melbourne, two nights a week, as a rock guitarist and singer.”

One would imagine this being very difficult for a child of Greek migrants in late ’70s Melbourne, but this was not the case.

“My father was very open-minded. He came from a political family in Patras and was very liberal compared to my Greek friends’ fathers,” she says.

“My mother, who comes from Nisyros, was more conservative. They both encouraged me to express myself and explore, but they would also meet everyone in the band to make sure that they looked after me, because I was underage.”

Having that much freedom at a young age was not without its risks, but Kaliopi managed to remain intact.

“I think that music saved my life, really,” she says.

“I’ve seen a lot of things, but I was always focusing on music. When I was 17, I lost a friend to drugs and everyone in our group made a pact, that we would never touch drugs so that her loss would not be in vain. That kept me. But also, when all my friends were out, I was always somewhere rehearsing,” she remembers.

At the time, she was mostly influenced by Suzi Quatro (“she was this upfront rock chick playing bass,” she says), but also by David Bowie (“I could relate to his personas, having worked at a cabaret and becoming familiar with this stage craft”), Sweet, Slade, Status Quo and “storytellers” like Lou Reed and Patti Smith. But her major influence was still her uncle, dancing zeibekiko at the end of the shows in Plaka.

Fourty years later, these sounds have found their way into her musical exploration.

“I’m in my 50s now, I’ve been doing this for 40 years and my lyrics have changed. I want every word to be meaningful for a greater cause, beyond my own storytelling, I want my songs to be significant for other people, but also the music that I’m putting together is different. I’m working intensely with various Greek musicians, such as [santouri virtuoso] Marios Papadeas who’s in town now, and Pascal Latra; we’re three artists from three different backgrounds coming together, fusing on our art and exploring new sounds.”

She can’t hide her excitement for this ‘Greek fusion’ and the roads it has opened for her.

“I’m quite bored with rock music,” she admits. “Everything I listen to, I can play at once and it’s boring. I’m a music teacher, I create music every day, and it’s easy for me to make music – especially western music, which is a lot easier than Greek music, as I’m now realising. The different roads and scales are so inspiring. I’m putting electric guitar and the rock sound to Greek traditional music, simplifying those scales with blues and pentatonics and chromatisms to honour the Greek scales. I’ve been putting minor and major chords together in my music for a long time, but I didn’t know why I was doing it, I thought it was a mistake. Only now I’m realising that it was because I have been listening to that music from my parents. So this ‘east meets west’ fusion honours what I’ve been doing for years, but also what I’ve neglected for years as well – that is my heritage.”

But before she moves forward with this chapter in her career, she needs to close the previous one. To do this, she recently released a compilation of music chronicling her 40-years trajectory, titled Love, Loss & Mental Health. What does the title mean?

“I figured out that my theme over the years, my inspiration, has been my love for music and people,” she explains.

As for loss, it’s a reference to people, but also to a traumatising experience when she spent some time in the US recording and touring – and falling victim of plagiarism. Which leads to the ‘mental health’ part of the triptych.
“I had a bit of a breakdown,” she remembers. “It all collapsed. I had a relationship that ended, Ι stopped performing, I stopped teaching, I stopped everything; I just didn’t want to give anymore. I guess writing songs helped me get out of it, it was a way of saying ‘this is what happens to people when they get burned’. But what changed my life was when I went back to Greece, as a woman of 42 and saw my uncle again. Then I went to Nisyros … I went and saw my old group of friends and women like me, big and strong; they move around on their motorbikes with their children and work on their farms and restaurants and they do it all. I saw my heritage and it just changed my life. I told myself that I’m strong, I should be proud that they stole my work; that means that I got good stuff. I came back to Melbourne, I renovated my house, I went back to uni, I put my head down and got a Masters in teaching.”

For the past decade, Kaliopi has been working as a teacher at a school in the northern suburbs, where she has encountered many Greeks her age, and with whom she connects.

“We understand each other,” she says.

“Although I’ve always been Australian, I always felt that nobody really accepted me for being Australian, because I was different. It’s amazing that when you find your roots and where you come from, things kind of make sense, they start falling into place. I realised that I’m not different, they just don’t understand me. I’m at a stage in my life that I really want to celebrate it.”

Catch Kaliopi performing at one of the following:
· The 2018 3CR Radiothon Fundraiser ‘Fight for your Mic’ organised by the Greek Resistance Bulletin Radio show on Thursday 12 July at Open Studio (204 High Street, Northcote, VIC).
· Performing with Pascal Latra at Barton Fink (816-818 High St, Thornbury, VIC) on Friday 13 July.
· Sunday 15 July at Mr. Boogie Man Bar (160 Hoddle St, Abbotsford, VIC)

To purchase ‘Love, Loss and Mental Health’, visit https://store.cdbaby.com/cd/kaliopi