Singing her soul, moving our hearts

Legendary Greek singer Haris Alexiou speaks to Neos Kosmos about her life in song and how she longs to appear before Australian audiences again

Who hasn’t fallen in love with Haroula, as Haris Alexiou is affectionately known. Who hasn’t broken up from a relationship and cried with her songs, or been taken off the ground in exultation? For years now the songstress Alexiou has accompanied us in our beautiful and special moments whenever they may have occurred and wherever we have happened to be.

Especially popular and beloved to our compatriot Hellenes, Alexiou is an old acquaintance of ours, with her first appearance in Australia back in 1979 at the outset of her career. Alexiou has wonderful memories from Australia: the packed out theatres and the pulse of the reverberating audience. She also toured our shores in June 1981 and October 1997, and with her latest tour long overdue, Alexiou is visiting us in November with her “heart throbbing”, as she distinctively says, in anticipation of meeting her audience.

Alexiou’s audiences remember her from the album Mikra Asia, a work of historical significance as it has practically entered every home music library. Since then, Alexiou has collaborated with respected singers and composers of both older and younger generations, either in the studio or live on stage. She has sung many and varying types of song (popular, folk, rebetika, oldies, modern entehna and ballads), proving her undoubted contribution to all musical styles as well as her dutiful and unfailing connection with her audience.

Alexiou has sold more than five million records, and takes credit for 30 platinum and 13 gold records. More than three million people in Greece alone have attended her concerts and more than a million overseas. Alexiou has performed in the top auditoriums of the world music scene and has been honoured with significant distinctions. In May this year, she was awarded for her contribution to music in Florence, Italy. The French newspaper Liberation said that, “If Oum Kalsoum was the so-called ‘Fourth Pyramid’, we can easily say then, that, Haris Alexiou is the ‘Second Parthenon’.” In her ‘human’ life, though – as the singer makes a quip with the word – Alexiou has many things to remember and to be happy about, the apogee being Manos. As the renowned songstress says, “a wonderful son, 28 years of age, and I could say that I have lived wonderful times and I wish upon every human being to live the things that I myself have lived”.

Mrs Alexiou, 2011 has been a remarkable year in your distinguished career. You received an important award in Florence, many concerts followed in Europe, you’ve released a new album and your journey continues. What does the distinction you received in Florence mean to you?

Every time that I am being honoured, I feel extremely touched. My work and my songs have communicated with more people and when this comes from overseas, you understand that the journey that these songs have made is even greater, and, I feel beautiful, I feel proud and it is a justification, from whichever perspective one sees it.

Another highlight among the numerous awards you have received was the award in Smyrna last year, where your name was given to a central suburb street of Smyrna, a place from where members of your family originate. Your emotions must have certainly been distinctly special.

This was indeed something that I really did not anticipate, nor did I ever imagine that it would be something that could happen. Usually when artists pass on, when they no longer exist, then events like that do occur. To then be on the front line and to be present when that happens, is something that honoured, I imagine, my ancestors who came from Smyrna and certainly myself also.

It has been said by many – and numerous times – that current day Greek reality is reflected in your voice and your songs. How do you succeed in doing that?

There is no recipe for that. I work on my projects, I sing, I do something that I love doing very much. I feel that I can now say henceforth: I have been born to sing; that is, singing is my life. This is the charisma that nature gives you; God, life, this was given to me. To be able to communicate with people through my voice, to emotionally move them and to follow the journey from generation to generation, because, I must say that many generations come to hear me, from young children to older people, and, for me to be living in this joy of communication and beauty that music and song have.

In these times where we are being bombarded by ‘cheap’ songs of the moment, when recorded music itself is in crisis, you appear to remain above it all. Are you afraid that if this situation continues, quality songs will also be hit?

Under no circumstance will songs ever end. Song was born together with mankind, who has a need for song, and the need for a quality song always exists. Fortunately, creativity always exists, there are younger people, and younger creators who express themselves towards the audience their own age and I am not afraid of this at all, not at all. We cannot live without song. Certainly, mediums have changed, we must find new rhythms and keep pace with our era and to fight through this, but creativity is creativity; a painter cannot stop painting, a musician playing music, a poet writing poetry. In conclusion, therefore, songs will continue to exist.

You made your first appearance in the ’70s, your presence was felt immediately, but you continue to maintain that initial freshness in your approach. When you give a rendition of a song, do you always experience living it?

Yes, I experience living it, I experience living every song. That which fulfils me is the person; it is our feelings, and it is our life. I am a person that dwells deeply into life. I have never kept the distance of a star or a prima donna so that I may look down upon things or even upon life and that is what inspires me, that directs me to create. This in itself attracts to me a good quality audience. You know, it is very important to know that your audience has quality, that they are human, that they do not ask for easy entertainment, that they do not ask for a ‘festivity’/’panigiri’ in the bad sense, because festivities are very nice in our folk music and dance is an exceptional thing happening within our songs. That, which I therefore experience, is the quality of people who come to hear me and I am speaking about the quality of the heart. They are people with feelings, they are people who bring their children along, they are young people, that is, from university students to simple people, workers; they, who all of them are my audience, all enjoy my music in the same way and I enjoy their participation and when our voices become one and I close my eyes and become part of the audience, it is at that time that I also live the humanity of the song.

When you write lyrics and/or music is it your own personal desire to externalise your feelings and share them?

Creativity is something that you never know about, how in fact it gushes from within you. Certainly we all have something to say, especially when the time comes, when it profoundly expresses itself. And I have that privilege, since I am primarily a singer, a performer, to write about the moments that I have an inspiration from and not an expression that is made to special order.

You have had an exciting career path; you collaborated with important composers, lyricists and performers. Do you like challenges? What is your next challenge?

The challenge is to be open to anything new that comes along, to new people and to new creators. The point is to not be afraid of the institution that has already been created by my voice and my name, because this has become a large institution considering that I have been singing for so many years. I always had challenge in my career path and in my choices and I allow myself to be free. If I like a song, a piece of music, the criteria is my own perception and enjoyment from that which I am working on. Either way, it is the artist who perceives messages first and then conveys them to the audience. The challenge, therefore, is to not be afraid, to follow the younger creator, to say new songs and to do things outside of those things that have become the ‘image’ of one’s work.

You have made a special connection with Greeks abroad from the beginnings of your career. What are your expectations and disposition before your imminent return to Australia?

Once again, I am visiting Australia with ‘heart palpitations’, as when one is planning to see beloved people. The audience is not something that is abstract; the audience is like a person whom we love and awaits to hear us, to take us in their embrace. You therefore have this heart throb for when you meet someone that you love, someone who is waiting for you. This is very important and I know that they are waiting for me with eagerness, with love and I want to experience that once more. It is a long trip and that is even more important. The further the distance you travel, from however far it comes, people’s love is even more important.

Who are you touring with in Australia?

I am collaborating with Lizeta Kalimeri and Makis Seviloglou. They are two artists who have contributed immensely. I have collaborated with Makis Seviloglou and sung his songs on the album Vissino Kai Nerantzi but also on an album of his. I have sung together with Lizeta Kalimeri and we have also performed together on an album. I have the pleasure, therefore, of introducing them to the Australian public. And, of course, to introduce my musicians that have travelled with me around the world. We have been collaborators for years and I depend a lot on them, because musicians are the people who render the whole energy on stage.

Haris Alexiou Australian Tour Adelaide: Friday 11 November, Adelaide Entertainment Centre. Melbourne: Sunday 13 November, The Plenary, Melbourne Convention Centre. Sydney: Saturday 19 November, Enmore Theatre. Tickets available at Ticketek outlets, or by calling 132 849.