Amanda Carr sits down with violinist, Marissa Licata.
Marissa often the people I interview I have either worked with, or end up crossing paths with on some stage somewhere. We had a near miss recently with us being on the same bill, but of course, you are in demand with some pretty major touring acts and had to be pulled away. Who are you currently working (touring/appearing) with?
Yes, it’s true that this summer has been very hectic, with a variety of different projects and artists I’ve been working with. I was very fortunate at a young age to win my very first audition for Ian Anderson or Jethro Tull. Not knowing who he was or what an icon he is still, I was in the right place, at the right time, and prepared to play anything that was asked of me. I built a solid network with that first major tour and I went on to play with Dave Stewart of Eurythmics, Ben Harper, Ringo Starr, and Alicia Keys – all of which were amazing experience as a featured soloist.
Now I am leading my own gypsy band, which in many ways, has me starting at the beginning. I have shifted gears slightly and have been working and collaborating with up and coming producers, and artists who I feel are on a high musical level in their own right, but who also have a following of a younger crowd; K. Michelle, Gabi Wilson, B3B3 are just a few of the artists that I’ve been collaborating with recently. I have also recently joined Greek crossover singer, Mario Frangoulis as featured violinist on his US tour for 2014. I’ve also joined jazz musicians such as James Montgomery, Grace Kelly, Donal Fox, and more on various national tours.
Boston has certainly spawned its share of international stars with Berklee College of Music and New England Conservatory of Music affiliations. How well has your classical training prepared you for crossing over into other genres?
My classical training has prepared me so well to be able to play in any style. With over 16 years of classical foundation and technique, I really go into any performance with 100% confidence in my ear and my technical facility on the violin. I really go into performances knowing that I am so well prepared and detailed, that I have the trust needed to really create music. That’s not to say that I don’t get nervous, and don’t feel pressure with each performance in some way (some more than others), but that comes from wanting to squeeze out as much artistry as possible, not lack of confidence or maybe even inexperience with a particular style of music. I know that with the solid foundation I have, I can walk out on stage feeling like there is nothing that I can’t play (if I work at it).
You have quite an interesting story on how you arrived originally in Boston from San Pedro Sula, Honduras, can you elaborate? Do you feel your upbringing has given you a unique perspective and greater confidence?
I think that my upbringing and how I ended up in Boston has given me so much. Not only am I extremely grateful and blessed to have been adopted by loving parents who have always supported and encouraged my dreams, but I am so thankful for the opportunity to do something that I love to do. I get to share my passion with people all over the world. Growing up in the United States, I have learned so much about hard work, and the never give up way of thinking. The people of Honduras are not only extremely poor, but have no sense that hard work pays off. The state of the country has created a society there which does not reward hard work, and in turn the people in general live in a very discouraging state. My mother taught me how to work hard, be efficient, stay persistent, and never let up. My father also made sure that I maintained discipline with practicing, and putting in the hours. By the time I was a teenager, these values were part of me and who I am. It gives me great confidence to know where I came from, and how fortunate I am to be here doing what I love. I do have a unique perspective too, and my Latin roots will live inside me musically, forever. I gravitate toward Latin rhythms and beats, and I hear rhythms in a different way. That natural tendency to hear and feel the beat, combined with strict classical training is a very unique fusion in itself. I really feel like the rhythm is part of me and that is shown in the complexity of the music I choose to perfom and showcase.
Our current musical generation embraces multi-cultural expression and celebrates our ethnicities. How much of your ‘gypsy’ musical motif a true part of your personal identity.
I think world – gypsy music, especially from Eastern Europe resonates with me because of the intensity and rhythmic complexity of the culture. It’s all about the dance of the music, and I love to dance and make people move. The world music fusion I play with my band is exactly that, and I mix styles and rhythms to create a blend of sound that is recognizable somehow, fun, and danceable. I also love having performers with diverse backgrounds in my band. They bring their personal style, culture, and flavor to this music which is a unique blend on its own.
Since this is a ‘woman-centric’ interview series, I seem to always bait the question of women being chosen for certain roles due to the fact they are women, over their (musical) abilities. Did you feel a strong sense that you needed to be a superior musician to diffuse any doubt that your looks superseded your talent?
I was always taught to work as hard as possible, to be able to play my best when it counted on stage. I was always only every out to impress and please myself. I have to say that I never felt any discrimination or pressure to play that much better because I was a woman. I had and still have a tremendous amount of confidence in my playing and that canot be taken away.
Now, I have had experiences where there were males trying to intimidate me before even hitting the stage – trying to break my confidence maybe because I was a female and they were sort of testing me mentally, but I felt that more as a competative, jealous musician thing, more than because I was a female actually. There have been many times where I was disappointed that I “got away” with certain things because I am a female. I hadn’t played my best, but because I performed well enough and I was an attractive female on stage, I received higher praise than I may have deserved for that particular performance. I judge myself very harshly, and when I don’t feel I played my best, that is all that matters. I always use what I can to my advantage, though, and then back it up with high level performances.
How have you found the pace of international touring? Is it difficult to come down off the excitement of large venues and crowds?
I love touring, and yes it is a huge let down when a tour ends. I experience it like a great loss and feel very empty after ending a tour. Not only do you fall into a routine which I personally love, but you become close with the music you are creating and that is something very special. I always find myself wondering “will I ever get that again?” For me, it is sad and scary to think that I might not, so I work like crazy to make the tour opportunities continue. Touring is all I want to do. I would love to be on a different stage each night, different city, country, etc. I find that life luxurious (of course I was spoiled rotten early on with my first experiences being with Jethro Tull, Eurythmics, etc) and it can be tiring, but I love every moment of it!
A number of reviewers and fellow artists have said you express energy and joy when you perform. Your instrument, in of itself, lends to a freedom of movement. Has your stage presence evolved over the past few years since you’ve been performing so much? In what way?
Yes, my stage presence and movements have come quite a long way. When I broke away from a lot of the limitations of classical music, I was able to explore more dramatic and expressive movements. I am usually dancing on stage because I can’t help it, but I also play it up a lot too because audiences will get excited if they see you excited about what you are playing. There are some people who don’t like to see a performer moving too much.
It’s supposed to look easy and beautiful. That is one way to think about it, but I prefer to show all the energy, and sweat and grit. I have an athletic approach about how I play and perform, and I am out there to win musically, and win an audience over with my relentless passion and energy. I am free when I can move and dance, and I act on stage as if I were an audience member at my own show. It expresses my freedom. command, and facility with my instrument and in a way also shows how well I play, that I have the ability to dance, and do it freely and naturally, while playing and soloing in odd meters in many cases with ease. I have also experimented with wild ideas like arial actrobatics (trapeze, lyra) while playing. That takes the dance element one step further. It’ll take time but it is possible if planned out strategically.
Do you have a dream solo project?
I do not have a dream solo project. I would love to create a full dance set though of World gypsy music and acrobats, where I am playing and doing some acrobatics myself.
I began very young as a piano player and naturally added in singing in my teens. Diana Krall was prompted and encouraged to sing, however it was not her primary focus. Have you ever sung and have people encouraged you to accompany your playing with singing?
Different people have encouraged me to sing and play, and I have thought about it. I would like to add that element into my music in the future. Easier said than done of course, but people do do it. The coordination of it will take time. I think it will help performances, though, and take some of the pressure of the show having to be ALL instrumental. In the US especially, singing myself or having a vocal aspect to the show would go over really will I think.
Where do you call home now?
Boston is still my primary residence, so it is still home, but I spend probably half of my time when I’m not on the road, in NYC. It’s a close second, and I like to be though of as someone who is based in NYC since I also grew up in the NY/NJ areas.
What are some of the lessons you’ve learned on the road? And what lessons are intrinsic to being a beautiful woman on the road?
I have learned not to eat where I shit. Mixing business and pleasure within the band doesn’t end well most of the time, and I have learned to pay attention and be kind to the fans. As performers, we owe them so much and it may get tiring to talk with them or sign autographs, but they are so appreciative of us that it is always important to give back. Somehow, I have also learned to be more aware of my eating and exercise habits on the road. It can be difficult to maintain a regiment with both, but they are so important to successful show, and not wearing yourself down.
Do you feel like you are judged differently than your male musical counterparts? What aspects make being a woman easier as a performing artist, and what are the challenges.
I’m not sure If I’m really judged differently. A lot of times being a female is an advantage. Many people see a female, and she doesn’t actually have to be as good because she already has the female sex factor. I find that I need to be harder on myself performance-wise because I do get some stack because I’m already something pleasant to look at on stage. It can be challenging to get people to actually judge you for your talent, and not weigh in that you are a female. As females, too it can be hard to always be alert. Some people might think it’s easier to intimidate and bully a woman, and we really have to be strong, stand our ground, and know exactly what we want. We cannot show weakness or falter with our confidence. It is hard to always have to be “on” in that way.
What’s next on the docket for you?
I am slowly working toward my first album, and putting out some music videos. Right now, though, I am doing a lot of performing at club venues around NYC with my band. I will be joining James Montgomery for several shows, doing a few guest appearances with JT, and Mario Frangoulis later this fall, but I am really focusing on building an audience and a fanbase for my band. Once that step has been completed, I would absolutely be looking to taking my band on the road for my first national tour.