No words are sufficient to embellish an appropriate introduction for an interview with Nana Mouskouri, one of the best-selling singers of all time, who only sparingly talks to the media. Her crystalline vocals have sold hundreds of millions of albums worldwide, while her story has inspired thousands of women to pursue their dreams.
It’s nine in the morning in Melbourne, and I am waiting to be connected with Geneva only to find out Nana is in Paris. She calls herself, after returning from a late dinner, to apologise for the change of plans. Her ageless voice on the other end of the line is eager to go on with the interview even though it’s almost midnight in her time-zone, even though she’s 81 years old.
“No, I’m not tired at all, let’s do this. My pleasure,” Nana Mouskouri says in a warm, relaxed tone, whilst literally interviewing me for a while.
“I can’t see this merely as a job, I love it too much, it’s energising more than it is consuming to me.”
After decades of musical success, the Crete-born singer has been a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador since 1993, and even served as a member of the European parliament between 1994 and 1999. Nana offered Athens her political pension out of duty to her country and announced the end of her career almost 8 years ago, only to return, with more passion than ever, on the celebration of her 80th birthday.
“Clearly, at this point I cannot imagine myself doing anything else work-wise,” she admits.
“Truth be told, I got very lucky, as I was discovered early and was given the chance to follow my dream.
“It hasn’t been an easy path but I was given access to my passion. Sometimes, really talented people never get a chance, or never find their way,” she adds.
Nana believes all performers should go into “power-saving mode” before their shows, presentations, interviews even.
“I was fortunate to have relatively good health but I also take good care of myself,” Nana tells Neos Kosmos.
“It is like homework in a way. If you know you have certain obligations, some kind of preparation is indicative of the respect you have for your work.
“I flew to Paris overnight to do some rehearsals with my orchestra for my concerts in Australia and announce the winner of the Nikos Gatsos Mediterranean
Poetry Award,” she explains.
Nana nowadays spends her time between Geneva, where she lives with her second husband, music producer Andre Chapelle, and Paris. She has two children from her first marriage with George Petsilas.
“I got married young, at the age of 25. My husband and I followed a common career until 1970, when we divorced,” she says.
“He wanted to return to Greece, while I was making an international career. I couldn’t leave.”
Not long afterwards, the singer met Chapelle, her sound technician at the time, who later became her producer. They only married 11 years ago, but have been together for many years.
“All the wonderful albums I recorded from 1974 onwards were done with him,” she explains.
“The only thing I feel I may have sacrificed in pursuing my singing career was not being around for my children more.”
In the first years she took her children and their nanny with her every time she was on tour, but after they turned seven, they had to go to school in Geneva.
“I would have loved to have spent more time with them but we all live according to the choices we make,” she says.
“Fortunately both my son and my daughter are wonderful children and constantly make me proud as they have grown to become amazing people.
“I don’t enjoy retirement, but it allows me to be with my family. Singing was and remains my first love, so I do occasional concerts,” she explains.
Nana reflects on those years, stressing how different a time that was for women.
“Let us not forget I am very old, dating back to the WWII,” she says, laughing.
“Things were different then, girls were learning embroidery and how to keep a household. This is what a woman was destined to do.
“Fortunately, times have changed. There is efficient childcare and I am happy to see men, like my son, engaging with the upbringing of their children and doing chores around the house,” she confesses.
Nana is considered a role-model of modern feminism, having inspired and influenced many women. Her father was very disappointed when she was born. He did not want another girl. The Nazi occupation of Greece marked her first years. She describes the civil war, which started when she was 13, as the saddest period of her life.
“My father wanted a boy, but in the end he realised that being a woman, I made him even more proud,” she tells.
“At that particular time, during the war, a girl was a synonym to suffering for her parents. The woman’s place in society was much degraded.
“Singing has always been a driving force for me but also a means to obtain my independence, to create, to prove I am worthy,” Nana muses.
Although she believes she would have had the same drive for success and emancipation, the same discipline, in any job, she is thankful for being in the limelight.
“I took responsibility for myself and my family, trying to help them as if I had been a man, working from a very young age.
“I studied classical music at The Greek Conservatory but one day my professor banned me from my exams when he discovered I was singing in jazz nightclubs,” she continues.
“It wasn’t considered appropriate.”
Her teachers and family believed her decision to sing in nightclubs was harming her voice, talent and reputation, but she was adamant. She was soon
noticed whilst singing in English on board an aircraft carrier on American Independence Day.
“There were many English and American soldiers in Greece after the war and I was always interested in the culture and language,” she explains.
“I speak German, French, English, Italian, Spanish, and Greek … I took a peculiar liking to the unique sounds, emotions and expressionistic techniques of different cultures.”
Foreign languages are another talent Nana possesses. She has never taken lessons and always saw living and performing in another country as a challenge to delve into a new experience.
“I only learned a few French words as it was a mandatory subject at school when I was a child and took a handful of lessons in English, with a tutor who had lost his eyesight during the war,” she remembers.
“For me it is a matter of freedom and respect to be able to carry myself and communicate in my own words.
“I would buy a dictionary and listen to people and learn, learn, learn. If you ask me I’d say my true talent is my love for learning,” Nana adds.
At the beginning of her career, she was described as a strange bird, mainly due to her large and thick signature black glasses, which she has been wearing since she was 11. She refused to take them off, because she wished to remain sincere to herself and wanted people to focus on her singing, not her looks.
Manos Hadjidakis started to write songs for her, two of which won the top prizes at the Greek Song Festival in 1959, while The White Rose of Athens, from a German documentary called Greece, The Land of Dreams, won first prize at the Berlin Film Festival, marking her international success.
“I was very happy with Manos and Mimis Plessas’ music, as well as Nikos Gatsos’ poetry, which have helped me grow as a singer and create a broader repertoire of songs.”
“With their help, I have managed to present a portfolio that spans several genres, a heritage I can be proud of.”
Nana recorded her first album in 1962, produced by Quincy Jones, which was described by critics as ‘pleasure to the ears’. After that she produced approximately three albums a year. Following her success came an international tour with Harry Belafonte and, in 1969, she performed her first major concert at the Royal Albert Hall. Nana was soon offered her own BBC2 show, which was broadcasted all around the world and hosted the most famous stars of the time.
“Don’t think that singers at the time were as popular or that much in the spotlight like they are now. This media craze began after the rock ‘n’ roll era,” she explains.
“It always took an uncanny ability to strike precisely the right balance between career and private life. I have always been down-to-earth both as a person and an artist, but I’ve never hidden anything or become blasé.”
She admits being on stage is addictive and how much pleasure she gets interacting with her audience every single time.
“The energy I get from the people out there is immense. I feel I am one of them,” she says.
“To be able to make my fans happy and convey emotions is fulfilling beyond words.
“I visited Madagascar, which is a very poor country, as a UNICEF ambassador for a charity show the other day. I sang a song in Malagasy, the native language, and people started crying. This is my joy,” Nana says.
Nana gave up on TV in the ’80s and significantly reduced her performances and recordings. From 1994 to 1999, she served as a Member of the European Parliament, convinced she could make a difference for her country.
“It was after Audrey Hepburn encouraged me that I became seriously involved with UNICEF and witnessed firsthand what they go through to help underprivileged children around the world,” she says.
“I was called upon to carry on her work as her health deteriorated and I have been an ambassador ever since.”
Nana Mouskouri will take a break from her busy European schedule to return to Australia as part of her world tour.
“I am very excited to make this long trip Down Under, as I feel there is a special connection every time I perform in front of the Greek Australian community, which has been more than welcoming.
“The memories of my first visit to the beautiful Lucky Land are still very vivid and bubbly. It was in 1974, I came with the children and their nanny. We all loved it.
“I came again in 1976, in the ’80s and my last time was in 2005. It is a magnificent land with amazing warm-hearted people.”
* Nana Mouskouri will perform in Brisbane on 9 April, in Sydney on 12 April, in Melbourne on 14 April, in Adelaide on 16 April, and in Perth on 19 April. For more information visit www.oneworldentertainment.com.au
source: Neos Kosmos