Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s quote, “Music is the universal language of mankind”, may have become something of a cliché over the years, but the American poet knew what he was talking about. Further to this quote, one might add that some musicians are more tuned in to this universal appeal than others, their presence alone projecting a feel-good factor before the first notes have even been played or the first words sung.
Maltese singer songwriter Claire Tonna is one such artist. Short in stature but big in personality; an infectious smile permanently fixed on her face is boosted by a sparkle in her eyes that lights up the entire room; and the fire that lies behind it all is simple, she says: “It’s all about sharing my gift to make people happy”. Tonna’s musical roots go back a long way. “I was just six years old when I picked up the guitar,” she says, with a tone suggesting it was a lifetime away; it is, in fact, about 22 years ago. By picking up the guitar, she actually means spending hours listening to songs on the radio and trying to replicate them on her guitar. “My parents couldn’t afford to send me to lessons, so that was the only way I figured I was ever going to learn,” she says.
Having a very musical family around was obviously a big help too, but more than anything, she says, this DIY approach was essential in teaching her how to give a personal interpretation to any song. If you’ve had the pleasure of watching her perform, you’ll be familiar with her customised renditions of anything from New Order’s Blue Monday to Ace of Base’s All That She Wants by way of Dead or Alive, Nina Simone, Gala and countless other artists that have shaped her musicality throughout her life. But singing didn’t exactly figure in her plans all those years ago. “I must admit I still have no clue what chords I’m playing most of the time. I learnt to play by ear, and that was basically also why I started singing,” she says.
Using her voice only as accompaniment to learn new songs, Tonna never thought she would go on to become a singer. She later joined her father’s band, playing hotels and weddings, and that’s what encouraged her to sing. She says this experience also helped broaden her knowledge of classic hits.
“Playing these songs over and over, I began to look deeper into them and suss out the primary characteristics that made them so popular,” which she admits is something that comes in handy when she’s interpreting other people’s music even now.
Tonna’s first experience in a band was as the voice of electronic duo Particle Blue, alongside musician Antoine Vella. “This was the project that basically opened new doors for me as a songwriter,” she says. She dedicated herself to music but also learnt how to use music to deliver a message, she explains. In the space of five years, Particle Blue delivered one critically acclaimed album and were on the verge of bigger things abroad, but personal developments on her part led her to quit the band and focus her energy elsewhere.
“Elsewhere” turned out to be a long way from music. For two years, she turned her back on singing and playing because she felt she had “nothing to say to the world”. Instead, she focused on her inner self, “which became the best place for me in the world and there I found what made me happy”. It was this voyage of self-discovery (and the relentless insistence of many friends) that led her to start singing again, this time as a solo artist.
Thanks to her friends’ support, she plucked up enough courage to launch the No More Secrets nights. “Here, with only myself to rely on, I could sing what I really felt inside and let out the real me.” At the time she also collaborated with unsung Maltese electronic artist Cygna (the fruits of which will hopefully form Tonna’s first solo release). The solo live experience freed her condition or expectation and allowed her to open her heart to everyone with no inhibitions, secrets or limitations.
These gigs became renowned for their intimacy and the special ambience that Tonna’s performances projected ‘live and direct’ to the audience around her. “Basically I came to realise that the secret to creating something of beauty was to be myself. “As a result, there have been times when I’ve shed tears during my performances and times when I’ve felt an overwhelming sense of happiness, and I’m sure these emotions have been felt by those listening too.”
Emotions play a big part in Tonna’s life, and she pursued them further when she decided to up and leave Malta, a period she calls her ‘Freed from desire’ stage. “In 2008, I decided to embark on a journey that would make happiness a daily occurrence in my life.” She found that happiness doing humanitarian work in Calcutta where she wanted for nothing and could share what she had with others. Somewhat enlightened by the experience, she later travelled around Spain and the islands, performing countless gigs not only on her own but also with various local artists. “I spent three years touring with Spanish funk band Superfreak and also sang with bands such as Authentica Tango and La Vereda,” she says. She recorded for a number of different compilations by labels from Tarifa, Spain, and was chosen to perform at Café del Mar.
In Spain, thanks to her collaborations, Tonna created amazing spaces through music. She combined her passion for humanitarian work with music and began to organise solidarity concerts in the prisons of Algeciras in south Spain. This was akin to various concerts she had organised to aid schools in Calcutta, Varanasi and other NGOs. “Sharing what I love and channelling it through music has made me a very happy person,” she says. “This is why I never plan anything. I rely on the positive vibes from those around me and project them through my voice, my music. I see my gigs as a celebration of human happiness.” This, she says, is what life is about: transforming everything into something beautiful and making it better for everyone. “Music inspires happiness and love and that’s what I want to do with all that I am as long as this voice of mine lets me sing. It is a gift and I feel it belongs to everyone and should be shared.”
This article was first published on The Sunday Times of Malta (13 March, 2011)
Photo by Lenny