Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1101

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Mario Biondi: Super Mario!

Mario Biondi
Mario Biondi Mario Biondi Mario Biondi Mario Biondi

There are some voices you hear for the very first time and they simply stop you in your tracks. It could be something about their delivery, sheer power or maybe tone, pitch or even how long they can hold a note. Italy’s No.1 soul/jazz superstar Mario Biondi holds just that kind of distinction, a voice with is super rich in nature and as low as a voice can go, you can’t help but be impressed by the talents of the 47-year-old powerhouse from Italy.

In the last 12 years, Biondi has already amassed an impressive back-catalogue, including 9 studio albums: “Handful Of Soul” (2006), “If” (2009), “Two” (2011), “Sun” (2013), “Mario Christmas” (2013), “A Very Special Mario Christmas” (2014), “Beyond” (2015), “Best Of Soul” (2016) plus 2 live albums “I Love You More” (2007) and “Yes You” (2010). Other Notable career highlights include a request from Disney in 2007 for him to record the Italian versions of "Everybody Wants To Be A Cat" and "Thomas O'Malley" for a remake of the classic animated film "The Aristocats”. He also provided distinct voiceovers for characters in big-screen animated movies: Hook-Hand Thug in Tangled (2010) and Miguel the Parrot in 2011 animation “Rio”.

I sat down for a chat with the ever-busy artist to talk about his tremendously interesting multi-platinum selling career in the opulent surroundings of the Baglioni hotel in the heart of Kensington, London. Then, after listening to new album “Brasil” at a later point, I just had to drop him a line to find out more about his intriguing latin infused project.

Born Mario Ranno in 1971, he grew up “between Emilia and Sicily”. His family boasted a wealth of talent… His great-grandfather used to paint, his grandmother sang in theatres and his father was popular singer-songwriter Giuseppe Ranno - a tenor who changed his name to Stefano Biondi and in honour of whom Mario took on his stage name. The artist’s “first musical reference” was his Father, who played “a lot of soul and swing”. Biondi recounts “I learned about soul music when I was a child, thanks to my Father and the musicians who collaborated with him in the 70s”. As it so happened, the young Biondi’s first main influence was also his father and after only previously singing in Gregorian choirs in church and then singing with his father, he remembers his first performance distinctly. “My father was the first person who believed in me and put me on stage for the very first time in my life…I was 12. He said to me, you are a great man! He was a singer too. I wasn’t sure about it but I felt that was my natural position and I started to follow this way…following my potential. I started singing in a very big square, around 4000 - I remember, I was trembling. After this, I started working in the clubs - La Tanguera, it’s one of the tourist places in Sicily, when you can meet people from all over the world”.

When asked of other major influences, apart from his father, there is one other who Biondi has the highest regard for and that is jazz/soul/rhythm & blues legend, Al Jarreau “I grew up with Al Jarreau - he took Grammy awards from Jazz, funky blues and soul…this is my major influence”. Adding in admiration “Shortly after I discovered Al Jarreau, who changed my life forever. Thanks to him, I met and discovered all the facets of music that shape my music today”. Jarreau’s ability to encompass other genres within his body of work has obviously rubbed off on Biondi and could be one of the contributing catalysts behind the artist’s latest leap across genres “Yeah, why not? Music has a very big energy, it’s a way to be - sometimes I’m happy, sometimes I’m blue - this is part of the energy that makes you do music”.

At an early age the artist knew his vocation “Around 16, I dedicated myself to entertaining people with my music. I noticed big differences between myself and the other singers I met. (At first) I thought that I did not live up to this vocal, particularly – which I later discovered to be my main virtue”. Adding “After I escaped from Sicily…as they say, ‘whoever goes away, good luck!’ (laughs) From there, I go to north Italy, to Parma. I did a lot of productions, background vocals - I did everything! Anything that concerned music”. In 1998 he got his first break, supporting soul great, Ray Charles.

With Biondi now making his own material, his career started to gain real momentum, then in “2003 we put out this funny song”, the track was called "This is What You Are” and was destined for the Japanese market but was also played in Europe, which “was good because it immediately went to the BBC1, Norman Jay and Giles Peterson (supported it)…I was surprised. Why this song and why in England?” The artist was now getting airplay and his music was suddenly in demand.

In 2006, with the aide of Schema Records, Biondi released his first album, “Handful Of Soul”, recorded with the group High Five Quintet in his native Italy. This album achieved amazing sales figures, going 4 times platinum in just a few months. Biondi also remembers the year for a different reason “I came to London in 2006, my first gig in London was at the Jazz Cafe to sing at a (exam passing) degree party”. Mentioning another London venue which he played 6 sellout shows “we were at Ronnie Scotts in 2010 and it was fantastic”. More Ronnie’s memories “I had the Carmen McRae record “Live At Ronnie Scott’s”. Carmen McRae, for me, is my hero…the first time I went there was in 2002/3”.

In 2009 sophomore album “If” featured the song ”Something That Was Beautiful”, which was written especially for Biondi by songwriting legend Burt Bacharach. The album also boasted Incognito’s bandleader Jean Paul Maunick, alias Bluey, on remix duties on the track “No Mo' Trouble” - another success, as “If” went 3 times platinum. This also proved to be the start of a fruitful working relationship with Bluey as Mario, in return, featured on duets “Lowdown” and “Can’t Get Enough” along with classic R&B/soul royal Chaka Khan and were included on Incognito's 2010 album “Transatlantic RPM”. Bondi remarks on working with fellow talent/Incognito’s head honcho “we are similar, as in taste for the music - maybe also some parts of our personality. We have a very good energy together - we think about the same thing at the same time - we have a very good connection. He asked me to duet with Chaka Khan and it was amazing for me, I met her via Skype”. And was he nervous? “Yes, very!”.

Before I jump to his present release, when you interview Mario Biondi, you have to ask about his voice, right? Due to its bass quality, there is more than a passing resemblance to the late and ever so great soul/funk/disco/R&B icon, Barry White. “To tell you the truth, I have never bought anything from him in my life. Obviously, I love him, he was one of the best soul/dance singers in the world”. His further thoughts on the Walrus of Love. “He was THE ‘bedroom singer’ no? (laughs) Sex, erotic…a Leon Ware style, you know? Marvin Gaye, Leon Ware, that’s the way. I’m very honoured to be compared to him - it’s too much maybe, for me!” (laughs) Thinking about more similarities “It’s in the timber… sometimes I feel it! Sometimes I listen on the radio and it’s him… O it’s me! (laughs) It freaks me out!” (still laughing) Talking of Leon Ware, Biondi also recalls working with the late jazz/funk/disco/R&B soul man “All thanks to him. I start to sing his tune one octave high and he says to me, remember to sing low. Your timbre and the low octave is fantastic!” Talking of great artists, there’s also a mention for UK soul’s finest, Omar, who “I have total respect for him - we worked together and he was a strength for me”.

You can read more from our exclusive interview with Italian soul sensation Mario Biondi, including his thoughts on being compared vocally to the Walrus of Love, Barry White. Also, we get the full lowdown on new album "Rio", which features some interesting cover choices, including Sade's all-time soul classic "Smooth Operator". We also find out who the artists he admires/influence him today and what Mario Biondi's favourite top 3 songs/albums are of all-time and who he has always wanted to work with. All in the current issue of Blues & Soul magazine - click the 'BUY NOW' link below to order straight from the B&S shop or read on for high street retailer details...

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