Folk multi-instrumentalist Monique Mizrahi is a rare bird. A 'Honeybird' to be exact, since this is the name of her solo music project. After living in Italy for over a decade, Monique headed back to the United States with her faithful charango and sweet smoky voice in search of inspiration. Now she's coming back to Italy on tour to present her new album Out Comes Woman and she's planning to fill the Florentine air with her sweet melodies on September 2 at the Easy Living-Spiaggetta Sull'Arno. I met up with her to discuss the new release, her future hopes and the mysterious migratory patterns of the Honeybird.
So you've recently announced the first Italian tour since your move to New York, but we both know that your relationship with Italy goes way back....tell us a bit about how this bond influenced your life and music.
I was born in LA but my father grew up in Rome, so I was fascinated by Italy from the very get-go. In 2001 I decided to spend a month in Italy…that extended into 14 years! I immediately felt a very strong connection and somehow ended up living in Rome, where I actually rediscovered my creative self.
I had no friends, just a guitar and so much space and time to just soak up the sounds and the Italian sun. At 20 I was already working professionally in the States, so I came from a very intense work ethos and Italy provided me with the extraordinary opportunity to really get in touch with myself. It helped me shed all the preconceived notions and judgement I had garnered growing up in LA. Rome also gave me my very first band, Honeybird & The Birdies! We had a fantastically long run: about 7 years of music, laughs and shows. It had an immense impact on who I am as a human being and put me in touch with the whole Italian indie scene. I still love Italy, it has such a powerful warm place in my heart. I love it for everything that it is, the good, the bad and the ugly! I'm really looking forward to having some fresh basil!
Why did you move? Did you feel that something was missing?
I had actually been struggling to find a way to stay but it got progressively more difficult as the economy worsened. The music scene just became more and more challenging to a point that I felt that I had to move in order to pursue music further and find new prospects. I really couldn't envision a future. The shows were [fewer and fewer] and all around me negativity and complaints just kept growing. For at least a whole year I tried to stay positive, but then I realized that a change was needed. So I moved to New York on April Fools' Day.
It's a hard city but since I've landed here in Brooklyn I feel that there are prospects and numerous opportunities for me as a musician. The value of being an artist is so present. It is so unfortunate that Italy is struggling, there are so many talented people! But I'm still an optimist, I'm sure something's gonna give…art in general has such a big impact on society, we can influence it in a positive way.
Your new album Out Comes Woman marks your official coming out. Was this an important step?
At 13 I had already acknowledged my bisexuality but it took me a very long time to really accept it. I've always sort of pushed it aside..but here in NY I finally feel that I can really embrace it. In Italy I took part in an interesting initiative called "Le Cose Cambiano" ("Things change") that collects personal coming out stories and experiences meant to help struggling LGBT youth come to terms with their sexuality and fight discrimination. I try to do the same, to be open and encourage others to create a space of self-expression. This is an important part of my identity and even though initially it wasn't the main focus of my songwriting for the new album, it slowly grew more and more impelling. Community is very important. Learning that I wasn't alone was an important part of accepting who I am. One of the songs on the album says ‘Come out, I won't love you less’ because only if you show your true self you will be able to love and be loved honestly and thoroughly.
The album was produced by 3 time Grammy Winner Marc Urselli, known for his work with Lou Reed, Marianne Faithfull and Laurie Anderson. Tell us a bit about the creative process behind the album and the musicians involved.
Although I don't have a fixed band, I recorded the album with Ivy Wong on upright bass and Tim Keiper on percussions and ngoni. They have different musical backgrounds: Ivy studied at Juilliard, the temple of classical music, and Tim plays Brazilian and Malian music. I play charango, electric bass and vocals. Our work together was really inspiring and the result is a warm blend of nuanced cross-cultural folk.
When I arrived in New York I was actually already in touch with Marc, who I had met through my former producer and sensei Enrico Gabrielli, who is actually present also on the new album. We entered the studio in September and recorded everything in two days! The album was mastered in Japan by Seigen Ono, who has been involved with the likes of Ruichi Sakamoto and Herbie Hancock. The album officially ‘came out’ on May 14th and I presented it at Nublu, a venue in the East Village. We actually celebrated a bi-matzvah, where I was pronounced bi and out and we put on an amazing show. I'm curious about coming back to Italy with this new awareness…
You have set yourself a pretty far-fetched goal: to play 365 times in one year. Is it still on? And are you looking forward to taking your mission over to Italy?
It is still on, trust me! I do a post every day on my Facebook page….it's such good exercise! The other day I played in a nursing home in front of a hundred eighty year-olds! It's my way of daily valuing what I do.
I'm slowly sowing my seeds and developing a friend base and a fan base. I feel like I'm back on my feet and ready for anything, more than ever before. I've started to expand and collaborate with many different musicians. I have also returned to my teenage love: the electric bass. I've never played in Florence before, it's such a charming city and I'm literally stoked! I will be accompanied by Gigi Funcis on keyboards, Gioele Pagliaccia on drums, percussions and vocals. For the occasion of our Spiaggia sull'Arno gig, we will be joined by Florentine flutist Valentina Bellanova, who will be playing the Turkish ney, which has a wonderful wooden sound. We will perform songs from the new album and some fresh unreleased material. I'm so excited to play by the Arno!