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“I’ve been told by people that it’s hard to put a finger exactly on what I do,” says Jacopo De Nicola. No wonder. A Latin American style lilts across his guitar work as it circles Eastern European melodies. That might be enough, but a further listen reveals a lot more stirred into the sonic brew.

Growing up in Italy in the 1980s, Jacopo was surrounded by sounds from England—Brit-pop, New Wave, goth, punk—, Eastern Europe, Latin America. “All the music coming from England was a big influence,” says Jacopo. “You wouldn’t think New Wave music and Latin American music would go together, but they are there. I can hear them both in what I do.” “And of course we all grew up with the big baggage of the Cantautori,” says Jacopo, referring to the Italian singer-songwriter tradition. “From the 60s and 70s on, they shaped the way Italians perceived music. That definitely influenced me growing up.”

Jacopo started taking bass lessons at 14, and in the following years he played in a new wave band and a techno-jazz trio, as well as scoring a paying gig with the Italian folk ensemble Giancarlo Corrente’s Orchestra. “We’d play traditional music—Polkas and Waltzes— for hours and people danced non-stop. I’d finish the night with my fingers smoldering.” After a few years of that, Jacopo pulled away from music to pursue other artistic interests, traveling Europe and the Middle East, settling down for a while as a yoga instructor in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt. A decision in 2005 to walk the Camino Santiago in Spain set his life in a new direction. On that 550-mile journey, Jacopo met his wife to be, leading him to eventually join her in San Francisco, and rekindle his interest in playing music professionally. SF’s strong open-mic culture pulled him in, and soon he’d written a number of songs, recording his first album, Mai Come Ora, in 2009.

“For me there is no formula to writing,” Jacopo says. “It’s entirely inspirational. So much of the guitar and bass lines come out of noodling. All of a sudden I hear something that catches my attention and that’s how the song is birthed” The words usually come afterward, once the guitar parts have already started to take shape. “I feel like a receiver more than an active composer,” he says. “I listen, and then let it happen.”

One of the things that happened as Jacopo began songwriting was he’d taken up the kazoo. “It allows me to cut through brass-based melodic lines without needing four hands,” says Jacopo. He’s developed a system to set it up with a wireless mic, running it through pedals. “It sounds like a small Mexican banda—a brass mariachi band.” The novelty of the kazoo is a double-edged sword, says Jacopo. “People see it and think of clowns and kid’s birthday parties. But when they listen, the story changes. Especially when paired with a brass section, it becomes a wild combination. People really enjoy it.” Perhaps it’s that perception of the kazoo as a child’s toy that helps to open the audience’s heart a little—letting them be more attuned and in touch with the performance.

Moving to the East Coast (eventually settling in Philadelphia), Jacopo recorded a second album, Torn in the USA, in 2010, and then the EP Oceano Senziente in 2012. Jacopo followed that up with gigs with his band The Late Saints, a gypsy-rock combo whose lineup has included Micah Hebbel (drums), Jason Bachman (bass); and later Mike Huff (bass), Tim Leslie (percussion), Nick Lombardelli (trombone), and Alex Wolfe (trumpet). Their first album together was 2015’s Presto! In America; and WSTW awarding them Best Band on its Hometown Heroes program.

For the past year or so, Jacopo has been hard at work on a new album, Cuore Matto, taking breaks to tour in Europe. Unlike his sessions with the Late Saints, this album finds him laying down most of the tracks, along with a handful of highlighted guest performers. The credits list him as “vocals, guitar, bass, and whatnot.” Whatnot? “Often I don’t have the resources to afford the fully developed version of what I’m trying to do, so I resort to improvisation,” says Jacopo. It’s a skill he learned in San Francisco, working with actress/director Marilee Talkington on her experimental theater piece The Wormhole. The play is meant to evoke the feeling of someone gradually going blind, so sound design was of paramount importance. Jacopo created the soundscape of the performance, finding unusual ways to obtain evokative and expressive sounds. “It was an exhilarating opportunity to experiment with crazy stuff,” says Jacopo. “In order to reproduce a specific sound I would come up with a combination of noises, sort of what they do in soundtracking.” “I think that opened me up to it,” he says.

Since then his albums have included sampled and improvised sounds, using whatever tool serves the purpose. “I use everything. Cheese graters, splatter guards from old trucks, accidental noises, mouth produced beats— anything goes when it comes to getting the right sound.” In one of his latest collaborations with videographer John Welsh he admits using a silicone spatula to mimic a tribal percussive instrument. “I think the new album is a refinement of what I was doing before,” says Jacopo. The Late Saints was more blues and rock-driven project, powerful and percussive—a relentless energy suffused all the songs. With his new solo project, Jacopo is adjusting those energy levels. “I believe the magic is in the dynamics of music—being incredibly subtle and then taking off, or going in a whole different direction,” he says.

The solo work gives him more freedom to change the intensity and dynamics, creating an ebb and flow of energy. It’s a feeling you can get at his live performances. “It’s almost like I go into a trance-y state in which I embody what I sing and what I am,” says Jacopo. “And the response of the people creates this virtuous cycle of call and response. I send the energy out, the energy comes back and charges me even more, and keeps going back and forth.” “When an audience participates, when they get into it, then magic ensues,” he says. “There’s nothing any performer can do by himself. It only happens because people agree to be part of this performance, to be part of this ritual.” “They’re a way to manifest what I’ve been brewing and pushing to bring out,” says Jacopo. “Live performance is when it becomes real. It’s absorbed by the body and the mind of the listeners, and my body and mind as well.”

“I’m tooting my own horn,” he says, with a certain amount of self-depreciation. “But you know, I’m a kazoo player. Of course I’m going to do that.”

*Discography

Mai Come Ora” (2009).

Torn in The USA” (2010) 

Oceano senziente” (2012)

Presto! In America” (2015)

“Cuore Matto” (To be released in 2018)