By Elena Porciani (Università della Campania “Luigi Vanvitelli”)
It was February 1981, and the Sanremo Festival had come down to a head-to-head battle between Loretta Goggi’s “Maledetta primavera” (Evil Spring) and Alice’s “Per Elisa” (For Elisa): between the traditional pop song, performed by an established television show artist, and a song more sensitive to the changing times in European pop, sung by the previous summer’s newcomer who, after years of false starts, had finally found the right mentor in Franco Battiato at EMI.
The release of the hit album La voce del padrone (His Master’s Voice) would take place the next autumn, but for a few years already Battiato had moved away from the experimentation of the Seventies, heir to a progressive rock period that would turn out to be the great Freudian displacement of Italian popular music, toward a more independent singer-songwriter style different from the so-called Roman school. Battiato, however, is not only a singer and musician: he is also a talent scout who, with his team of trusted cohorts – Giusto Pio and Angelo Carrara in the lead –, had managed to sign an artist who had not yet achieved the success she deserved: Carla Bissi. Born in Forlì in 1954, she was already a winner of the Castrocaro Festival in 1971 and a new entry at Sanremo in 1972. Then, starting in 1975, she worked under the stage name of Alice Visconti, under which she released two insignificant albums with the CBS label, both produced by Giancarlo Lucariello, creator of Pooh’s symphonic pop from 1971 to 1975. From 1980 onward she went simply by Alice.
An evocative name, perhaps resonating with the “alicemania” on which author Gianni Celati focused in his 1977 book (Alice disambientata, more or less translatable as “Alice Out of Place”), based on notes from his university course and loosely inspired to Lewis Carroll’s masterpiece. Her name choice was therefore perhaps allusive of the ephemeral anarchy of the youth of that period, in a way that also suggests the characteristic elusiveness of her persona, furthered by her appearance as a young (beautiful) woman, sulky and cerebral, little inclined to smiles and already intent on building respectability not only as a performer of Battiato’s music, but also as a songwriter and musician in her own right. In addition to her powerful contralto vocals, Alice was an accomplished pianist and composer of her own lyrics and music, as heard in some tracks on the album Capo Nord (Cape North) from 1980, as well as in the subsequent 1981 album entitled simply Alice, which contains the number one song from Sanremo and her other great success of that summer, “Una notte speciale” (A Special Night).
She did win the duel at the Festival, although in terms of sales the prize would go to Loretta Goggi; but Loretta would never go further than this one hit, while Alice, brick after brick, laid the foundation for a solid career. The 1981 LP, however, contains a song, “Senza cornice” (Without a Frame), which suggests that the pop star’s life is not suitable for Alice:
Contrariamente a quel che si dice
io vivo sempre senza cornice,
solitamente faccio le spese
di questa vita mia senza pretese. […]
C’è tanta gente che mi odia da sempre
e non ho mai capito per quale ragione
sarà per caso questa mia ostinazione
a voler fare solo ciò che mi pare.
Ho constatato con soddisfazione
che anche le rose metton prima le spine
e quando scrivo le mie contraddizioni
mi sento viva sono tutte reazioni
(Contrary to what you say
I always live without a frame,
I usually pay my own dues
This my life without pretensions. […]
There are many people who always hate me
And I’ve never understood why
It might be because of my stubbornness
To only do what seems right to me.
I noted with satisfaction
That roses, too, put forth their thorns first
And when I write my contradictions
I feel alive, they are all reactions)
Independent, obstinate, thorny, contradictory, as well as a proud transcriber of her own moods: these are the qualities which the song claims and which describe very well Alice’s future path.
However, it would be another few years before Alice could break free from the frame of pop music, the time needed to release two more albums: Azimut (1982) and Falsi allarmi (1983), which affirmed her ability as a musician and songwriter to build an original, expressive horizon of feminine subjectivity. Azimut already marks, however, a first sign of change: if the two driving songs of the album - the summer single “Messaggio” (Message) and the duet “Chanson egocentrique” (Egocentric Song) - still rely heavily on her collaboration with Battiato, the others bear her own signature, with the exception of “Laura degli specchi” (Laura of the Mirrors) which is by Eugenio Finardi. Thus we can imagine that Alice has gained confidence and no longer wishes to be identified as Battiato’s protegée, but seeks recognition for her artistic autonomy. This separation becomes more notable with the subsequent - and less successful - Falsi allarmi, containing no songs written by Battiato. After that, there is still time for a systematic tribute to Battiato with the cover album Gioielli rubati (Stolen Jewels) in 1985, featuring “Prospettiva Nevski,” and from there forward Alice begins to explore new musical frontiers, gradually making her exit from the pop radar.
This shift becomes more pronounced between her 1986 Park Hotel and her 1989 Il sole nella pioggia (The Sun through the Rain), critically acclaimed but marked by decreased commercial success - at least in Italy, while in other European countries, especially in Germany, Alice continues to sell. With her partner Francesco Messina at the production helm, Alice’s albums were characterized by prestigious international collaborations and by sounds of increasing elitist refinement, where Alice dilutes the haughty performative momentum of the early Eighties in an inspiration that is ever more ethereal but also at constant risk, in its subsequent erudite and spiritual iterations, of an unresolved, sometimes pretentious impalpability.
Over the last thirty years, with the release of eight more albums, Alice has sporadically left her niche to reappear in the pop circuit: for example, in 2000 with her improbable and likely unwilling participation once again in Sanremo - with “Il giorno dell’indipendenza” (Independence Day), an unsuccessful song written for her by another notable singer-songwriter, Juri Camisasca - and then more recently on tour with Franco Battiato, with whom she resumed a musical collaboration with Samsara (2012) and Weekend (2014). The latter album even contains a new duet, subsequently performed live, which is a tribute to Claudio Rocchi, the progressive rock songwriter who died in 2013. “La realtà non esiste” (Reality Doesn’t Exist) reads: “Quando vivi, tu sei un centro di ruota e i tuoi raggi sono raggi di vita, / puoi girare solo intorno al tuo perno o puoi scegliere di correre e andare” (When you are alive, you are the hub and your spokes are the rays of life / you can choose to simply spin your wheels or you can choose to run and go)—a sort of statement on a forty-year-long tenacious and thorny career without a frame.