Monday 3 September 2012 - 11:30 by
Malta’s former Eurovision hopeful (and near-winner) Ira Losco takes a break from recording her new album to discuss her uncompromising views on the cohabitation bill, getting ‘fat’ on camera… and her sex appeal.
Outspoken: “If you’re going to put something out there then it needs to not be at half measure. I speak out because I have many gay friends who I want to see benefit in their own society.”
INFLUENCES: "Everything from Beethoven to Stravinsky to PJ Harvey to country"
SUPPORTING ACT FOR: Elton John, Katie Melua, Maroon 5, Akon, Mel C, Ronan Keating, Bob Geldof, Tokio Hotel, Gigi D'Alessio, Claudio Baglioni
UPCOMING PERFORMANCE: End of Summer Music Festival, Verdala Palace
The cult of the Maltese celebrity always runs the risk of being something of a misnomer, if not an outright paradox. In a country so small, does being a celebrity even 'count', when fame among your fellow islanders is relatively easy to achieve - especially now that online social networking is so rampant?
But I'm confident that very few people would actually dispute Eurovision 2002 near-winner Ira Losco's local celebrity status. Not only will she be remembered for nearly leading Malta to a win in Helsinki over a decade ago - "12 more points, and we would have won," she reminds me - but she's also something of an oddity in that she has managed to forge her own musical path after the Eurovision lights have faded.
But perhaps the mark of a true celebrity - for better or for worse - is when people care about your opinion on topics that aren't directly related to what made you famous in the first place. This much was proven on Losco's part last week, after the 31-year-old singer expressed her uncompromising views on the cohabitation bill presented by government on Tuesday.
Her impassioned Facebook status update lambasted government for its 'intolerance' and referred to the bill as 'rubbish'. 'I am ashamed to be led by some [sic] homophobic and vote hungry people!' she wrote, attracting digital applause from many - and even some irritation, though from what seems to be a minority so far.
Phoning her up a couple of days after the outburst, I could tell that while her tone was measured compared to her fit of righteous Facebook rage, an underlying anger at what she perceived to be a very real injustice still remained.
"The bill was long overdue and was disappointing for various factors. I appreciate that it must be extremely difficult to always please a population when one is in politics.
"But I also believe that if you're going to put something out there then it needs to not be at half measure. I speak out because I have many gay friends who I want to see benefit in their own society.
"It's hard enough that we live in a country which in my opinion still enjoys medieval point of views when discussing such issues," she said, adding that since both parties promote the concept of a family as a bastion of society, "then that should be true to anyone, irrespective of sexuality".
It's clear that - when it comes to this particular issue at least - Ira has her heart firmly on her sleeve. But when I met her for a chat at Sliema's Café Cuba - it was the morning after Dom Mintoff's death was announced, so the 'Marxist chic' decor felt a bit spooky - I discovered that she's also quite pragmatic when she needs to be.
At one point in our conversation, the subject inevitably turns to this year's Eurovision Song Contest.
"Over the past few years, some of the gimmicks on display were becoming a bit too over-the-top, but thankfully this year, a true artist won. Her song was the kind of Euro-dance that appeals very much to the gay public - which is a clever move because let's face it, they're a section of the market that has a lot of spending power... I mean, Madonna did it too - it's being clever about it. Although at the end of the day, music is not just about being clever, you have to be true to yourself..."
Perhaps it's this balance of the passionate and strategic that has ensured Ira remains a relevant figure in Malta's pop music landscape... such as it is. And "being true to oneself" is more than just a cliché in Ira's case - it's a pursuit that colours her journey from innocent Eurovision songstress to a globe-hopping singer-songwriter with a pop-rock edge.
Though I haven't run a comprehensive check, her story is probably well documented: a tale of musical precociousness at Sacred Heart and then St Aloysius ("I wanted to go there only because of their famous soirees!"), before finally trying out for the Malta Song for Europe contest and nearly scoring a win for Malta in 2002, after which she was noticed by local producer Howard Keith Debono, who took her under his wing and helped her reinvent herself as a singer-songwriter in her own right.
While she narrates her story, I notice that Ira skims over her Eurovision experience, preferring instead to talk about what happened before and after. She seems slightly caught off guard when I mention this, like she wasn't even aware she was doing it, but rationalises her little lapse quickly enough.
"To be honest, I think I skipped over it simply because I don't think it's the pinnacle of my career. I mean sure, I'm grateful for all the exposure that it's given me, and when I look at pictures and videos from that time I still get emotional. It was fun, and the Maltese contingent kept it fun - there was no drama, no arguments and at the end of the day - I'm just proud that I went there and did my job, and I didn't let the pressure and any external stuff cave in on me..."
So even when it comes to a spectacle like the Eurovision, she was thinking in terms of how to execute the job as efficiently as possible?
"Yes, I always want to be an 'A-student' when it comes to music," she says with a smile. "Because I hate it when I'm not. And it's not a megalomaniac thing... I want to earn an 'A' in the public's eyes, because that's what keeps me going. I just want to prove to myself that I can do it in the best way possible."
One wonders just how replicable her success as a Eurovision diva-cum-standalone artist is though, especially considering how a great number of Malta's Eurovision hopefuls fade into obscurity quite soon after continental musical kitsch fest drops its curtain.
Well, Ira's advice is simply: plan ahead.
"If you're going in with at least some idea of what direction you'd like to take your career into after the Eurovision then yes, I'd still recommend going for it. Because it does remain a good launching pad, especially in today's economic climate. Producers are actually scoping out 'real' musicians at the Eurovision because let's face it, the contest does half the work for them already: it gives the artist automatic exposure since the Eurovision is watched by millions of people, and its reach is now extended thanks to social media. Which shouldn't be ignored by aspiring musicians because the harsh truth is that artists don't really get paid advances any more... unless you're a one-armed musician who plays five instruments, unless we're talking about that level of amazing talent. So yes, I would recommend it as a launching pad, but only if you've thought the trajectory of your career through."
Currently recording a new album set for end of 2012 release - she rushes off to the studio for an early start after our interview - Ira has four previous releases under her belt. All of which, to some degree, mark a change in tone, both in terms of the music and her image.
She singles out 2005's Accident Prone as her breakthrough album, whose singles - particularly the title track - received plenty of airplay while also netting her fans from abroad - most notably, from Germany.
"Accident Prone was a defining song for me: it was the song that finally cemented my new image - it made people realise 'OK, she's not going to be wearing frills and lace any more'... but then again you can't wear Converse all your life either! So then the style matured as well..."
The Accident Prone phase was certainly influenced by a particular strand of female singers hitting the air-and-TV waves at the time, "female artists with big, wall-of-sound, crunching guitars... like Avril Lavigne and Kelly Clarkson". But with the new album, Ira seems less interested in slotting into categories and more keen on just following her own groove - perhaps a clear indication of an artist finally coming to her own.
"The idea was to not think in terms of any parameters, to just write what I felt like writing: if I wanted to write something funny, I wrote something funny... I didn't bother with second-guessing myself all the time and saying 'this isn't mature enough' or 'this isn't young enough'... I just wrote what I wanted to write..."
It sounds like she was dogged by some of those questions before though...
"Well yes, in a lot of ways those questions are part-and-parcel of growing up in general... I mean, I was never a 'child artist' but the Eurovision was a decade ago. And it was only later, thanks to Howard's help, that I really learnt what being a singer-songwriter meant. Before the Eurovision days I used to be in a band called Tiara and even then - the guitarist did most of the writing. So in my head it was like 'OK, I'm just the singer'. I was still discovering myself, and when you're younger you care more about what people think. Now I do things my own way, and I'm more comfortable with that."
This hard-earned comfort also comes, it seems, with a certain degree of self-deprecating humour, if the video for the first, reggae-tinged single of her upcoming album, What I'd Give, is anything to go by. Made with the help of Take2Entertainment and centering around a cabaret club setting, the video - which at the time of writing has attracted over 23,400 views on YouTube - has Ira playing a handful of different characters in various comic situations.
"I'm not sure if it was my idea to be fat for one of the scenes, but I think so," she smiles. "I was quite excited about being funny in the video, because some people think I'm not funny, or that I'm really all prim and proper - which I'm really not, I have no idea why they get that impression! So I like that we went with that direction for the video," she says, adding that the video is part of an effort towards making the album a more visual experience, partly because "social media has become such a big phenomenon".
"It's funny because I'm only really seeing the benefits of the internet right now... when I first started there was no real social networking to speak of, and even sites like YouTube weren't that huge. But the fact that the video for What I'd Give got nearly 2,000 views after just a week is quite impressive..."
Of course, it's hard to deny that Ira's genetic gifts didn't help her along. She - or at least, her management - certainly doesn't: 'sex appeal' is listed on her official website as being among the ingredients that have made her successful over the years.
Maybe it's a sign of her more relaxed approach to her musical persona in general, but she is refreshingly casual about this topic too.
"Honestly it's not something I see in myself because as a young girl, I wasn't the type to get dolled up and get picked up by guys... I went to a bit of an 'ugly' phase which - jahasra - a lot of girls seem to go through. And even now, there are things I have to consider - I'm not the tallest, nor the skinniest person in the world. I try to adapt. At the end of the day, I just wear the clothes I feel comfortable in... it's just that a lot of those clothes happen to be, well, tight, or small clothes. But not slutty. At least I hope not," she says with a smile.
Ira's next performance will be at the End of Summer Music Festival at Verdala Gardens on 7 September, where she'll form part of an eclectic line-up of local musicians, some of which have never rubbed shoulders on stage before. Apart from usual suspects like Airport Impressions and Tribali, the stage will also host the cult folk-pop ensemble Brikkuni, and the elder statesmen of Maltese rock: The Rifffs.
"The fact that it's such a mixed line-up is really exciting. I don't think there ever was such a varied one-night festival before. I like festivals because your sets are limited to around 45 minutes, so you really have to squeeze the juice out of your material and go for it. It's 45 minutes of pure adrenaline."