Listening to Zenet may not take you as far as the Seas of China (the title of his album). But almost. He conjures up images of European-style cocktail bars and cigars, blue smoke and the sound of a double base. Irresistible women with men falling at their feet in the name of love. He arrived at our meeting with a jacket slung over one shoulder, his hat tipped to the side and looking as if he might cry any minute. His taxi had just passed through a neighbourhood of Malaga he used to stroll through with his grandfather, bringing vivid memories to mind. He ordered a coffee, a whiskey on ice and breathed deeply.
Q: Some critics have called you the new Frank Sinatra. Would you call yourself a crooner?
A: Let’s start out by stamping out the myth. The son of Pepe Da Rosa looked up a definition of the word crooner in a dictionary on my behalf. It said: “a singer who makes a song his own and reinterprets it. Usually backed by a big band”. And then it says something I don’t agree with: “in a low, soft voice”. I don’t think that’s right. I copied mine from my mother!
A: When we talk about style, we speaking about a particular way of holding oneself; the jacket, the tie, the hat. It’s something that is created over time. I believe that definitions are a sin. I love it when you ask someone what they think of Toni Zenet, and they don’t know what to say. That’s what I like. It seems more interesting to me.
Q: Do you feel closer to bossa, jazz, flamenco, blues…?
A: I love flamenco. I love jazz, Brazilian music and tango. I wouldn’t say I identify with one more than any other. You take all of these influences, mix them up a bit, drink it up, and when you let it all out, it’s just Zenet. I can’t stand the word fusion. It’s dead to me. You have to be careful of the way you use it. I don’t like being pigeonholed. Let every person decide for themselves.
Q: Whose lyrics are you hiding under your hat?
“Se você disser que eu desafino, amor” (he sings). Lyrics from all kinds of people. Brazilians such as Caetano Veloso. Americans like Chet Baker or Billie Holiday. Argentineans. All the greats. But I’ve never tried to imitate them. It’s easy to differentiate a person who is trying to copy them from those who forget about trying and just do it. When you just do it, you create your very own personality.
Q: Should Javier Laguna be jealous of José Alfredo Jiménez, the lyricist of Chavela?
A: José Taboada, Laguna and I usually say “León, Quintero and Quiroga!” the famous trio of composers from Spain. There is no need to envy him. Want to know why? Anyone who hears En los mares de China (In the Seas of China) will realize that the music sounds old style, while the lyrics are up-to-date. Laguna has managed to join together contemporary and classic sounds.
A: Tell me a little more about Soñar contigo.
A: “Déjame esta noche soñar contigo” (he sings). It’s a fantastic tune. I met up with León, Quintero and Quiroga. Laguna took along his lyrics. I read the words “déjame esta noche soñar contigo” and said “oh my god! How are we going to do this?”. José Taboada said “just launch into it and I’ll follow you”. I sang with Taboada following me on guitar. It came out perfect on the first take, proving the saying that “great tunes are not invented, they are discovered”. Some things are in the air. You just have to be humble enough to admit that all you did was catch them.
Q: What came first. Film or music?
A: They came together, although I took a shot at the cinema first. Most of my working experience has been as an actor. Music has been like a woman, following me over time.
Q: Which excites you more?
A: Both. When Juan Antonio Bardem puts you in the Café d’Orsay in Paris, a location once frequented by Picasso, and says the words “je suis bien”, and you are surrounded by seventy people playing extras, dressed in period costume and a film crew who used to work with Jean-Jacques Annaud in Paris, and you say “je suis bien”, you’d probably shed a tear or two. They are emotional moments. I couldn’t tell you whether those experiences have affected me more than performing a concert for a crowd. I’ll just say both.
Q: One of your songs is called Un Beso de Esos, meaning One of those kisses. How many of those kisses did you experience when you were growing up in Malaga?
A: If you only knew! Like everyone I trembled the first time I kissed someone. There’s a line in one of the verses of the song that says; “it’s worth more than all the drugs in all the pharmacies”. I remember waiting for her in the door of her house, dressed up and wearing far too much aftershave. Her parents went out for dinner and we stayed at home. It was just one kiss. Just one. But it turned my whole world upside down.
Q: Have you ever managed to replicate that feeling?
A: It’s never quite the same as that first time with all the emotions that take over your body. I do however try to make every day like that. I’m in a stable relationship with the woman of my dreams and the mother of my children. And when we kiss, we still tremble. I hope it’s going to be like that forever.
Q. When did you lose your Malaga accent?
A: I never lost it! If we spend a few hours together, we’ll try some pescaítos fritos (Malaga slang for fried fish) and some cañitas (beers)… After a little while you’ll see me relax more and more. I’m an actor. When I moved to Madrid I didn’t want to be eternally cast as the gay Andalusian. I therefore learnt to neutralize my accent, something I believe all actors should do.
Q. Are you going to move back to Malaga?
A: The saying “No one is a prophet in their own land” is true. When you return triumphant, you do it like Cesar (he imitates the sound of a drum roll). But in order to get there you’ve usually lived through hunger, solitude and been cheated more than once. I haven’t ruled out the idea that my final days will be spent looking at the sea. But, Madrid has made me what I am today. It’s my city.
Q: How much do you learn on the street and how much hanging around the rich and famous?
A: Don’t forget that one of the greatest thinkers of all time was Borges. He practically lived in a library and never ventured out. He would travel with his mind and create truly marvellous things. He enthrals me with the way he uses words. I believe everyone creates a wonderful world when they lock themselves up in their room. My life is out there (he points at the street). I know the taxi-drivers, the bouncers and the valet. I love hanging out with them. I remember their names, while I’ll probably forget the name of the producer I spoke with this morning.
Q: Who inspires you to take off your hat and whom would you send off to the Seas of China?
A: I take off my hat to any act of kindness. I’d love to take my hat off to anything done with taste, with love and with education. To the Seas of China I’d send those who lie, or want us to believe things that are untrue. Those who want to attain power and those who want to squash all ideas with their own. Those who tell us what is and isn’t politically correct. I’d put them all on a pirate ship and send them off to the Seas of China armed only with swords and let them battle it out on their own.
Q: Do we need more men like Gene Kelly on dark and rainy nights?
A: Of course we do. I think there are some out there. If we really, really look I think we’ll find lots of them. Let’s not be pessimists. There are also many Fred Astaire’s and Frank Sinatra’s. We just have to keep our eyes open.
These albums related to Toni Zenet may interest you.
- • Official website for Zenet
- • Zenet on Myspace
- • Toni Zenet in Top 5 People in 2009 in Tertulia Andaluza