Ivana XL was born in Las Vegas and now lives and records in Brooklyn, NY. She has independently released over sixty songs in the past four years and is currently recording an EP with plans to begin touring in the US and UK this year.
We’ve got a crush on self-taught musician, Ivana XL, and are partial to hearing her sing against the backdrop of a lone guitar or piano. Her voice is rich, sultry, and ethereal—it welcomes and carries us to another place. Ivana writes her own material and has also done some achingly good covers of classics sung by Neil and Carly. So go ahead and turn on some music before you read on about Ivana’s journey as a musician, the community she’s found in Brooklyn, how she learned to sing by listening to R&B, and why—in the end—all that matters is the music.
Interview date: January 2, 2012
Tell us a little about what you’re up to right now.
I’ve been recording for about four years here in Brooklyn—recording a lot of lo-fi stuff on my computer and 4-track and also recording in a couple studios around Brooklyn and Manhattan. Right now, I’m focusing on putting together an EP which I hope to release by March/April. I’m working with two producers right now—Dan Chen, who I’ve been recording with for the past two years and I’m going to start recording with Joe McGinty of The Psychedelic Furs. I’m really excited about that.
How did you get started in music?
I started out playing the violin when I was five years old. I wasn’t super fond of playing the violin at that age, in particular, and into my teens, but I did know that I loved playing an instrument. I guess I thought the violin was slightly uncool—especially carrying the little case around in the halls at school, you know—it wasn’t very tough. But, when I was about thirteen, I was given an electric guitar. I learned “Come As You Are” and “Blue Moon” that day and then it just snowballed.
This is a side note, but you sound like you have a bit of an accent.
Um, I was in Georgia for a few years so that’s probably where that came from. I went to college at Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) for two years. Also, my mom and I moved pretty much constantly when I was growing up and spent some time in North Carolina and Virginia as well. I would strangely adopt any accent I was around, but the southern one comes out on stage, when I’m nervous, and sometimes when I’m waitressing.
[Tina] I noticed your last name—is it Italian?
Well, my mom is from Milan, Italy and my dad is from Buenos Aires, Argentina. I’m the first-born American in the family. We have a little house in Italy and go back there once or twice a year. I was just there for Christmas.
Was creativity a part of your childhood?
Definitely. I started out drawing a lot as a kid—mostly people and animals. And I went to college for painting, so creativity has always been there.
Did you take art in school?
Yes. I mostly painted nudes in college. I still have my paintings. One nude I just recently found is of a man with a cane, a mustache, and some tube socks. I totally forgot about that guy! I loved doing sculpture too—mostly busts of heads. I was always very interested in people’s faces, so sculpture was what I enjoyed most.
After a year at SCAD, you decided to leave and go to NY?
Yes. Well, at the time when I left college, my mom was living out on Long Island. I stayed with her for a while and worked at Urban Outfitters—a.k.a. deep, dark hell—for about six months while saving money and then I was able to move to Brooklyn. I had lived in New York twice before because we bounced around a lot when I was growing up, but I’ve now been here four or five years on my own.
Was there an “aha” moment when you decided that music was it for you?
Yes. When I was about 20, I had my first break-up and went to our place in Italy to get myself together. I was completely devastated, love-sick, the whole thing. So I was playing guitar in my room and I guess I sort of stopped thinking about what I was doing and this song just came out in like two minutes: “The News”. Ever since then, it’s felt completely natural to write. Writing music is the best therapy. That was the moment when I thought, “Okay, this is what I’m going to do.”
Have you had a musical mentor along the way?
It’s always changing. Right now, I’m obsessed with Bill Callahan, who also plays under the band name Smog. He just seems to do whatever the hell he wants to do, which I completely respect; it’s dirty, stark music, with the most amazing lyrics. Also, my dad conducts the Youth Camerata Orchestra in Las Vegas and plays the violin, so he’s been a great example of a working and passionate musician. And my mother—she’s just an amazing woman. She speaks six languages, is going for her second master’s degree, and is a professor at UNLV. She’s a very tough lady, which rubs off on me and has helped me a lot in my music and in life.
Are you self-taught as a musician?
Yes, except for the violin. I picked up the guitar on my own. I am also learning piano right now, but am not too good at it yet (laughing). I used to be able to read music when I was younger, but now I do everything by ear.
“A lot of times I put out the demo, which I record at home, and then the more finished studio version comes later. I think the ‘imperfect’ demo is just as special and relevant as the produced version because it captures the moment in time right after the song is written, which tends to be the most honest version of a song.”
Was your move to New York the biggest risk you’ve taken?
It was. Quitting college was kind of a big deal at the time. I knew people in NY from my old high school, but they lived in Long Island. So when I moved to Brooklyn, I didn’t know anyone except the girl I moved in with, but I’ve met people through jobs and playing shows. I love it here.
Are your friends and family supportive of what you do and who has encouraged you the most?
I have great friends who are very supportive of what I do. I’ve met some incredibly talented people since I’ve been here; a lot of them are in fashion, theatre, and music. I’m lucky to have them in my life supporting me. My friend Max Dana, whom I’ve dubbed “consigliore”, has been a great help and confidant. He is an actor and will be appearing on 30 Rock this month. Also, my friend Kathryn Sanders, who is a writer here in NY, has been with me through everything over the years.
My mom has also been amazing. We are very close since it was just the two of us when I was growing up. She’s always said I should do whatever I want to find happiness—and to not take any bullshit!
Are you working a day job and, if so, how do you balance work and music?
It’s kind of 50/50 and has worked out well so far. I work in a restaurant at night—it’s actually a lot of fun running around waiting tables—and during the day, I’m either at the studio or at a practice space. I’m also working with a manager team and that has been really helpful. I’m not very business minded, so it’s been nice to have some guidance in that respect.
Are you satisfied creatively?
Yes—so far. There is always more that I want to do, but I feel like I’ve done what I set out to do, which was to make very honest music. It’s been important for me to constantly put songs and demos out and sort of show the process. A lot of times I put out the demo, which I record at home, and then the more finished studio version comes later. I think the “imperfect” demo is just as special and relevant as the produced version because it captures the moment in time right after the song is written, which tends to be the most honest version of a song. It’s also the version that I always end up listening to when I’m by myself.
Any thoughts about where you’d like to be in 5 or 10 years?
That’s very far off for me. I’m thinking about next week. I have no idea. Honestly, all I know is I want a giant dog (all laughing).
Do you feel a responsibility to contribute to something bigger than yourself?
I guess I don’t feel that responsibility. I feel more of a responsibility to myself—to be really honest with myself and to not put out anything that I think might… suck.
[Ryan] In listening through the music you’ve published online, it seems like you’re talented in the sense that you could do a lot of different styles. I could imagine people wanting to lead you in different directions and I think it’s cool that you’ve done your own thing. I like that a lot of it is lo-fi.
Oh, thank you. A lot of people want me to do other things a lot of the time. I’ve done some commercials, which I’m fine with, but in my own music, it’s important to me to do what I feel is good as far as style. I love very simple music. I’ve always liked one instrument with the voice. I think that hits so hard—harder even than a giant orchestra. I guess I know exactly what I want when it comes to my own musical sound, so there isn’t any confusion there, which is nice because at the end of the day, you’re alone with your own music and that’s it—you better be happy with it.
Do you have any really strong musical influences or musicians you looked up to when you were growing up?
Definitely. Liz Phair’s Girly Sounds demo was very important to me because it was just her in her room recording. Also, guided By Voices; Pavement; Nirvana; Wilco; Billie Holiday because she was so totally vulnerable. And I liked a lot of R&B when I was young—I learned how to sing by singing along with Mary J. Blige and Tony Braxton! I also liked a lot of classical music. David Bazan’s Pedro the Lion stuff was also a big influence for me—that was a great interview, by the way.
Thanks. So, now that you’re pursuing music full-time, if you could go back and do one thing differently, would you?
I would not do anything differently as far as music goes. It’s all come about very naturally—so for that, I’m happy. The only thing I might change is that I’ve been pretty bad with money. I’ve had a little money come to me through some commercials and I’ve blown it on shoes and shit—nice shoes— but maybe that’s what I would change.
If you could give advice to another musician starting out, what would it be?
I would say to really focus on the music. I know people have these big dreams of fame, but in the end, the music is truly the most important thing. If the music is good, people will notice. I think it’s important not to chase this idea of stardom. Having big dreams is awesome, but I think the dream of being a star and chasing that dream takes a lot of time and energy away from being creative and real.
Also, I’d say to not listen too much to what people are saying or how they want you to change. Criticism and compliments are great, but don’t base your whole system around what other people think because it could drive you crazy—this is also my dating advice.
It’s probably easy to have a fantasy of what it could be like as a musician. Have you thought about that?
I think I had those fantasies in the past and even a couple years ago. But, as I’ve been doing music more and more, that dream of fame has become kind of unimportant. It just seemed to take away from enjoying my everyday life.
How does where you live impact your creativity?
I think it’s really all about the people I’ve met. I feel like if I was living in another city, I would have written totally different songs about totally different people. My music is specific to the people I’ve met and have loved. I love this city so much that I don’t think I’ll ever move. Well, maybe I’d move to some other part of Brooklyn, like DUMBO, but that’s it.
So many people we’ve talked to who live in New York say that. There’s something about New York.
Yeah, it’s an amazing place.
“I know people have these big dreams of fame, but in the end, the music is truly the most important thing. If the music is good, people will notice.”
Is it important to you to be a part of a creative community of people?
I don’t know if I’ve ever known any other thing. I went to college for art so I was also around other creative people there. I’ve been inspired by accountants and lawyers too, though, so I think it’s mostly about people as individuals and how they impact your life.
[Tina] Since you briefly went to college for art at SCAD and are now living in Brooklyn, it seems like being around other creative people has happened organically. What about when you were growing up?
Honestly, when I was growing up, it was just me and my mom. Since we moved every one or two years, it was pretty hard—I was quite in my own mind and didn’t have a lot of friends since I’d always end up moving again. I spent a lot of time in my room drawing or playing music. College was when I was finally able to talk to people and make relationships and keep them. Up until then, I was very, very shy.
[Tina] Do you think that lent to your imagination and creativity?
Yes, my imagination just ran wild. I read a lot, wrote in journals, and I have tons of tapes—I was always recording myself talking or singing.
[Ryan] You said that you were shy growing up. Do you still get nervous when you’re playing shows or are you past that?
I get very nervous—sometimes I’ll even puke before a show. But once I’m finally up there, it’s fun. I just have to get up there on the stage, play a song, and then I’m fine.
[Ryan] That’s cool. I played a lot of music growing up and I was also shy. I used to get nervous days before, but once I started playing, it was very energizing.
Definitely. Adrenaline is a wonderful thing.
Do you have any fun stories from playing music?
One of my favorite things was playing twice for Rooftop Films, which holds a festival in Brooklyn. They have a musician play before they show new short films and I was asked to play a week before the event. I got there and there were hundreds of people and a giant projector screen so everyone could see what was going on on-stage. I wasn’t expecting the festival to be that big. It scared the shit out of me, but it was pretty amazing.
What does a typical day look like for you?
It’s been consistent for a while. I either go to the studio in the morning or I practice at home or in a space and then at night, I work at the restaurant or go out with friends.
What have you been listening to lately?
I’ve been listening to Kurt Vile and John Maus a lot. I usually get stuck on one or two songs and just play them constantly, so right now it’s: “My Sympathy” by Kurt Vile, “Hey Moon” by John Maus, “Black Eye” by Wilco, and “Let Me See the Colts” by Smog. I’ve been playing these four songs over and over for the past month—I have to say, “I’m sorry,” to my neighbors.
[Tina] You covered “Nobody Does It Better”, which I know is a theme song from the James Bond movie, The Spy Who Loved Me. I love that song. Are you into the James Bond movies?
Yes! We watched the Bond movies and played the soundtracks all the time growing up. That’s where that cover came from.
[Tina] When I was growing up, I watched the Bond movies with my dad. He had the soundtrack on CD so I recognized your cover of the song right away. Now that I think about it, I’m not sure I should’ve been watching James Bond movies at that age.
Yeah, I know. It was pretty raunchy, wasn’t it?
[Tina] Yeah. James Bond was a player.
Favorite movie or movies?
I love all gangster movies, especially The Godfather and Goodfellas. Those are my favorites.
That’s great. Favorite books?
Cathedral by Raymond Carver. It’s a beautiful collection of short stories. I also recently read The End Of The Story by Lydia Davis, which blew me away. I love all of J.D. Salinger’s work; American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis; and anything by Bukowski. But, Cathedral is my absolute favorite.
All seafood—lobster, shrimp.
Have you thought about the kind of legacy you’d like to leave?
Legacy is kind of a big word, you know. But, I guess that when I die, I’d just like to be remembered for being very honest and real with my music.