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A Classic Education: Jonathan Clancy

Article written by Ged M - Nov 20, 2009

A Classic Education
A Classic Education are a six-piece band from Bologna, Italy whose epic melodramas seem to attracting much attention. They played Indietracks in 2008 and are frequent visitors to London and further afield. Following a trip to CMJ in New York in October, they’re back in the UK this month: they play at the Lexington on 26 November and the Buffalo Bar the following night. They have released two records: an eponymous, self-released one sided 12” in 2008 and a 7” Best Regards/ Rest on Balilwick Records in July 2009. We spoke to singer-guitarist Jonathan Clancy in November 2009.

SXP: Jonathan, I understand that you’re Italian-Canadian while the rest of the band is Italian. When and how did the band form?

Jonathan: That's right, although I've been living back and forth for quite some time. We have all been playing in different bands for a long period of time and then a few Xmas's ago we just decided we wanted a shift and we were looking for something new. Luca, Paul and I started just fleshing out songs at home and then gradually we grew into a band adding the others (Giulia, Federico & Stefano). We all live near or around Bologna, apart from one of us who live on Lake Garda - a great place to zone out and go practice when we need to.

SXP: I know the band is from Bologna, which has a big student population. Is there much of an indie scene there and in other cities?

Jonathan: Italy has a pretty good scene, might have actually been better a few years ago. Nowadays the "big thing" is to sing in Italian and we're not really about that...but there are a ton of amazing bands that regularly tour outside of the country. Bologna is special, it's a natural stop for all touring bands so we had the luck of seeing great shows at an early age, even more experimental stuff. I think it gave us a good background and it has helped the city with a tradition of strong bands that tend to look outside of Italy instead of "inside" Italy if you know what I mean. Hopefully this trend of singing in Italian will die down a bit in the future. Not that we have anything against it, it's just that now bands that sing in English seem to not be recognized at all. I mean it's just a language, people should be able to express themselves in whatever language they prefer. I'd love maybe next time to make a long list of all the amazing Italian bands around!

SXP: You seem to make fairly frequent trips to the UK (which we like!) and you’ve played South By South West. Are you developing an international following now?

Jonathan: I don't really know how it works with creating a "following" nowadays. We seem to be doing ok and we are just so happy and honoured that we get to travel as much as we do and find a small but attentive crowd. Our 12" did pretty well considering it was self-released, we finished it in a few months and have recently repressed it. We're not going to stop, we love playing all over the place, and hope to do more. We think it's the only way of making a band work.

SXP: Your songs seem to have strong lyrical content. ‘Best Regards’, for example, is the story of a theatrical couple whose lives unravel after they cheat their way to the top. Would you say that sort of depth of meaning is typical of A Classic Education song?

Jonathan: I would hope so, I try to at least convey some depth. With lyrics it's always hard, I'm always tied between giving imagery, telling a story and making the song work. I often end up making up a lot of the lyrics while we are playing live and settle on something just when we record. I think ‘Best Regards’ is definitely one of the better examples amongst our songs. I think lyrics are very important, but I also know not many people really pay attention to them. I definitely would love to be able to spend more and more time on lyrics... sometimes I just catch myself saying "Jonathan, you could do better."

SXP: There’s a sense of epic-ness and melodrama in your songs that reminds us of Arcade Fire and the Decemberists, to name two bands. Do you see any similarity – and do you like those bands?

Jonathan: Yeah I think we definitely have that sense, especially in the first stuff we put out. Now we are trying to be a bit more sombre, I think we have a darker aspect than those bands, also we tend to be a little less folky maybe...not sure. We've been trying to insert a lot of 50's and 60's stuff into our songwriting recently. We definitely think the Arcade Fire is an amazing band, I wouldn't say we are big Decemberists fans, although that's a guy that can write lyrics! I don't think we necessarily want to convey that sense of grandeur in the music we make, we want it to be tinier, shadier and a little more timid!

SXP: Jeremy Warmsley produced your last record ‘Best Regards’/ ‘Rest’. Was that a one-off or are you likely to work together again?

Jonathan: I don't know, we had a great time together, a real special moment up in the mountains in this amazing recording studio. I know Jeremy is really busy with all his projects but who knows something cool could come up, he's an amazing musician! We actually just recorded some new stuff in London at this place called Unit Rad with Paul Jones.

SXP: The artwork on your releases is really striking. Who is Ester Grossi and what do you like about it? Does she paint it with A Classic Education in mind?

Jonathan: She's Italy's best kept secret or that is what I always tell her. She's a real close friend that happens to be our fave artist. If there is one thing I think is right in this band it's Ester's artwork, I just find it so beautiful even on its own, she just has a way of creating something that is pop and, yeah, striking and mysterious. She's definitely going to be doing all our artwork. She paints with the band in mind; as soon as we finish songs I pass ‘em on to her and we discussed a couple of themes, especially for the Best Regards single. I can't wait to see what she comes up with on our album.

SXP: You’ve produced a couple of excellent cover versions. First there was a wonderful English language version of ‘Toi’, which was originally sung by Gilbert Becaud in Antonio Pietrangeli’s 1965 film Io La Conoscero Bene. Why choose that - was it the film or song that seduced you?

Jonathan: First of all, thanks! One day I heard the song on TV and just instantly fell in love with it. I looked for it all over and watched the movie and just obsessed about it. I felt the song was perfect, and so modern, and we just had to cover it. I also really liked translating it to English, it just works so nicely and we had so much fun recording it. In a way that song even helped us focus on what we wanted to achieve on our newer songs.

SXP: More recently, you've offered your version of the Jerry Leiber/ Phil Spector classic ‘Spanish Harlem’ as a MP3. It works very well in your simple arrangement but were you daunted by the fact that it's so recognisable and so many great artists (e.g. Aretha Franklin) have covered it?

Jonathan: It's funny, I'm quite a geek for old tunes and I actually had not really paid attention to Aretha's version. We were having breakfast in London about a month ago and it came on. I knew Ben E. King's version and didn't like it that when I heard Spector's version I just though: “Wow! what a simple and perfect tune!”. Plus I started romanticizing on the story of that recording, it literally sounds like Spector was in the studio, picked up a guitar and played and recorded the tune. Once again we recorded the song at Paul's (bassist) home studio and fell in love with it even more.

SXP: The scenes from the film that you used in the video for ‘Toi’ featured a beautiful actress and the iconic Fiat 500. It looked amazing but would you use such distinctive Italian imagery again?

Jonathan: That's the actual scene for the movie, we just put our cover over Becaud's version. That's a tough question, I don't really know, Italy was so classy back in those days and then everything went downhill. Nowadays Italy is like a mirror that's been smashed into a million pieces, and it's lying on the floor and we keep walking over it and getting cuts on our feet. We are obviously proud of where we live and all but I doubt we'd associate anything from these times to our music. Back then I don't thing it was that distinctive of Italy, I think it was just beautiful imagery....

SXP: What’s coming up next for A Classic Education? We'd love to hear an album from you!

Jonathan: We'd love to hear one...hehe. I don't know; it's weird, we've kind of gotten into a slump where we don't really talk about making a record. I don't know why. We definitely should get our act together and do it this winter, I think that is the plan. In the meanwhile we are really excited, we have a digital single coming out on Holiday Records. I love the things they are doing with Surfer Blood, Knight School, The Drums, Horse Shoes etc..That should be out on November 27th. Thanks so much for this interview, we had such a great time when we played that SoundsXP show!


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