Interview | Sunday, 23 August 2009
Bookmark and Share

Ira comes of age

The music industry’s going through tough times, but IRA LOSCO won’t let that get in the way of what matter most – her music. She talks about success, prejudice and the effect of reality shows on today’s pop-rock scene

Ira Losco has come a long way in the seven years since she blew glitter into the camera at the 2002 Eurovision Song Contest in Estonia.
Five albums and several European tours later, she can now claim a place among Malta’s most prolific and eclectic songwriters and performers... having collaborated with international artists as diverse as DJ Roger Shah, the Spice Girls’ Mel C, Bob Geldof and Elton John.
We meet at Fluid in Bay Street, and try to make ourselves heard among a hubbub of conversation and zany background music. I had interviewed Ira once before – in what already feels like another galaxy, long long ago – and can immediately appreciate a change in outlook. Back then she was accompanied by wary producers and promoters, and sometimes struggled to get a word in edgewise. Today she turns up on her own, unprompted and unscripted, and within minutes I find it hard to keep up.
It’s not the only thing about her that has changed, either. Her appeal seems to have broadened over time, in step with her increasing range of musical styles. I ask her to define the typical Ira Losco fan today, and am thunderstruck to hear her include kindergarten children among the list.
“Yes, believe it or not I am very popular with small children,” she says, smiling at my reaction. “And I mean really small children – aged between four and seven...”
It is evident that Ira takes a certain pride in her status as pop icon to the very, very young. But at the same time she admits it’s also “weird”, and that she can’t really explain the attraction herself.
“These kids weren’t even born when I represented Malta in the Eurovision... which, let’s face it, is what you’d expect them to know about me in the first place...”
Next in line comes the teenage bracket – aged 15 to 17 – and here the pressure on Ira automatically becomes a little more intense.
“People sometimes tell me I ought to try and set a good example,” she says, her deep voice coloured by the tiniest hint of exasperation. “But do I? Do I really? I’m not so sure...”
For one thing, Ira Losco considers herself primarily to be an artist – as opposed to a role model – and in any case has never really set out to shock the conservative establishment to begin with. In fact, she sincerely doubts whether she’d even be capable of shocking a younger audience today, no matter how hard she tried.
“These kids seem to know a lot more about the world than I did when I was their age. I certainly don’t think they need to look to me for perspective in their own lives...”
It is a motif that seems to crop up often in Ira’s output. In between writing and recording material, touring Germany and elsewhere, and collaborating on other artists’ albums, Ira somehow finds the time to maintain a blog. (Oh, and before I am misunderstood I mean a real blog here – as in an online diary, not just posting the occasional comment on a news forum). In one of her recent blog entries, she compares herself to her 15-year-old sister.
“Now, you all know I’m no prude, I am no saint and many of you might be pointing their fingers at someone like me, and thinking that being in the public eye can influence the younger generation,” she wrote. “However, more than being infatuated by pop stars or musicians, my sister’s generation are more ‘inspired’ by teen magazines, movies and soap/reality stars...”
So what was Ira like when she herself was 15? And how does it compare with today’s teenagers?
“Without meaning to sound dramatic, at 15 I didn’t have the looks, or the wide circle of friends, or anything that would have made me ‘cool’. I wasn’t attractive. I was a bit of a tomboy really. It was only at sixth form that I grew my hair long and lost my puppy-fat...”
Visions of an awkward, shy and (by her own definition) plump teenage Ira dance momentarily through my head. Nah, I find myself thinking. You’re just being modest.
But no: Ira insists on her ugly duckling status, and adds that it went beyond mere looks alone. As she puts herself puts it, she wasn’t into “glittery crap” when she was young.
“It wasn’t just me. We didn’t have ‘High School Musical’ or anything like that. We were still watching reruns of 1980s stuff on Italian TV...”
By comparison, therefore, 15-year-olds today come across as somehow ‘older’ than her own generation felt at the same age – a fact which Ira admits sometimes disconcerts her.
But her fanbase, like her music, has also diversified, and there is another, less numerous type of Ira fan out there nowadays – a mostly older generation of music aficionados, of the kind more attuned to alternative rock than the pop with which Ira is perhaps more commonly associated.
Some among them (myself included) have clear memories of Ira Losco fronting the indie-influenced band Tiara; and above all, who appreciate the fact that Ira is more than just a pretty face to plonk on an album cover – she is also an established songwriter in her own right.
This brings her to one of her bugbears: the difficulty young female artists sometimes experience trying to forge ahead in a world replete with innate prejudices.
“Unfortunately, being female and an artist has its cons as well as its pros. Some people seem to think looks are all that’s needed to succeed. They find it hard to understand that apart from image there’s also something called talent...”
It is a form of prejudice that stretches across the entire spectrum of musical styles, and is not restricted to the local scene alone.
“After Isle of MTV I was annoyed to hear people say they were surprised that Lady Gaga could actually play the piano. Like, they expected her to be famous only because of her looks; it was a ‘surprise’ to them that she would also be musically talented...”
Ira does not hide her exasperation at certain attitudes towards the music industry, and claims that talent is sometimes undervalued.
“Sometimes I think that if I looked like a turd, people might take me more seriously,” she says pointedly. “It’s almost as though you need to be balding, middle-aged and have a beer belly to be respected in the industry...”
However, having vented her frustration she quickly concedes that some people have in fact taken her very seriously throughout her career – including her current manager/producer, Howard Keith of Jagged House, who has also had an input in the writing of her new material.
While we’re on the subject of difficulties in the industry, I ask her whether her career would have been easier if had she been born somewhere else. Malta, after all, can’t be an easy place to launch an international career...
Ira acknowledges the difficulties, but also looks on the bright side. “In a small place like Malta you have to be more innovative to survive, and you have to innovate faster, too. It’s different in places like the USA... there are 50 states you can go touring in: if you don’t make it in Texas, you can make it somewhere else. In Malta it doesn’t work that way. You can’t play in Bugibba one day and then for a different crowd in St Julian’s the next...”
I point out the fact that Malta is part of an admittedly less homogenous grouping of states called “Europe”... but Ira shrugs and rubs her thumb and index finger together.
“Money,” she says with a mischievous smile. “Travelling is too expensive. This is in fact the biggest hurdle most local artists have to face... not just getting on the plane, of course; I mean the whole logistical tour planning and expenses incurred...”
For all this Ira openly doubts whether commercial success in the industry is the only thing worth striving for.
“But what is ‘making it’, really?” she muses. “Having a song played on the radio? And besides, why are we in the industry in the first place? Just to be ‘successful artists’? I’d like to think there’s more to it than that...”
Meanwhile, the album launched yesterday, Mixed Beats, marks her second remix album, featuring local DJs working the hits of her previous album, Fortune Teller.
Among the international names to work on the album was Roger Shah, who has meanwhile also extended an offer for Ira to lend her voice to own forthcoming album.
“He sent me a track of his own to work with, which I wasn’t expecting. This is something else about music – it’s also the beauty of collaboration.”
However, Ira admits she was at first in two minds about the offer. “I found myself thinking, is this the artistic direction I want to take? But then, I said: why be so hard on myself? I can do both pop-rock and electronic music...”
For someone who started out in the alternative scene, Ira’s music has by her own admission always lent itself well to the dancefloor. This may not have been her original intention, but Ira nonetheless finds herself just as comfortable in this new environment.
“There’s always been a strong dance element to my music, even in the Tiara days. This was partly why we decided the new album in the first place. I figured, if the dance crowd likes it so much, why not release another remix album?”
All in all, then, things seem to be looking up for Ira at the moment. But at the same time, few would deny the music industry is general is going through tough times. Shortly before meeting Ira, I read on the newswires that EMI Records has filed for bankruptcy. In musical history terms, it’s a little like saying that the entire world has just come to an end...
Ira claims this has been coming for some time now.
“Things began heading in this direction before the recession, some three or four years ago. It started with the merger between Sony and BMG: A lot of people got axed back then...”
Ira admits that the current international scenario is worrying, but as with her views on Malta, she turns out to be optimistic about the effect of the recession on music itself. “The reality is quite serious, no doubt about that. A&R people are being axed left right and centre. Maybe I’m just trying to see light at the end of the tunnel, but in a sense we’re going back to previous times, when what made a ‘good’ band was how well they performed live. In the 1950s and 1960s, if you were good live, you would be signed by a record label. If not, you can forget a career in music... Thank God the label days are not the be-all and end-all of everything nowadays...”
This attitude, Ira adds, has since been supplanted by a newer tendency towards what she calls “manufactured” bands: bands that were put together for the express purpose of chart success, or who rose through the ranks of Reality TV-inspired shows like Britain’s Got Talent.
“But if there’s one thing you can’t artificially replicate, it’s a good live performance. So in a way the problems facing the music industry may have also helped us rediscover what it’s really all about...”
Surely, however, the same economic realities also make commercial success harder in the long run.
“Yes, but is music really about that? Not really, I would say. Music is also about escaping the dull moments in your life. And the basic challenge will remain the same – how you’re going to get across to your audience. Today’s methods might change as a result of what’s going on, but no matter what happens, it will always be about artists trying to get across to an audience somehow.”

Any comments?
If you wish your comments to be published in our Letters pages please click button below.
Please write a contact number and a postal address where you may be contacted.



Download MaltaToday Sunday issue front page in pdf file format

All the interviews from Reporter on MaltaToday's YouTube channel.


Conduct unbecoming


Ira comes of age


Saviour Balzan
The reshuffle conversation

Raphael Vassallo:
Bile and prejudice

Evarist Bartolo
Had enough of power cuts? Blame this government

Claudine Cassar
Don’t let the hysteria on swine flu cramp your style

David Friggieri
Letter from Cuba: Propaganda

Martin Scicluna
An enlightened mind finally shines through

Harry Vassallo
Renzo Piano’s revenge



Copyright © MediaToday Co. Ltd, Vjal ir-Rihan, San Gwann SGN 9016, Malta, Europe
Managing editor Saviour Balzan | Tel. ++356 21382741 | Fax: ++356 21385075 | Email