“I feel courageous and scared, loved and abandoned, and I feel good because I feel all of these emotions”. If you’ve been to one of Claire Tonna’s live performances recently, these quizzical words will probably sound familiar.
Despite our faults, we are the greatest gift to discover in life
In fact, these emotions, along with countless others, many of them quite personal and close to the artist’s heart, are crucial not only to conjuring the intimate ambience of Tonna’s live performances, but also inspire the core of her debut album The Port that was released last month.
Those familiar with the local alternative scene will remember Tonna from her time in electronic duo Particle Blue. Her look may have changed over the years, but the sparkle in her eye and her passion for music remain intact. So does the way she always finds beauty in everything around her.
But as she explains, the suffering, pain and perils she came face to face with during her travels to India (Culcutta), Spain and Morocco, and the loss of a close friend proved too heavy a burden. “I couldn’t take the suffering any more,” she recalls. “I cried like never before, uncontrollably day and night, until I woke up one morning and felt a radical change within me.”
Suddenly, the suffering she had endured began to have a different effect on her. “Once I had accepted it,” she explains, “the suffering became an opening to wisdom and joy, and I started to feel a certain ‘oneness’ inside me; an extreme presence of bliss that felt like it was coming from my womb”.
She says the sensation was very intense. “I was feeling this water inside me, feeling the centre of life itself; the womb, where all life is born.” I notice her eyes still well up a little when she speaks of this experience, which only underlines just how significant this episode was to her recharged outlook on life.
This entire experience was also the root of Tonna’s debut album. “To me, The Port was the opening that led me to transcend suffering, to bring together all my emotions and become whole,” she continues, “one life – like the water, the sea flowing everywhere and being one with all”.
If it sounds rather complex, that’s because it is, but what Tonna has managed to do, and quite successfully too, is express it through the songs on her album in a simpler way. In fact, despite it being a deeply personal album, one doesn’t really need to know the story behind the songs to absorb the various emotions at their core.
Beaming as always, Tonna says the change was also reflected in her music, in the way she sang, the way she played. “People were telling me I sounded more vibrant, and, of course, the new songs I was writing reflected this too.”
She admits she quite liked the ‘new’ style, and felt even more compelled to keep sharing her music with anyone who would care to listen.
During her time in Calcutta, Tonna had met someone from New Zealand who also underwent and understood her ‘womb’ experience. That someone was Maria Mar, “an incredible writer who is also very spiritual” and with whom Tonna bonded and became close friends.
“Later we went to Morocco together, and there she would write words about my thoughts and our life experiences, while I’d be toying with some melody or other on my guitar. She offered me her work and I was only too happy to sing what she wrote.”
By the time Tonna came back to Malta she had seven complete songs, three of them featuring Mar’s lyrics. “I was still enlightened by the experiences I’d been through and it was all flowing perfectly,” she remembers.
“I called Mario Sammut (also known as ambient artist Cygna) to come and have a listen to the songs on the very same day I got back.” Sammut, whom Tonna considers to be a soulmate, loved the songs and agreed to produce her album.
Drawing from his vast experience, Sammut ably orchestrated the raw acoustic numbers Tonna brought to the studio, boosting their musical impact without imposing on their intimacy. “Mario and I are like brother and sister,” she says. “He completely understood the concept I had in mind for the album and captured all the sounds and spaces that reflected where the songs came from.”
Trying to sum up The Port is no easy task – an acoustic album at its core, it also incorporates mystical and spiritual elements. Despite its personal and intimate nature, the end result – seven songs of alluring beauty plus a bonus track from Tonna’s earlier work – remains an inviting, warm record.
Symbolising the gateway inside each one of us through which we can free ourselves from suffering and open ourselves to life, the album’s title will probably mean different things to different people, but as long as it sparks the imagination, it’s all good.
“I suppose it’s those moments of weakness and difficulty that we really need to accept,” Tonna says.
“By defeating fear and sorrow, we can free ourselves and appreciate our own beauty. Despite all of our faults, we ourselves are the greatest gift to discover in life.”
Claire Tonna is currently in New Zealand preparing for the launch of The Port there at the end of the year. The event will also feature an exhibition of photography by Tumer Gencturk and art by Teddy Curle. Tonna will also be touring in New Zealand and Australia in February and March 2013.