Backstage with Basia

Basia with Leonard Kniffel

Basia backstage in Chicago, with Polish Son interviewer and fan, yours truly, Leonard Kniffel.

“It’s changed over the years,” said Basia Trzetrzelewska when I asked her what she had observed about public perception of Poland during her 30 years of travel as an international singing sensation who tried her wings in Chicago in the early 1980s. ”I remember the interviews at the beginning; people would talk to me like somebody from the third world and I definitely felt quite patronized, by journalists especially, who thought that I was this little girl from a really lost or poor country. I had to explain to them sometimes that actually my life there was happy, and I made it my mission to open people’s eyes about Poland, on its real spirit and on the wealth of other things, not just material things.” 

Basia has most assuredly succeeded–partly because she sneaks a nod to Poland into many of her songs, even though she records in English and lives in England–but also because she has sold millions of albums.  In 1989 her second album, London Warsaw NewYork, sold almost two million units including more than one million in the U.S. and featured a Top 30 hit on the Billboard Hot 100. She surprised the world with her American style–a unique blend of pop, jazz, and samba, coming out of a Polish girl from the little town of Jaworzno. 

One of my favorite Basia songs is “Miles Away” from Time and Tide, her first solo album. I remember when I first heard it in 1987, driving along the Lodge freeway on my way home from work at the Detroit Public Library. I remember thinking, this sounds like Astrud Gilberto, like a Brazilian singer–but I was sure I heard a Polish accent. How is this possible? I have followed her career ever since. 

Before her September 10 concert at Chicago’s House of Blues, I was able to chat with Basia about her career and her life in England. I asked her how a young girl growing up in Poland comes to develop a style that is so American–both North and South American–and winds up speaking British English. I learned that Basia laughs a lot, is a cock-eyed optimist, and remains completely modest about her achievements. I talked with her about how she developed her singing style, and she recalled a moment in Krakow when she first heard the music of Antonio Carlos Jobim and felt an instant connection. “I really feel truly happy when I sing samba, and I can’t explain why it is…maybe there is a connection between Poland and Brazil that I’m not aware of,” she laughed. 

More than anything, it is the joy and optimism of her music that draws me to it again and again, year after year. Watch the interview with Basia online at PolishSon.com.  

Transcript of Basia’s comments during our interview:

On why she’s out on the road again with a new album…  

Yes, I’m back on the road because, first of all, I like singing live. I like singing especially in America because we have so many really nice fans here, and they seem to want us back [laughter], so we come back. Also, the music business is completely changed now. You can’t really rely on your record sales; you have to go out and play live. That’s why during the last two years since the release of my previous album, I’ve been touring a lot in Poland and Japan and in America. This is I think now our third visit to the states.  

We just released our new album, which was recorded Poland in Lodz. It’s basically a live concert but there are three studio tracks, songs, which I wanted to get out there. Danny [White] and I, my partner, we started to write new songs and I didn’t want to wait for another studio album so we just squeezed them into this album. One of the songs on this album is called “From Newport to London”; it gives a bit of a feel of traveling, that’s why we called the whole album “From Newport to London.”  

Memories of early career in Chicago…  

I have very complicated feelings about Chicago because the first time I came here, it was literally 3o years ago [laughter], so I was quite young, and also it was literally straight from a communist country, and my first serious trip to the western world was really then. So Chicago was really my first experience of the western world. It was such a shocking transition from a little town in Poland where I lived—and yes, I’d started to sing a bit and moved to Warsaw, but still it seemed very provincial next to Chicago. When I arrived here, everything was just overwhelming–the opulence and the richness and the availability of everything was really mind-blowing to me, and I felt slightly depressed. I think the reason for it was because I felt that the world was too contrasting for me, that was too contrasting. I thought, how come we have a different life in Poland, completely, and this place was just so different. After a while—I stayed here for quite a few months; the first time I stayed six months and next time six months—I missed my country. I think I started to appreciate it much more when this availability of everything was so huge that I actually appreciated that little life I had in Poland. Very strange feelings. I was constantly of two minds about it. I was thrown into this confusion about what the world is like. That’s why I can’t even tell you that I was very happy here, the first time around, especially that I felt intimidated by everything, and the fact that people had so much and I had nothing, it was frightening, a little bit, to me.  

The second time it was a little bit easier. Of course, when I came back, having a record out and having a little career going, my feelings towards Chicago completely changed. I felt like a citizen of this town, I didn’t feel inferior anymore [laughter]. So strange. Every time I come here, I am sort of shocked how I feel at home [laughter] now. But those first feelings were still stuck in my mind. The first time around, I worked with a band which was based here in Chicago and we played in lounges and bars here around Chicago. The second band I worked with we played around Chicago, around Illinois and even once we went to Indiana. These were very tiny places, but even then, I kind of had a few fans [laughter]. I sang in English mainly and we sang popular songs that were known from the charts, but people gave me the first signs of appreciation and I thought, oh, that’s strange that a little Polish girl, little Cinderella [laughter], can be noticed here and appreciated. I felt very flattered by it. And now when I play here and I actually have fans who come and pay for tickets to see me, you have no idea how strange it feels, that actually people now come here from a completely different world, as if, and I feel so differently when I come here. Today we drove in here, and I was thinking gosh this town is just so beautiful and I used to live here, it’s overwhelming. I should really get to know it again, closer now, with this new attitude to life and different look at this whole thing.  

On musical influences and how a girl growing up in communist Poland develops an American singing style…  

When I used to be at school, still in Poland, I collected records. I had lots of black-American records at that time like Tamla and Motown records, the Supremes, Dionne Warwick, and my favorite was Aretha Franklin–I had this greatest hits album and it was really my most treasured album. At the same time, I liked English things like the Beatles, for example, going back to America, Burt Bacharach songs, all these influences really were mainly American, but I remember that moment when I once went to Krakow to a club with some friends and somebody played Brazilian samba, actually he played Jobim songs, and I felt I kind of knew this music but not really–this is exactly what I love, really truly. I felt so comfortable in this kind of music. I started to look for records, and I found Astrud Gilberto albums and Joao Gilberto albums and got into it much more. I don’t know what it is; I can sing whatever, I can sing any pop songs and even soul songs but I really feel truly happy when I sing samba, and I can’t explain why it is, because I’m Polish and there’s no connection really with Brazil but still I have inside me…maybe there is a connection between Poland and Brazil that I’m not aware of [laughter]. But I always loved this music. When I came to England and I met a couple of boys, Danny White and Mark Reilly and we started to work as a band called Matt Bianco, I was just in heaven becasue all the influences were mainly Brazilian, maybe a little Cuba too, but mainly Brazilian, and I just couldn’t believe that I could sing that music and actually do it as my profession. After I left the band I continued, and still it’s a huge part of my style and my repertoire.  

On her British accent and living in England…  

Love is responsible for everything. I met somebody who is English and I followed him to Britain, and although the love and the relationship didn’t survive, I stayed in England and I’ve been living there almost 30 years now, 30 years, so yes that accent is probably…. First of all when I came to England I came straight from America and I remember going to some English lessons and the teacher said it’s so strange hearing you speak with an American accent and with polish accent mixed together. So she took it upon herself to teach me how to speak properly [laughter]. I think I got rid of all my Americanisms but after so many years you can’t help it, especially having a little bit of a musical ear, to actually copy people who live around you.  

Are your lyrics autobiographical?  

Almost 95% [laughter]. Things that happened to me are definitely documented in my songs. Some of those songs are written not exactly about me although they are written in first person but about people whom I know, like friends and family. But the huge majority of these songs are about something I know. I am not a poet, so I have to write something from the heart, otherwise it would sound really false. It’s very important to me to be completely truthful in your work. You cannot fake emotions, and if you sing about something that actually really happened to you and you know firsthand, then obviously it speaks to people. I could actually even name titles of some of the songs I’ve written in the past that talk about really deep emotions that I experienced, I get the best reaction to those songs from people who went through the same thing and they may be in need of hope or uplifting, something that lifts their spirits. I often write something to help myself, just to cheer myself up. Because if I wanted to write about all the sad things all the time I could drag people…I know some people make a career of that, but I just didn’t want to go onstage  reliving the same old sad stories which happen to all of us, so I decided to bring some optimism to people’s lives. 

On public perception of Poland…  

It’s changed over the years. When I started–actually my first album was with Matt Bianco in 1983 and then my own was in ‘87–I remember the interviews at the beginning, people would talk to me like somebody from the third world and I definitely felt quite patronized, by journalists especially, who thought that I was this little girl from a really lost or poor country. I had to explain to them sometimes that actually my life there was happy, and I made it my mission to open people’s eyes about Poland, on its real spirit and on the wealth of other things, not just material things. That’s why I think can do much more for Poland by singing in English but making those little Polish accents so people know that I am Polish and also stress positive things about Poland, rather than singing in Polish and making them completely separate from what I do. I never wanted to preach, but in interviews I actually always try to be very positive about my country. Now, over the years, when Poland got absorbed into the European Union and Poland is doing well in the material sense, the whole thing changed now because when the whole world had a financial crisis we actually didn’t have it in Poland, which was one of the few countries which didn’t; maybe because we were always very careful with money, maybe that’s the reason, I don’t know [laughter]. Over the years I noticed that nobody is talking about Poland being a backward county, but definitely in the beginning. I could see over those 30 years how the  perception of Poland changed and became much more positive.  

On books and libraries…  

It’s funny because, I tell you, if you came to my house you would be surprised because it looks like one big library. I was in this very lucky position in my life always. My parents weren’t poor, and then later on I started to work when I was 18, not because I wanted to be independent but I was dragged into the Polish band, and so I started to work quite early, although I tried to go to university but I was brought back to music work, so I always had some money and I almost never used libraries, I always used to buy books. That’s why my house looks like–I don’t know where to put books anymore because every room is full of them, so I didn’t use the library as much as my friends and my family but I remember going to libraries and using it for different reasons because there was a computer there or there was a social circle there and for that reason it was wonderful to meet up with people who were similarly minded. And I was hiring other things like CDs, because a library is not just books obviously. So it was a bit of a cultural center everywhere I moved, even in England where I live, the center of my little village is our library. Libraries have always had some kind of importance to me. Yes, I love having books. Every time when a good book appears I like to buy it and I like smelling it, and I hug it sometimes. I can’t imagine reading it on Kindle. I see people reading on the trains on iPads and stuff. Maybe I’m old fashioned [laughter].  

What do you like to read, and do you read in Polish or English?  

Since I moved to England 30 years ago, I must say I read predominantly in English. In the beginning it was driven by my desire to improve my language and because I write words, you just want to learn as much as possible in the new language. But actually I developed a love for English-written books. I love classics, Jane Austen for example. In England there’s this Booker Prize, and always the winning books I try to read because of their excellence. I trust those judges who choose the books–of course they are completely new modern things. I don’t have one specific style or interest in literature. I read everything really, from completely frivolous novels to something biographical or historical, just different things. I’m interested in history too, recently more and more in the history of Poland. It comes with age, you become more interested in the past of your own country. You stop believing what you were taught in school. You want to know more about what really happened in the past.  

Of all the things you’ve done in your career, what are you proudest of?  

I think what I’m proudest of is…. I’ll tell you, I have a few things that I love; I love bringing a smile on people’s faces. If I am performing in the Philippines and I see people who really love our stuff and sing along, or Japan  or here in the states. To bring something really positive to people’s lives, this is my best achievement. On the other hand, I am also proud that I am spreading good Polish…, the positive side of my country. I think it’s important for people to realize what we are like. 

Get a sense of the fun and artistry of Basia’s work from these videos on YouTube:  

Matt Bianco, Half a Minute. 

Time and Tide.  

Until You Come Back to Me 

Cruising for Bruising 

Promises 

New Day for You 

Prime Time TV 

So Nice 

Baby, You’re Mine 

Run for Cover 

Blame it on the Summer

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3 Responses to “Backstage with Basia”

  1. Leslie @ BasiaWeb says:

    Great interview- thank you for doing it :)

  2. Leonard, great interview and video – thank you for sharing and giving us Basia fans another facet of her as well as some history.

  3. Anne Engelbrecht says:

    I have been a huge, longtime fan of Basia. My hearing her on the radio on WQCD 101.9, here in NYC, around 1989, is where Smooth Jazz started for me. I have always appreciated her wonderful voice, superb harmonies, authentic lyrics and great combinations of various musical styles she incorporates in her music. I love her originality, creativity and the way she sees life and reflects so much of the reality of it. She is truly unique. As I have told her, she is a truly “A Gift!”
    With Much Appreciation,
    Anne Engelbrecht
    Brooklyn, NY, USA
    A Longtime Basia Fan

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