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Italy’s Jovanotti, a superstar in Europe, on a U.S. campaign

Musician Jovanotti. 2012 handout photo.

Musician Jovanotti. 2012 handout photo.

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◆ 7:30 p.m. Wednesday

◆ Vic Theater, 3045 N. Sheffield

◆ Tickets, $25

◆, (773) 472-0449

Updated: November 15, 2012 6:24AM

And to think that it all started at Bonnaroo.

Lorenzo Cherubini was going about his business as Jovanotti, Italy’s biggest rock-rap superstar, when he decided to take a detour last year to Manchester, Tenn. Though he plays stadiums in Europe, he was performing on the more intimate International Hits Stage at Bonnaroo when noted producer Ian Brennan caught his act.

They struck up a friendship, and wheels started turning. Brennan persuaded Jovanotti to record his first-ever disc specifically for the American market. That release, “Italia, 1988-2012,” a retrospective produced by Brennan, came out in August.

Now Jovanotti’s campaign to conquer America has begun in earnest with his first official U.S. tour (which stops Wednesday at the Vic). He’s even moved to New York City for a year.

“It is not enough to be a superstar in Europe, and the United States has always had a special place in my heart,” said Jovanotti (his stage name riffs on giovanotto — Italian for “young man”). “The history of [pop] music is based in this country. To play here is like going to Jerusalem for a Jew. Being in America is beautiful. I feel grateful — they don’t need me here. You have many strong artists, with big personalities.”

And if he gets to be as big here as Bruce Springsteen or Bono — two artists he’s frequently grouped with in the world press — will he do an Alexander the Great and weep because there are no more worlds to conquer?

“Thank for your comparison,” he said, laughing. “But the reason Alexander was really the Great was that he died young. That’s not true in my case. Besides, my teacher was not Aristotle.”

Like any off-the-hook rapper, Jovanotti is quick with a quip, or a pop culture reference, even in English. Though his lyrics are mainly in Italian or sometimes in Spanish, he speaks English fluently and occasionally sings in it, as he does on “New York for Life,” one of four new tracks written for “Italia”: “I wanna wake up in the city with Frankie and his voice.” It’s his tip of the fedora (a style that Jovanotti favors) to Sinatra, the ultimate Italian-American pop star, and his “New York, New York.”

While we’re parsing terms, Jovanotti objects to the label of superstar: “I never have had a good attitude with this word.” He feels similarly about the comparisons to Anglo rock gods like the Boss. “This is something very journalistic,” he said. “They’ll say I’m the Chinese Kid Rock or the German Beastie Boys. We can go on with these jokes all night. It’s like a priest being compared to a saint. Springsteen is a worldwide superstar. That’s the best way to [age], to keep playing your music, no matter what. Besides, I don’t think I am going to be a superstar here. Maybe if I do a robbery in a bank.”

Though a few non-English-speaking artists have cracked the U.S. pop market, none has shown any staying power, save maybe for Shakira. Plus, when you think of hip-hop, Italy doesn’t spring come to mind. Italia is forever opera, classical music and Neapolitan songs.

Jovanotti disagrees: “In Italy, we have a deep tradition in rhyme and improvisation. Growing up, rap was new; it was creative. The Beastie Boys were game-changers but also Run-DMC.”

But to make it in America, Jovanotti realizes he’ll need much more. “I sing in a language [in which] it’s not easy to be mainstream. In Italy, we have a strong national market — 70 percent is made of Italian music — but most of this music has never had a chance in the U.S., other than stuff by Andrea Bocelli. It is mostly our fault. We have no confidence that our language [works in] pop music and is exportable.”

Actually, the last big Italian pop export probably was Domenico Modugno’s “Nel Blu Dipinto di Blu” (“Volare”). Jov­­­anotti loves it: “ ‘Volare’ is the song I would have liked to write. It’s got a smile inside. When you hear it, your day is better. I’m not breaking with this tradition, I am the evolution of this music, which was influenced by foreign and U.S. music. In the case of Modugno and ‘Volare,’ it was jazz. He was listening to jazz, and I was listening to hip-hop.”

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