Last January, Rita Chiarelli received the prestigious Blues With A Feeling award at The Maple Blues Awards. Derek Andrews, President of The Toronto Blues Society (which bestows the awards), says Chiarelli “is a pillar of the Canadian blues community, inspiring many women to follow her and pushing the creative envelope.”
Such lifetime achievement awards are often bestowed in an artist’s twilight years, but in her acceptance speech Chiarelli pledged, “I ain’t done yet.” This tireless Toronto blues-rock veteran is busier than ever, and 2011 is shaping up to be the best year of her career. Her most recent album, 2010’s Sweet Paradise, is still showing plenty of life, while she’s now making a real impact on the big screen.
Music From The Big House, a documentary film conceived by Chiarelli, received a selected release in theatres across Canada in March, with the U.S. and Europe following. By that time, it had already earned critical acclaim from appearances in major U.S. film festivals, and will doubtless enhance Chiarelli’s international profile.
Music From The Big House is a powerful film based around Chiarelli’s experiences in the notorious Louisiana State Penitentiary, commonly referred to as Angola – the largest maximum security prison in the U.S.. The prison’s population has included such notable musicians as Leadbelly, Pete Williams and Aaron Neville, and this rich musical history caught Chiarelli’s attention.
“I’d never heard of Angola before, but I went on something of a blues pilgrimage down Highway 61 about 10 years ago,” she recalls. “In my research I came across Angola, and powerful recordings of some of the women once there… Later, I saw a sign on Highway 61 saying ‘Angola, turn right,’ and that’s how it started.” Chiarelli took a tour of the facility, and told the warden she might want to do a concert there. “I couldn’t get it out of my mind,” she says. “After a couple of years, I went back down and asked to meet some of the musical inmates.”
She terms the result “an epiphany. I heard them perform, and I knew then that I should really do a concert with them.” Music from the Big House shows Chiarelli making music with the inmates in styles ranging from blues to country to soul and gospel. It also demonstrates the ability of music to transform the lives of people who’ve made terrible, tragic choices. Making the film has also transformed Chiarelli. “It has been the most outstanding experience to date in my life,” she says.
Chiarelli decided the concert should be filmed for posterity. Her choice to direct was longtime friend Bruce McDonald. Known as Canada’s premier rock ‘n’ roll moviemaker via such films as Highway 61, Roadkill and This Movie Is Broken. McDonald immediately jumped on board, and the clout of his name helped snare Oscar-nominated documentary producer Erin Faith-Young, of Cache Film and Television, and funding from the Bold and Documentary channels
Chiarelli and McDonald first met and collaborated back in 1989, as they were both launching their careers. McDonald heard Chiarelli’s independent single “Have You Seen My Shoes?” on the radio and instantly knew it had to be in his film Roadkill. He got in touch, used the song in the movie and ended up directing a video for it, boosting Chiarelli’s career.
Prior to Roadkill, the Hamilton-born-and-raised Chiarelli had received some attention fronting R&B band Battleaxe and as a member of Ronnie Hawkins’ band. She’s always been known for the lusty, paint-stripping power of her voice and her high-energy performances, but has gone on to gain real respect as a songwriter. For instance, her album Sweet Paradise is comprised solely of Chiarelli originals.
“Songwriting has come rather late in my career, and I’ve really worked on it,” she explains. “Singing was natural. I loved being a vocalist, and I was happy for a long time doing other people’s material… Then I really started getting the itch to write.” Chiarelli digs deep in her soul-searching material. ” It’s almost like you have to be courageous enough to expose yourself,” she says. “I’ve found the more you open up in telling how it is for you, the better it’s accepted.”
After releasing acclaimed and often Juno-nominated albums with various record companies, Chiarelli now records for her own label, Mad Iris. Recent work has showcased her artistic adventurousness. She turned heads and won a new world-music audience with her 2006 album, Cuore; The Italian Sessions. A record comprising traditional Italian material sung in dialect, it won her the 2007 Canadian Folk Music Award for Best Solo World Music Act. Equally ambitious was 2008’s Uptown Goes Downtown Tonight… Rita Chiarelli with the Thunder Bay Symphony Orchestra, featuring earlier material rearranged for the symphony.
Chiarelli is already considering her next studio album. “I have this itch to do something I haven’t done in a long time, a really wailing blues record,” she says.
Rita Chiarelli certainly ain’t done yet!