Straight out of Italy, into the hearts of music lovers everywhere.
Singer, composer, and author Federico Martello loves opera, which he’s studied for years, but his passion for music is broader, spanning genres and centuries. With a style echoing classical, jazz, pop and soul, he resists the confines of a single path and goes instead wherever the music and the culture take him. He’s traveled all over Europe, Latin America, the US and Russia, attending festivals and shows, and placed in several music competitions, including The Voice in Rome. He looks forward to revisiting all these places once it’s safe enough to travel.
Having navigated his fair share cities, he’s also a vocal advocate for eliminating architectural barriers for persons with disabilities. “If you make your city accessible,” he says, “everyone can get around.”
Federico’s energy is delightful, and his love for music palpable. Our conversation could’ve flowed on forever, though eventually it had to end.
Lia Martirosyan: Ciao! Come stai?
Federico Martello: Molto bene!
Lia: Federico, when and where did your passion for music begin?
Federico: When I was a child in Sicily. Things weren’t so easy for me then, but in music, I found a way to express myself. I started at about 10 years old, singing a little, playing a little piano, because my whole family loves music. I have two brothers who are musicians. Mom and dad would always sing at home. I grew up with music. I started with listening, then moved on to playing music for myself, and then finally for others. It became a way of letting people know me.
Lia: Did you gravitate naturally toward classical?
Federico: I started with classical music. Opera. Then I went through jazz improvisation, and then pop. So, my style is a little fusion. I can sing something like Bocelli and something like Joe Cocker, too. I have two faces, like a coin, and I love this because I love to have fun!
Lia: Lovely. Fusion fun! Did you study music formally?
Federico: Yes. I started studying classical music in Tuscany, at Siena. I did that for a year, but it wasn’t for me. I love opera, but I don’t like to sing opera. I switched to jazz improvisation. Then I moved from Siena to Milan and started studying voice. Even now, I’m always learning. I study music every day.
Lia: Absolutely. Learning is essential!
You’re doing a lot of traveling now, with all these competitions.
Federico: I am. Because of music, I have opportunities to go around the world, from Poland to Russia, from the US to Gibraltar, London, Spain, Siberia, even. I think this is one of music’s biggest gifts: the chance to encounter new cultures, to find new sounds and put them in my songs.
Lia: How easily do you pick up languages?
Federico: It’s not so easy. I started with French and English. I understand French very well, but I’m not able to reply. When, for example, I sang in Russia–it’s not so easy for me, as an Italian, to learn a new language like Russian. There are lots of words and letters that we don’t have. For example, “kh”–we don’t have this sound. But I love Russian songs! It’s like my second language, even though I don’t speak Russian.
Lia: Loving it is important. You have lots of fans in Russia, I understand.
Federico: Yes, a lot. A lot of women, especially, because when I say I’m Italian, they say, “Oh, my God, you’re Italian!”
Federico: If you go to a Russian market and say, “I’m Italian,” they say, “Okay, you’re Italian? Come here! Come here!” It’s like this. I love Russia. I love all the places I visit.
Lia: Have you been traveling during the pandemic?
Federico: No, no, no. During the pandemic, I went to Russia once, with an invitation from the government, but even that was hard. Travel has not been possible.
Lia: How are you staying engaged with the world of music?
Federico: It’s been really, really hard. In Italy, early in the pandemic, everything was closed. Everything. Right now, if you go to a theater, if there are, for example, 600 seats, you can use only 300. We could only sing online. I spent my time at home writing new songs. I’m near the city of Bergamo, and it was horrible during the first lockdown; it was the epicenter of the pandemic in Italy.
Lia: Oh, my goodness!
Lia: Speaking of writing songs, “Non Esiste il Destino” (“There’s No Destiny”) is beautiful. Can you take me to where your mind was while writing it?
Federico: When I start to write something, I don’t need to be in one place. I started writing that one on a train, with just a few words. Then I arrived somewhere else, and there were other words. Then, I was at a theater: more words. One day, I took those words and said, “Okay, this is a song.”
I write my feelings. Maybe one phrase comes because I had a certain feeling in a certain moment. In some other phrase, you can find other feelings. With “Non Esiste il Destino,” I wrote what I was thinking about, which was destiny. All my experiences–disability, work, love, even being hungry–these go into my songs.
Lia: How do you navigate people away from the topic of disability so they can focus on the music?
Federico: Usually, when someone tries to focus on my disability, I joke about it. If you get too serious, then others will, too. Distract them with music, and they’ll follow along.
That said, I’m a man, and I like to be treated like a man. I’m not a thing. Once, I auditioned for a talent show, and someone told me, “Federico, you are amazing. You have a really good voice. But we can’t put you on TV.” I asked, “Why?” They said, “Because we don’t want to people to pity you.” I was pissed! We don’t need pity. If I need help, I will ask you. If someone doesn’t understand this, we need to teach them.
Lia: Indeed. What about the world of competition? What inspired you to say, “I’m going to do competitions”?
Federico: My manager! I did my first competition in Italy and won third prize. My first thought was, “Wow, this is okay!” But after a few competitions, people began to “pity” me, so my manager decided we should go around the world. I started with a mini tour of festivals in the US. Then I came back and was in Poland, then Spain, then Gibraltar, then London. I started connecting with people around the world. That’s what I live for, actually: the connections. When someone tells me, “Your music makes me feel alive,” it’s better than any cash prize.
Lia: That’s lovely! What a gift. Hopefully things start opening up again soon, so we can get back to making those connections.
Can you share a bit about the work you’re currently doing to eliminate architectural barriers?
Federico: Yes. I’ve done a lot of this because I think everyone needs to be free to go wherever they want. Before the pandemic, we did projects to eliminate architectural barriers at different places: schools, parks, a swimming pool. We’re organizing more shows, now, though everything’s on hold. But there are singers, musicians, comedians…many different kinds of artists are involved.
After I went on TV for the first time with “All Together Now, Italy,” I received a lot of messages from people with disabilities who told me, “You are strong! How do you do this? You are an inspiration.” But I don’t know if I like to be an inspiration for a lot of people. I think being an inspiration for just one person is the biggest thing you can do.
Lia: What about accessibility barriers in Italy? Have things changed throughout your life? How is it progressing?
Federico: In Italy–everywhere, actually–we have two kinds of barriers for persons with disabilities: mental, which is the worst; and physical, as in architectural. Since I’m living by Bergamo, near Milano, there are lots of places where you can go with a wheelchair and other devices, but once you leave the north of Italy, it gets a bit harder. If you go to Rome, for example, and you visit an older building, you may not be able to get in. There are lots of barriers. And there’s lots of bureaucracy, which slows things down. This is why I’m trying to show people what they have to do. I always say, accessibility isn’t just for people with disabilities. It’s for everyone. A little old man, a woman pushing a baby stroller…a city that’s accessible for people with disabilities is accessible for everyone else, too. If you make your city accessible, everyone can get around.
Lia: It’s wonderful seeing all this activity. When I visited Venice, I noticed—
Federico: I went to Venice two years ago, and it was really hard! If you have to go up with the wheelchair—
Lia: You can’t go back down!
Federico: It was horrible!
Lia: Oh, and the taxis!
Federico: You might as well take the canals! I can swim. It’s much easier!
It’s beautiful, Venice. It’s a beautiful city. But it needs to be accessible for everyone.
Lia: Indeed. At least the locals are lovely. Were you born in Italy?
Federico: I was born in Sicily. When I was 20 years old, I moved to Tuscany. After five more years, I moved to Lombardy and Milano.
Lia: Do you want to continue with concerts and competitions? Where do you dream to take your music?
Federico: For me, it depends on the event. Lots of people ask me to come to their festivals, but sometimes, even if it’s a nice one, it’s not good for me. For example, if it’s only classical music, I won’t go. I don’t like festivals just for the sake of money. I love the ones with lots of culture, where I can find new music, new ideas.
I love to travel as a tourist, not just as a musician. But it’s difficult. This summer, for example, I went to Sicily on holiday. Two days after I arrived, they were saying, “Federico, can you come, please? Can you sing?” Just like that, the holiday stopped!
Lia: Do you need a few days of quiet?
Federico: Well…it’s really hard to stop me from talking!
But, yes, sometimes I need that. Especially when I sing a lot.
Lia: Understandably so.
Federico: For example, when I recorded a show in Italy, we sang for a week. Every day, we were singing! By the end, [hoarsely], I was like this! It was horrible. It was really cold, the beginning of December, and then I got the flu with a high fever–terrible! I still went through to the final, but I needed a week to recover.
Lia: Was that the first time you’ve lost your voice?
Federico: Yes, the first time.
Federico: Yes. I don’t usually lose it so easily.
Lia: Is there anything else you’d like to share with us? Something you’re working on?
Federico: Soon, you’ll be able to hear my new single, “Come la Sabbia” (“Like Sand”). We are like sand. We are little grains of sand, and each grain is different from the others. I think this is humanity. Sexuality, disability…you don’t need these to know a person. You just need to know them. “Come la Sabbia” talks about this.
Lia: Another beauty! looking forward to it.
Federico: I will send it to you.
Lia: How do you feel about people saying, “You can do whatever you set your mind to”?
Federico: It’s not like this. We must find a middle way. No one can do everything. You need to be clear with yourself. For example, I’m in a wheelchair. I can’t jump on the stairs. There’s no need for people to tell me, “You can’t jump on the step”; I already know. And it’s fine. It’s not a problem. We just need to be honest with ourselves.
This has been such a pleasant chat for me! We could talk forever!
Federico: For me, too!
Lia: We can’t, though. Sadly.
Federico: No, no. It’s time. You’re right. It’s time to go.