Sings like a dream, looks like Stalin

Paolo Conte, his voice and his songs all inspire extravagant comparisons.
For anyone interested in popular music, the discovery of Paolo Conte is likely to be a major event. The Italian singer-songwriter (though the term hardly does him justice) is so extraordinarily good, and on so many levels, that once heard, it's difficult to understand why you hadn't heard him before. Of course, like most great discoveries, Conte was there all the time, only we didn't know about it. A huge star in Italy for years now, and famous throughout Europe, Conte might remain relatively obscure in Britain but he can still easily fill the Royal Festival Hall. For last year's London Jazz Festival, he played a sold-out week at Ronnie Scott's - and not quite everyone in the audience was Italian.

The performances were tumultuous, joyous affairs, with people joining in on the choruses to anthemic songs such as "Max" amid an atmosphere so intoxicating that even some of the club's staff smiled once or twice. Following this success, there's now a concerted push to end our ignorance. A Best Of album has just been released, and tomorrow Conte plays his first Royal Festival Hall concert for five years.

Paolo Conte's appeal, however, remains resolutely Euro rather than Anglo, if only because we have no equivalent artists to compare him to. Try to imagine a British performer who writes witty, playful and poetic lyrics set to allusive music that calls equally upon American hot jazz, Parisian cabaret-chanson, and the accordion-driven burlesques of a Fellini score by Nino Rota, and you'll see what I mean. Even if Jools Holland could write poetry as well as he could play piano; drew as much from Naples, Berlin and Buenos Aires as he does from New Orleans, and displayed an impressive grasp of European modernist literature in between blowing on a kazoo, we'd still be miles away from nailing Conte's style.

While Conte's music does sometimes enter into Jools Holland territory, as in the marvellous song "Boogie', his lyrics spell out the inescapable differences: "Her body sent out an African blaze/And he looked like a crocodile/The saxes were going great guns/Like bike racers trying to break from the pack." Never mind what's lost in translation, it's hardly South London R&B. The frequently touted cliche of Conte as "the Italian Tom Waits" isn't very helpful either, although other American critics' comparisons, such as "Like having a Fellini film poured into your ear", and "Sings like a dream, looks like Joseph Stalin", begin to get close. But ultimately, Conte is irreducible. He's a one-off, and his art reflects a background that is unique, even in Italy.

Now aged 62, Conte was born in the northern Italian town of Asti, where he still lives today. In the war years of Conte's early childhood, his musically inclined parents defied the fascist authorities by continuing to play their Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman records, despite a government ban on jazz. Enthused by these impossibly exotic imports obtained through the black market, Conte learned to play the piano and the vibraphone. Later, instead of beginning a professional career in music, he rather reluctantly did what was expected of him and joined the family law firm. Practising as an advocate by day, he wrote songs by night. After some success in having his songs recorded by other artists, Conte made his first album in 1974.

I met him in Milan last month. Grey-haired and slim, with the close-cropped pastures of his trademark moustache sheltered beneath the rocky outcrop of his trademark bulbous nose, Conte looked at once elegant and unruffled, and rather shy and nervous. Studiously examining a plate of canapes before settling for a Marlboro instead, he sat down for the interview with the resigned air of a student facing an exam.

As Conte speaks almost no English, his answers to my questions were interpreted by Alda Gandini, whose English husband has translated Conte's lyrics for the new CD's sleeve. When it came to jazz there was little problem, however. "Jelly Roll Morton, Fats Waller, Earl Hines," said Conte floridly, in a catalogue of his favourite artists. "What I liked most was jazz of the Twenties and Thirties, hot jazz, classical jazz," he says. "After the Thirties, jazz didn't satisfy me aesthetically like the records my parents bought for me. In modern jazz, I prefer people from outside the mainstream, like Ornette Coleman or Charles Mingus. Paradoxically, I find them closer to the spirit of the past."

Gandini interrupts with a footnote: "Paolo thinks that the big artistic revolution in all arts took place at the beginning of the century, from 1910 or so, and what came afterwards were only little waves after the real wave." This interest in Modernism is reflected in a play Conte published in 1990. Razmataz is set in Paris in the Twenties. Although never performed, a film is planned, for which Conte has spent much of the past year producing sketches. "This vice is even older than music," he says of both his painting and his drawing. "Music gives a kind of tension, while painting is a relaxing activity."

The characters and settings of Conte's songs overlap to form a kind of self-contained world as distinctive as that of the films of Fellini, who also came from a small-town, provincial background. "For the male characters, the influence is the man of the years immediately after the war", Conte says. "He's been tried by the war and had bad experiences before starting to make a new life for himself; he's a prototype of the man who exists now, the losing hero. Unlike the men, the women are not so clear and defined. They're a bit blurred, due to the fact that, to me, the woman is more mysterious, an object of desire." Gandini tries to explain: "He says his generation did not have so much knowledge of women."

The concern with a kind of mythical version of the past in Conte's songs, a world where Ernest Hemingway might nurse a dry Martini in Harry's Bar as an Argentinian band strikes up a tango and a chorus-line of multiple Josephine Bakers high-kicks its way across the stage, represents, he says, "a search for classical things, from before memory. It might remind you of something, but it's not an approximation of the real past."

Similarly, Conte's fondness for the Italian accordion, whose wheezing textures infuse almost all of his work, has a symbolic value. "In the beginning he hated the sound the accordion produced because he thought it was music for the poor, inferior music," Gandini translates. "He says that when he grew up he was surprised to find the music of this little box was so full of expression." The use of American jazz in Conte's music is also partly symbolic, representing joy and freedom and, perhaps, everything forbidden by the fascists of his childhood.

The interview over, Conte is happy once again, looking forward to the drive back to his beloved Asti. And when it comes to his music, all the explication in the world will only get you so far. Until the epiphany of your own personal discovery, when you at last get to hear Paolo Conte's Marlboro-cured voice croaking against the hot rhythms of a syncopated accordion section, no amount of words can communicate the sheer joy of the experience.

Paolo Conte, Royal Festival Hall, London SE1, tomorrow (Box office: 0171-960 4242). `The Best of Paolo Conte' is on Nonesuch Records