Elisa Toffoli: Dancing on the Edge of the World

Text by Rhiannon Nicole Anderson

Silently praising myself for my rudimentary Italian conversational skills, the musician Elisa Toffoli answers the phone. “Hello? Do you mind if I call you back from my house, I’m walking my dogs and can’t hear you very well,” she apologizes. And yet, despite being oceans apart, a bad connection and dogs yapping in the background, it is obvious that her English outshines my Italian. No worries about getting lost in translation.

After almost a decade of superstardom in her native Italy, the singer/songwriter has finally begun to rock the souls of stateside audiences. Wrapping up her first-ever North American tour promoting her album Dancing, Toffoli is one step closer to staking a claim in the American music scene. Her ethereal choral ballads sprinkled with hard-hitting rock elements, Toffoli possesses a potent and authentic honesty all her own. “My dynamic involves creating tension, building it and then releasing. It’s like a rubber band; I try to stretch it as much as I can, then I let go.”

Born and raised in a small town in northeastern Italy, she discovered American music at an early age. Inspired by the poetry of Jim Morrison’s An American Prayer, and feeling a true connection with a diverse range of artists such as Otis Redding, Jeff Buckley and Joni Mitchell, Toffoli began writing in English. Out of the nine albums she has released, only six songs were recorded in Italian, and most of these are covers. “I love my language. It’s a very musical language, but there’s something that English has that Italian doesn’t… there are less boundaries because words are shorter and can be stretched into a modern melody without losing their meaning. The Italian is more complicated and has a different rhythm. In Italian, something is sacrificed by trying to care for aesthetic aspect of the words. You have to be a genius, and there are many, but it is very hard. Rock ‘n’ roll was not invented in Italy for a reason!”

Despite Toffoli’s strong vocal talent and artistry, her journey in the music industry hasn’t been an easy one. The fact that she wrote and sang in English did help to distinguish her from other Italian artists, but it also presented challenges. When she released her first album, Pipes & Flowers, in 1997, it was difficult to get airtime on the radio. Her American influence “actually locked some doors because the majority of radio stations only played Italian music, and the remaining few played ‘foreign’ artists. I didn’t quite fall into either of those categories.” However, someone must have heard her, because her debut album went triple platinum in Italy and won the Tenco Award for Best Debut Album, marking the first time the honor was bestowed on an album performed in a foreign language. Toffoli’s career skyrocketed and to date she has released nine albums, collaborated with the likes of Luciano Pavarotti, Andrea Bocelli and Tina Turner; and has performed to sold-out stadiums with more than 100,000 fans—including the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2002 and 2006 winter Olympics.

A decade after her success in Italy, it was only recently that Toffoli’s dream of crossing the Atlantic began to unfold. Although she had recorded two of her albums in Northern California, she had yet to distribute any albums outside Italy. Hoping to reach out to a larger audience, Toffoli recorded the song “Dancing” in 2001 and planned for its worldwide release. Unfortunately, as the story goes, the deal fell through and the project was put on hold. Fast-forward to 2007, when her song “Dancing” debuted on the television show, So You Think You Can Dance. Audience reaction propelled “Dancing” to the Top 20 on iTunes and reignited her dreams of performing in America. She recalls the moment: “I had no idea, no one knew, not even my record label. I found out through a fan who told me that I was on the charts in America. I was so shocked that I took pictures of my computer screen when it happened.”

Putting all other projects on hold, she released her album entitled Dancing in tribute to the song that started it all. Highlights include her emotionally charged “The Waves,” the ephemeral “Rainbow” and a nostalgic take on Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” Unlike her extravagant concerts back home, this tour was set in lounges and bars across the country, where audiences were treated to intimate, yet powerful performances. According to Toffoli, the most exciting part of this whole experience was to “get out and play, connect with people. We’re all the same, we share the same emotions and relate to the same feelings. The world is one place.” Sentiments which match the tone of her music, difficult to resist and rare indeed.