Ivan Cattaneo, the “spiritual punk” singer-painter.

“In Italy, who didn’t dance in the 1980s to the rearranged covers of this complete artist with a lively personality and a keen sense of irony and humour?” I ask myself.

“I had the honour of interviewing him to get a better insight into the world of an icon of music from those years and beyond.”

So here goes…

“I was born a singer-songwriter in the 1970s and I made it big in the 1980s with songs from the 1960s. So I’m totally transverse, atypical in fact, an extraterrestrial, in the sense that in this atypical world, the true musical motivation for which I was born has been hidden. I’ve had success as a performer, of course, but I think there’s still a part of me, the truest part, that the masses still don’t know about”, Ivan Cattaneo tells me.

An artist with a capital A, who has spent his life in art, music and anticipating fashions and trends. A success, his own, that materialised year after year, until it entered the official charts and the most important programmes of the 1980s for months on end.

He made candour his strength, setting his sights on respectability and always standing up for gay rights.

In the early 60s, homosexuals were ‘monsters’ and had to change their identity, according to conventional wisdom. So, in her naivety, his mother went to the health insurance doctor and said: “My son is a sexual man”. It turned out that Ivan, still in his teens, was locked up in a neuropsychiatric hospital, from which he left after declaring and signing that he was completely “cured”. He then decided never to speak to anyone about it again. As early as primary school, on the first day of term, he was bullied by the teacher who, in front of the class, exclaimed: “Look at this wimp, with a little doll! What a disgrace!”

And today, not wanting to identify with a gay icon, he declares:

 “I have been, like it or not, a role model. I meet a lot of people who thank me for giving them the strength to come out of their shell. But unfortunately, most gay icons are then the first to hate gays themselves”.

Born in Bergamo on 18 March 1953, Ivano Cattaneo came from a family of modest origins. In 1965, at the age of 12, he took part in a casting session in Bologna for the Zecchino d’Oro programme, singing “Lui” by Rita Pavone, and at just 15 he took part in the Festival degli Sconosciuti in Ariccia.

“I started by painting,” he says. The teachers at school recognised my talent and encouraged me to enrol at the Liceo artistico, which I did, graduating with top marks. I could have continued my artistic career by teaching in secondary schools, but as I was a hothead, I went to London to meet all the great musical personalities of the time: Mark Edwards, David Bowie, Cat Steven, Marc Bolan, the photographer David Bailay and the painter Francis Bacon”. While attending art school, Ivan devoted himself to learning guitar and studying music, playing blues with local bands.

“I went to London for the first time in 1971, then I went back in 1977, when punk had just exploded. Living in London in 1971 and 1972,” he said in a chat with faremusic.co.uk in 2015, “it meant completely changing my life and giving it all the courage, I needed to emancipate myself in my personal, aesthetic and political struggle. I needed to feel different from the old models that were still too present in society at the time, especially in Italy.”

Until the age of 18, Ivan Cattaneo lived in Pianico, a village near Lake Iseo.

After being discharged from military service for his ‘extravagance’ in 1975, he recorded his first album UOAEI with the independent label Ultima Spiaggia thanks to his acquaintance with Nanni Ricordi. Ivan remembers him:

“He was an open man, a free thinker who knew how to bring together the most disparate artistic languages: it was not uncommon, in fact, for actors, singers, painters and conductors to meet in his living room, in an artistic potpourri that enriched everyone,” and he continues: “I was 21 when, one evening, Nanni Ricordi went to La Scala without taking me with him. I stayed at his place and fell asleep until, at some point, I heard a noise in the kitchen. I went in and Nanni said to me: -Come, let my friends hear you sing-. I was standing in front of Leonard Bernstein and Maria Callas! I started humming, trembling, while Callas laughed as loud as she could, imitating my moans. I was so ashamed, but it was a wonderful experience that I’ll never forget”.

He then took part in the 1976 Festival of Proletarian Youth to demand gay rights. In 1977, he presented the ironic album Primo, secondo e frutta (Ivan incluso), which included Maria Batman arranged by Roberto Colombo, his first hit.

The following year, the director of RCA, which had launched Pavone, Morandi and Dalla, called him to recommend a look for a young girl with a fantastic voice, who was to take part in the Sanremo Festival. He gave her a haircut and dressed her like a punk, passing on to her what he had learned in London. The song Un’emozione da poco was a hit and marked the beginning of Anna Oxa’s great career.

In 1980, after ending his relationship with the record company Ultima Spiaggia, he presented his first single Polisex, a song that was very well received by the critics. And in 1981, with the album 2060, Italian Graffiati presented a fresh and innovative sound, combining elements of rock, new wave and electronic pop with a breath of eccentricity and originality for the Italian music scene: more than concerts, real theatrical performances and a lot of personal and provocative style. Remember the cover of Una zebra a pois sung by Mina and Nessuno mi può giudicare by Caterina Caselli. The following year, he returned to song with Ivan il terribile. Together with Caterina Caselli and Red Ronnie, he founded the Bandiera Gialla in Rimini, where he performed other covers from the 1960s. Disappointed by the world of discography and television, which identified him only as a performer of old hits, he decided to break with CDG and retire from his musical career. Before that, however, he released the album Forbidden to Minors in 1986.

In 1992, he released the album Il cuore è nudo…e i pesci cantano (The heart is naked…and the fish sing), which anticipated the Drum & Bass genre and dealt with his relationship with the Indian master Osho. “He was a great philosopher, a great religious man, someone who taught me a lot, but at a certain point you have to leave the masters behind, because if you look at the sun and another person gets in your way, your vision is altered”, he adds, “So it’s important to have a guide, but then you have to go on with your soul, with your spiritual intuition”.

In the years that followed, Ivan Cattaneo devoted himself to multidisciplinary artistic projects such as ZOOcietà DUEOO’. This project included music, dance, poetry and art, but was never fully realised.

He experimented with different roles in the artistic field, alternating between his activities as a singer and musician and those as a painter and multimedia artist.

His paintings are easily recognisable by the way he depicts faces that look like fragments. Often, on a shapeless face, Ivan adds pieces of eyes, nose or mouth that give the impression of coming from somewhere else, creating a new identity made up of several identities.

“It’s worth explaining my art for a moment,” he says. It’s about painting taking its revenge on photography, so that man becomes poetry rather than prose. This is what the Huli in Papua New Guinea and the Hanomami in South America do during certain religious rituals. These indigenous people colour their faces, adorn themselves with feathers, in short, use art to reconstruct their image. Of course, the ‘perfect secretary’ does the same thing when she puts on make-up to make herself acceptable to society, but in a much more ‘civilised’ and toned-down way. These people, on the other hand, do it in a more incisive and powerful way, because they incorporate a religious feeling. That’s what I do in my paintings too. Here, these eyes – which are the common thread running through all my canvases – are reworked, reabsorbed by pictorial faces that are no longer men or women, that have no sex like angels but belong to the world of dreams”.

The use of bright colours is truly the common thread running through his works.

“Colour is everything and nothing, because after all, I always wear black in my everyday life! , he explains. In any case, for me, colour is art because it’s what I can use to express myself, to give a real emotion. Shape is also very important, the way you put it together and create it. Personally, I don’t like overly elaborate forms of the baroque kind, whereas stylised forms appeal to me, like the African sculptures that inspired Picasso’s cubism. I like them because I recognise in them a true formal synthesis, which is still very revolutionary today. As far as the mouths and eyes are concerned, I have a comment to make. I’ve recently given up on the former because, when all is said and done, it’s a very carnal and earthy element, which we don’t pay much attention to. The eyes, on the other hand, are really the mirror of the soul and have all those reflections that make them look like galaxies”.

Meanwhile, Ivan has released singles such as Love is Love in 1996 and appeared in the KK film Kairos & Kronos – The Time of Emotions in 1999.

In 2002, he opened an art exhibition and took part in the musical Joseph and the Amazing Tunic of Dreams.

“I make music the way a painter paints his canvas, in other words, absolutely alone, without any post-productive stages involving a myriad of foreign hands, arrangers, musicians, recordists, sound engineers and electronic programmers. It’s always bothered me to be seen as just a singer, when in reality I’m someone who likes to manipulate, filter and always bring together different artistic languages. Today we talk about multimedia.”

He has also taken part in television programmes such as Music Farm and L’isola dei famosi.

After a 13-year absence from the recording scene, Ivan released the album Luna presente in 2005, marking his return as a singer-songwriter. In the years that followed, he continued to perform live, covering songs from the 1980s and taking part in various musical and theatrical projects.

In 2011, he wrote the song Abbaio alla luna for Al Bano, and the same year Warner Music Italia released a box set containing his five previous albums.

At the end of August 2014, Sony Music released the digi-pack A qualcuno piace Ivan! containing the reissue of Ivan Cattaneo’s first three albums and singles recorded between 1976 and 1978. Also in 2014, he also starred in the film Sexy shop by Maria Erica Pacileo and Fernando Maraghini and received the FIM Award Premio Italia alla Carriera at the FIM, the International Music Fair, in Genoa. He took part in the musical Jesus Christ Superstar on the 40th anniversary of the opera’s premiere and released a double tribute album entitled Un tipo atipico#tributoivancattaneo in 2015. The album features twenty-nine artists reinterpreting his repertoire. The project, presented to mark the 40th anniversary of Ivan’s career, was hailed by music critics and part of the proceeds were donated to Amnesty International. In 2016, he received the Amnesty plaque and the Bruno Lauzi Songwriter award.

From 2018 to 2021, Ivan took part in the third edition of the reality show Grande Fratello VIP and released the single Iceberg after eight years of recording silence. He collaborates with Alessandro Orlando Graziano on the song Nuova era and writes the song La carezza che mi manca for Patty Pravo. In 2019, he presents the programme C’era una volta il musicarello on Rete 4.

In January 2019, he became the official best man for City Angels. In September 2020, Giuni Russo’s unreleased posthumous album La forma dell’amore is released, accompanied by a video clip recorded by Ivan himself in 2003.

In November 2020, he wrote the foreword to Joyello Triolo’s book Cover and over again. In June 2021, he published his new work entitled “Polisex (40th anniversary)”, which contains ten versions of the famous song “Polisex” to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of its release.

Ivan Cattaneo is convinced that youth come from an attitude to life rather than outward appearance. “Youth is not a question of the face, because you can have all the face-lifts you want, but it’s still what it is. Youth is the attitude you have towards life, the spirit with which you approach it. I’ve always had a very childlike approach and that’s what saved me.”

But Ivan’s underlying message is self-discovery and self-love, fundamental to staying true to oneself in a world full of distractions.

Ivan Cattaneo’s eccentric and provocative style, his passion for music and his ability to constantly reinvent himself make him a unique artist.

The Gospel according to Cattaneo:

“The main role is to create, write songs and paint. The rest is the showcase, the exhibition, the involvement. The heart is in the creation”.

“There was nothing calculated about me, I dressed like that because I liked it. I’d just come from London, I’d been through the first gay movements, it was all very unconscious to me. I didn’t want to be different; I was myself. It was a lifestyle choice that came from underground culture”.

“I was surprised that people called me strange, especially when I became famous, they thought it was to make fun of people, a mask. Instead, it was my life, I couldn’t be any other way.”

“Singing well is absolutely not an art! It’s nice, it’s a good conductor of emotions, but it’s not art; real artists are those who invent, who create something new.”

“I want to make music and art that stays with the times. Maybe I’m presumptuous, but if I don’t think and understand my life and my way of being in this way, sooner or later I’ll burn out and lose my self-esteem.”

What do you think about!