One year ago, the music label ACT Music released the new album of Polish jazz singer Natalia Mateo, entitled "Heart of Darkness". The singer, who lives in Berlin, has been going from strength to strength.
Natalia Mateo says she is lucky as to bump into the right people whenever her projects start to stagnate. That's how Natalia Mateo describes the beginnings of her cooperation with Fabian Ristau, an old friend she had first met as a student.
"And suddenly, it all came together. It was a moment full of euphoria," Natalia Mateo told DW. "(We) immediately got on with each other."
Germany's most successful Jazz producer Siegfried "Siggi" Loch, head of the ACT label, then discovered Natalia Mateo and went on to produce her album "Heart of Darkness," which was released in March 2015. But Natalia's route success wasn't always an easy one.
Chances and obstacles
Natalia's father, Andrzej Kowalczyk, was an opera singer. "But the fact that I ended up as a singer was neither the result of an active decision, nor based on pressure by my parents. It was rather a subconscious exploration of the world of music", Natalia says.
As a child, she says that she thought she wouldn't have enough energy for a career in singing, and that her voice was as feeble as she felt she was herself. Hence, she says, she suffered from an inferiority complex.
In 1987, Natalia's family moved to Linz in Austria. Ten years later, they returned to Poland. Natalia attended a high school headed by Ursulines - Catholic nuns - in Wrocław (Breslau).
"Music and art were not taught there," she bemoans. But school syllabi aside, Natalie recours that she suffered further difficulties in adapting to living conditions in Poland as well. Her youth was a classic case of reverse culture shock.
Turning point in Berlin
Nine years later, the young woman moved to Berlin in order to continue her studies at the European College of Liberal Arts. During this time, she found out what her calling in life truly was: "Suddenly I knew that I didn't want to continue my English studies. Suddenly, I knew very clearly that I wanted to become a singer.
Searching desperately for a music teacher, a piano instructor and a dance teacher, Natalia finally met Carol McPherson. "She is a non-compromising and fanatic teacher, and can be quite exertive", Natalia sums up.
"Many students couldn't cope with her ruthless criticism that made some people feel as though they weren't able to sing at all. To me, it was a great relief to get to know my own limits, and where to look for the reasons behind them. Finally, there was somebody who was able to tell me what was good or bad about my voice."
Opting for Jazz
One day, Natalia Mateo saw herself forced to make a decision between Classical music and Jazz. She opted for Jazz, leaving aside classical music, which, however, she continued to appreciate. But she adds: "When it comes to Jazz, it's important to develop one's own style and sound, and to formulate a personal message. I was really horrified to have that confrontation with myself," Natalia recalls.
Natalia went on to study Jazz singing at the Music Institute of Osnabrück as well, while remaining based in Berlin. A few years later, the German magazine "Jazzpodium" wrote the following review about her:
"There is something crystal-clear and touching about the voice of Natalia Mateo. It has gravity, and yet is not too heavy. She comes across as a secure person, while lacking even the slightest hint of elitist ambition."
An ideal combination
Natalia's breakthrough came about after meeting Siggi Loch, the founder and musical mastermind of the label ACT. One day, he joined a workshop organised by Natalia's university. "I felt that this was a decisive moment," Natalia Mateo remembers.
"Once the workshop was over, Siggi invited me for an interview. Later on, he attended my concert and sent me a proposal, saying that I should do a recording for his company."
The album was showered with praise by critics as well as audiences. "This was also the merit of my musicians: Gregor Lener, Simon Grote, Dany Ahmad, Christopher Bolte and Fabian Ristau," Natalia stresses.
Following the release of the album Natalia's calendar started to get fuller and fuller, with concerts and gigs all over Germany and beyond. "I do enjoy performing, but it comes with a crazy lifestyle," Natalia says.
Suspended between creativity and silence
Natalia likes artists who "sound different" such as Tom Waits, Björk or Gretchen Parlato. She also appreciates artists who are able to play around with language, or who even sing in a language invented by themselves, like Sinin Tander and Theo Bleckmann. And she considers traditional Jazz language, used for example by Kurt Elling, as some kind of competitive sports, and an intellectual exercise.
"As much as I respect these spheres, I will probably never explore them myself," Natalia says in all modesty. Her voice is the product of a serious quest based a lot of hard work. However, after so many hours of singing and working with music each day, Natalia says that paradoxically she prefers to retreat into silence.
" Then I just don't want to hear anything at all anymore," she explains.
Between different worlds
The songs on her latest album "Heart of Darkness" are all based on experiences she made over the last number of years, including living in different countries. "When I started working on the album, I didn't give much thought to the title. But it's true that I am stuck somewhere between different worlds," Natalia tells DW. She says that her experience as a migrant between countries likely contributed to creating her 'heart of darkness.'
"Many migrants, especially artists among them, face the same dilemma. They have so-called modern resumés, where our lives are stretched between different locations. Confronting different and strange worlds is a modern experience. It's something that shapes us, and that can radicalize people.
"Poles living in Germany tend to go for one or the other extreme: Either they refuse to acknowledge their roots altogether, or they desperately cling onto them, whereas the truth usually tends to be somewhere in the middle. In my view, drawing a line between oneself and the society in which one lives, while locking oneself into one's own little world, means that no serious bonds can ever grow in that society. There is a dark side to drawing such lines."
A story of success - made in Germany
Asked whether she would also have become a jazz musician if she hadn't turned her back to Poland, Natalia says she doesn't know: "I don't know whether I would have been able to get on with people in Poland. That's a very difficult truth. Living in Germany is easier in many ways. But I'm equally not sure whether I would have been able to cope with my experiences as a migrant if I hadn't met certain people in my life," referring to those who have not only helped to further her career but have also lent her emotional support and guidance along the way.
The 33-year old Jazz singer may be just at the beginning of a glorious career but isn't shy to show her appreciation for those, who have helped her. "After concerts, Germans sometime come up to me and say they prefer me singing Polish songs," she quips.
Natalia Mateo will be awarded the ECHO Jazz as Best Newcomer in the German music industry on May 26 - an important step in her skyrocketing career.