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Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Pezzettino Takes Control

The quirky edge of alternative

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Maybe it was nature or maybe it was nurture. Either way, music must have been in the cards for Margaret Stutt, aka Pezzettino. However, a musical demi-career-to coin a term for the MP3-posting, DIY-releasing, club-touring route of 21st-century indie musicians-only recently entered her mind. A little more than a year ago she took up accordion and began writing songs. Since then, under the stage name of Pezzettino, she has played around the Midwest and the East Coast and has just released her second CD.

"Grandmother was a music teacher who played piano and my father's family were Irish," she explains. "They really valued music and performed on the porch of their house in West Milwaukee." Dad played accordion.

Pezzettino grew up in a Racine household firmly grounded in Wisconsin heritage and yet entirely cosmopolitan. Mom was an anthropology professor and dad a yoga instructor. Piano lessons were a given and rock was seldom heard in a home where the record collection consisted of Irish folk and European and Indian classical music. "I was never exposed to much classic rock," she admits. "I know I should make a point of learning more about it, but there's so much history out there!"

Her debut CD, Because I Have No Control…, could be filed on the quirky edge of alternative if only because there is no other place for it. Pezzettino's piano melodies include echoes of études presented with the disarming simplicity of a child's piano recital. Her voice is conversationally intimate and a little melancholy. The sadly wheezing accordion suggests the candlelit Old World angst of Nico's nicer younger sister.

Her favorite composers were Bach, for his mathematical precision, and his opposite number in the classical canon, Tchaikovsky, with his palette of emotional color. "Growing up with that, it became the musical language I spoke. Composing in those styles seemed more true to me," Pezzettino says. "Not that I don't like rock 'n' roll. I just don't always know where to go with it."

Along the way she picked up an appreciation for Ben Folds and Björk, which has become more evident in recent performances and on her new CD, Lion. But we're getting ahead of the Pezzettino story.

In high school Pezzettino abandoned music for painting. "It was becoming too much about performing the right notes and not the expression," she says of the round of piano contests she entered. "I didn't want to play music to collect gold stars."

Majoring in art history at Barack Obama's alma mater, Occidental College, she spent a crossroads year in Cambodia, studying the theft of age-old sculptures from their original sites. "The place where we were had just been cleared of mines. It was more in shambles than I expected. Very shocking," she says. "I began to ask myself why I was focusing on saving pieces of stone-a very abstract concept. If we would have the same experience as Cambodia and everything was taken from us, I wondered what I would have to offer my family and friends besides ideas about stones in far-off lands."

Another change in course seemed in order. Acupuncture fascinated her and an online search turned up an acupuncture school in Racine. "There was no other way I'd ever have come back," she says. "The only way for me to see Wisconsin again was through new eyes. I had to be out of the woods to see how beautiful the forest was."

While studying ancient Chinese medicine in Racine, she became proud of microbreweries, artisanal cheese, accordions and all the things that make Wisconsin special. "In college my focus was on admiring other people's cultures instead of my own," she adds. And when a wedding engagement ended, her acupuncture studies-with an emphasis on finding root causes of symptoms-led to an unanticipated catharsis of songwriting in a mind-set where the accordion was a totem of local authenticity. The endearingly naked honesty of Because I Have NoControl… is the result.

"I suddenly had a lot to say, things I wasn't admitting to myself, so I started writing," Pezzettino says. Describing her songs as a form of journaling, she professes being "shocked that people like them. It's amazing that other people can get something out of them. It blows me away!" Until, that is, she remembers mom's anthropology lessons on the universal experience of being human.

Lion is more aggressive, less tentative than its predecessor, but without losing Pezzettino's distinct musical character. "With performing I've become more confident in using my voice and expressing myself to the public," she explains. "I heard these songs differently in my head. I started performing with a drummer, which is the most important element I could bring in."

Since the release of Because I Have No Control…, Pezzettino has been selling her music and T-shirts from her Web site (all major credit cards accepted) and virally marketing herself across MySpace and Twitter.

"I think I'm really lucky," she concludes. "I threw myself out there and people have caught me. It's really awesome that complete strangers are responding to my songs."

Pezzettino plays an 8 p.m. CD release party April 18 at Shank Hall.


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