Last year’s album Morytáty a romance by Brno singer-songwriter and TV dramaturge Ivo Cicvárek scores points in annual polls beyond the pure folk genre. Ivo recorded his big project with his renamed band, which he now calls Živo, and a number of guests. In the interview he explains what is behind the songs of the album and talks about his future plans.
Ivo, exactly a year ago we were sitting together in the Proglas studio, and you were telling me about your plan to record a Morytáty a romance album with a lot of guests. It seemed to me at the time like a project for several years, but the album was released in October, just a few months later. How did it happen so quickly?
Yes, I really did tell you then that the new album could be out in maybe two years. But something happened, and about a week after we talked a spark lit a fire and the band and I started working on it. It ended up coming together a lot faster than I expected. I feel like the universe came together in our favour on this one, and everything we wanted to do more or less fell in place, and even better than we anticipated. I’m thrilled about that.
The band with whom you recorded the album is not completely new, but they are performing here under the new name Živo. I can hear your name Ivo in it. That’s no coincidence, is it?
Živo is really an old band. Besides me, it consists of Kuba Lutner on bass guitar and Radim Grünwald on drums. They’ve been playing with me for two years now, it was the second stable line-up that performed as Ivo Cicvárek & Velký svět. But in the context of this record, we felt we were more of a band than a singer-songwriter with backing. We play well together, and I hope that we will be together for a long time. So we wanted a contrasting title to the original very long one. And that’s how Živo came about, even twice. A few years ago, my friend Lada Šimíčková, with whom I have another musical formation, came up with this name at the Text Workshop. At that time I didn’t have enough courage to take it up, but the guys from the band came up with it independently. They said, “We’re going to be called Živo. Your name is in it, Ivo, and we’re going to play live”. That was a sign that if you come up with something twice and different people are behind it, it’s probably right.
The album is exceptional in your discography both in its focus on stories and the participation of a number of interesting guests. Which of these ideas came first?
I wanted to make a record of epic stories, sometimes more hidden, sometimes open. Even as a kid, I liked campfire songs like pirate ballads and other songs that had “something going on”. For years I wrote my songwriting epic-lyrical confessionals, but these stories have a certain distance. The subjects who sing them are not me. It’s not my life. Or maybe it is, but only in the sense that I heard the stories somewhere, met them, or put them together in the way that, say, a film is made. It is not important what is true, what is important is that it might be true. And it was useful to me to have more voices to support the narrative line of the record. I thought, for example, that I can’t sing like an old pirate so I need to get someone else to do it. And so I invited Darek Neumann, whom I trust with his great rasp, to sing Ballad of the Last Storm. In the end, I sing most of the songs on the album, but some of the key songs were sung by guests. The most famous of these is Robert Křesťan, whom I heard in my head when I was writing the song Island Romance. The first sketch was done years ago, but then I kept working on it. It felt like a sort of “Křesťanesque” poetry to me. I approached him, Robert took some time to think about it, and he wrote me that he liked it and could interpret it in his own way. In the meantime, I made some more changes to the text and sent him the final version about a week before the shoot. He didn’t have any comments, he just came to the studio and we were done in about an hour. It was just a professional job. He and our sound engineer Kuba Siman joked about some stories from their youth. They’re generations apart, but they grew up in the same area, so they reminisced about different boy bands they were members of.
The album contains, as its title suggests, both tragic and love songs. Do all these stories have something in common?
The lyrics on the album usually have two or three plans. For example, in Island Romance the first plan is the opening chapter of Verne’s Mysterious Island. But the second plan is a song about what happens when we throw away everything that defines us on our life journey. Then we become nothing. It’s a metaphor for life. The song Rose is about an unhappy girl who makes a living with her body. She thinks it'll be for a while, but it ends up being for almost a hundred years. But it's actually a protest song. I brought in Markéta Tulisová, who has a thick voice that was perfect for it.
About that, the throwing away of what defines us... Isn’t the verse in the song Don’t Take Me Away related: “Don’t take away my envelopes with old names / I’ll burn them myself when I’m ready”? Do you think everyone should burn the old behind them once? Is that even desirable?
I can’t say if that's true for everyone. The text is based on a very specific role of old papers: a few years ago I was cleaning up old pictures, sketches, studies that I drew when I was studying art education. I wanted to throw them away. And I found that for some reason I couldn’t. Even though I haven’t looked at them in years. For now, they’re gathering dust in the garage, and maybe someday I’ll burn them. And it dawned on me that I was probably attached by some metaphoric spider web to things from the past that I could rationally say there couldn’t possibly be any webs there anymore. Whether this has any wider validity, I have no idea.
Can you tell us how we can read The Last Breath Morality Tale, which is bloody and yet about great love?
I see it as a story about a guy who is full of excuses and apologies – and ridicule – even as he is being hung. He won’t even admit to himself. It’s more a story about self-love than love. And of course, it’s probably the most stylised lyric on the whole record, it should have a western movie feel to it – but if a western, it’s a late period one, with an anti-hero. But of course, the anti-hero romantically, even pathetically, believes his version of “love beyond the grave”. The lyrics, moreover, had a subconscious literary inspiration – even at the time of the album’s recording, I discovered that it had a similar plot to a Deaver thriller story about a stalker and a killer I’d read a few years before. I wondered for a while if I should mind that my brain had stolen someone else’s plot, and then I realized that I knew several songs that were based on literary inspiration, such as Žamboch’s Joe from Ikaria, so I stopped worrying about it.
What about Ballad of the Eighties, a song with a surprising musical interlude that reminds me of Michal David?
That’s probably the saddest song on the record. It’s deliberately done as a disco song, and if you can hear Michal David in there, it’s actually great. I used to listen to Depeche Mode on repeat before I finished the song, to recreate the feeling I got from listening to electronic or even dance music in the 80s. As seemingly disjointed as the song is, it deals with something that everyone has to discern for themselves and take a stance on. It is the theme of a child’s non-acceptance by his parents, a theme that will always be terribly important and sad. It is a reflection on where it leads when parents do not accept their child. And even in this song, we hear an exceptional voice, one that touches the world’s parameters. It is Veronika Bartošová, a member of the band VeHiBa, who won the final of Porta last year.
In addition to the solo singers, the album also features guest instrumentalists, such as Michal Grombiřík on the dulcimer.
I wanted a dulcimer on the record. In Moravia, the atmosphere of ballads is associated with the dulcimer. I didn’t want the album to touch directly on folk music, but I see the dulcimer as a kind of “proxy object” for the Moravian ballad. The collaboration in the studio with guitarist Norbi Kovács and Hammond player Kuba Zomer was crucial for the album. I will always remember it fondly, both in terms of playing and humanity.
In the booklet it says that the record was made in several different studios. Which one was the most important?
We recorded the song Rose outside Brno in Avian studio. It has a different percussion line-up than the rest of the album, it’s a very “Schrammelesque” one. But we recorded the core of the album in Svárov near Prague, where we can record together, but at the same time we're in separate rooms. So you can work with the material in post-production and play around with it.
Doesn’t the tightness of the band suffer from such recording?
It’s brilliant in Svárov. You have headphones on your ears, but you can wave to each other, because it’s visually connected. And you get used to it in a few hours. The first day you get used to it and then you don’t have a problem with it anymore.
Which is more prominent on the album, the romances or the morality tales?
There’s more romance. There’s very few pure bloody murder mysteries or morality tales. And the title Romance and Morytát is a song that I think turned out well, but don’t really know!. The song Before the End of the War is also interesting in this regard. I started writing it the day after Jan Vodňanský died. He's not mentioned in the song, but it was an impulse. I wanted to write that when we're going through a bad period, which can be, for example, a war or covid, there will always be people who miss the good ending, who don’t live to see it by a week or a month. In the song I quote Josef Čapek, who died in April 1945, or Jan Skácel, who missed the 17th of November. But I couldn’t finish the lyrics for a long time because I knew it couldn’t end unhappily. I finished it a few days after my friend, a diving instructor, woke up from a coma. So it’s a sad song, but ultimately it’s the most positive song on the whole record.
The album contains new songs, but you also included the song The First Time from your first album. Why?
I really thought the album would be all new songs. But we played The First Time for a long time in a new arrangement with Pavel Čadek and I wanted to have it recorded somewhere. Pavel has his own songwriting career now, we don’t perform together anymore, but I invited him to do the album. And this song ended up there as an example of a completely pure love affair.
The album was released not only on CD and as a download, but also on vinyl. Which of these media or ways of listening is closest to you?
Realistically, probably a CD – for such a funny reason. During the lockdowns, I bought good sounding speakers, an amp, a vintage CD player, and a turntable. I was hoping to get back to not only my CD collection, which happened, but also my dad’s vinyl collection. It just turned out that I had underestimated the space in the living room – I had to drill some shelves to get the turntable in there. And since I’m too lazy for manual labour, the turntable isn’t hooked up even after two years. But it’s up there on my to-do list. So I still can’t listen to vinyl at home. But the vinyl I have from my childhood is mainly associated with one pre-Christmas memory. My dad was always scrubbing the living room floors and playing the Nightflight to Venus album by Boney M. Once I get the turntable working, I’ll start celebrating with this record, and chances are it'll win out over the CD in the emotion of listening.
At the moment, in early February, the album is at the top of the Folktime album scoring chart. In the Proglas Album of the Year 2022 poll, it came in fourth place across genres, and in the Anděl awards, it has so far made it to the pre-nominations in the Folk category. As someone who's been in the scene for a while, are these rankings, polls, and awards important to you?
They are, and for two reasons. The first is “marketing”: however long I’ve been on the scene, I have a fairly loyal but relatively narrow audience. And Živo is a band that would like to play a bit more than in previous years. Being seen in these polls won’t help us rocket off to a reboot, of course, but some extra playing (especially at festivals) can, and it can bring in listeners who otherwise wouldn’t know about us. And the second reason is that when you’re working on an album, communication is split between the music and the musicians. At that point I'm not thinking about the impact, I just need to be with the music. But with the release of the record comes the third point of the triangle. That is the listeners – and if the record is played with appreciation by people who listen to dozens or hundreds of albums a year, then comes the – I don’t know what to call it – satisfaction? In short, we all need that pat on the back from time to time, and it energizes us to keep working. It’s a similar feeling to when you cook a meal – you can eat it yourself and say, well, I cooked it well, I like it, yum. But when you get compliments from your kids, your family, your friends, it somehow gives cooking a greater meaning, even though it’s still the same food.
What does a concert of Živo look like? Do you play mainly songs from the new album or a cross-section of older repertoire? And how do you cope with the absence of guests from the album?
We play a cross-section; of course we know practically all the songs from Romance and Morytát now, and we choose pieces from previous albums that will suitably complement the dramaturgy of the concert. In addition, we return to some of the older songs with Radim and Kuba and rearrange them slightly, sometimes noticeably, sometimes only subtly, but it helps us not to get stuck in a routine. The absence of guests on most of the songs doesn’t bother us – the initial arrangements were built collectively by the three of us anyway, and the fourth invisible player is the occasional sample, which is an interpretative issue of technically correct rehearsal and concentration during a concert. Plus, the vast majority of the songs I want to be able to play as a songwriter myself have to work as a pure form: lyrics, harmony, melody, piano, or guitar. And with the band, we give it a different energy on stage than in the studio. Of course, we can’t play How Would You Love Me, where it wouldn’t be the same without Veronika and Norbi. But the rest of it isn't a problem.
In last year’s interview with Michal Šimíček you said that at Jan Spálený’s concerts you “caught the desire to write, for yourself, differently, but under the impression of the concert”. Have you had any such an intense concert experience recently?
I have, but mediated. My colleague from TV, dramaturg Martin Polák, and director Pavel Jirásek filmed a Tata Bojs concert last year. Absolutely brilliant footage, I recommend it on iBroadcast. For the first time in a long time I saw and heard a concert that transported me through the screen into the audience, although it must have been even more intense on the spot. And as part of my job at Czech Television, I was at this concert as a so-called approving dramaturg – which sounds lofty, but is basically a checking function, where I see with clear eyes how the editing went, and then enjoy the final shape, including the musical mix and colouring. After the approval screening was over, I wrote a song about two months in the making in two days – quite existential and personal, but also fast-paced and seemingly rambling. And last fall, I felt a sense of lyrical kinship at a collaborative songwriting gig with Michal Bystrov. Michal is known as a music publicist, but he’s also an amazing poet and lyricist. I was blown away that he worked through some of the themes that I had struggled with fragmentarily – and unsuccessfully – and he did it with ease. It really kicks ass!
What’s next? Will you return to more personal songs, or will you continue with stories that may or may not have happened?
To be honest, I have no idea. We are definitely preparing a new album with Lada Šimíčková, who after five years has written a complete collection of beautiful poems – when I read it, I actually cried. I’m working on the musicalisation – Lada and I will soon try the first few pieces just as a duo to sing to people, and in March we’re going to have our first weekend rehearsal with Lada’s full band over the arrangements. And for Živo I've just finished writing the new song and I chose a trick for the arrangement – during January I programmed very danceable rhythmic samples for the song and we’ll try to sneak them in live. We haven’t explored this way of working with Živo yet, so I have no idea what it will lead to. I’m sure it'll be fun.