Profile: Violinist Marissa Licata - From Alicia Keys To Recording A New Album With Her Father


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Q: When would you say triggered your passion for music? How old were you at the time?

A: My passion for music probably started before I began playing at three. There was always music in the house because of my father. The age that I recognized a serious passion was probably around age six. I had already been playing violin for three years, and I remember listening to Handel's “Messiah" one evening while playing cards with my father. This amazing piece made such an impression on me, as did a lot of other music we would listen to, and I remember thinking that if I just kept practicing and concentrating on playing my instrument, I could be a part of something just as touching and moving one day. I didn't know at the time exactly what I was feeling, but I can say now remembering times like this so well that I was feeling something I wished others could experience, too. I guess in a way I felt that I was responsible for sharing this feeling with others and wanted to create, play, and perform as much music as possible so I could be someone who had the ability to do what Handel did for me.

Q: Were there any particular artists, especially violinists, who helped trigger this interest in becoming a musician yourself?

A: To be honest, I was never particularly interested in other violinists for some reason. Hiefitz was, and still is, definitely my favorite violinist, but I didn't listen to him until I was in my mid-teens. I have to say that the artist most responsible for who I have become as a musician today was Michael Jackson. I know that seems very odd and maybe surprising, especially because my father doesn't really like his music all that much, but it's true. When I was 12, my father told me to listen to the Jackson 5 version of “Santa Clause is Coming to Town." I immediately thought it was great and became so interested in the music that I kept buying more and more Jackson 5 CDs, then moved on to Jackson's solo work, and realized that I was so drawn to his music because of the vision he had. I can't say that I think about him as the greatest singer on earth - definitely a fabulous dancer - I like his singing, and his concept of where music could go was inspiring. His music and ideas made me see that my being a violinist didn't just have to end with playing in a classical orchestra. Entertaining and performing and creativity were concepts I didn't understand before being exposed to Jackson's music. Being a musician, rather than just a violinist who could only play classical music - an idea that my father stressed very much to me growing up - hadn't clicked in that way before.

My first influences were Coltrane albums, Cannonball Adderley, Miles Davis, Buena Vista Social Club, great Klezmer bands, and my father would say would say - “Listen to their tone. Listen to Coltrane's strength. Get that tone." Again, not realizing it, I was being trained to critically listen and get inside and produce a strong sound. I think it's also important to mention here that physically staying strong was a huge part of my life while the music was going on. My father was obsessed with having strength in the sound so I was always involved in athletics - swimming in particular. With all the musicians we would listen to together, there was a grit, strength, and experience behind it, and so my father exposed me to that through the great artists he heard growing up. So I was taking all this in when I was young. Then, in my teens, I was the typical teenager with the attitude that was going to do things my way when it came to music. I really focused on stage presence and how to captivate a crowd. I explored how versatile the violin was and had been through history. Some ideas worked, many didn't, but the many musical influences I had growing up played a huge role in how I thought about making music, and how I still play now.

Q: When did you start playing the violin? Where did you receive a formal education?

A: I started playing violin at age 3. For a very brief time, I took lessons at the Longy School of Music in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and then entered the prep division at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston where I stayed for three years taking lessons. After moving to the New York City area, I entered the prep division at the Manhattan School of Music, and in 1999, at 14, came back to the prep school at the New England Conservatory where I remained to earn my bachelors and masters degrees.

Q: The music on your new album Water Level was composed by your father, Charles Licata. Have you two collaborated before?

A: My father and I had never collaborated before Water Level unless you count the time I played for my 2nd grade talent show, and he accompanied me on piano.

Q: You performed with Alicia Keys in 2011. How did she find you? What was that experience like?

A: Since 2009, I have been recording with new artists managed by MBK Entertainment out of New York City, Keys' former management. One of their new engineers/producers at the time was the brother of a good friend of mine with whom I went to NEC. They knew of me and brought me on board for some demo projects, just to experiment more than anything. They liked my work. I had done a few demos for Keys for songs that never went anywhere, and then on day in early June 2011, her MD needed to hire strings. He went to the producers I had now worked with for a couple of years, and they told him to contact me.

That experience was great, but different from what I would have expected in that we, the quartet, composed our own string parts with Keys and her MD. We had one rehearsal, and we came up with the material for the show for Good Morning America right there. I would have expected them to have all the parts written and know exactly what was going to be played when, but no. She trusted us to work with her to put this together. I really liked that, and she told us that she had never worked with a string quartet ever so in a way we felt like there was learning and sharing through the whole process with her.

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