"The first time I tried it, it was kind of like being in a video game world. You sit there, and push the button, and the chair rotates!"
What Lacuna Coil frontwoman Cristina Scabbia is describing isn't some Virtual Reality gimmick nor an onstage prop, but a televised experience exclusive to some of the most world-famous figures in the music business: Christina Aguilera, Adam Levine, Miley Cyrus and so forth. Of course, we're talking about the button-activated rotating chair from popular reality-TV singing show The Voice, which the judges use to dramatically signal their interest in a given contestant. It's a seat the frontwoman knows well: The fifth season of the show's Italian spin-off, The Voice of Italy, welcomed Scabbia as a member of the judges' panel, hand-selecting and coaching four aspiring singers. Her finalist, Andrea Butturini, ultimately finished third in this month's grand finale.
Impressive as that finish may be, it was the chance to encourage aspiring professional singers — and to shine a positive light on the metal community — that's proven to be the real prize for Scabbia. We caught up with her to get the whole story about her time on the show, her conscious attempt to challenge Italian cultural norms and the personal lessons she'll carry with her back to Lacuna Coil.
HOW DID YOU — THE SINGER OF A METAL BAND — END UP JUDGING ON THE VOICE OF ITALY? THAT WOULD NEVER HAPPEN ON THE AMERICAN VERSION OF THE SHOW.
CRISTINA SCABBIA The initial conversation was weird. My management informed me that I was invited to a dinner with some people who wanted to talk to me about a job. I requested my management not brief me on who I'd be meeting because I wanted to take a human approach and be as natural as I could possibly be — like going out to eat with friends of friends. The dinner was very casual and relaxing, and eventually we started to talk more and more about this TV show. They gave more and more details and I immediately realized that they were talking about The Voice Italy.
At the end of the dinner, they just looked at me and said, "What would you say if we asked you to be one of the four coaches on this next season?" My jaw dropped — I would have never in a million years think that someone could ask someone like me, you know, our culture, our music, to be a coach in such a huge popular show on TV, on national TV. I told them that I wanted to think about it because, of course, I wanted to discuss it with Lacuna Coil. I also wanted to think about it because I knew that being a judge would be slightly controversial, and that some people would never understand my choice. A few days after talking with the guys, I realized that it was a great opportunity to do something different and to let our metal culture known by more people that might have never heard about it.
WHAT WERE YOUR EXPECTATIONS LIKE HEADING IN?
I really had no expectations. I went there, I told the writers of The Voice of Italy that I didn't want to follow any scripts or prompts, because it was absolutely important for me to to be myself, whether good or bad. In a way, it was risk, because it was my very first TV experience, my very first TV appearance, so there was the risk that I could be completely silenced or I could do something wrong, but I knew that by being myself, there is no way that I would do something "wrong" to begin with.
Instead, I approached this whole experience thinking of myself as a guest in somebody else's home. I wanted to be very respectful while keeping my individual personality, and I really wanted to bring the cool image of metal. On the other side of it, I really wanted to do the opposite thing: I wanted to go there and be ironic and, you know, dress in a cool way and do something that people could appreciate regardless of the genre they like because I think that — especially in Italy — metal isn't very well-respected. Italians subscribe to the the old cliché that every metalhead is evil, that they're naughty people connected to bad things. This is not the image that I wanted to give.
YOU'VE SPOKEN ABOUT HOW METAL IS MARGINALIZED IN ITALY, AND HOW YOU HOPED TO CHALLENGE THOSE PRECONCEPTIONS BY BEING ON THE SHOW. DOES THAT INCLUDE YOUR WORK ALONGSIDE THE CONTESTANTS? DO YOU EVER POINT THEM IN THE DIRECTION OF METAL SONGS, OR USE METAL SONGS AS EXAMPLES OF PROPER TECHNIQUE?
It's never safe to try to shove your own tastes down someone else's throat. Even though I wanted to bring my own rock character to the show, I wanted to make the talent better in their own way. I didn't want to transform them. I didn't want to see Cristina reflected in them. So I never insisted [they play rock and metal] if rock and metal were not their inclinations. It was very important for me to give the image that a metalhead can be open-minded, can know any kind of music and can have fun with any kind of music.
There wasn't enough time to teach technique. That said, I think that I wouldn't be able to teach any technique because I never took lessons and I always sing with my heart. Plus, the singers were all really good, so I didn't really have to teach them anything to begin with. I really just told them to sing with their hearts, and to be very clear, and enunciate — oh dear [laughs], sorry, I can't find the English term — like, I wanted people to understand clearly what they were singing so I told them to be careful with that. I told them to be pretty careful with their English, because — not that my English is master class, but there were people that were way worse than I was, so I tried to correct some of the mistakes that I heard [with their English].
WHAT WAS THE ON-SET RECEPTION LIKE?
A lot of people were skeptical and scared because they really thought that metal was just noise ... scary people dressing in a weird way. And I am pretty happy that, through me, they've learned that it's not like that, that there are metalheads who are dressed in a jacket and a tie and that [judgments based on] superficial looks are never good. You have to research, you have to be curious about things, so even though metal won't become your favorite genre, at least you can say, "Oh, there is something that is different from the music that I usually listen to."
It's been weird to see the main magazines in Italy talking about metal in relation to the show. Even if it's a superficial way — "Oh, Cristina Scabbia, she's a metalhead in the band Lacuna Coil," blah, blah, blah — at least they are talking about metal music. They're showing Italy that metal exists, that metal culture exists. That was the point for me. That is what I wanted to do with The Voice of Italy.
WHAT TYPE OF ADVICE DID YOU GIVE FINALIST ANDREA BUTTURINI AND THE REST OF YOUR TEAM? DID THE CONTESTANTS TEACH YOU ANYTHING?
Not only was a great experience for me as a coach, to be able to teach some people something from myself, from my world, from what I've learned in 20 years of career, I was very, very happy to teach them something, even on the human side as well, because I told them to believe in themselves.I told them to be themselves on every occasion, that singing with their heart was more important than singing with a technique. I told them that they have to believe in every word they sing. I told them that they have to be really clear in what they sing because the voice is a way to communicate your feelings, to communicate a message. In them, I saw much of who I was years ago — all the dreams, the expectations, the unknowns. It was really cool to go back and to find again the passion of the beginning. To be clear, it's not like I don't have passion — I'm lucky to do what I do and I wouldn't change it in the whole world. But it's always cool to redirect with other people to find out what they think about their music, what they want to do in the future, how they perceive music as a career. It definitely made me grow as a person even more.
WALKING AWAY THE VOICE OF ITALY, WHAT LESSONS ARE YOU TAKING WITH YOU BACK TO LACUNA COIL?
We don't have to forget that I was the least known coach on the show because the other three coaches are very well known in Italy. They're very popular, very different from each other, but very popular — I am still from the underground, because even though I work internationally, I'm way more famous internationally, and Italy's not the same because metal is not known in the same way as in the rest of the world. So, it was like a cool experience for me to deal with the fact that most of the people in front of an Italian TV didn't know who I was.
I saw a lot of comments on social media at the beginning of the show like: "Who is she? What is she doing? Nobody really knows her. Why's she there?" There was a little negativity because people didn't know me. The biggest reward, for me personally, was seeing this love around me growing episode after episode after people found out what I was doing and who I was. The same people sending me hate — "Who is this girl? Why is she there? She doesn't deserve to be there, because she's not famous enough" — those same people were sending me messages after the show aired like: "Wow! I didn't know you, and I found out that you are real, that you are sincere, that you're genuine." For me, that was the best compliment because I really think that TV is lacking truth — and that's what I tried to bring with my presence on The Voice of Italy.