Dealing with changes
By his own admission, he is “one of those souls who is torn between two countries”, namely Australia, where he was born, and Malta – or more precisely, Gozo – where singer-songwriter Joseph Portelli grew up and essentially found his first musical calling.
“Music has always been in my family,” he says, referring to the various aunts, uncles and cousins who were always involved in some musical organisation or other. “It really was no surprise that I took up music when I was still a child.”
Before music came into his life, Portelli clearly remembers how hard it was to leave Gozo when, aged just nine, his family relocated to Australia. “I had the best childhood ever here; we had everything in Gozo, and then I had to leave it all behind and start again in a new place.” So fantastic was his childhood that, in fact, he’s more than willing to add that “if heaven was like my childhood, God please take me today”.
Australia, on the other hand, wasn’t exactly heaven to him, at least not at first. “Initially I hated being there. It was nothing to do with the country, but rather with the fact that we had none of our closest relatives around us.”
Of course, over time he did settle Down Under, but he is quite adamant that the Maltese connection has remained strong throughout.
Indeed, with Portelli’s childhood and youth involving a series of moves between Malta to Australia, it was to be expected that his happy Gozitan childhood was to be the rock he holds on to whenever a rough patch comes along.
“I suppose it’s only natural that we tend to recall the best times in our lives when things go wrong, and that’s usually linked to our childhood.”
There has, however, been another constant in Portelli’s life that has given him that extra boost in difficult times. “Looking back on my life, I’ve been all over the place, but music has always been a big part of it since I started playing guitar at the age of 11.”
In 2009, Portelli, then recording under the alias Jay P, released an album called 1565: Patiently Waiting, clearly referencing some connection to his roots.
“Quite so,” he affirms, “but it has more to do with the determination and life experience our ancestors went through to defend the island than the music.”
Of course, this doesn’t mean the songs don’t carry a message. In fact, one song – Think Ahead to go Ahead – is based around the words Portelli’s father always told him, while the songs Show Compassion and How the Times have Changed are inspired by Portelli’s own experiences of how Alzheimer’s Disease, which his father suffers from, affects the lives of so many people, not just the person with the disease.
The latter two songs have been re-recorded and included, alongside new tracks Sweet Sundays and Standing Still, on his latest release, a self-titled EP released not under the Jay P tag, but as Joseph Portelli.
“After 1565 came out, I realised the songs were very personal, and to some extent, I felt disappointed I hadn’t used my own name. From that moment I decided to record under my own name… this is who and what I am.”
But while the name may have changed, Portelli’s connection to Alzheimer’s Disease International (ADI) certainly hasn’t. If anything, it’s gotten bigger and stronger, and the lead single off his latest EP is proof of this.
Like Show Compassion before it, How the Times have Changed has been widely used to raise awareness about Alzheimer’s Disease. Further to this, Portelli’s decision to release it as a single was another initiative to help raise funds for ADI.
“How the Times have Changed is about the way I reacted when my father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s,” he explains. “It’s about the life my family and I are living today.”
But what was it that made him pick out this song in particular over the others? “A friend once told me, ‘you have songwriters who walk behind, beside or in front of a song, but the great songwriters are the song’. I think that’s when you capture that synchronicity of life and music coming together as one, and I believe I did that with How the Times have Changed.”
His affiliation with ADI has seen Portelli travel around the globe, performing his music while sharing his own experiences at ADI-related conferences and workshops. But what effect in the overall campaign does he feel his music has had?
“I believe it’s the little stones that create the most ripples. It really is just a song, but if everyone who hears it and is touched by it goes on to share it on their Facebook, the effect will be so much greater than the song itself, but underneath it all, it would have all started with just a song.”
Naturally, he would rather people bought it off iTunes instead of just sharing it. “The deal we have with iTunes is that 75 per cent of the money actually goes to the Alzheimer’s organisation in the territory it is sold, the rest goes to ADI, so it’s all going for a good cause.”
Meanwhile, Portelli is busy working on a new album that Malta and, lest I forget, Gozo will surely be hearing about once it’s in the can.
But in the meantime, there is a lot of work still to be done for ADI. The man is constantly on the go. “I’ve come to understand that music is a talent that has been given to me and I feel I must do something good with it – this is my way of dong it,” he concludes, before quickly adding, “and don’t forget to share my song on Facebook”.