In Madonna Tassi's care, a song is more than a vivid scene or well-told story -- it is an emotional event, something to mark a lasting place in the heart. She achieves this magic with a sensitive ear and an agile voice that can shift effortlessly from an intimate whisper to an operatic declaration.
A highly regarded vocalist and songwriter in her native Canada, Tassi is now making her bow to American audiences with Man Of My Dreams, her first album for IMMI Records. It is an incandescent collection of songs both new and classic, including the evergreens "Break It To Me Gently," "True Love Ways," "Paper Roses" and "Where The Boys Are."
Tassi penned five of the tunes, among them the exuberant title cut and the sweetly soulful "My Mother," which is the album's lead single. Guiding her through three of the songs here is the legendary Norro Wilson, the studio mentor to such superstars as John Anderson, Shania Twain, Reba McEntire and Kenny Chesney. Canadian producer and songwriter Antonio Pulsone masterminded the remaining cuts.
Madonna Hagerty was born in Newfoundland, the youngest in a family of 15 children. When she was five years old, she began singing with her family group at local shows. While she and her brothers and sisters had their own musical preferences, the family performed country music, often songs made famous by such smooth vocal stylists as Jim Reeves, Connie Francis and the Everly Brothers. Madonna was particularly drawn to the music of Francis, Brenda Lee, Barbra Streisand and, much later, Whitney Houston.
As Tassi was approaching her teens, she and her family moved to Labrador, where her father found work at the mammoth American air force base. There was a British base there, too, which meant there were lots of clubs and bars to keep the troops diverted. At 13, Tassi took a job as lead vocalist with a local band, one that did mostly pop tunes. "It was a natural thing for me to do," she recalls, although she concedes that her parents had some reservations about her work. Before long, the band had built a following. "One thing would lead to another," Tassi says. "You would do a gig and they would like you. Then another club would hear about you and hire you."
At around 18, Tassi relocated to Ontario, where she entered and won a live talent show. Seated in the audience during that show was a producer who specialized in jingles and commercials. He invited Tassi to sing for him. She found this subspecies of music an ideal training ground, given her vocal versatility and increasingly eclectic tastes. Over the next dozen years, she recorded national commercials for such companies as Colgate and Pizza Pizza and countless local ones for malls, car lots and government agencies. "I really cut my teeth doing that," she reflects. "You have to sell a product in a few seconds with just your voice. I loved that challenge."
During this period, Tassi married and started a family. "It was around this time," she says, "that I began thinking that I'd love to have my own recording career." But since music publishers tend to keep their best material for established artists, she had difficulty finding good songs to record. And so, in the late 1980s, she began writing her own. One of her early efforts was "My Heart's An Open Invitation." Released as a single and then as a music video, the song earned significant airplay throughout Canada.
In the late 1990s, Arista Records, the home of Alan Jackson, Brooks & Dunn and fellow Canadian Michelle Wright, summoned Tassi to Nashville for auditions. For a while, her prospects looked rosy. But this was an especially turbulent time for country labels, and the deal never came through.
Tassi admits she was heartbroken when she returned to Canada without her dreamed-of recording contract. But there was a silver lining waiting for her. She met producer and songwriter Antonio Pulsone, who was charmed by her music. "He heard what I heard," she beams. They have been working together ever since. Eventually, they formed an 11-piece band to back Tassi and began doing public shows and large corporate galas.
As Tassišs reputation blossomed in and around Toronto, a prominent local couple asked her to sing at their wedding. They were so impressed by her performance that they offered to set up a company to promote her career. Thus was born Destiny Music. The couple, as it turned out, were friends of Lisa Starbuck, president of Knoxville, Tennessee-based IMMI Records, a label that had country soul singer Con Hunley on its roster. When Starbuck heard Tassišs revved-up rock version of "Rocky Top" on a visit to Canada, she quickly signed her to IMMI.
There was no question but that Pulsone would oversee the recording of Tassi's debut album for IMMI. Indeed, he cut most of her tracks at the Metalworks Studios just outside Toronto. But it seemed a good idea to bring in a first-rate American producer for the project as well. Since Norro Wilson had produced many hits for Hunley, Tassi decided to approach him, even though he had already announced he was retiring from the music business. At first, Wilson rebuffed her. Then he heard her demo recording of "My Mother," and that was enough to lure him back into the studio.
"I just couldnšt believe he agreed to do this," Tassi marvels. "He had just finished co-producing Rebašs album. In the back of my mind I was thinking, 'This is too good to be true.'" She describes working in the studio with Wilson as "beyond magical" and adds, "It was the first time I had recorded in Nashville. It was so smooth, and everything went so great."
Wilson, who's a member of the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, urged Tassi to keep her eye out for "songs that are strong and havenšt been around for a while." Acting on this advice, she rifled through her own best memories and came up with such "rich, melodic" personal favorites as "True Love Ways," "Paper Roses" and "Where The Boys Are" (the last a tip of the hat to Connie Francis). "The beauty of this album," says Tassi, "is that I got to do some of the older songs that I love." She describes "Break It To Me Gently," a 1982 hit for Juice Newton, as "one of those meat-and-potatoes songs that you just sink your teeth into."
But it is the newer songs that enable Tassi to shine entirely with her own light. And this she does, whether itšs through the heartbreakingly candid "Here's Hopin'" or the straight-from-the-'50s, fiddles-and-steel shuffle of "Who's That Girl." She can be dreamy and seductive, as in "Turn Up The Radio," or majestically pious, as in "The Lord Is My Shepherd." Tassi covers all the emotional bases with utter conviction.
"I'm proud of this album," Tassi says. "It's my way of having a conversation with the world." To that luminous roll of world-class Canadian vocalists that reaches from Anne Murray to Celine Dion, now add the name Madonna Tassi.