Giolì & Assia: “This album really is a statement from us”
Creative independence, musical authenticity, and music in remote places – the Italian dance duo on how they got here and where they’re going next.
On the shore of a frozen lagoon, against a paper-white sky, Assia Nania and Giorgia ‘Giolì’ Lipari are playing their songs and dancing. Their only seeming companions are the instruments arrayed before them: a set of turntables, an upright piano, handpan, and drumkit. The pair move from instrument to instrument, coaxing out crystalline melodies, rich harmonies, and pulsing rhythms – a perfect counterpoint to the icy stillness of the surrounding landscape.
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It’s a stark, almost hypnotic image, but for their fans around the world, this is not an unfamiliar sight. In fact, Giolì & Assia, the Sicilian songwriters, DJs and multi-instrumentalists, make a habit of playing their music in the inspiring natural landscapes. Their hugely popular #DiesisLive concert series has racked up millions of views on YouTube and their distinctive, genre-bending sound and conspicuous use of acoustic instruments in the studio and on stage have made them a favourite of electronic music aficionados.
Their new album Fire, Hell and Holy Water is their boldest yet, pulling no punches and establishing a musical niche that is all their own. As Assia puts it: “This is the first body of work that really represents us.”
Many fans first encountered the duo in 2018 with the release of their debut album, Istantanee. But Giolì and Assia’s musical journey began four years earlier when their paths crossed on social media.
At that time, Assia was working as a booking agent and Giolì, at her parents urging, was on the cusp of commencing a degree in music engineering at the University of Cambridge. After coming across a Facebook video of Giolì playing the drums, Assia immediately reached out to learn more about the young musician. From that initial contact, a creative and romantic connection naturally followed and, after only a couple of months in England, Giolì withdrew from her studies and returned to Italy to begin dating, working, and living together with Assia.
“We were so creative,” Assia recalls of those early years. “Imagine two girls in love, at the very beginning of the relationship, making art and going around playing music. It really was like a movie.”
A talented multi-instrumentalist, Giolì originally pursued a solo career with Assia booking her a series of gigs and encouraging her to learn how to DJ. However, as the pair travelled alongside one another it became increasingly clear that they had a remarkable musical chemistry, as well as a romantic one. By 2017, they had officially formed a duo; their combined song-writing skills finding the perfect vehicle in Assia’s ethereal vocals and Giolì’s percussive playing style.
In conversation with Assia and Giolì, it’s clear one of their creative strengths is in the contrasting viewpoints they each bring to the table, and their ability to find a harmonious middle ground. “We are a duality,” Giolì says with a laugh.
“For example,” Assia jumps in. “If we’re making a song and there’s an instrument I don’t like or something she doesn’t like, we find our way to something perfect, and when we get it, it’s like magic.” The ability to embrace their duality, and to harness and focus the creative sparks it creates, is an essential ingredient in the sound and lyrical style of Giolì & Assia – nowhere is this truer than on their latest release.
Taking its title from a common Sicilian saying, Fire, Hell and Holy Water is a passionate exploration of light and dark, love and loss, and perseverance through adversity. Their first album in four years, the album’s 16 tracks have a conceptual scope and lyrical maturity beyond anything the pair have previously released.
Written on the back of their 2021 US tour, Assia and Giolì say the preceding years of COVID-19 lockdowns, separation from one another, and turbulence within their families left them desiring a new level of authenticity in their songs. “We were not satisfied with the music that we had on the DSPs (digital streaming platforms),” says Giolì. “They were cool, but they didn’t describe who we were.”
Over a two-month writing session, the pair drew inspiration not only from the personal and professional challenges they’d overcome, but from ancient Greek mythology and existentialist philosophy. The result is a lush and immersive collection of songs that frequently dive into the darker areas of the human mind. Yet despite the sometimes bleak subject matter, each song is shot through with a hopeful edge; a ray of light leading the listener back to the surface. “Before this album,” Giolì says, “We never wrote lyrics that were so full of meaning or concepts, but this time we really wanted to tell people what we think.”
A huge driving force behind Assia and Giolì’s’ rising global popularity has been the #DiesesLive concerts. With previous performances at locations such as Cavo Paradiso in Mykonos, Greece and the Etna Volcano in Sicily, the pair wanted to accompany the release of Fire, Hell and Holy Water with a location that raised the bar even higher.
“I was saying ‘this album is so good, we have to go to a crazy place to make the videos,’” recalls Giolì. “And Assia was like, ‘what do you have in mind? Mexico? Maldives?’ Unfortunately, no, my idea was a little bit colder.”
Determined to find a location that stayed true to the essence of the new album, they set off for the harsh but beautiful landscape of Iceland. Trekking out to their first filming location at the Fjallsarlon Glacier Lagoon, Assia, Giolì and their long-time team of collaborators worked through the night assembling their instruments and setting up equipment so they could be ready to start playing at sunrise. “We’re very grateful for our team,” Giolì says. “They are crazy people, just like us”.
The results are stunning. In one of their sets, filmed at Fagradalsfjall Volcano, you can almost forget the practical difficulties of playing a live set on the literal edge of scorched, volcanic rock. Amongst jaw-dropping footage of the smouldering volcano, you see both women dressed in glossy red trench coats the sheen molten lava, their music bold and defying, imparting a strength that matches the power of the landscape surrounding them.
As Giolì explains, realising such an ambitious musical project would not have been possible without trust and experience built up over a period of years. “We started from zero with a very low budget and it’s been very cool for us to grow with the team.
“It’s something that people can see through the years, through each video” Assia adds. “You can really feel the growth of the team, of the ideas, the production, everything.”
Of course, filming in Iceland is no small undertaking and the elements were frequently unforgiving. While performing their first set, the pair say they were soaked by rain, close to freezing, and battling wind strong enough to topple over the drum kit and force them to start the shoot over.
“In between one of the takes, Assia was like ‘I hate you! Why are we here? We could have been in Mexico!” laughs Giolì.
Despite the harsh realities of the environment, the pair say the location was vital to the true intent of the music. As Assia explains, “Iceland perfectly represents the journey of the album because it’s so raw, so pure, so energetic and emotional. It was really hard work, a huge effort, but once you stop and really realise where we are and what the hell are we doing, it’s the most amazing feeling ever,” says Assia.
A Project like #DiesisLive is possible largely thanks to the independence and creative control that Assia and Giolì have maintained over the years. In 2016 they formed their own record label, Diesis Records and, when asked what prompted this decision so early in their career, Giolì replies: “The reason we founded our own label is very simple: nobody wanted our music. We were making songs and we were being told ‘no’.”
“When we decided to make the label,” Giolì continues. “We designed the logo, and we opened the website right then, that same night. We are a powerful couple because if there’s something we don’t know how to do, we will learn it. That’s why I edit the videos, and she does the colour production, or does the website. We’ve always been very self-sufficient.”
That DIY ethos is partly a result of their own intellectual curiosity, and partly a direct response to being female musicians in an industry, and genre, that has had historical gender imbalances. When Assia and Giolì tried to work with external managers in the past, the results were less than satisfactory.
“In 2018, we had management,” recalls Giolì. “This person wanted us to use lyrics from other people, and perform these lyrics all about boys and love, and it’s like, ‘you know that we are gay!’”
“It’s key to not get lost in the music industry,” agrees Assia. “Because it’s so easy to get pulled into stuff that does not represent you, or what you are really doing. It’s not real. You have to at least be proud of the things you make.”
Asked whether they feel the music industry and electronic music is making progress on the issue of gender representation, their responses are mixed. “I don’t know if it’s positive,” replies Assia. “Because if you have to talk about something, it already feels like a problem. In general, if you think about producers, artists, DJs, on the female side there’s still such a low percentage.”
Giolì gives a contrasting view: “I think we are making some good progress, and some of the change is coming directly from the music industry. For example, we took part in a very nice project from Spotify called EQUAL. Every month, there’s a female ambassador for each country, they are promoting a playlist with all these female producers, and their image goes up on a billboard in Times Square. We were very grateful to be chosen by Spotify to represent Italy for the month of August.”
Given their savvy social media presence and hands on approach technology, it might surprise some that Assia and Giolì are not entirely impressed with the platform that is fast becoming a dominant force in the music industry, TikTok. “The first thing people say to us is ‘do you think this could be a TikTok viral song?’” Giolì says. “Honestly, we don’t really think about TikTok, we don’t want to.”
Their chief concern with the platform is the incentive it creates for ever shorter song structures. “The most negative part of TikTok,” says Assia, “is music becoming something like a commercial; 30 seconds, very fast, very passive, and people don’t have the patience to listen to a full song anymore.”
“Really, this is why we did this album,” agrees Giolì. “Our inspiration is more Ludovico Einaudi, or a Pink Floyd song where you have a ten-minute intro. I mean, our album is not that long, but in 2022 if you’re making a song longer than two and half minutes, people will tell you it’s too long, but we fought to make our songs longer.”
“However,” concludes Assia. “When you think about TikTok as a way to help people – for example, the LGBTQ community – a lot of Gen Z people are living much more freely right now because they have that space. So, there is a negative side and a positive side.”
With two more videos from the #DiesisLive Iceland performances yet to be released, and assurances that they have saved the best for last, Assia and Giolì are rounding out 2022 with their eyes set on the future. They’ll soon be announcing a European and North American tour, their very first tour of Latin America, and a behind the scenes documentary of the making of the album and of their trip to Iceland.
“We don’t have limits on our ambition,” says Giolì when asked how they keep up with the demands of a 21st century music career. “Whether it’s the goal of making our label stronger, or growing Diesis as a clothing brand…”
“There are a lot of projects in the making,” interjects Assia. “I‘ve always been a fan of learning and being curious in anything and everything, and I’m like a workaholic – so, she has to stop me sometimes.” As Gioli & Assia talk of their plans to take on the world, what’s abundantly clear is just how much joy the pair find in their combined pursuits. It seems that as long as you have the right person at your back, the journey can be fun, no matter how far the destination.
“We were very lucky to find each other,” says Giolì. “It was so funny when we moved in together the first time and it was like, ‘wow, we love the same things, we can just do what we love all the time.’ I realised that I kind of married my best friend.”
Gioli & Assia’s latest album Fire, Hell and Holy Water is out now.
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