Chatting up a storm with Claudia Balladelli, Senior Music Programmer at Mercury Lounge

Claudia

I had the pleasure of snagging some of Claudia’s precious time. Claudia is warm, open and always ready to smile, in other words, charming in every way. We sat at the local Bridgehead enjoying the last days of summer!

From São Paulo to Ottawa??? How did that happen?
I came to Ottawa in ’96 for three years to study English and have the experience of living in Canada. I ended up staying for four, took my citizenship, went to Australia for a year, then to Brazil where I stayed for four years. Then I got pregnant. I decided to come to Ottawa, on my own, and have my son here. That was 2005 and I have been living here since and going back to Brazil every year of course.

Why Ottawa?
I was living in São Paulo, a huge city with a huge population. I was really tired of spending three hours or more per day going to work and coming back. When I started exploring Canada and checking the cities I loved the look of Ottawa. I saw the Rideau Canal in the summer and in the winter, how many pathways we have where to ride your bike, the Gatineau Park and I thought “this is the place I want to be!” I wanted to be able to go from place to place by bike.

Street art in São Paulo

Street art in São Paulo

How long have you been working at Mercury Lounge?
I started working at Mercury in ’98. It was totally an accident. It was Canada Day, 10 p.m. and they called me because the person that was supposed to work the door never showed up. I said “no way it’s Canada Day” so they offered me double. I was like “What am I going to do I have never worked a door before?” “Just behave as if it is your own party. Make sure everyone is getting charged cover and have fun” so that’s what I did pretty much. And at the end of the night I got hired. I did a little bit of everything: coat check, bartender, etc. Then they opened an office and needed an office manager. I took it and managed payments, hiring, contracts, the parties a little bit of everything. Doing that I discovered that I really love doing promotions, dealing with artists, and planning the parties that we would book for them.

When I returned from Brazil I was rehired and from that point on I was doing just bookings. For the past ten years I have been managing the local, national and international bookings, djs or bands, and everything that surrounds that: contracts, the deal, hotel, poster, promotion, online, street and so on and so forth. We are a team. There are a few other girls that work with me and together we bring the parties alive.

How do you choose the acts you bring to Mercury?
I follow a mandate that has existed at Mercury  Lounge since day one. We were established in 1996 to bring ground-breaking acts, very underground, mainly DJs and live music, local, national or international, with focus on soul, funk, disco, Brazilian, Afro beats, Latin, house, Afro house, hip hop, reggae, dub etc. In the past three years we opened up a little more to Indie music.

We like to bring acts that we have never brought before but we also repeat a few because we are a very small and intimate club. It only fits a 140 people. Usually when the band or a DJ comes, and when they present themselves, they love the space; they love how intimate it is and how close we get. We take them for a great dinner, we show them around the city, the next day we take them for a nice breakfast, they get to be really close to us, it becomes a family affair. They usually really enjoy the experience so they make sure that every time they are passing and playing in Toronto or Montreal they let us know and we will repeat the act. Of course we try not to over do an act too many times so we are very careful with that.

You said you work from a list of possible acts for the year, how do you put the list together?
I have a wish list. Beginning of every year, Sara and I, she is the general manager and like a creative director, meet weekly and discuss the bookings, our creative juices come up with cool things to do. We also talk to legendary local DJs who have played at Mercury for a long time like Trevor Walker, Lance Baptiste, and we ask them “who do you see coming through, are there any special artists that you really wish to have at Mercury in the next year or so that we haven’t brought yet?”

We celebrate our anniversary in November. This year we are turning 19. We always bring at least one artist we never booked before. Last year was “Little” Louie Vega. It was a huge success and a huge effort. He is one of the biggest DJs in house music. The production was huge for a place that is so small. Only his DJ set up took over the entire stage area. He brings his own sound-man, mixer, and equipment because a lot of the things he asks you to rent Ottawa doesn’t even have. Almost every DJ set up is very similar, and this one was unique and immense. We packed Mercury with house music lovers, people who have been coming to the club for so many years, and people who were in disbelief that they were watching “Little” Louie Vega in such a small venue. So it was really cool and inspiring.

Disco Night at Mercury

Disco Night at Mercury

How do you stay inspired?
I try a little bit of everything. I love reading music magazines; my favorite is Wax Poetics out of Brooklyn, NY. They specialize in exactly what we bring to Mercury, underground music. They talk about new acts from all parts of the world that are going to be really hot in the next three years. It’s very cool, very fresh.

I also get inspired talking to local creative people: restaurant owners, other club owners, I love chatting with Adam and Natalie from Babylon, other parties that happen in Ottawa and around the world. The music scene is very small. Everyone knows everyone. And when you work for so long in the music industry like I have, you have friends in New York, Brooklyn, Tokyo, Sao Paulo, Rio, Melbourne. Everyone is connected to everyone. I love travelling and I get inspired in my travels. And my boss sends me to music conferences to watch, learn, take it all in and make new connections.

How does Mercury Lounge fit into Ottawa, how does Ottawa fit into what you are trying to do?
Music is present in our lives daily. I don’t do anything without music. Music speaks the language that we all understand. It doesn’t matter where you come from, where you live, through music you really connect. What Mercury does is bring music to unify the audience. Through music you bring good times, you bring inspiration to people, you bring hope. Mercury Lounge fits into Ottawa perfectly. It’s a city with a high level of musicians and artists for its size and a very thirsty audience. Ottawa has always needed places that ignite the soul with really cool live performances. With music, poetry, spoken word, anything goes in Ottawa. The more the city grows, the more it’s ready for new things.

Music speaks the language that we all understand. It doesn’t matter where you come from, where you live, through music you really connect.

You also collaborate with local festivals. Why?
Collaboration brings a bigger variety of acts and people. We have collaborated with the Ottawa International Jazz Festival for the past five years. It’s great because I get to sit with the programming Director, Petr Cancura, and we have great meetings with huge creativity levels. He is also a musician and knows so many incredible acts. We sit, talk about the dates and we both come up with different band ideas and then I go for them. It’s great for me to learn more. When we work with embassies it opens a new door, it attracts that certain community to our club. It is another level of collaboration that I really enjoy because I get to know that part of the world better, to meet more of those people, to experience more of their acts that I have never seen before or even heard of before.

What attracts you to this type of work, what does it fulfill for you?
Everything. It fulfills my soul. I absolutely love getting to know the artists, dealing, bargaining, explaining, talking about Ottawa, I am very proud when they finally come and see the city and go inside the club and understand the size of the club. It is very rare that a DJ or a band is going to play in such a small venue especially when they come from Tokyo, Paris, Melbourne, São Paulo. This little intimate venue is very special because the connection will be made no matter what. At the end of the show they have nowhere to hide, they have to pass by everyone in the audience and they will be touched, they will be hugged, they will be asked for autographs, it’s real contact.

[the artists] pass by everyone in the audience and they will be touched, they will be hugged, they will be asked for autographs, it’s real contact.

How do you balance your personal life and as a mother working in this industry?
The phase of getting drunk and crazy all the time is gone. Thank god. I am very healthy, I eat very healthy, I work out regularly, I feel good, energetic and strong and I am very lucky. Also my boss is incredible. He allows me to work from my home office from Monday to Friday. I have my little rules as well for example when my son comes from school to when he goes to bed I try not to open my laptop, I try not to not be connected with work, I concentrate on my beautiful domestic life. We cook, watch a movie, we do homework; we have dinner together, wash the dishes and get him ready for bed. Afterword if I feel like it I have my time so I can do work late in the night, it doesn’t even matter.

My best friends come from Mercury, my life is still Mercury

I go to Mercury twice a week, rarely three times. If you are 24/7 in a club it’s not going to be healthy. My best friends come from Mercury, my life is still Mercury but I try to have some nice meals made at home with friends, go to their place, do lots of activities with my son, we love riding bikes all the time, we love going for walks in Gatineau park, for ice cream, early dinner, and we love watching movies at home together, playing video games until late. Things like that and some activities outside of Mercury to be healthy and to see other things happening in the city.

What’s your next step?
We had the first Ottawa International Music Conference at the end of May this year. We are going to be doing this every year. We will bring panels, workshops and presenting talent. Next year it will be likely the first week of June. I am already starting to go back to that, and about once a week I separate my time to do just that and to start working slowly. Starting January I will be working heavy hours on that and we are going to have a lot of partners, co-presents, and collaborations, around Ottawa so that will be very interesting

We are working hard for Merc’s 19th anniversary month in November to present the best in DJ and Live performances, so stay tuned!

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