Magda Giannikou: Journeys of Mind and Body
There are those who are struck early by wanderlust. Singer-songwriter and world traveler Magda Giannikou has always craved and embraced the unknown.
Magda Giannikou is an internationally renowned musician and songwriter. An accomplished pianist and accordionist, she sings in six languages and draws from a wide range of musical influences, including samba, cumbia, Greek folk, and French chansons.
Born in Athens, Greece, in 1981, Giannikou graduated from the National Conservatory of Greece and attended the Philippos Nakas Conservatory in Athens. She studied classical piano, production, and film composition at Berklee College of Music. In 2010, she formed Banda Magda, a group of musicians from eight different nations. The band has toured to over twenty countries and released three albums. Their 2013 record Amour, t’es la? reached the top 10 on Billboard’s world music chart.
Giannikou has also written music for film and TV, including the acclaimed FX comedy series Louie. She is director of the master of music in contemporary performance at Berklee’s campus in Valencia, Spain.
Magda Giannikou spends her life wandering the world but sees it differently from you or me, thanks to a condition called grapheme-color synesthesia which makes her associate words with colors and sounds.
Magda Giannikou: I see a song before I write it.
This acute sensitivity is why Banda Magda’s 2017 album, Tigre, took three years to complete.
Giannikou: Whenever the instrumentation or the arrangement wandered off the color, the color would become gray. So in the mixing session, if you lowered an instrument, the color changes for me. Crazy, but true. So every note has a color, and every chord has a color. C major chord is red, and D is pink.
AJC: And is middle C also red?
Giannikou: It’s also red, but the viola C is a little darker and the cello C is a little darker, so it has fluctuations.
AJC: Do you feel like vomiting when you hear an orchestra tuning?
Magda makes multilingual music that reflects her wide-ranging interests, borrowing elements from, among others, South American cumbia, Greek folk, and French chansons. It all began when her parents kicked her out and sent her to Berklee.
Giannikou: They kind of, like, “Go away. You go do this now.” They knew that this, that there was a certain kind of calling, and I had a little crisis at that age—21, 22, 23—and I was seriously thinking about doing something more, either teaching or, like, getting a musical job that didn’t have as much kind of, like, ambition. I wasn’t very motivated. I wasn’t very inspired. And then at that point my parents, they forced me to go to Berklee. They’re awesome. They knew, they knew.
AJC: They knew. And what do they think now?
Giannikou: I mean, after a week of being there, I just discovered myself. I completely found the place where I belong.
At Berklee, she would study classical piano and film composition, and she was good, becoming a Sundance Fellow in 2009. But the urge to lead a band would soon become irresistible.
Giannikou: We would go and see gigs of, like, friends and at school, like playing in restaurants and bars, and I was like, “Oh, I dunno, this is fun. This should be so much fun.” And so, I needed to find a way to do it. So, I mean, I was a classical pianist at Berklee, so it was hard to really play because I didn’t have those jazz chops as much, even though I tried. So at some point, I went back home and I found the accordion of my grandmother who was a teacher. I was like, “Ah, I’m just gonna bring it back to school and see what happens.” And I was the only one. So musicians saw this and it was a new sound. Nobody was using it. So I started learning and suddenly everybody wanted me to be in their project or play in their band. I kind of sneaked in the live music scene through the accordion. And then at some point I was like, “Maybe I wanna write some songs,” and I had never written a song ever. So I took a lyric-writing class. And because I was so shy about my lyrics, I was afraid of the embarrassment, or, you know, ’cause it’s different. In music, you can interpret it. A lyric is just… It has to be really good, you know?
Greek by birth and a polyglot by choice, today, Magda sings in six languages. But don’t ask her to write a dissertation in all of them.
Giannikou: There are some languages that I’m fluent, like French, for example, and Spanish, I can communicate. And then there are some languages where I can hang, and that’s Japanese and Portuguese. Portuguese, I can talk with songs.
Her first song in Portuguese was a co-effort with a native speaker.
Giannikou: The song is called “Coração” which means “heart,” and it talks about the fluctuations of the heart, and particularly mine because it does that a lot. I’m a very emotional person. My mood can change quite fast and I can be sunny, and then I will be, not dark, but it just changes all the time. Whatever the environment feeds me, I just take it in and it changes me. And for some people, some people that are part of my life, this appears to be a problem. It doesn’t affect them as much, but they just worry about it and they think that it’s something that should be fixed. And that’s a song that says that I don’t agree with you. I don’t think I should fix it. I think that’s what makes me me.
Magda’s world is a vibrant swirl of color, music, and motion, but though wanderlust has served her creatively, she says she’s now looking forward to settling down.
Giannikou: I would like to have a companion at some point. I mean, the alone life of traveling and being on the road all the time, and having this dedication and passion for my work, it’s all good but I want a home too.
In the meantime, Magda will continue creating home wherever she goes.