The Sideman: Stefano Intelisano


Stefano is a classically trained keyboardist from Pavia, Italy who moved to Austin, TX in his 20s to pursue a music career. He’s worked his way through very humble beginnings by living and working in a recording studio to making a name for himself in the music world.Stefano took full advantage of every opportunity that came his way, and through hard work, dedication, and a great attitude he’s made a career out of music. Stefano is a true musician who works all over Austin, tours constantly, and has worked with many impressive musicians such as David Grissom, Jason Mraz, and the BoDeans.

Stefano Intelisano

Sarah: How did you make it to the United States?

Stefano: I met this guy in Milan who lived in Austin, where he had a recording studio. I took the offer of coming to the US and working there and got to learn on the job. It was a process – I was working for not a whole lot of money but It gave me good experience and I made many contacts. It showed me the ropes of the studio environment and also of the live/touring one.

Sarah: How did you get into playing music?

Stefano: I studied classical music as a kid. A lot of kids in Italy play piano, and classical music is, obviously, a very strong foundation in Italy, but I started showing some inclination because I was picking up melodies at church as a little kid. My grandmother would take me and then when I would come home there was a little Bontempi Organ and I was playing the melodies by ear. I was around the age of 4. Then she bought me a piano and she would take me and my brother to piano lessons and I kept going.

I’m really good at Classical and I grew up in a very non-musical environment – You know, everyone here is like, “Oh my parents would always play The Beatles records or The Rolling Stones!”, there was none of that in my house. Then, of course, I was getting together with my friends and we would exchange tapes, and it was always music coming from here like the Blues, Fusion, R&B, Funk, so all this stuff was becoming attractive because you want to start playing bands as a teenager and impressing the girls, so that started taking over; we started forming bands. It was always a beautiful, safe, creative, fun, and social environment and that was a safety net, you know, in troubled times. My parents got divorced at that age, and music really started taking over at that time.

I got to a point at about 24 or 25 where I was also doing really well in architecture and industrial design, visual arts, and all this stuff, but I had to pick one because they were both really demanding. I came to the conclusion at some point, how do I want to spend my time in my life? Do I want to spend my time with these guys in a room doing projects in Milan, trying to be an architect? Or do I want to spend my time in a recording studio making music? It was pretty clear that making music was where I fit in the best, personality-wise, and that was the answer. I never fit in the Milan, architecture, social world of aperitivo. I don’t know, the musician environment always felt more of like a  family to me. I felt like I naturally fit into that lifestyle. And then the opportunity came for me to move to Austin, and I took it. I started redesigning my life here and I just kept going.

Sarah: Now you’re a full-time musician?

Stefano: Yes. I’m a sideman and what that means is that I’m not a songwriter, I don’t have my own band. I’ve always been good at working in the studio environment. I was living in a recording studio, so I was witnessing on a daily basis of what to do and what not to do. Not only musically, but also on a personal level. I learned all of the things you don’t learn in school, but through experience which is very important. Also, through being a sideman, I developed a versatility. It’s almost like being a psychologist, you have to deal with a songwriter or someone who’s developing a project and wants to incorporate you and your ideas, but who wants to make their music their own way. So, at the end of the day, you have to find a medium where everyone is happy, including you. That’s a challenge, a beautiful challenge. Then I started to make more of a name for myself in this town and people started to call me to work with them because I show up on time, I have a good attitude –

Sarah: It’s because you’re from the North of Italy that you show up on time!

Stefano: Actually, my father’s Sicilian, so I’m half and I’ve experienced both sides. I’ve seen the North and the South cultures clashing for sure! I actually, also, have a lot of friends from Rome here. So, I spent about 3 years touring, seeing all new places, thinking, “Wow, no Italian has ever been here!”, like Nebraska, South Dakota, you know, small music clubs in the middle of nowhere.

Sarah: What’s been your favorite place that you’ve seen here in the United States?

Stefano: It’s hard to say. I remember, one of the most beautiful things is when you experience a place for the first time, like open spaces. We’re not used to that in Italy. Like, driving from Utah to Colorado you see all of the mountains and open skies. I love California, Colorado, the Northeast being there in September/October and seeing all of the foliage. I’m in love with New York! I just don’t think I could live there. It’s nice to visit.

Sarah: So, if you were to move away from Austin, do you think you would move back to Italy?

Stefano: I’m thinking about L.A., I’ll tell you why –

Sarah: Dimmi (tell me)!

Stefano: There’s this thing after 15 years, where I developed all of adult life in the U.S., so I’m basically an American. My personality and my core values are still strongly Italian, but I don’t have any adult experience in Italy. So, there’s a part of me that wants to go back and experience adult life in Italy. But, based on what I hear in music, you wouldn’t be very valued. They don’t care that I played 15 years here with whomever, they would just be like, “Get in line”. It would be different if I were American because American musicians are very revered even when they suck. In Italy, they’re like, “Oh my god, you’re American and you play the blues?”, and the opposite’s true too, being Italian here.

Sarah: Yeah, correct me if I’m wrong, but I can see how here you would be highly considered, especially with such a strong Classical background, and maybe being Italian is kind of a novelty?

Stefano: Yeah! I’ve been playing gospel music at an African American church up North for 11 years, and that’s my most important gig. It’s shown me so much about their community and I’m kind of an adopted member now. I’ve always loved gospel music and I actually started playing at church in Italy. But, anyway, I had toured with a couple of bands in Italy that were from here and there’s this provincial attitude where they’re very excited about an American band coming into the club to meet them, and as soon as I open my mouth and they see that I’m Italian, they’re like, “Ok, can you carry this?” They’re not usually excited to talk to me because I’m just another guy from around the corner. So, that is very discouraging, and I’m not saying that everyone is like that. I’m probably still very interested in going back and trying, but I’ve had a few very high profile gigs here, like playing with Jason Mraz. I toured with him for two years. So, for now, I still want a shot at getting on some more of those tours and there’s really only two places in the U.S. where you have a shot and that’s L.A. and Nashville.

They always ask me, “What’s the biggest difference between living here and in Italy?”, and the answer is that in Italy we’re used to on the weekends getting in the car or on the train and within an hour or two (that’s a “long” trip in Italy) you can see a million things. Around every corner there’s lots of art, a little town here, a little town there. Here, forget about it. It’s just a different mindset. I bought a motorcycle; I’ve always been interested in them since I lived in Italy, and that gets me out.

Sarah: I’m assuming you’ve been to New Orleans.

Stefano: Yeah, I love New Orleans. I play a lot with Seth Walker, he’s a songwriter from here and I do a lot of touring with him, he lives in New Orleans now. New Orleans is nice, and it’s growing , it has a nice music scene, but, there’s not much around it.

Sarah: It’s a really awesome place to visit and it’s relatively close.

Stefano: You know, New Orleans has a little bit in common with Sicily. I spent all my summers in Sicily because I have a lot of relatives there and there’s an interesting mix of cultures there because it’s in the Mediterranean so you have Spanish, Middle Eastern, Eastern European, Turkey and Greece are right there, and it’s a place that’s been very unstable and hard to govern, because everyone wants to overtake it. But there’s the most beautiful combination of flavors of food, of music, and everything because everything is cultural, passionate and dramatic. New Orleans is a little bit like that. It has culture from the Caribbean, the history of slavery, the swamps, the French. You can feel that sensation when you go there and the voodoo culture.

Sarah: Yes, it’s a very palpable sensation, unlike any other city I’ve been to; very intense and heavy. But, I absolutely love it.

Stefano: I remember, I went once right after Katrina with Seth Walker, and we had a few gigs around town. We ended up getting lost in the lower 9th Ward at night. One of the cab drivers told us, “I don’t know how you made it out of there alive because you could have been mugged in a second!” It’s a dangerous and spooky place.

Sarah: What was your defining moment as a musician?

Stefano: There’s the best and the worst; the best was when I played for the first time in front of a hundred thousand people. Which you feel like you’re on top of the world. There’s one very visceral feeling, which is this: You’re about to go on, and there’s an ocean full of people already cheering, then you go on and the band comes out on stage and there’s a bunch of screaming from a hundred thousand people who are looking at you. Then, Jason Mraz, the artist comes out, and it’s 10 times as loud and it’s just a rumble, and for the first few moments when you kick into the first song, you can’t hear anything. That feeling is indescribable. It’s really amazing; it’s a big hug from a hundred thousand people.

The worst is being broke, losing your work visa, having no plans, no place to live, and only having only $300 in your bank account, and having to come up with something just to stay here. Or being sent home after an audition that you put so much time and money into it and no one paid you, then you’re canned. I had one of those in L.A., Burbank, and besides the way that it went down, it taught me a lot about the music business that you’re just a number, and there’s no personal respect. I remember taking the plane coming home feeling defeated and it was during SxSw, so there were all these young guys with their gear, packing the plane, going to the festival, and they’re all, “Are you going to Austin for the festival?”, and I was like, “Don’t fucking talk to me.”

So, there are always ups and downs which teach you a lot and put things into perspective. Playing in front of 100 thousand people was my dream and now my goals have changed at 40 years old because I’ve done that. I’ve seen, also, that it’s not the most important thing in life. There are other things that are important that I value. I still want to do that, don’t get me wrong, but I don’t necessarily have to have it. Now, I want to make sure, before I jump on a gig, that the person I work with is a good person. I want to work with someone who values me as a person. Bands are much very much like relationships and I want to make sure that the time we spend together is valued that they are a good person.

Sarah: Do you see that the changes in Austin are good from your perspective as a musician because I’ve read a lot of things recently that state how difficult it’s becoming for musicians to sustain a lifestyle here.

Stefano: I don’t want to be too nostalgic with change. I don’t like the perspective of, “Poor us, we can’t pay rent!” I don’t like that, because a lot of musicians here are like, “I’m a musician and I’m entitled because I make music and you have to give me this and that.” No, you have to earn it, because it’s a harsh place for you and for everyone else. Most people need to have a job and only play on the weekends.

Sarah: That’s true; most people are having a difficult time living here. What do you do outside of music, like hobbies or different creative pursuits?

Stefano: Motorcycles and sport bikes. Not Harleys but sport bikes. I wish I could dedicate more time to that. I would go to the track and race. It’s an expensive hobby, though. So, I just take the bike and go on little trips to, like West Texas. The beauty here is getting out because there’s nothing. You just turn off your motorcycle and there’s just silence. That’s really where you see Texas; it’s beautiful and wild.

Sarah: Do you have a creative process when it comes to making music? A ritual?

Stefano: Yes, when I’ve occasionally produced a record, it’s the most creative you can be in the process of shaping someone else’s music and understanding what they want. It’s really like counseling because you have to understand what they really want and what they like and try to shape it. I have to put together a team of musicians that work together well, personality-wise, and that can fit into the picture. When you’re in the recording studio, most of the time it’s because you’ve been booked for a session. They’ve called you for a reason; you’re on time and you’re pleasant to be around. These two are probably, almost more important than talent. Of course, you have to be able to deliver and be quick at making decisions. For example, you don’t always have the luxury of getting the music before a session to learn. So, you have to be able to assess the situation and act wisely. Try to not overthink and do it all within 3 takes. If it takes longer than that, you’re probably overthinking it. There are also some clients who want to change everything and you have to be able to work with that and not lose your shit. I don’t have any degrees or anything like that; all of my experience is on the job. Also, do not take a job just because of the money. It never pays off if you hate being there, you hate the music, and the people; you just become miserable.

Sarah: Do you make music on your own?

Stefano: Yes, I have an instrumental band, A is Red (best instrumental band in Austin by the Chronical), it’s a mix of soundscape and dreamy soundtrack music. It’s got a mix of Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, and jazz. It’s me and a drummer Don Harvey who’s been around here for a long time, and he’s from Israel. So, there’s that kind of influence. It’s the only kind of creative thing where I have an active role and it’s my band. I wouldn’t be able to make a living off of it, though. There’s a band named the BoDeans who I’ve toured with for a long time. They’re big in the Midwest. David Grissom is another big one. He started with John Mellencamp and the Joe Ely. He’s one that’s been there and knows what I’m going through as a sideman. He has his own project now and I learn a lot from him.

Stefano Intelisano Website

Stefano Intelisano Facebook

A is Red Facebook

Stefano’s sweet playlist for your listening pleasure!




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