The London-based trio sit down with Document to discuss their meteoric rise, songwriting process, and the ‘je ne sais quois’ of fame
A lot has been made in interviews about the ‘mysteriousness’ of Bar Italia, mainly because they’ve only just started giving interviews despite having—in the three years since they started releasing music—all the trappings of a hyper-successful band: four critically acclaimed albums, sold out shows around Europe and the US, ardent and obsessive Reddit threads, and various newspapers and magazines labeling them ‘ones to watch,’ and even ‘band of the year.’
But Bar Italia aren’t cryptic, at least not as people. When I called the London-based trio (composed of Sam Fenton, Jezmi Tarik Fehmi and Nina Cristante) backstage before their Boston show, they were only affable and candid.
If there’s anything mysterious about them, it’s what is always mysterious about artists whose work is almost instantly adored: How do they do it?
Prior to forming Bar Italia, Fenton and Fehmi were in a band called Double Virgo, and Cristante had a solo project called Nina. Already friends, they started playing together during the lockdowns of 2020, and instantly found a synergetic sound. Their first album, Quarrel, was released on Dean Blunt and Inga Copeland’s World Music label that year. It quickly generated interest, which only continued to grow with the release of Bedhead (2021), Tracy Denim (2023) and, six months later, The Twits.
I first heard about Bar Italia in New York; a friend told me about them over dinner. Within an hour, I overheard someone speaking about them at the next table over. At a sold out gig at The Village Underground in London just one year later, I stood in an audience buzzing with anticipation for their arrival. The age disparity amongst the crowd was striking: there were teenagers alongside a sea of people ranging from twenty-something to fifty-something. The impressively vast hype around Bar Italia is, obviously, a product of their music; but it’s harder to pinpoint what exactly it is about the music that’s so implacable. Maybe it’s the immediacy of their guitar heavy sound, simultaneously convulsive and wilting with equal parts raw urgency, and dreamlike wooziness. Maybe it’s the incongruity of their voices—Christine’s is flat and wispy; Fenton’s boyish and mellifluous; and Fehmi’s a sonorous, Frankenstein-like croon. It could be the timeless subject matter of their lyrics—about loneliness, mostly, and the ways we both manage and mismanage it—or the modern, layered quality of their instrumentation .
As the trio tell us in our conversation below, they don’t know the answer to their sudden appeal either; but as long as they keep making music, does it matter? Bar Italia can keep doing interviews and we can keep calling them mysterious. Some questions are better left unanswered anyway.
“We were just mucking around, it wasn’t really a conscious thing. For quite a long period, it was just song by song.”
Mary Cleary: Has touring this new album, The Twits, felt different from your previous venture with Tracy Denim?
Sam Fenton: Yeah, the songs just sit quite differently live than [before].
Nina Cristante: We’re also touring our latest album. When we toured Tracy [in the states], we had already written The Twits.
We wrote The Twits [from] February to March, and then we came to the states in the summer. So, we knew that there was this other album already happening. I think that changed things for me, at least.
Mary: Did you find any new sounds in Twits that are different from the classic Bar Italia sound? If so, was that a conscious choice?
Sam: It is very different. Maybe there’s a similar harmonic continuity or something, but [developing the sound of The Twits] was an organic process. We weren’t trying to make something particularly different, it just naturally was.
Mary: What about when you first started Bar Italia? Did you have a concept for the sound you wanted to create?
Jezmi Fehmi: We were just mucking around, it wasn’t really a conscious thing. For quite a long period, it was just song by song.
Mary: You’ve all had musical projects before Bar Italia, but this one seems to have taken off so quickly, and hit people so hard. What do you think it is about this band that really resonates with people?
Nina: I understand that question, but I find it really hard to answer. I feel like when you’re within a project, you don’t exactly know. [Pauses]. Actually, I can put it in some context.
On the one side we had World Music, which definitely helped us gain visibility quite quickly because there’s a certain type of people that listen to World Music. So, that puts us on a certain radar, but obviously that wasn’t the only thing because, World Music has a few projects within itself and ours definitely took off in a slightly different way. I think it’s quite hard, at least for me, to know exactly why [we’re so well received], because I’m within it.
Mary: I think it’s hard to tell from the outside as well. When I saw you play at the Village Underground a few weeks ago, it was such a varied crowd, and there was such energy and excitement amongst them. Clearly, you’re appealing to a wide range of people in a very visceral way. Obviously, there’s your music, but it feels like there’s something else going on. It’s hard to tell what.
Jezmi: I mean, there’s a skill in that [anonymity]. It’s why record companies spend so much money trying to find something that will ‘happen’—so many times it fails. God knows why we’ve been so successful, so quickly. It’s a dark art trying to guess that.
Sam: Also, it’s not really clear to us how successful we are until we play certain shows. We’re still like, What is going on?
Mary: Now that you have that sense of success, do you feel like there’s more pressure on you? Does it make it harder to create?
Jezmi: If you think about it too much. But I’m also interested in the [historical] moments in music where people make great albums under immense pressure.
Sam: Yeah, it makes you ambitious as well.
Nina: Ultimately, I think it doesn’t really matter. I don’t think it’s good to think about [pressure] a lot, which is why we probably don’t have that much to say around that. We’re just doing what we’re doing, and experiencing it with other people [from a stage].
Mary: You’re obviously prolific, having released Tracy Denim earlier this year and The Twits only six months later—your speed makes me wonder about your creative process. Are you exacting about everything you create, or are you a bit looser? Is it more important to get the project out there and move on to the next thing, or would you rather tinker with it a bit more?
Jezmi: [We’re] definitely not looking at things to be perfect. And [everyone] has a different version of what’s perfect.
Nina: I think we have urgency. But I also think that we’re very good when one of us wants to rush something, we’re quite good at just slowing the process down. I guess that’s why you make music with other people: you find little holes in your own process, and those holes are filled in by other people. I think that’s what we’re doing. So, what you’re receiving is three people just kind of pushing and pulling, as well as connecting. That’s what makes [our sound] refined but, to an extent, urgent.
“It’s crazy what’s happening [for us] already, all the gigs we’re doing. And it does hit you at times, but it’s also really easy to just start finding it all normal, because it is.”
Mary: You each sing your own sections within the songs. Do you write your own lyrics for the sections that you sing? How does that work?
Nina: We all write our own things. Obviously, if someone puts vocals first, sometimes that inspires other people.
Mary: So, when you’re creating a song, is it usually that one person will come to a session with an idea— maybe some lyrics—and then you progressively build it together from there?
Nina: That changes a lot. Sometimes Sam and Jezmi will [start] on the guitars riffing together. I’ll maybe be writing [lyrics]. Sometimes, [we work from] a loop of something that needs to be recorded, or that already is recorded. It just changes every time, but it’s usually layered, especially with The Twits.
Mary: Has there ever been a song where you felt like you really hit on something distinctly Bar Italia?
Sam: I think the first song [we wrote together] immediately had a sound. There were a few trash songs that we made that we just dropped off. But very, very quickly, there was a really distinctive sound. So, [I would say] it just naturally developed from the beginning. We’ve never really gone through a distinct phase; we just move from one thing to another [as we please].
“The only way you can get into a rhythm is to tune out a bit as well. You can’t be paying attention to every single thing.”
Mary: Do you think about what you want for the future of the band?
Sam: You think about it in a weird, nuanced way maybe. You’ve no idea what could happen, so you can imagine things that might happen. A weird thing I always experience [when thinking] about the future is just knowing that no matter what, you’re going to end up normalizing whatever situation [you’re in], and then you have to try not to take things for granted. Because it’s crazy what’s happening [for us] already, all the gigs we’re doing. And it does hit you at times, but it’s also really easy to just start finding it all normal, because it is.
Mary: I imagine especially when you’re touring, it’s just so mad going from city to city—seeing all these people without any time to stop—and you have to get into the rhythm of it really quickly.
Sam: That is true. If you try to bring a different rhythm to that, it doesn’t really work. But if you actually lean into it, and enjoy that specific way of living and moving around, there’s something quite deep about that.
Jezmi: The only way you can get into a rhythm is to tune out a bit as well. You can’t be paying attention to every single thing.
Sam: … Or you’d just get saturated and go crazy.
Jezmi: You feel distant at times. I feel distant. I don’t feel a huge connection to every city. You can’t play a gig every single day, and feel as connected each day. That’s the sad reality about it.
Mary: Is there anything that jolts you out of that feeling of distance?
Jezmi: The one thing is always someone saying ‘I listened to your work.’ That jolts me out of it.
Nina: I think one thing that draws me back into connection is actually—it’s going to sound a bit corny—but it’s a connection and love with the people that you’re traveling with. That really warms me, and makes me feel [more] present with what’s going on. Unfortunately, way more than when I’m with someone I don’t know. I haven’t found a way to fully connect to that yet, because it’s still quite abstract for me.