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29 August 2019

There is no such thing as too much money or too many friends. Interview with Grigory Leps

This is not your first performance at a Roscongress event. What songs get the best response from business audiences?

Business people are just like everybody else. Usually they enjoy what regular people in our country enjoy: Ya Schastlivy (I Am Happy), Samy Luchshy Den (The Best Day), Ryumka Vodki (A Shot of Vodka).

If there’s a request for a song from the audience, will you go for it?

I’d rather know in advance. There are songs I don’t perform anymore, and I would need to refresh my memory. Being a person who either delivers or just won’t take the job, I need to be prepared. I really hope I’ll be able to sing the Russian anthem, which I once did at Russia Day celebrations. I made the arrangement myself and recorded it. I believe it turned out alright, and it’s my take on it. Melody- wise, I stuck with the original and just came up with a rock version. Two guys play the drums: one is American, the other is Ukrainian, which bears a certain symbolic meaning.

How important is the quality of recording and arrangement for you?

I am very particular about the sound. Chris Lorde-Alge, a three-times Grammy winning mix engineer, worked on a number of my albums in Los Angeles. We recorded the TyChegoTakoiSeryozny (WhyAreYouSoSerious) album with Soren Andersen in Copenhagen. He’s Glenn Hughes’ guitar player and sound engineer. Well, this is pure rock music. Sometimes, the sound for just one song out of 10 to 12 tracks on the album costs up to USD 20 thousand.

Many big-time performers — who are worth as much as myself and sing just as well as I do — are used to getting an arrangement for USD 500. Meanwhile, I don’t want to be embarrassed for my songs ten years from now. When I listen to my old pieces, I realize that even now I would change a thing or two. Something just isn’t right with the voice or in the sound. I always strive for perfection, but the sky is the limit. You can keep splitting hairs for the rest of your life and die without ever feeling satisfied.

You once said you’d quit the stage at 55.

I thought that at this age nobody would find me exciting. And it is partially true, because we’ve got lots of young motivated and super talented kids. In a certain sense, with my super intense performance schedule, I may be in their way: a tough year means about 170 solo shows, an easier one — 120–130. Basically, it means I am busy every day of the year. Sometimes I get two or three weeks when I can get away somewhere, but that’s rare. At times, I even interrupt my vacation and fly back if I get a call from Channel One. I would never say no to them. They helped me a lot, and being a decent person, I return the favour. However, I was honestly planning to retire, which never happened for a number of reasons. By that age, I was hoping to have created a business that would generate a similar income, but unfortunately, as it turns out, I am not all that business savvy.

Are you personally involved in your businesses?

Barely. My wife is in charge of the jewellery business, my glasses business is run by my partner, and I have staff that deals with the merchandizing.

What about the Khlebosolnoye Podvorye brand of farm produce?

Out of this whole project only vodka is marketable. We are promoting it through events. We have professionals sweating over an action plan, and I hope to get it up and running in autumn. It is never easy and it can’t be hurried. You need to find the operation, fix things, put a label on it, and then ensure a certain quality level.

Looks like you are more of a creative type?

I am for now. But no hard feelings here. While 57 is not bad, at this point I would like to sing only when I want to and not when I have to. But I still have to do it when I have to. Quite a few children in the family, and there will be more. Quite a few things to run, and there will be more.

You also have a production centre.

I don’t have as many artists as I used to. First, there’s, Aleksander Panayotov who is a stellar performer and a wonderful person. I’m going to ask Channel One to make him Russia’s contestant at Eurovision. There’s a band called Cosmos Girls. Four girls, including my eldest daughter Eva: they are super young — between 15 and 18, but they sing well — that I can tell you. There’s another young lad — Alexandr Grechanik. He is striking and talented. We’ll see what is in store for him. I don’t have anybody else, and frankly I don’t want anybody else. It’s a risky enterprise with high costs: it’s hard to guess whether the audience will get to like a performer. A good voice doesn’t necessarily mean you will end up a big-time singer. There are people that can barely sing, but they are trending, and everyone knows them. Generally, a pop singer’s image is comprised of three elements: voice, looks, and content. The voice means range and tone colour, recognizability: when you listen to a new song and you know exactly who it is.

Viktor Drobysh said your success in music was against all odds.

But why? I have but only one rule: you’ve got to work. I am a man of the Caucasus and a Christian and I believe that a man needs to put their nose to the grindstone. And this is precisely what I do. You’ve got to work and improve yourself. The older I am, the harder it gets. I can’t cheat my biological clock and sing as I used to 20 years ago. My body is growing old, my vocal cords are growing old, and I am not as strong as I once was.

So, what’s next then?

On 7 May, I underwent vocal cord surgery in Paris. They even had to put me under for it. It was at the point where I had no choice. On 8 July, I had another operation. A lot of people take a year or two to recover, and I was already singing after several weeks.I can control my voice, but it’s still not the level I would like to hear, so I’ll have to wait. I might have to go for another surgery.

Do you enjoy singing?

Sure, if my cords do the job. If not, there’s nothing to enjoy, but it’s my problem. If you take the stage, make sure you perform, or don’t do it at all. If I had two or three months to rest, I would go to Crimea, which is the perfect place for vocal cords to recover: there, the mountain air mixes with sea air. There are many hiking trails — it’s good exercise for the heart and lungs. I would take a vocal coach with me and leave my phone at home.

Where would you like to tour to combine it with rest?

I would love to go to Japan to see the country and maybe give a small performance in a club. It doesn’t have all that many Russians: 500 people is something we may be able to pull off. I had an idea for a tour: Tokyo, Malaysia, Thailand, and Australia. I would go there for three or four weeks and do just a few shows. I may do it next year, and that will be when I rest.



On a different note. You collect engravings. Tell us about the most special pieces in your collection.

For one, I have an engraving that took me a decade to find. It’s a panorama of Moscow of the 17th century. The artist — his name was Dmitry Indeytsev — depicted Moscow as he saw it from the Kremlin walls as if it were a 3D image. It took me years to find a panorama of Rome by Giuseppe Vasi, a 17th-century original.

Why were the icons from your collection exhibited in the State Historical Museum?

It was driven by both the museum and me. I just wanted to show my collection to people. You can’t invite everyone to your home. The museum took the icons for a month but kept them for six — it reached an audience. The exhibition included over 350 icons. The money it earned will be used to restore the monument to Minin and Pozharsky. It’s not much — about half a million roubles, but if it needs more, we’ll add some.

What was your first icon?

The icon of Our Lady of Korsun. It’s not authentic though: the board is old, but it’s a later painting. Now I am more of an expert, and I support contemporary icon painters as well. There’s an artist in Mstyora — Andrey Grachyov, who has no apprentices because it takes him two years to make an icon. It actually pays, but young people don’t want to do it, which is a shame. I am now paying off my debt for a 15th-century icon of St. Nicholas that the Bolsheviks sold abroad during the Revolution with a whole lot of religious artefacts. First, it found a home in New York, then in a tiny gallery in London. Then the National Gallery in London was going to purchase it. It took me a while to haggle, because the price tag was enormous. I somehow ended up persuading them I would pay it off in portions.

What are you going to do with your collection?

I don’t want to sell it — that would break by heart. I have a friend who collects icons as well, but he has five times as many and they are way more valuable than mine. He is going to build a museum that would ensure proper storage conditions. Light and temperature are crucial for icon preservation. If the museum has enough space, I’ll put mine in there so that people get a chance to see them. But I’ll keep them until then. If the museum doesn’t work out, each of my children will get a share of my collection. Though they are not really into icons yet — they are too young for it. I started collecting icons at the age of 34, after I almost died from an illness. I spent six months in hospital, which changed my perspective on things.

Do you have family traditions?

For my birthday my children usually present their poetry. They prepare, get dressed, and then recite poems about how I’m the best dad in the world. We rarely get together for the New Year. Last year, I was working in Crocus City. My wife and children were there as well, so we celebrated a bit.

Do you think Russian show business is changing?

Over the 20 years I’ve been a part of it, our show business has improved music- wise. If you listen to younger performers like Timati, or songs produced by his label, they are fantastic. Or take Basta: his music is beyond any words.Svetlana Loboda is a stellar performer. Or take Dimash Kudaybergenov — you can feel the divine touch in his beautiful tenore di grazia. Voices like his are so fragile that they need to be nourished and cherished. Then Sergey Lazarev and Dima Bilan are great singers. There are young guys who do a great job and can fill a stadium. They have their audience, which is good. Things spiral up and level up. At least this is something we’ve been taught.

Who is a big-time performer in your mind?

Old-timers are performers with a capital P. They have their principles and their rules for life. Joseph Kobzon. Alexander Rosenbaum. Alla Pugacheva. I’d love to sing something with Alla Pugacheva, of course if she can do it, if she has the time. I offered her a couple of pieces, but she didn’t like them. But if there’s something to her taste, I believe she’ll say yes.

Anybody else you would like to sing with?

Polina Gagarina. I offered her a song, and it was to her liking. We’ll get to it as soon as I recover. I hope we can do it by the New Year — that would be a wonderful duet. I really enjoy duets. We had a truly successful one with Irina Allegrova — Ya Tebe Ne Veryu (I Don’t Believe You). It wasn’t my first one, but I see it as the most memorable. Orly Ili Vorony (Eagles or Ravens) with Max Fadeev — he is a big-time musician and an out-and-out professional. If we take rock performers, we had a beautiful duet with Diana Arbenina called Berega (Shores). Great duets with Timati, especially London. It was my idea, but he developed the concept. And we did a magnificent piece with Joseph Kobzon and Alexander Rosenbaum — Vecherniaya Zastolnaya (A Drinking Song at Night). Singing with Joseph Kobzon was my dream, and it came true.

What do you need to make you happy?

Happy? Something like USD 200 million. I’m just like everybody else. There is no such thing as too much money or too many friends. If I disregard the demons I constantly keep fighting, I’m a fairly happy person. My children are in good health. My limbs are in place. We’ll get my cords fixed. If we fail with the cords, I’ll switch to a different tone colour, to a different voice. We’ll figure something out.
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