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My life: Michaelangelo L'Acqua

W Hotels' global music director talks to Adam Wright about finding his calling

 

TOP SCORE I was born in New Jersey, New York, to an Italian father and a Russian-Hungarian mother. They were second-generation immigrants and I was raised in a very Italian family where nobody was interested in music. I'm dyslexic, but when I was given a violin at about the age of seven, it just seemed right. Within six months, I was able to play it properly. Until then, I had basically been told I was retarded, but suddenly I was a gifted child. After I had my IQ tested and it was found that I wasn't retarded, a teacher said I should attend the Manhattan School of Music - one of the world's best schools for classical music. I went to the pre-repertoire division, where I studied classical violin for the next six years, but then I gave up music because I didn't think it was cool. I didn't touch music again until I was 19.

STRUNG OUT At West Virginia University I had a roommate from England who put on a Charlie Parker record and it caused an infection in my brain. I couldn't comprehend what be-bop was. Because I had played violin for so many years, I understood things like diatonic harmony, but bebop was like alien music and I became obsessed. I told my parents I was leaving college to become a jazz musician and they thought I was insane. I moved back to New York and started studying the guitar for 12 to 15 hours a day with a jazz teacher. Learning bebop was like learning Japanese - it was just so different. After a year and a half of studying, I got into the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music in Manhattan - it's one of the best schools in the world for bebop. The teachers had played with guys like Miles Davis and John Coltrane, but I was so far behind the other students that I just couldn't catch up. I gravitated towards soul and funk and started playing all over New York. I could write music better than I could play it, and one day my teacher, Bernard Purdie, one of the most recorded drummers in history, pulled me aside after hearing some of my compositions and said, "I think you should stop playing guitar. You're never going to make it." I was devastated, but he said he would show me how to become a record producer.

FASHION CALLING I didn't know what a producer was, so I started study-ing people like Quincy Jones, the other master producers, and gave up the guitar. In 1997, a friend who was working for fashion designer Cynthia Rowley asked if I wanted to make US$500 doing the music for a fashion show. I replied, "What's a fashion show?" I knew nothing about fashion, but I knew about production, so I did some crazy remixes. About a week later, I got a call from a fashion producer in New York asking me to send in a demo audition for "some designer". I took Marlene Dietrich's Falling in Love Again and did a house remix, a hip hop remix and a rock remix. Two days later I was told the client wanted to meet me. I and my production partner flew to Paris and on arrival were told we were going to meet Tom Ford. I remember asking my partner, "How is this guy related to Ford Motors and why are they doing fashion?" I was dead serious. But I hung out with Tom for a few hours, we played some music together, and got back on the plane. Two days later I was told I was the music director for Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent.

 

BOOM AND BUST-UP I would just sit in the room while Tom and his stylists talked about fabrics and inspiration. They'd show me things from the collections and ask whether I could interpret them musically. For one Gucci show I remixed the soundtrack of the Tom Cruise film Magnolia and the music drove everyone nuts. Things just went "boom" and I went from Gucci to Tom's first show for YSL. My music made me a big name in the fashion world, and I started working with other designers like Diane Von Furstenberg and Kenneth Cole. I still knew nothing about fashion, but understood what they meant when they said things like "We want things very edgy, very square - but also very round." I became good at taking briefs like that and turning them into bespoke musical scores. But as fashion shows are seasonal, I needed to find other ways to make money, so under the name Onda I started scoring commercials, doing remixes. Then I had a bad break-up with my production partner, I became disillusioned and sold my music equipment. I knew who Onda was but I didn't know who Michaelangelo L'Acqua was. So I said I was done with music.

TWISTS OF FATE A friend had opened a big club in New York's Meatpacking District and offered me so much money to run the doors that I couldn't say no. So I worked as a doorman for about a year. One day I bumped into (British DJ/producer) Mark Ronson, and he invited me to work out of the back room of his studio. He and his partner would feed me work they didn't have time to do, and I could hide in there without anyone knowing. Because of an Isley Brothers remix I had done, I was asked in 2007 to work as executive producer on an album of Natalie Cole remixes of Nat King Cole songs. It was a critically acclaimed album, but the label didn't know how to market it so it flopped. Again, I became disillusioned. I was living in Venice Beach, California, and I decided to take the summer off, meditate for three hours a day and manifest the next stage of my life. I thought about what I wanted to do: work for a hotel group as music director. Three months in, I received a phone call saying the W Hotel wanted to interview me for the job of global music director. So I flew to New York and met two young ladies - and one of them said, "You're Onda! Where the f*** did you go?" It was fate.

SONIC BOOM I told the W I could give them a sonic identity and they gave me a chance. Before, they had music provided by a major label - it was cool music, but it wasn't unique. I turned the W into a place of musical discovery and brought in electronic music before it was a fad. Now, I travel around all the W Hotels - often DJing at them, including the one in Hong Kong. Asia is a huge market for what I do, and I think what I offer has a lot of relevance to cities like Hong Kong, where the fashion industry is bubbling. It's one of those cool cities that create culture. What we've done in Asia is particularly important because we're introducing new music from the West. Now when I look around, I see hotels mimicking what we've done. It's been an amazing journey, but ultimately my goal all along has been to use music to make the world a better place.

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