For a while I’ve wanted to write something about Novella Matveeva, but I couldn’t figure out what to say other than that I think she is a fantastic poet and bard who deserves love and acclaim. Well, I still don’t have much more to say, but I did find some people singing a Czech translation of my favourite Matveeva song, and figured that maybe that’s good enough. Incidentally, that’s not even the only translation of that Novella Matveeva song into Czech. Here’s another one. While I can’t speak to the word choices of the two versions, I greatly prefer the version that keeps the original music (Dvořák and Slunéčková’s). Novella Matveeva may play the fifth string on her seven string guitar with her thumb in a way that looks positively painful, but even in terms of writing melodies, she seems underrated.
She has never been at the forefront of the list of bards in Russia. I don’t know if it’s because she has always been aloof, and more specifically avoided the KSP type scene and so the people who are in the Russian singer-songwriter subculture could tell she wasn’t one of “them”. Or maybe it’s because so many of her songs are (seemingly) for children. Especially combined with her childlike voice, there may be a tendency to dismiss her as not on the same level as the more “adult” bards. Or maybe it’s something else.
For me, in her understanding of human nature, the parallel in English songwriting is the Kinks’ Ray Davies. Early Kinks lyrics are a similarly sympathetic but skeptical look at human interaction. Except that rather than being about a variety of minor human foibles, many of Matveeva’s songs are variations on one big theme. Of course, she has wonderful songs on many topics. And many people are first struck by seeing that unlike most russian bards, her songs take place in a exotic or even imaginary locales. They take Matveeva’s theme to be escapism or flights of the imagination. Yet at the centre of her best songs is a very real-world concern: the fight between belonging and independence. A childlike, insouciant independence on one end, a burning desire to be needed yourself on the other – and sometimes both at once. The immense pride we feel as kids when we are first able to do something without mom and dad’s help and the huge fear that nobody really needs us are two of the biggest, most primal feelings of childhood. As a writer of songs that are kind-of for children, and about childhood, it makes sense as a theme for Matveeva. We have the carefree little boat that sailed itself – “сам свой боцман, сам свой лоцман, сам свой капитан”. We have the fireman who is sad because there are no fires, “не то, чтобы ему хотелось бедствия, но он грустил, так, просто, вообще” (“it’s not that he wanted a disaster, it’s just that he was sad, just in general”) and the kid in “Delfinia” who is startled to learn his imaginary country is doing well even though he’s not there “птицы без меня не молкнут, как же это без меня?” “without me, the birds haven’t stopped singing, how could it be, without me?”. We even have the “woman from the inn” who doesn’t particularly need the object of her love at all. We all love to be loved, want to be wanted, and need to be needed. But that puts us in a very vulnerable place, where people can hurt us simply by doing fine by themselves. And nobody sings about it better than Novella Matveeva.