Greek singer Elli Kokkinou has sold millions of albums and wowed audiences around the world. She’ll return to Chicago on May 13. Read excerpts of Maria A. Karamitsos’ exclusive interview with Elli from 2009.
Interview with Elli Kokkinou
Back in the summer of 2009, Elli Kokkinou came to the U.S. to promote her fall tour. I had the opportunity to meet and interview her, and it was one of my favorite interviews of the last 15 years. In anticipation of her return to Chicago for next weekend’s National Hellenic Museum Gala, we share portions of that interview. Elli was so gracious, and I felt like I was having coffee with an old friend. Read on to learn more about her.
Greek Singer Visits Chicago, Promotes Upcoming Tour
Greek singing sensation Elli Kokkinou visited Chicago in August, a stop on a promo tour for her upcoming fall concerts. I had the pleasure of meeting with the popular singer; my first impression was that she was even more attractive in person. She is no diva – simply charming, and very much a “regular person”. The meeting was casual and akin to sitting with a friend — sharing a coffee, having a chat, and talking about our children. Elli was excited to return to Chicago, where she has visited on two previous occasions. She toured with Giorgos Alkaios as a backup singer in 1999, and was the opening act for Christos Dantis on his 2006 US tour. She referred to Chicago as a “great city.”
Meet Elli Kokkinou
Born and raised in Athens, Greece, Elli grew up in a house filled with music. Her family, including two older brothers, loved different styles of music and encouraged her to listen to other genres. From jazz to disco, music was constantly playing in her house.
Elli spoke about her introduction to music.
“I might have been five years old at the time when my father bought me a small tabletop keyboard. I played around with it, trying to play along with the songs that I was hearing. My parents thought I had an ear for music, and encouraged me to study.”
She took guitar lessons, beginning with classical acoustic at the Attiko Conservatory and later electric guitar. Elli was very into rock music at the time. In fact, when she was in high school, she started her own rock band, called Anonimi. Elli was into sports as well. She was on the water ski team in school and won several gold medals. Her team came in third place in the Pan-Hellenic championships. The charismatic singer was also interested in dance. She performed with her school’s dance group and later studied ballet. While her musical interest was growing, she was accepted to the Vakalo School, where she studied art history, graphic design, and architectural drawing. Though she enjoyed the performing arts, upon entering school, Elli thought perhaps the visual arts would be her career path.
Deciding on a career in music
During her school years, she continued to play and sing with her band at parties. As the story goes, famed Greek rock singer Kostas Tournas heard her playing guitar and singing in her yard, jamming songs from 1970s British rock band Supertramp.
“He said he thought I had talent, and called me for an audition.”
She went, and sang with the likes of Nikos Karvelas (former husband and principal songwriter of Anna Vissi), Katerina Kouka, others. She won the audition. Elli decided that if she was to pursue this seriously, she must get some vocal training. She sang in local clubs while she applied to schools and waited to be accepted. In 1992, the pop star moved to Los Angeles to study at the Musicians’ Institute of Technology (MIT) for two years.
At MIT, she studied voice and piano, and studied under top industry names, such as Carl Schroeder, pianist for Grammy winning singer Sarah Vaughn; plus Scott Henderson, known as one of the most talented fusion and blues guitarists of the 1980s and 1990s.
“I loved my time in LA. Those were some of the best times in my life. My friends and I took little trips. We visited San Francisco, drove to Las Vegas to see Barbra Streisand, and went shopping in New York – great shopping!”
She liked it so much in the States, that she seriously contemplated staying and beginning her career here.
“I saw many starving artists, and I didn’t want to live like that.”
Plus, her family is very close-knit – she enjoys what she described as a very special relationship with her mother – she felt it would be too difficult to try to do this so far from the support of family.
“My mother didn’t want me to stay. Like other moms, she said things like, ‘Don’t do this to me, don’t leave me alone here in Athens,’ but she had my best interests at heart. So I went home, and I don’t regret it.”
Her “big break” and Phivos
Elli went back to Greece and returned to the club circuit. She signed her first recording contract with Sony Music in 1996; however, she credits well-known Greek singer and composer Antonis Vardis for giving her the elusive “big break.”
“He gave me my first song, called ‘Kapia Mera.’ He took a chance and gave me that important first opportunity.”
She hasn’t looked back since. The song became her 1st CD single and it was well received. Her 1st full length CD was released in 1999, called “Epikindyna Pahnidia.” It contained her first hit, “Pao Pao.” After her 2nd CD, she moved to the record label Heaven, and worked with famous Greek composer Phivos. The interminable “hit maker,” he has over the years churned out hit after hit for top performers such as Despina Vandi, Giorgos Mazonakis, Thanos Petrelis, and countless others.
“Working with Phivos was such a great experience. He knows exactly what he wants. You can say he is a perfectionist. He knows how he wants the song to be sung and presented. And he is very honest. He will tell you what’s bad and needs to be changed, and what’s good, so you can focus. In the end you are very proud of your accomplishment.”
Since Phivos is very precise in his work, many, many hours were spent in the studio perfecting the sound of her CD, “Sto Kokkino,” which was released in 2003.
“I’m very proud of that album. The experience was so good for me, especially in the early part of my career. I learned a lot.”
The hard work paid off: “Sto Kokkino” went platinum within two months of its release, and later went double platinum. The album included a song that remains very special to her, called “Kosmotheoria.”
“It’s a really good song, and it became a hit. One day I was out and I heard the song blaring through some car windows. It was an incredible feeling. For the first time, I really felt like I made it.”
Therefore, she considers this the big “breakthrough” of her career, for which she is very grateful to Phivos. In 2005, she would go on to produce another hit CD with him, called “Sex.” This one went gold on the day of its release and soon after went platinum.
Trying new things
By 2007, she would return to Sony Music and begin working with other composers, to try some other sounds. This artist likes to keep trying new things.
“You have to, to keep it interesting. If you do all the same stuff all time you will get bored. I’ll try something at least once.”
Her subsequent CDs enjoyed similar success. This spirit of “trying something new” included dabbling in some acting, though she says she has no desire to become an actress.
“I have no training in acting. “I’d have to go study first to really be serious about that.”
In 2006, she took a guest starring role on the comedy show “Kokkino Domatio,” from Dimitris Apostolou and Alexandros Rigas, which aired on the Mega channel.
“I remember I had been singing in the clubs at the time. I‘d get home at five am, and there was only time to shower and take a quick nap before I had to be on the set. I had to learn my lines each day. We spent a lot of hours on the set. By the end of the week, I was sick with a high fever, but I couldn’t let them down. It was so much fun.”
Recently, Elli recorded a song called “Demenes,” for the new Barbie movie “I Barbie Kai to Diamantenio Kastro.”
The singer has won numerous awards, and they all are special to her.
“As a performer, every award is important and meaningful. To see people come to my concerts and sing my songs — that is the real gift.”
Elli declared that she likes to sing all kinds of songs, basically, whatever strikes her mood. From ballads, to pop/dance songs to laiko, she likes to perform a variety of styles in both her concerts and on her CDs. Her alto voice, with just a hint of smokiness, is versatile, which allows her to traverse the different styles with ease.
Although she has an extensive musical background, she hasn’t recorded any of her own compositions. I asked her is she writes music and would ever consider singing one of her own songs.
“Well, I really just play around at the piano. I keep working at it. Maybe someday. You never know.”
She loves all kinds of music, especially jazz and R&B. She said she didn’t really start listening to Greek music until she was older, but does enjoy that as well. Some of her favorite artists include Alicia Keys, Bon Jovi, Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston, Jennifer Lopez, Frank Sinatra, Natalie Cole, George Michael, and many new singers, like Beyonce. Elli said she draws some influence from all of her favorite performers. She’s also been inspired by the many top Greek artists that she has shared the stage with, such as Anna Vissi, Tolis Voskopoulos, Paschalis Terzis, Natassa Theodoridou, Thanos Petrelis and others.
Her favorite gig: mom
Being a famous pop star is a dream come true, but what she treasures most is being a mother. She took some time off following her son’s birth in 2008, and her new CD and tour is her “comeback.” She’s excited to be back, but hates being away from her now-15-month-old son.
“This is the first time I’ve been away from him for such a long time. It’s a good thing that we have a full schedule, so the time goes fast. Otherwise I might just go crazy from missing him!”
While on her promotional tour, Elli made a stop at the National Hellenic Museum. She was very impressed with the facility, as well as plans for the new museum.
“This is a fantastic place. It’s a good thing, for children to learn, and for adults to not forget.”
She also indicated that she thought the new museum would be among the best in the world. Other stops included an appearance at Greek Night at the Chicago Fire game and a special launch party at 9 Muses in Greektown. Elli enjoyed learing about our community,
“It’s amazing to see, how Hellenism is alive and well outside of Greece.”
She was also pleasantly surprised to see that people in the Diaspora knew her, and enjoyed her music. She called it “a wonderful gift to receive.”
Elli Kokkinou is a class act, equally gracious and sweet. She takes nothing for granted. Watch for more great things to come from this shining star.
The full-length interview was originally printed in The Greek Star on September 3, 2009
Elli Kokkinou at National Hellenic Museum Gala 2017
Meet Elli Kokkinou on May 13 at National Hellenic Museum Gala 2017, in the Aon Ballroom at Chicago’s historic Navy Pier.
The original full-length interview was published in September 2009.
WindyCity Greek is a media sponsor for National Hellenic Museum Gala 2017
UPDATED. The event has already taken place.