You could simply say that singer/songwriter Christina Gentile is a Concordia student who studies integrated music, but that wouldn’t be a fair description. The truth to her personality lies in her captivating story, filled with small miracles and personal discovery.
Gentile grew up backstage in European opera houses, so music was always an integral part of her life. “I knew I was going to study music,” she said, as we sipped coffee at the Second Cup on Ste-Catherine Street.
While it seems like an obvious career choice, coming from a family where both parents are trained opera singers, her parents never pushed her into a career in music.
When she was just 16 she moved from Germany to Montreal where she began studying musicals and classical music at CEGEP. She advanced to studying jazz at Concordia, but felt unsatisfied with the direction her life was taking. “Something in the academic setting was missing,” she said. “The passion you have, the drive to do something gets suppressed, and I needed to fill that void.”
On a whim, Gentile decided to leave her friends, her studies and her job, and packed her bags for Australia. “The plan was to have no plan,” she said, laughing. “A lot of people thought I was out of my mind probably.”
With a guitar and a small amount of luggage, she embarked on a two-year voyage that not only filled her voidâ€•it overflowed it.
After moving to Australia, Gentile, who performs under the name T.I.N.A., started working in a hostel in Australia and played occasionally in bars. Then, two months into her trip, an accident left her with a broken foot. Unable to work, but anxious to make money, she resorted to busking as a temporary solution.
When her foot healed, she decided to give firespinning a try and wound up breaking her other foot in the exact same place. So, it was back to busking. “It was like God was giving me a sign to quit [my jobs] and just play music,” said Gentile, and surprisingly, it was busking that gave her the courage to follow her passion.
“Busking is about connecting with the people,” said Gentile, who believes music should be about spreading love. “You’re doing music primarily for yourself, but you’re also healing other people.”
If her passion wasn’t enough to convince her to follow her career as a musician, her experience as a busker would. In a few hours on the street, she’d earn the equivalent of a full day at work.
“I’ve talked to so many buskers, and for some reason, I don’t know many people who have made as much money as I did,” she admitted. “It depends on the weather, the day, the location.”
Her good fortune continued in the generosity of people from Down Under. Gentile explained that in Australia and New Zealand people love street musicians. Unlike in Canada, where most passersby might stop for a moment, or just walk briskly past, spectators there would get comfortable and listen to her music, sometimes for an hour.
She got more than the spare change fans would toss into her guitar case, she was constantly receiving gifts of all sorts: chocolate, bottled water, cookiesâ€•even beer.
People who enjoyed her music wanted to show their appreciation in any way they could.
Even though people were generous, busking was far from easy.
“Singing properly requires use of the entire body,” she said. “It is physically and emotionally draining.” After a day of busking, she would feel so exhausted she’d swear she was hungover.
“Sometimes I felt like, why am I still doing this?” she confessed. “You go through these phases where people come up to you and tell you how great you are, and other times it dies down. Every time you hit that low and think, maybe I should change careers, these miracles would pop up.”
One such miracle was meeting Jack Johnson on the streets of Byron Bay, a beachside town on the northwestern side of Australia. Gentile routinely includes a Jack Johnson song in her setlist, but coincidentally, while performing one of his songs outside a cafÃ© one day, he drove by and noticed her playing.
He stopped his car, ran across the road, and complimented her on performing his song well. She was absolutely shocked, and barely recognized the well-known musician, thinking that it was too good to be true.
It was then that Gentile vowed she would finish her degree and her album upon returning to Montreal.
Last week, she checked “complete debut CD” off her to-do list. Her debut album, T.I.N.A.: Voice Yourself, takes melodic guitar chords and blends them with ethereal vocals, reggae beats, and gypsy violins.
“It’s been life-changing, seeing people so grounded,” she said, reflecting on her journey. “Being on the streets, it connects you to people. I think we’re so disconnected from everybody. If you take the time to talk to someone on the street, there’s a whole different way of life”
Her CD release is Oct. 13 at Kafein CafÃ© and Bar, 1429A Bishop St., from 6 to 8 p.m. Â Stop in to hear T.I.N.A.’s music and check out art by Concordia students Emie Gravel and Estelle de Pierre.