The answer is no problem for Basia (pronounced BA-sha) Trzetrzelewska (forget it). "I bought [Brazilian bossa nova queen] Astrud Gilberto's greatest-hits record and I said, 'This is it! This is the sound I want,' " she says. "I wanted that very light feel."
That feel gets a little heavier when Basia tosses in the powerful soul of Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder, then adds a dash of Chaka Khan. Such creative poaching has left her with her own unmistakable style, plus a gold debut album, Time and Tide. "One of the classiest efforts from a female artist since Sade," pronounced the Los Angeles Times.
Not that the success has gone to her head. When she first watched her record climb the charts, Basia says with a smile, "Suddenly, I thought, 'I'm a pop star!' " And then she thought again: "I'm too old to be so ridiculous."
If Basia sounds a bit less flighty than the standard pop diva, there are reasons. A former physics major, she speaks fluent English and delights in Russian art and literature. "The mad feelings that they have!" she exclaims. "Give me Dostoevsky anytime." Her feelings are precariously close to the surface—mention her family back home, and the gray eyes blink back tears. "Did you ever meet a Polish person who wasn't emotional?" she asks. "Chopin? The Pope? We start talking about our country or our mothers, and all of a sudden everyone's crying!"
One of four children, Basia remembers her parents, Stanislaw and Kazia, running their small ice-cream business "like little capitalists," she says. Her own hunger was for records, and the first in her collection was Aretha Franklin's Greatest Hits. Stevie Wonder, Carole King and James Taylor followed, "but also Pink Floyd and King Crimson," she says. "I was hungry for everything." At 15, she won first prize as a vocalist in a local talent competition. Three years later, against her father's wishes ("He wanted me to be a doctor and treat him when he was old"), she moved to Warsaw, where she formed a group called Perfect. An agent was so impressed, she says, that after seeing only one show, he signed them up in 1979 and shipped them off to the now-defunct Polonia club on Chicago's South Side. "We had to sing in Polish, we had to sing in English," she says. "Top 40. New, old Polish songs."
But Basia hadn't come to America to eat pirogis and dance the polka. Night after night, she haunted the city's jazz and blues clubs, overwhelmed by the chance to "hear so much music onstage." Still, Poland beckoned, and in 1981 she moved to London, where she could be two hours from Warsaw and still be part of a flourishing music scene. There she met keyboard player Danny White, now 29, who recruited her for Matt Bianco, a highly contrived, mildly wacky pop trio that included no one named Matt Bianco. "They had this image of the band as three guys dressed sharp in Italian suits, playing in a jazzy style," explains Basia, "and they wanted to make the name sound Italian." The result was a group that proved more popular with European audiences than with its new backup singer. "It was boring," says Basia, rolling her eyes. "All I had to do was record my parts in the studio and look pretty onstage. I even had to get permission to wear a certain kind of shirt or dress."
She didn't ask permission to leave. In 1986 Basia and White, who had begun a romance, started work on what became Time and Tide. "The title song is about Danny and me," Basia says. "We had strong feelings for each other when we met, but the timing was wrong." Eventually, it was right. Their two-year, live-in relationship ended recently, though, and Basia admits to feeling unsettled. "We're still close, but he's already organized his new life and I haven't."
However she arranges her new life, it will include a small house in the English countryside, where Basia retreats from the British and what she regards as their baffling reserve. "I miss the passion of Poland," she says. "If something is wrong, the British won't tell you what it is." When she made her annual Christmas trip to Jaworzno, it only confirmed what her heart had been telling her: "I know I'm doing well now, but when I stop someday and I'm old, I will go back to Poland. There's no superficial politeness there. They tell you exactly what they feel."
If you liked The Girl from Ipanema, you'll love the sophisticated woman from Jaworzno. She's not tan, but she is young and lovely, and when she passes, everyone she passes goes, "Ahhhhh." Although maybe it ought to be "Eh?" The question, of course, is how did a 29-year-old Pole become an international pop star singing samba and jazz?