Luisa Sobral: ‘I’m obsessed with language’

To say that Luisa Sobral does not care much about music labels would be an understatement; after all, the Portuguese singer-songwriter is the link that connects Marc Ribot and the Eurovision song contest.

Okay, explanation needed: the magnificent guitar player played in the recording of her namesake album, Luisa; as for Eurovision, it was her song (performed by herself and her brother Salvador) that won the contest in 2017, in what is now deemed as an iconic performance by the show’s millions of die-hard fans.

So yes, Luisa Sobral is happy to mix and match styles and elements – from jazz to folk to pop to traditional Portuguese music – in order to find ways to tell her own stories. Lucky for us, she’s touring Australia – starting from WOMADelaide – to demonstrate her versatility, and share her beautiful songs with the audience.

What are you going to present in your Australian shows?

I’m bringing my guitar player and we’re going to be playing with three Australian musicians. They are classical – tuba, flugelhorn and… the horn – how do you say it in English? The one that angels play!

I’m going to be playing my last album, Rosa, it’s my daughter’s name – it means ‘rose’ – and it’s an unusual set up but it works really wonderfully, it’s a beautiful combination.

It’s going to be really cool for me to be playing with musicians from there – it will be an immediate connection with Australia, I’m really excited about it and that’s the freedom that music has given me all this time. It’s a mixture between pop – or not exactly pop, songwriter, whatever – and then there is this classical thing to it that allows me to play with other musicians, there’s a part that is written and an improvised part; I can mix the two together and that is really exciting.

This blend of different influences and genres is a recurring thing in your music; what is your approach to music-writing?

I don’t really think about it when I’m writing. It’s like when I go to a restaurant and I like a dish and I think: “What did they put in here? Is that oregano? Is that saffron?” After I write maybe I can go back and understand where I took that from, but while I’m doing it, I don’t really know, these are all things that appear in my life through music and stick with me. For instance, Portuguese music is there not because I put it there intentionally, but because I’m from Portugal; then I have a little of American folk, because my dad used to listen to a lot of Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell; then I went on my own and I started listening to my own music and I started finding other things, getting more into the jazz world, and I mean instrumental jazz. Now I’m a bit far away from jazz, but still all the things that I listen to during my life are there – because I’ve had obsession periods; now I’m listening to a lot of Portuguese music because I’m obsessed with language. I’m writing for other people as well and I’m writing a lot of poetry, so that’s my new obsession, language and different ways that I can use it and twist it and make it meaningful.

What is it about language that fascinates you?

I guess it’s a phenomenon, something that occurs when you don’t live in your own country for a while, then you go back and you appreciate things much more. I spent six years in the US, so I could see my country from the outside and see all the great things that it has to offer; so when I got back, I decided that I only wanted to read writers who write in Portuguese – not only Portuguese writers, because there are also Brazilian writers who write in Portuguese and a lot of writers who come from countries in Africa where they speak Portuguese, and these are actually my favourite writers, like Mia Couto from Mozambique and Pepetela from Angola, I’m a big fan of the way they see the world. So I guess one of the things that made me fall back in love with language was that I started reading a lot in Portuguese, because I wanted to write in Portuguese. When I was living in the US, I was writing in English and reading in English. So that’s when I started to see the beauty of my language through these people who are amazing writers and they really inspired me. I’m also reading a lot of Chico Buarque‘s books. It’s interesting how we have so many different cultures speaking the same language, there’s a lot that you can read and a lot that you can learn.

What is your favourite Portuguese word?

I don’t have a favourite Portuguese word. Everyone says the same thing, ‘saudade’ – it’s kind of a cliche, because it’s a beautiful word that you don’t have in any other language. It’s a word that expresses longing, the actual feeling of missing someone. No language has a perfect translation for it.

How different is Rosa to Luisa?

I can tell you about how my daughter is different to me, haha.

So, how different are you and your daughter?

Haha, my daughter is really wild and crazy, she is not afraid of anything!

What are you afraid of?

Well, I was never afraid of life – when I was 16, I went to live in New York on my own.That has to do with my family. I have a very strong family and whatever decision I took, I have always had their support. But I was afraid of little things, like falling and hurting myself; when I was little, I was afraid of the swing and riding my bike. She is not. She is really really brave and I like that.

Has music helped you overcome your fears?

Now I’m less fearful of everything. I did skydiving and it was amazing. I don’t know if it has to do with music, but I’m changing. Now that I’m a mother I’m afraid again. I feel very responsible and I want to be here for them. Life is like that, you’re always changing.

How about the albums, Luisa and Rosa; how are they different to each other?

Luisa is connected to American folk music, I recorded with an American producer [ed. note: the great Joe Henry] and musicians who have played with Bob Dylan and Tom Waits and Joni Mitchell [ed.note: pedal steel guitarist Greg Leisz not least among them] and all these great artists I had been listening and admire – it is who I was at the time. Rosa is who I am right now – it connects to what I was talking about, going back to my roots and exploring my Portuguese identity. Albums are like that – they reflect who you are over one period of time.

How about the time that you took part in the Eurovision song contest? I guess you’re tired of being asked about it.

No, its okay. I knew that Australians are big fans of Eurovision and I was expecting it, haha.I never watched it before I was in it. Eurovision in Portugal, before the year we took part in it, was not doing so well. People my age did not watch it. I did not have any friend watching it. That changed, not because of us, but because they changed the way they choose the songs.

How has this experience affected your trajectory in music?

My brother’s life changed, because he became very famous and he tours the world and I’m grateful for that, because I knew that he deserved it and he just needed his voice to be heard. My life has not been affected that much, apart from the fact that I started writing more for other people. That is something that I really enjoy and nowadays I can be more selective about the people I write for; I can choose to write for people who I think have something to say.

What do you like about that?

It’s kind of like being an actress; for the period of time I’m writing, I’m trying to feel like them. I listen to what these people have sang and try to write something that reflects their personality. It is rewarding to have them sing my words.

Luisa Sobral performs at WOMADelaide (7-9 March) then playsat The Boite in Melbourne, on Wednesday 11 March and at the Sydney Portugal Community Club on Saturday 14 March.