Andrew Cronshaw talks with Salvador Sobral
Among all the role-playing, power-ballad glitz of the 2017 Eurovision Song Contest there was the still, quiet, sincere voice of Salvador Sobral. No glitz, no dancers, just him in his normal clothes, singing "Amar Pelos Dois," a beautiful song in Portuguese written by his sister Luisa Sobral.
I’d watched him win Portugal’s own competition for the country’s Eurovision entrant, which in itself was an affirmation from his home country. That he went on to win Eurovision with its massive international voting audience was extraordinary and encouraging. In the winner’s reprise of the song he duetted with Luisa (who had filled-in for him at most of the rehearsals, because he was weak from life-threatening heart problems), and at the following year’s final, after a heart transplant, he duetted in it with iconic Brazilian composer and singer Caetano Veloso.
There’s plenty online about all that, so I won’t rehash it here. But in the short film clip that Eurovision shows introducing the entrants, Salvador was shown at an ex-munitions factory hangout of musicians and other artists in Lisbon, Fabrica Braço De Prata, that I recognised, having been taken there by musician friend Celina Da Piedade (who incidentally was in the same final as him to decide Portugal’s Eurovision entry). It seemed she and he moved in some of the same circles, and that there’s much more to him and his music than that one fine song. Five years later came the opportunity to talk to him and find out.
“Oh, Fabrica Braço De Prata used to be my second home! I was always there. It was like a lab, because I would try all sorts of musical projects - my Cuban music project, and my Jacques Brel thing.”
I ask him what connections he has with my my main interest, traditional music, which in Portugal means the rich and varied musics of its regions - the village vocal groups of Alentejo south of Lisbon, the bagpipes of Terra de Miranda in the north-east, the music of the range of guitar-like instruments known in Portuguese as violas as well as the ukulelele-precursor cavaquinho, and much more, with singing a very strong feature throughout. And of course there’s the famous urban poetic music of fado.
“It’s very curious that you ask me this question right now. Because I’m at a point where I’m working on my next album - actually we’re recording next week and it’s almost done, because there’s a world crisis of vinyl production so we need to give the masters of the album about ten months before it comes out. I’m on that adventure now, and this, my new album, is going to be much more… folk oriented, if you will. With traditional rhythms. Not necessarily from Portugal but from South America too. But it’s interesting that you ask me this question now, when I’m looking for another folkloric vision, because I don’t feel that my music has a whole lot of that. But of course I’ve heard some.”
His and Luisa’s childhood musical environment was shaped by their father’s great fondness for the Beatles.
“He was so addicted to them, and he made us learn all the bass lines of Paul McCartney, all the lyrics of the Beatles.”
The siblings have always sung together.
“Yes, starting with the Beatles; I was Paul, she was John, and then we switched. And we competed with the lyrics, who knew better the lyrics of Norwegian Wood… We’d sing in the car, and we’d harmonise all the time, it was just a natural thing for us to do. And there’s nobody that I sing with that’s more natural than with her. I feel like our voices just blend in together right away. It’s like, no need for a sound-check, they’re already blended.”
“There wasn’t a whole lot of Portuguese music at home at that time. Then when I grew up I started listening to the singers that were part of the revolutionary music movement.”
“Zeca Afonso and those?”
“Yeah, and that was very interesting, and I only got to hear it later, you know, because my dad was just Simon and Garfunkel and James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, and the Beatles. He was very English in his music, always! So it was only later that I discovered that, and I was astounded by the truthfulness of that music, and of folk music in Portugal, and how much it resembled the music from Galicia, which I later discovered. How much it resembled the music from Napoli and Sicilia; all these southern musics are so alike. I mean, if you listen to Neapolitan song, it sounds like a fado.”
“So, actually now I go to a lot of fado places, I go and listen to fado which I later discovered in my life but I love it.”
Salvador was born in 1989. By 2012 videos show him with Barcelona-based Venezuelan Leo Aldrey, Leo on ukulele, he singing and playing drum-brushes on a box, in English-language songs such as “After You’ve Gone.”
Aldrey is still his co-songwriter and producer. The first Salvador Sobral album, Excuse Me, was released in 2016, with in 2017 a live album of that, followed in 2019 by Paris, Lisboa and in 2021 BPM. In 2016 he and pianist Júlio Resende formed the band Alexander Search to perform music based on the writings of 20th Century Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa, and the album came out in 2017. An album of his Cuban music project Alma Nuestra was released in 2019/20, and in 2020 there were shows in which he sang the songs of Jacques Brel. He and Aldrey are also members of the indie-pop band Noko Woi. The 2022 EP Sal has just him and his piano, in four songs simply recorded at home.
While piano is a key factor in his music, apart from on Sal he hasn’t so far played it himself on his records.
“No, I only feel free when I just sing. It’s very hard for me, the piano’s very frustrating. For me singing was always easy, it just felt natural, so when I find myself sitting at the piano I’m frustrated all the time, which I never was with the voice. Even if I worked on my vocal instrument I never felt frustrated, so it’s really strange for me to feel frustration with the piano. But I don’t have the level on the piano that the pianists that I play with do, and I like to have a good level of performance in my music, so… Maybe later. I already did some solo gigs, and some gigs with my sister, where I play the piano. But there’s nothing like just being free, just sing; I love to sing.”
Júlio Resende played piano on his earlier albums, then on BPM it was Abe Rábade, and nowadays it’s Swede Max Agnas, whom he met at a jam session at Stockholm’s Fasching jazz club. “I love his freedom, he’s very wild on the instrument and I like that, very visceral.”
He agrees when I suggest that his singing is at heart in a kind of an old-fashioned tradition, coming from a jazz singing point of view, but the arrangements have interesting developments.
“Yeah, we’re always interested in exploring sounds and we love the curiosity of different timbres. We tried to look for that on BPM, and we ended up putting in a lot of elements. And now what we’re doing with this next album is trying to take things off!”
I ask if the title BPM was a nod to pop and dance music’s attachment to specific beats per minute.
“It’s BPM as in beats per minute of the heart. Because I had heart surgery five years back, and I spent a lot of time at the hospital, and of course I was always connected to the heart rate machine. And when I looked at the three letters, BPM, always showing my heartbeat, I thought that was the only musical element there was in that experience, you know, the only musical element that I could find in the hospital and in my sickness, it was the BPM, the rhythm of the heart. And I thought it was interesting, later on when I was writing about it and about my life, what I’ve been through, to name it BPM, because they were also the beats per minute of my songs, of my compositions.”
He and Leo Aldrey work together on the songwriting.
“We do everything 50/50. With Portuguese lyrics it’s more frequent that I write the lyrics and then I send them to Leo and he sends me an idea of one A part, or a loop of four chords, and then we work on it together. And I do the lyrics more so than the other way round; I never start the music alone. I feel limited harmonically to do it with just me alone, I feel like I always go to the minor fourth, because I love it!”
His songs nowadays are largely in Portuguese, but some are in English, Spanish or French.
“I love to explore new languages for music, because, like, every language allows you to explore other ambiences or other moods, you know; the French language is more romantic, and in Spanish you can be more tropical. I always compare the different languages to the pedals of a guitar - I just turn on my Spanish pedal and interpret it in a certain way. I feel like it’s another tool, another resource that I can use. Sometimes it’s bad for you because people say it lacks coherence, when you hear an album that has loads of genres and loads of languages…”
Early on, he often sang in English. His attitude to that is a little surprising.
“It’s easier. To write in your own language is a whole other thing , because you have imposter syndrome all the time, it feels like it sounds corny. The English language is easier to rhyme, and to not sound corny because we’re used to music in English. I guess you need some time to allow yourself to write corny stuff, though, and be like ‘Oh no, maybe it doesn’t sound so corny when I sing it.’”
There are strong musical, as well as of course linguistic, links between Portugal and Brazil, and many Brazilian musicians in Portugal. Both countries show a strong appreciation of melody, and fine singing.
“I feel that every Brazilian sings, everyone plays; that for me is Brazil. And maybe it’s the same way in Cuba. But every Brazilian that I meet here can sing these difficult melodies done by Chico Buarque or Caetano.”
Duetting with Caetano Veloso must have been a thrill.
“Wow - ‘a thrill’ sounds like a euphemism, it was a mystical experience! The way… he’s so nice, and gentle, almost fragile in a way. He just wanted to talk about cinema - we talked about Antonioni, Fellini, because I love the cinema too and we were just talking about Italian cinema. He’s just a sweet, sweet guy, and never did I feel any sort of diva in him, or some sort of superiority, he was just so nice to me all the time, saying that he likes the way I sing. And I was like ‘How? I just copy everything you do, basically’.”
“But you do it higher than him!”
“Haha! Yeah, that’s the trick!”
The panoply of Brazilian music is a great enthusiasm for Salvador.
“And there are still new artists coming up there; every day I can discover a new young artist who plays everything, sings everything, or an old artist that I didn’t know about. It’s the most musical country. Have you heard about this guy called Tim Bernardes? He’s just incredible. He was opening for the Fleet Foxes, because he had a song on their latest album, so he did their whole American tour. But we’ve been knowing him forever, because he was coming to Portugal. The first time he came he played in Setúbal, where EXIB Música happens.” (Salvador played that excellent Ibero-American showcase festival with the Cuban ‘Alma Nuestra’ project in 2020).
“He played for fifty people, and now he just did the Coliseu in Lisbon to four thousand. It’s just growing, he’s just an enormous talent. Another sign that Brazil is in good health musically.”
I tell him about a singer who impressed me at this year’s EXIB, Raquel Lúa from Barcelona.
“Oh. I lived in Barcelona and I go there all the time, and I don’t know her - I thought I knew every musician in Barcelona. Raquel… Lúa?” He checks online. “Ah - seems all my friends follow her - and she follows me!”
He tells me about another Catalan artist.
“In London we’re going to have a guest, Lau Noah. I’m thrilled about that. She’s a beautiful, incredible Catalan artist, singer-songwriter. Actually she’s been opening for Chris Thile on his tour. You know him?”
"Yes I do, the brilliant mandolinist.”
We contnue to swap enthusiasms about people we both know, including Tiago Pereira with his massive life’s work videoing Portuguese music and traditions, ‘A Música Portuguesa a Gostar Dela Própria.’ and Edgar Valente, founder of the mighty multi-tradition collective Criatura and folktronica duo Bandua. “And have you seen him sing funk? He has a James Brown vibe!”
There’s been a recent big change to Salvador’s life; the baby daughter to whom his wife Jenna Thiam gave birth a week before our chat.
“I don’t know what’s happened to me, man, but since she was born I’m addicted to jazz, old-school jazz which I hadn’t listened to a lot because I was in a hip-hop phase lately. And then she was born and I was like ‘jazz’! Every day I listen to a jazz album. And football - I play football but I really don’t like to watch football, I just play - we play twice a week. And now I’m just addicted to watching football. She brought this on me - jazz and football!”
Salvador Sobral has two shows coming up in the UK in December 2022: Manchester on December 3rd and London on the 4th.
Further reading and listening: