Salvador Sobral — a jazz cat who accidentally won over the pop music scene
When I won the Eurovision song contest, I got a lot of text messages from jazz musicians saying that they were proud of me, they felt that I was representing them — that is a super achievement
Last December brought to Riga a lot of fine concerts, one of them featured the one and only Salvador Sobral. As soon as I found out he was coming, I decided that I need to be there and do the interview because… well, it’s not every day you get to meet a person who won the Eurovision with a jazz standard!
The conversation turned out to be even more interesting than I expected, Salvador is funny, kind hearted, has his own story to tell and I think that everyone of us, jazz musicians, will get a chance to learn something out of it.
So, I googled you!
And that is a dangerous thing!
It is indeed! Now I have questions! For example: I’ve read that you participated in a TV show when you were 10?
Ah, true, my mother made me do it. I don’t really remember that time, I remember that I was always the guy that sang in school, so when there was something to do with singing, I was there, I got to be the one representing the school.
Yeah, that’s nice, that’s the only thing I’ve always known how to do. So I did it.
So you never went to a music school or something like that?
No, no, no. I learned at my parents’ house. My father is such a meloman, he knows everything about music… and we used to sing with my sister, I tried learning guitar, but never learned it. The way I learned music was by listening to it. Which was what jazz musicians used to do before the academisation of music, which is dangerous sometimes. Then I studied jazz, but only when I was in Barcelona, which was great, but it was after I already sunk a lot of music in.
So you do have some music education!
Yes, I studied jazz in Barcelona when I was 20.
So that was a conscious decision?
Yes! Because I was living in Mallorca, an island in Spain, I was just playing in bars, restaurants, and I thought that if I really want to understand music completely, I have to study it. I think the best process to do before is listening to music and maybe playing a little bit, and then studying and understanding what you’re doing and what you want to do. If I want to compose, I have to understand the mathematics of the music. Because there’s also that part, it’s not just emotional, you have to understand what is happening, so you can explore. So that’s what I did when I got to Barcelona.
You also play the piano, right?
Yeah, but only to accompaign myself, I’m not a pianist. I only play the piano because I know harmony and the piano is very visual, you know what’s happening, so I only play ballads, ’cause if I try to do a groove and sing at the same time — forget it! (laughs) I never had the discipline to study that. Singing was always so natural to me, that I never… I studied two years of piano and then left it. That’s one of my regrets. But we all have regrets, don’t we?
Sure thing. I also found out that before music you studied psychology. Did you finish it?
I dropped it on my third year when I started playing in bars. People called me to do gigs and I had school at 7 in the morning so I said to myself: Ok, I have to choose now. I was doing Erasmus in Spain, I called my mother and said: I think I’m going to quit school and stay here, on this island and play, because what I really love is music. She said: all right, then I’m going to stop sending you money, so you’ll have to figure it out by yourself. So I had to borrow money from my friend and when I started making money with music, I paid him back. I have no debts.
That is a good thing!
So why did you choose psychology? Why didn’t you choose music from the beginning?
I think maybe that’s because the music comes as a consequence of my need to communicate. Since I was a little boy I wanted to communicate, I wanted to know everybody, talk to everybody, learn every language, I’m obsessed with languages, and maybe music… I still haven’t figured out if music is a consequence of this need or whether it brings me to this wanting to communicate. I’m not sure which one came first — the chicken or the egg.
So, because of this need I felt like I needed to understand human mind, but you can also do that with music. You can dig in the minds of other people with music and with psychology. And the psychology is very interesting, but when you’re 19 or 20 years old you’re not really old enough to learn this, I feel we should all study when we’re 30. Ok, from 25 and on. If I studied the psychology major now I’d learn a lot. But when you’re 20 you don’t want to learn. I feel like school should start a little later than it does now. In Portugal you have to know what you’re going to do for the rest of your life when you’re 16 or 17, that’s crazy!
Yeah. It’s like — now you have to know what you’re gonna study. I’m like — I like people, let’s try psychology… And I’m sure it was very interesting, but I didn’t pay attention to a single class. Before I got famous with the Eurovision, I used to go to school, I have a friend who is a philosophy teacher in school, and I went to the public college, I did a lot of different classes, I got in and ask the teacher if I could sit in and I did a year of that. I studied cinema, Portuguese poetry, and then when I went to Eurovision it was impossible to go to school. But I still learn a lot. I want to do a major after all this sails out a little bit. I want to study literature, maybe. I love to read and it would also take my mind a bit off of music.
Can you point to the moment when you decided that — yes, I want to turn my life around and only do music?
Yes, in Mallorca. I went to a bar, they had a jam session and I thought — ok, I sing, I used to sing in Portugal, I’m going to try to sing in this jam session. So I get on stage, and the guitarist says — what do you want to sing? And it was a blues jam session, so I said — Ray Charles! He looked at me like — this little boy wants to sing Ray Charles? Ok… So I sang and by the end of the song he said — do you want to do some gigs and get money? And I’m like — I sing, which is what I like to do, and I get money? That’s crazy! And that’s when I started doing it and I did it for a year and I thought if I really want to do this, I want to learn music, learn jazz, learn harmony and that’s when I went to Barcelona. So the turning point was in Mallorca.
Because it was close to Mallorca and I loved being in Spain. And Barcelona has a great jazz school, and actually the owner of that school opened one in Portugal too. After Barcelona I wanted to go to Amsterdam, I did the audition, it went really well, they approved me right on the spot, but then the doctors didn’t let me go. This was in 2014. He said it was too far and if I had an emergency and needed to go to the hospital, nobody would know me and my condition and that I needed to come to Portugal instead. I knew these guys and we started doing my first album. If I stayed in Amsterdam I would have finished the jazz vocal major course now, so I’m kinda glad I didn’t do it. Maybe I would have played the piano better. Maybe yes, maybe not.
It was also in Mallorca, the guitarist that I used to play with, he showed me Chet Baker. He showed me «But Not For Me» so that we could do it in restaurants, where the German drunks don’t listen… I was completely blown away by the genuine truth of it, by Chet’s pain in his voice, the anguish, agony, the melancholy… The way he played trumpet like he sang, or the way he sang like he played trumpet, you never know which one comes first. I fell in love with Chet, I was obsessed with him! I read his biography twice («Deep In a Dream», it’s huge!), I read it twice to see that he didn’t die the second time, but he did both times. I was singing like him. I used to go to Barcelona and sing like him at jam sessions… After Chet came Miles, Ahmad Jamal, Billie Holliday, I started listening to everybody, Bill Evans, Keith Jarrett, Brad Mehldau. I always loved the piano trios. And then there were Dexter Gordon, Lester Young, you know? And I fell in love with jazz little by little. It’s still the music I listen to the most, it touches me the most, the swing. It’s not the music I do, but it is the music I listen to the most.
But you consider yourself a jazz musician, right?
Yes, but not in a traditional way, not jazz in the sense of swing, but jazz in a sense of communication on stage, conversation on stage and creativity and spontaneity, that way it’s jazz, yes. We are all jazz musicians who are doing something else, but the main thing, the main ingredient is jazz.
So how did a jazz musician end up in the Eurovision?
Good question. I did a TV show once before, it was like «The Voice», a horrible experience. I was 18 years old, I didn’t know who I was, nor artistically, nor personally, so it was a very traumatic experience for me. That’s why I left to Mallorca, because I was super traumatized by the whole thing. After that my sister called me and said — they invited me to do some festival, which is a festival where you choose somebody to go to Eurovision. Portugal was doing very bad in Eurovision and they said — let’s try and reshape the selection of the songs, because we’re taking shit there, we need to change the whole thing. They decided to call the best composers there were in the country and then they could interpret their song or they choose the interpreter to sing the song. So they called my sister, because she’s a very well known composer in Portugal, said — we want you to compose a song. She said — ok, obviously it’s not going to go to Eurovision, but I’m going to write it anyway. She wrote it and she called me and she said — look, I have this opportunity, we’re not going to win, because I wrote a jazz tune, Portugal is not going to choose that, so don’t worry, but it’s good for you! I had released an album a year before, but I couldn’t get the concert halls to call me, because it was jazz and nobody knew me really. They knew me more in Spain than in Portugal back then. My album wasn’t very famous. So she said — you’ll be on TV Sunday night, people are going to see you, you’re going to sing a song, the song is beautiful, so it’s not going to compromise you artistically in any way! You show up there on Sunday night, then you leave, it’s over, don’t worry. But it wasn’t just one Sunday night, it turned out to be a lot of Sunday nights.
Did the relationships between you and other jazz musicians change after the Eurovision?
It’s curious that you ask that. I always say that I want to please more than jazz musicians, anybody else, you know? I’m very insecure like that because singers in jazz are a bit insecure. Musicians sometimes don’t like singers, because they lose themselves in the structures… There’s very few singers in jazz that are musicians. But I remember when I won, I got a lot of text messages from jazz musicians saying that they were proud of me, they felt that I was representing them, you know? The jazz community. When I read that, for me it was a super achievement. I still go to jam session nights and play jazz standards with them, I never got any criticism, because everybody liked the song. It’s a jazz standard, the harmony and the melody. It’s a jazz waltz, but with the strings it is more like bossa nova, a Tom Jobim feel. Once at the Eurovision I started crying — what am I doing here? I’m prostituting myself! And my sister said — we’re on a mission here to bring good music to the people who are not used to it! It was too presumptuous of us to think we could change anything, because nothing changed, but at least we took there something we were proud of.
I think that winning a Eurovision with a jazz standard could be considered an achievement.
No, you’re right! And we did another achievement, which was this year! We played there with a live instrument! Remember when there were orchestras in Eurovision? Well, after that it never happened like that again. And then us.
Someone played at the Eurovision live?
Yes! Giulio did! This year, we went there to do a show together with Caetano Veloso and I said I’m only going there if we have a live instrument, I’m not lying to the people. They said — we can bring a piano, but it has to be… No, I said, I’m not going to lie to the people, if we’re playing, we’re going live. That was the biggest achievement. I don’t know if people really got that, but we know that and we’re happy about that.
So, how’s life for a jazz musician in Portugal?
It’s not easy. There’s not a lot of places that do jazz, there’s only one place jazz musicians go to, it’s called «Hot Club», we go there to jam sessions, that’s the only really jazz club in Lisbon, that’s the club where Benny Golson went to. It’s hard to live there as a jazz musician. Almost all of them teach, they have to. Because if not it’s hard to live from the gigs. We are very–very–very lucky.
Do you teach?
No. I couldn’t. The things I do, they come naturally, I’ve never learned technique. In Barcelona, when I was studying jazz, I tried having a vocal coach, she said — no, no, no! You already know the technique! So she just taught repertoire and she was great. I’m very good at imitating. I see what people are doing and I imitate them, I think it might have something to do with that. I’m a parrot. It’s same with languages.
How many of those you know?
Fluently — Portuguese, English and Spanish, and then I know French, because my wife is French. I know Catalan, Italian, and now I’m going to learn Swedish. I’m going to go to Stockholm for a month to learn the language.
Because I’ve seen Ingmar Bergman movies, I love them! And I love the way they speak! In the music they go (says something in Swedish), so I bought plane tickets and an intensive course and I’m going in February! I stopped all the gigs and for a month I’m going to be there.
I love languages! After music it’s my greatest passion, to speak languages.
So if you’d have to choose an alternative career, something not connected with music, what would it be?
I’d be a language teacher. Maybe I would translate stuff. Because teaching is a hard thing to do. I think it’s like any other artistic job — you have to have a talent for teaching. And I don’t have that. There’s a lot of teachers, and there’s a lot of jazz musicians who teach. But being a great musician doesn’t mean that you teach well. So there’s a lot of jazz musicians that are bad teachers, and it’s bad for the students that are trying to get somewhere and they can’t, and I don’t think I would be a great teacher. So maybe I will travel the world learning languages and I would translate. I think there’s a lot of translators living everywhere and they just need to send it through the computer, maybe I’d do that. Travel around the world, learn languages and translate. Spanish to Portuguese probably, because these two are my strongest. Maybe if one day I lose my voice I’ll do that. You never know. I’m ready for everything.
So, ok. Chet Baker is out of the question, Caetano Veloso is already done, which other guys you admire with whom you’d like to do some music?
Ahmad Jamal if he was alive. He’s playing the piano like he’s joking, making fun. I love these kind of musicians who are joking and laughing at the audience doing music, when he constantly plays the same note, like ting–ting–ting–ting–ting, always joking. There’s a Spanish singer I admire — I think she’s a singer I admire the most nowadays — Silvia Perez Cruz. Then if I did something with Brad Mehldau I would pass out. But I always imagine… I have talks with people I admire in the shower, hypothetical talks. It’s funny, because I had a lot of those with Caetano, I never thought I would meet him, so I had shower talks with him, I’d say — hey there, Caetano, how are you… But it didn’t go as planned. And I had a lot of talks with Brad Mehldau, we’d be playing standards, he would ask — which one you want to play? And i’d say — «You’ve changed!«, because this is the one that dominated them all and I’d have to sing something I know exactly how it goes so it couldn’t go wrong.
Which do you think is THE jazz standard?
If I had to choose one? Shit… I think — «I Fall In Love Too Easily» would be my standard. And there’s «Darn That Dream» of course, and there’s always «Body and Soul», I mean it never gets old.
So, mostly lyrical tunes?
Yeah, true! But I also like Charlie Parker stuff, you know? Those melodies are just crazy! But yes, if I could, I would just sing ballads.
Do you compose yourself?
Yes, mostly lyrics. Because I didn’t study enough and I don’t feel like my harmonies are very profound. A bit superficial. So I like asking people to send me music and then put lyrics on it, or the other way around — I send lyrics. I’m going to have 5 lyrics on the next album. I mostly write in Portuguese and Spanish. Sometimes English. I will have only one song in English in the next album, one in French and then 5 in Portuguese and 5 in Spanish.