In recent years, there has been a certain revitalization of lost and forgotten genres within the streaming generation. The idea of clarity, aesthetic and hard work has been lost in our current era, in some cases, and the simplistic and spiritual attitude towards music and its creation has diminished along with it. However, the idea of folk, Americana and acoustic singer songwriters writing and singing from diversity and acceptance is still at large; and at the façade of it all leading Barcelona and Ireland in many respects is Joanna Serrat.
An up-and-coming seasoned songwriter with an array of topics and semantics behind her work, Serrat is truly bringing back the love and tranquility that has been forgotten with time. It’s with this class and sincerity that has allowed her to be to storm through the industry, collaborating with prestige producers (Howard Bilerman), a number of intimate and eye opening releases, beginning with ‘The Relief Sessions’ and receiving a nomination for ‘Outstanding Artist’ on Noisetrade. She is a rising star in her own right, and a spokesperson for conquering insecurities and the feeling of vulnerability and not belonging. In this interview I spoke to her about some important topics on her journey including her two homes between Barcelona and Ireland, the constant development of her sound and what her new single ‘Tug of War’ means to her on a personal level.
You have previously listed your influences as Neil Young and Xesco Boix for your overall sound, and credit Americana folk to your style. Did you take inspiration from any other performers for ‘Cross the Verge’ this time around?
Neil Young is definitely one of my biggest influences of all times. I was 11 when I picked up one of his records and I fell in love instantly with the sound of those songs. I would not exactly say Xesco Boix is an influence of my sound. Mum used to play me his records to me when I was a child. Xesco Boix was a Catalan musician that had gone to States to learn some music during the height of Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger & Joan Baez’s folk period. So he came back to Catalunya under that sound with this bunch of American traditional songs that he would adapt and translate to the Catalan language. We cannot forget that, at that time, Spain was under a dictatorship, so all the channels were closed. In some way, he was a kind of pioneer that introduced us to the folk sound (along with other people). He used to play for kids and he belonged to one of the most important music groups of our musical culture named Grup de Folk. I think Xesco Boix revealed my passion for Americana music. But Neil Young’s influence was ‘right on target, so direct’. He is the beginning of everything, my big bang.
For ‘Cross The Verge’ I was very inspired by Mojave 3’s ‘Ask Me Tomorrow’ record. I had listened to this album before, but this time the album was more revealing. During the writing process of the songs I felt I was going more folk, but at the same time I was really captivated by the electric guitars’ 90’s sound. For what I was saying I needed an album filled with reverb, ambient and spaces, where every detail of the pictures and landscapes I was building in my head could breath. So, I felt identified with Mojave 3’s ‘Ask Me Tomorrow’. Lana del Rey’s Ultraviolence production by Dan Auerbach was inspiring and also ‘Trampled’ by Turtles’s Wild Animals record had an influence in the sound of ‘Cross The Verge’. But listening to ‘Ask Me Tomorrow’ again, it was breathtaking. I got into Mojave 3 late. I wish I had had the privilege to listen to them when the album was released in 1995.
In earlier interviews you’ve been quoted stating that ‘Tug of War’ is about the empiricism in your generation – ‘a song that talks about the people of my generation that once followed all the paths we were told to walk’. Does the rest of your album address the perceptions and differences of your generation?
No, it doesn’t. It is a personal and autobiographic record. ‘Tug of War’ comes up in a moment where I was starting all this liminal process. I guess it was something I wanted to say for a long time but I couldn’t find when to do it. ‘Cross The Verge’ talks about the price you pay when you’re coherent – when most of the time is being left alone. It is also a record that talks about the intangible and loss: I lost people on the way (trying to make a living with music, because I was coherent with it), I lost bits of myself and I crossed some lines that I’d rather I hadn’t. I also took some paths with no return, being aware of this. But sometimes you need to get rid of things and people that make you feel trapped and don’t let you be yourself.
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You have performed frequently with a full backing band as well as an acoustic solo act. When you write your pieces do you always have the arrangements in mind or is this a process that comes organically?
I pretty much have the arrangements in mind. It comes with the song as I am writing it. I always write the songs with my acoustic guitar (sometimes with the electric guitar) and, as I am playing, I listen to how I want the song to sound. But before the recording, in the studio, I do demos. Sometimes the demos are nearly complete or sometimes the demos only show the feeling of the song. And there’s always this bit of uncertainty when you work with musicians such as Neil Halsted, Gavin Gardiner, Basia Bulat or Ryan Boldt, that they end up giving you more of what you asked for. Which is awesome and beautiful.
‘Tug of War’ sounds like the perfect song for the winter-spring transition period, and much like ‘Dear Great Canyon’ and ‘The Relief Sessions’, ‘Cross the Verge’ is being released at the peak of this shift. Is this a coincidence or a conscious consideration of your music?
I think the releases being at the same time of the year it’s pretty much a coincidence, but I do feel my music or my songs are about trying’ to reach the light, in some way. Here it matches with this spring awakening and leaving the winter behind, I guess. For me, Cross the Verge is a twilight album. I wrote all the songs as the sun was setting, so I definitely feel this had an impact on the shape of the songs and the final sound of the album. And I think most of them were written during wintertime. Maybe, this is my signature: the fight between dark and light. I do see this element in my 3 albums – The Relief Sessions, Dear Great Canyon and Cross The Verge. I think I have this dark side (I guess everyone of us has it) that leans out of me once in a while and with it comes the battle that I have to deal with.
You grew up in Barcelona, and emigrated to Ireland in your adult life, a move similar to the flamenco duo Rodrigo Y Gabriela. With both countries being so rich in music and culture did you ever feel out of place in your new home?
There’s this song “Deer Creek Canyon” by Sera Cahoone, which I understand as this love-hate relationship that some people develop with their hometown. This is what I feel about Vic. Sometimes I hate it and sometimes I love it. If I spend too much time in town, I hate it, but if I think about the quiet life, then I think it’s okay, even ideal. I love its location and its landscape. Moving to Dublin was the best thing I could do. I felt so trapped in Vic, I never ended up belonging to Barcelona while I was studying there and needed to redo and reclaim my roll with friends and family. Needed to prove a lot of myself. That’s why I left and I came back with some good lessons and, for the first time, knowing that I wouldn’t pay any attention to them if my voice was good or bad for singing. But I constantly feel out of place everywhere.
Your new release marks your fourth album to date. Have you found your sound or is this a process that even after eight years is still ever developing?
‘Cross The Verge’ is my third album and I started my career in 2012 with The Relief Sessions. I did record some demos under another artistic name before that and I started playing in bars around my hometown, Vic. And even that I consider these previous years as part of training, what really marks my career’s starting shot as Joana Serrat is when I considered myself a singer-songwriter, and I took awareness of it. I faced this fact and I stopped being scared about failure anymore. The Relief Sessions is a result of this thought and comes after some very dark years and it represents the fight for light. This is why it is so naïve and eclectic, because I was still searching for my identity. I don’t know how others artists feel about it, but my career as a singer-songwriter is closely linked to my personal maturity. Once it’s said, I do feel very comfortable with this sound but I think artists can never stop searching and if you feel you’ve done it all, maybe it’s time to stop.
This Joana Serrat article was written by John Gittins, a GIGsoup contributor