“It’s nice to love the music you are at every stage of your life”
- Mar 21
- 19 mins
Sílvia Pérez Cruz
Despite the overall uncertainty in the world of culture and the constant changes in her concert schedule, Sílvia Pérez Cruz started the year 2021 on a strong footing with two new albums released in 2020, Farsa (género imposible) and MA. Live in Tokyo. Her music also featured on the soundtrack of Josep, a poignant animated film about exile during the Franco dictatorship by the cartoonist Josep Bartolí. We talked to the singer-songwriter from Palafrugell about her time as both a songwriter and performer, her connection with other artistic disciplines, how she embraces creative freedom and all the birthday songs she wrote for friends during the lockdown.
The Uruguayan musician Jorge Drexler said of her that she was "a voice that marks a generation". And indeed, her characteristic and unique style, with a great deal of flamenco and song, has marked a turning point in Mediterranean song in the last decade. Educated in classical music, jazz and popular tradition, Sílvia Pérez Cruz (Palafrugell, 1983), began her professional career as a singer in the flamenco group Las Migas in 2004, and at the same time in the field of singer-songwriter songs with the guitarist Toti Soler and in jazz, with the double bass player Javier Colina. In 2012 she debuted as a composer and soloist with 11 de noviembre, an autobiographical album, which aroused the enthusiasm of audiences and critics alike and catapulted her upward trajectory marked by versatility and a variety of genres and formats with works such as Granada (2014), Domus (2015) and Farsa (género imposible) (2020), the most recent one. In recent years she has also participated in various dance, theatre and film projects, which have led her to make her debut as an actress, win several awards, such as two Goyas for best song (2013 and 2017), and sign soundtracks, such as the one for the animated film José, which was released in 2020.
The pandemic constantly decides the prospect of holding concerts and the capacity of musicians to carry on working as usual. How are you experiencing this volatility?
It’s a very tough time. On the one hand, I feel like I can’t complain from a personal point of view because I know I’ll be one of the first options to be hired as soon as it is possible. That said, on the other hand, I think I have to complain on behalf of everyone. I don’t want to personalise it, but I get the feeling that despite having scheduled shows, it’s like we’re pushing them forward because they can’t take place now. Besides, it’s a situation that affects everyone financially.
Do you think the pandemic has revealed the fragility that culture experiences and survives?
Yes, absolutely. Almost all of my friends are musicians or artists, people who are used to getting by one day at a time, without any sort of security, and giving concerts when they can. Perhaps the most security you can have are classes. What the pandemic has shown is that everything is very fragile and that we have become accustomed to it, but it shouldn’t be like that. What’s more, we are France’s neighbour. When you see how they look after artists there, you feel really unprotected. There are so many people living off culture who haven’t earned a cent in a long time.
It may be a cliché, but it’s often said that artists are used to living with this constant uncertainty.
One thing is the creative part and the other is the profession. Sometimes it all gets blurred. Over these months of the pandemic we have been asserting the importance of culture for society. It needs to be nurtured and its supreme importance must be understood for people to feel free, alive and able to rethink things and to break their moulds. Culture is a master at stirring emotions. That’s why it should be looked after as a resource for everyone. But, on the other hand, we must also understand that culture is a profession, that there are people that earn a living from it. As for me, I am really relishing rehearsing. The creative part of sharing, of understanding how we humans relate through music makes me happy. You discover so many things when you’re rehearsing... The creative part is very nurturing for the soul, but it’s a different path for the stomach.
In Farsa (género imposible) (2020), your latest album, you bring together some of your collaborations with artists from other disciplines, such as dance and theatre, over the last three or four years. What has this process of selecting and re-recording these songs been like?
It’s been really interesting because all these songs were created collaboratively, listening to what the other party wanted and designed to accompany dance or film. When you separate them from that, you can only treat them as music, as songs, and lots of things can change. You can fill, and you can empty. You can add the musicians or the instruments you want... You can dream freely. For example, I was able to reconnect with friends and play with musicians I was eager to perform with again. The moment of recording the record – not so much the composition but the arrangements, the sound and the way it is recorded – very much captures the moment I was in at that time.
Give me an example.
I think where this is most palpable is in the instrumental parts. There are small moments with sound textures that are perhaps what I felt like doing most at that time. I wanted to experiment. To understand that, depending on where you are, you can occupy one space or another, and gradually understand how it progressively evolves is very interesting.
Could being free when it comes to broaching a song or to seeking out a new approach be related to your jazz background? Jazz standards are still variations of an original theme.
“When I feel like creating a song I ask myself, ‘Let’s see, how do I want it to sound?’ I think it’s a question that involves accepting a lot of things about yourself that are really hard.”
Yes, actually, what I’ve done with Farsa are different versions of the original songs; the difference in this case is that I was involved in both. But now I can do it more freely because I can afford to focus on the sound and musical part. But when you make a cover version, I think what’s nice is not to think that your version should be better than the previous ones, because there are cover versions that are really beautiful. When I feel like creating a song I wonder what I can contribute and I venture to embark on this journey. I ask myself, “Let’s see, how do I want it to sound?” I think it’s a very short question, but it involves accepting a lot of things about yourself that are really hard. It’s a journey that you must constantly make as a person and as a musician. In other words, asking yourself, “How do I feel?” I must accept how I feel now and, at the same time, know that that will surely change over time. That is really nice.
It’s true that people progressively change over a lifetime.
In life you must keep in mind that you do things as if by instalments, and that one day you are in a certain frame of mind, but that you will certainly have a change of heart about some things later on. And your music is going to change, and it’s nice to love the music you are at that point in time. We tend to pay close attention to what we want to be and then we only see all the flaws in what we do. Nor do I think that you should do whatever comes to mind, but, gosh, you have to see what you are really like, not what you see yourself reflected in. You have to find out what you’re feeling at that time sounds like and leave yourself this space to just be.
This exercise in sincerity seems to involve tremendous personal exposure.
Absolutely. In fact, the title of the album, Farsa, stems from this vulnerability, not so much to show the perfect things but to reveal that we are something very flawed. Understanding the beauty of imperfection and the beauty of vulnerability. In fact, there is a song I wrote during the lockdown, called “La flor” [The Flower], which is based on something a friend told me. I spoke to her a lot about nature because during the lockdown I had paid even more attention to it, to all its cycles, and to all the things you can understand about how it works. She began to draw a parallel with a flower: she told me that, to be able to blossom, before it must break. There is a moment of pain and then it blossoms. Then comes the part that involves exposure to light, which is a time of supreme vulnerability. And, besides that, the whole incredibly lonely process that the seed has to endure. I found it very beautiful and easy to understand. We must accept these breaks and this vulnerability.
Going back to Farsa, there are songs that came into being alongside the dancer Rocío Molina during the show Grito Pelao; others that were written for the play Cyrano, performed by Lluís Homar; and some for the film Josep... Had this way of composing in collaboration with other arts been a regular occurrence for you until then?
On the one hand, being in touch with other disciplines has always come naturally to me, because of the way I have been brought up. I’ve always been surrounded by different artists and it’s something I naturally very much take into consideration. It’s not that I’m a particularly cultured person, but I do think I have flair. I really like the part that involves observing, listening and understanding how a photograph sounds, what colour a song has. Put this way mightn’t seem to make sense, but it’s a question of understanding the balance of beauty in artistic expression. So, as for this part, it was something I was accustomed to doing.
And on the other hand?
On the other hand, now I have the opportunity to meet more people, people I admire and who like my work, and to do things we couldn’t do before because we didn’t know each other. I think that artistically, and as a performer more than from a song-writing point of view, there came a time when I needed to be nurtured by the way other artists expressed their emotions. I needed to find new paths, to somewhat go back to scratch, and dance helped me a great deal. In the creative realm, it helps me find things I’d never have thought of, to create compositions on themes that you’d never been able to create alone, related to a theme or even style. For instance, tango is a genre I’d never have played, but it emerged thanks to the show with Rocío Molina, because Rocío’s maternal grandparents danced tango. I remember Rocío telling me at that time that she wanted to get pregnant through IVF as a single mother, and we decided that we had to allude to all topics in the show and we included it. And the issue of the absent father also came up, and just then I came across “For a Fatherless Son”, Sylvia Plath’s poem, which is also on the album. And that poem made me compose in a different, profound, structurally different way. Something happened there. Then I ran everything through my filter, but the path comes from places I had never imagined before.
The album was released in October 2020. Had it been recorded before the first lockdown?
Yes, it was already finished, and in fact, its release was scheduled for 24 April, but... During the lockdown I was told: “Sílvia, it can’t be released now, it will come out on 2 October”. And I decided to move the release of another album forward that was to come out in December, which is MA. Live in Tokyo.
The live duet album with pianist Marco Mezquida...
Yes, we were talking and, as it had already been recorded, we decided to release it at the height of the pandemic, as we were immersed in a very volatile time, living in a very restricted space, everyone confined to their home. And this record is live and it is what it is: just the two of us in a small venue with a Japanese audience. It was a last-minute decision, but I’m so glad I made it, because we wanted to share this music with people because we know music can heal. And for us, from a creative point of view, making the mix was liberating for us.
In addition to mixing this record, were you able to compose during the lockdown?
Well, I remember that one day, during the lockdown, someone asked me if I had composed and I said no. But then I realised that I had! The thing is that I did so in such a natural way that the verb “compose” didn’t come to mind. I wrote about six songs for my friends that were birthday gifts. In fact, these are the songs I will play in a show planned for the Barcelona Jazz Festival with young musicians.
This is called popular and everyday music!
“Creative education plays a pivotal role, not to become a professional, but simply to express ourselves, to pass it onto children.”
Yes, absolutely. They are the result of a truly natural process. It’s the way I express myself! I realised that creative education plays a pivotal role, not to become a professional, but simply to express ourselves, to pass it onto children. To have creative resources and be able to enjoy time differently. If at some point you don’t know what to do, being able to tap into this inventiveness to create, to have an active imagination and to create things is very healthy.
In fact, your music also features many traditional and folk songs, from fado to habaneras, such as “Vestida de nit”, composed by your father. Do you perceive a general awakening of this music in new generations of musicians, including pop and rock?
Totally. In fact, in several places on the [Iberian] Peninsula it seems that it’s fashionable to recover one’s heritage. I remember when I was asked, at the outset of my career, what attracted me so much to traditional music. I replied that they are musical structures that have lasted a long time, have been honed, have withstood the passage of time and are very condensed, and are like musical axioms, with very strong lyrics, a very clear harmony and a melody that does not break. When you perform them you know that it isn’t going to break, and even if you add your imagination and whatever you want, it will almost always work. They have overcome so many things, so many climates, so many people, who have that immortal element and they give you tremendous freedom to create. You keep one foot on the ground while you can fly with the other.
Throughout your career there have been other collaborations that have been decisive, such as the album En la imaginación (2011), with the trio of jazz bass player Javier Colina, and Granada (2014), with guitarist and producer Raül Fernández.
Yes, in my career I identify two paths. One would be the one characterising my own song-writing, made up of the records 11 de novembre, Domus and Farsa, and every now and then I release an album. I always compose naturally and then there comes a time when I say, “This is already an album”. For example, 11 de novembre is related to my father’s death, and half of the repertoire is songs he had been composing until his death and the other half were to assimilate death. Domus emerged from a film – Cerca de tu casa, by Eduard Cortés – but it was a way for all that musical imaginary I had to come out, and the same thing occurs in Farsa. And the other path is related to cover versions and the interpretation, which are much more instinctive things!
Composition is a more solitary, more leisurely process. The starting point is also organic, but then comes a whole part involving preparation, simmering things over a low heat, and thinking. There is also, of course, a part of interpreting what you compose, but doing covers of songs composed by others has really helped me to discover my interpretive approach, how I express myself when singing. And it doesn’t matter if it’s mine or someone else’s; in the end, when I enjoy it, I don’t think about who the song is by. And it’s from collaborations with other people that I learn the most, not so much from the styles, but from the people you come across. I really admired Colina, for example, long before I could play with him. It was one of my musical dreams, until he called me. At least once a year Colina and I do a concert, which is like having a coffee, and then everything goes back to normal.
En la imaginación was an album framed in jazz. What is your current relationship with this genre?
I started with jazz because when I was studying classical saxophone at the age of 18, in my town, in Palafrugell, I played the classical pieces and changed them, because playing them the same all the time didn’t seem at all natural to me. I also reckon I did it because of my experience at home, because I experienced the most popular aspect of music, music to communicate, to create a festive atmosphere. One day, my teacher said to me, “Do you know that there is a music genre called jazz that changes the melodies?” And he just gave me music transcripts so I could understand what that music was. For me, that represented freedom, the freedom to compose instantly what I felt and also the freedom from the harmonic point of view. Although now I’m at a time when I need a lot fewer chords: I’m happy making songs with three chords. But I do believe that, on a deep level, jazz is the music in which this basic freedom does exist, to express what I felt at that moment. And that’s something I always, always have in mind, even if it means changing just one note. For me this also means improvising and changing what has been decided and that can be changed, all of us on stage know that, if we feel like it, there are things that can be changed.
So when you perform, do you always leave that door open to improvisation and flexibility?
Totally. There are songs that are more square, but you throw caution to the wind and say, “After this part, let whatever has to happen happen”. When there are more of us on stage we need to be better organised, but, for example, in the case of the concerts with Marco Mezquida, there is a great deal of improvisation. In fact, it’s a format that we have almost rehearsed.
From jazz we move on to flamenco, another of the genres that is very palpable in your repertoire and in your beginnings with the band Las Migas. Do you experience it with this same freedom?
“In flamenco, there is a part of this freedom that is related to something that cannot be studied and that cannot be shared, because you have to breathe.”
Yes, yes, flamenco also has this freedom and, at the same time, one of the things that most struck me about flamenco when I was starting to become acquainted with it is that, deep down, it is all calculated. At the beginning it was like a disappointment, but then I understood that freedom lies in other places, in being able to start dancing in the middle of the set, in knowing how to react in the closings, in this rhythmic freedom that, for those of us who come from a classical and jazz background, we want to tell everything in a more mathematical way, seems magical to us. And there is a part of this freedom that is related to something that cannot be studied and that cannot be shared, because you have to breathe.
Almost ten years ago, when you presented your first solo album, 11 de novembre, you said in an interview that you were surprised how a music that you considered so uncommercial had landed in so many hands. A decade later, your music has reached an international audience. Do you still think that your music isn’t commercial?
Wow! Now I am really touched because I remember the time of that interview perfectly. I knew that 11 de novembre could be a much more commercial album, even my followers expected it to be a much more of a singer’s album, but I had a different need. I’ve always had this relationship with music in which I feel that I cannot lie, which is different from the artistic lie, of creating a character for yourself, for example. With that album I was taking a big gamble: my way of understanding life and a space in which I feel happy and find myself again was at stake. I was very clear that I didn’t want to pervert it and I did what I needed. It’s a very fragile album, so vulnerable... I was happy because I needed to do it and I did it. It was like a celebration of life, a rebirth. And suddenly I encountered a spectacular reception against the odds.
Was it a turning point for you?
From that point on, a way of being, of singing, a more Iberian form of singing opened up, and, at the same time, many possibilities for composition. I remember they told me: “Sílvia, you have to focus, don’t do so many different styles.” But then I was granted the Altaveu 2014 award for versatility and risk [laughs]. Then mixing began to be much more accepted. But going back to whether the music is commercial or not, I think that sometimes we treat the audience as if they just want fast food, and it is really nice and important to value the audience, because they are people, and people recognise when things are painstakingly done and are authentic, and that are done from the heart. If we can identify these things, the audience, which is still a sum of all of us, can too.
- Farsa (género imposible) Universal Music, 2020
- MA. Live in TokyoUniversal Music, 2020
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