“The most important struggle is the one you have within”

Enric Montefusco

Portrait of Enric Montefusco © Dani Codina

An hour-long conversation with composer and singer Enric Montefusco (Barcelona, 1977) shows that cities are infinite and that many albums could be made about each district in Barcelona. Though he didn’t plan it this way, his first two solo albums, Diagonal (Buenasuerte/El Segell, 2019) and Meridiana (Sony, 2016), refer to Barcelona’s two main thoroughfares. This urban toponymy helps to unravel experiences as a resident of the city and turn them into an exercise to explore the human condition with a collection of songs with their own stamp that are influenced by folk, rock and flamenco in equal measure. The former singer of Standstill, one of the top independent Catalan post-rock bands, reflects on a new and much more transparent political awareness, his 20-year-old artistic career and how he has made it this far.

You have chosen to meet in Plaça de la Virreina de Gràcia for this interview.

I have very good memories of this square. For me, it’s a little oasis in the city. And besides, we’re close to Diagonal...

Yes, but now you live in Empordà.

I have left Barcelona twice in recent years and my feeling is that the city has become worse. The reasons why I left are still valid and have multiplied. Once you have tasted another type of life, on a more human scale and without all this unnecessary information around you, which distracts you, it puts you in a bad mood and deviates you from yourself... you don’t want to give it up.

Does this distance help you to talk about Barcelona in a different way?

I composed the album Meridiana precisely when I took this distance from my city, shortly after leaving for the first time. I needed to talk about my place of origin, of what I felt every time I went to my neighbourhood and couldn’t explain...

What neighbourhood do you come from?

Specifically from the area between Navas and Sagrera, on Carrer Espronceda, right in front of that psychedelic and retrofuturistic church built in the late 1960s [the church of Sant Joan Bosco]. I had my first communion there and my mother still attends... When I decided to create Meridiana, I didn’t plan to follow it up with a metaphorical analogy in Diagonal, but I saw that I could play with the idea. I don’t talk about social classes because if I did, I would run out of resources, and I mean subjects, areas of our lives, which can give you so much more. When the time comes to compose the next album, I don’t know if I’ll be tired of this game.

In Diagonal, your second solo album, you employ all the symbols that this avenue stands for.

In my world, in the symbolism that I unwillingly ended up building in my head, Diagonal and the places around it have symbolised power, money and business. It’s where you have to move and sell if you want to prosper. There is also another Diagonal on the other side, which is very different. I remember that I had aunts and uncles who lived in the upper part of Diagonal, which had another status, and when we visited them it was like taking a trip to another universe, to another social class. That’s how I have internalised it, since childhood, though I stress that my albums have never focused on class. Instead, the symbology I use has to do with the social and political context. Diagonal represents where you have to go if you want to prosper and I am sure that there is a similar part of each neighbourhood where you have to go, metaphorically speaking.

Other parts of Barcelona also have powerful symbolism, like the Rambla. Have you considered other locations?

I haven’t. When I composed Meridiana, I did not plan to continue this Barcelona saga, but when I understood what I needed to draw out of the songs and their underlying theme, I understood that Diagonal could be a complementary album, a continuation or response to what I explain in Meridiana. That is, what has happened to the people who have left those neighbourhoods, in this current context that has conditioned us so much and in which we have to earn a living? Most of us have been pretty messed up and very touched by our upbringing. The reality that we experience is not what they sold us at home, at school or on television. And not only do we have the great task of undoing what they have instilled in us, but we must also find a place in the world, and this represents a mountain of problems just like society is built.

Diagonal was released at the same time as two intense elections and there are songs like “Himno de Europa” [Hymn of Europe] and “Hermosa España” [Beautiful Spain] with many references to the current political situation. How has the political context influenced you?

Like everyone else, I am the product of this entire avalanche of information and of the things that happen, and political events in recent years have shaped my way of being, of being in this world and of composing. I have increasingly been acquiring a certain awareness to a degree very different from what I was used to. I come from hardcore music and I’ve always been aware that what I was doing had a political side and interpretation, but I had never brought it to the surface and to the lyrics as explicitly as now, perhaps due to tiredness or anger. I had never felt indignant and this has pushed me to be much more direct.

You also talk about current issues like immigration. Have you ever feared that your album is too close to reality?

No, because even though the issues I’m talking about are valid, they will unfortunately continue to happen and come from far away. And in that sense, I’m not afraid and I haven’t really thought about it. These songs have been coming out of me spontaneously and at no time did I consider vetoing or censoring myself. That is another thing I have learned over time: that I should not limit myself and that my best tool is not thinking about what I am doing or the impact it will have. I have to let myself act and not look at myself from the outside. When you try to calculate the effects of what will happen to your work, first, you’re never right and, second, it will be too conditioned and less true. It will stop being something fresh.

How does creative freedom combine with making albums that have to generate financial profit?

I’ve never allowed myself to be shaped by that. As an artist, I have always done whatever I wanted to do.

How did you go from singing in English to singing in Spanish in Standstill’s eponymous album in 2006?

I switched to Spanish because I had a burning need to express myself in my language or in a language I dominated. And if I make more direct songs now, this is because I have reached a place in my life where I need to be more horizontal and direct. This is rather commercial. Sometimes it works for you and sometimes it works against you. Sometimes I do things that nobody understands. I can do theatre that nobody understands. These are things that I discovered along the way, but they do not shape me.

In Diagonal, you reflect on the power of money.

I speak about the contradiction between what I explain in the album and what it means to release it. I talk about this difficulty. I have never tried to present myself as the good guy in the movie who fights the bad guys. There is another struggle, which one has with oneself, a very tough internal struggle to discover what is worth fighting for and what is not, what you do due to inertia and what you do because you really need it. From all this struggle, what I try to say in the album is that the important struggle is the one you have within. The song “La reconquista” [The Reconquest] is about reconquering the important things, those that question the dynamics to that the system requires of us to prosper in life or find a comfortable place in the world. Comfort and money always have a price.

In the song “Quien abre camino” [The One Who Opens the Path], you speak of the difficulties of creation. The refrain goes: “Quien abre camino no tiene quien le dé consuelo” [the one who opens to path has nobody to console him]. That is very evocative line.

Listening to an album is a game of projections. Being able to offer this flexibility of meaning is part of the poetry; otherwise, I would write essays! Music, poetry and folk songs can hold up a mirror up to you, making you deal with issues openly so that they cannot only be interpreted one way. And when you manage to find the right concept or phrase, which does not always happen, you can find many layers of meaning. This line can refer to someone defending the freedom of expression from prison, or a child or teenager rebelling against his or her mother, or someone who tries to find his or her calling amidst all this general insanity pushing them to do anything else. They are universal themes that can be applied to almost everything.

At what point were you in your career when you released Diagonal?

I still haven’t taken much distance from the album, but I have the feeling that it is not so much an album that should show me to the world, but one that has arisen after 20 years now of going out to sell my story, which in fact is what I have done so far. I have also been doing it very intimately, trying to explain to the world who I am, what I need to tell and share and what I found along the way. When you begin to sell and gain access to a dimension beyond your intimate reality, that is when the game begins, especially if you have to earn a living. And this has meant many lessons and many setbacks, some of which are reflected in the album. The song “Bienvenido” [Welcome] talks about it, when for some reason, either because of luck or because you have talent, the focus is suddenly placed on you and they raise you up and you’re not aware of what this means, in that they are really focusing on what they want from you.

Have you made many mistakes throughout your artistic career?

So many! And of all kinds! In general, we all need perspective on things and about what we want to do in life. In my case, I found in music a tool to express myself and to overcome a very powerful feeling of frustration and discomfort that I had. And that is a very big force that stretches you. Especially in the artistic world, it is easy to lose sight of what is really important. When you start to attain a certain level of success, it becomes even harder to manage: the price of ambition, the cost of demand... Several songs from Diagonal speak about this. In the end it’s about being comfortable with yourself, here and now. And nothing else. Great adventures and great epics are not necessary, because they bring you more headaches than anything else.

We could say that you have gone from hardcore epic with Standstill to the simplest and most direct form of folk in your solo albums. Your way of singing has also evolved.

Tremendously! My singing teacher could not understand how I could scream like that in Standstill’s first albums. There have been different things that have moved forward at the same time. For instance, in the musical forms, from this explicit initial hardcore outburst or frustration, the scream... Forms change and I have learned about new resources. It has been a process in which I have overcome many prejudices and opened myself up to new languages. It is about finding a voice of your own and communicating in the most direct way possible.

Portrait of Enric Montefusco © Dani Codina © Dani Codina

It seems like you have set out on a path of general purge.

I have come to write very cryptic lyrics, with many word games, with a lot of sophistication, trying to put into play an intelligence that stimulated me before, but not so much today. Today it is more stimulating to find the right word to help me and to share it with others. There is also the question of where I direct my effort. I’ve been able to give very big concerts, and I still do, with large audiences and a big budget, but over time I have noticed that maybe I prefer something simpler and connecting with people. I prefer to impress less and to communicate more. In the end, everything leads to discovering what popular music and culture mean.

Diagonal has many melodies of flamenco inspiration as well as some close to the copla. Is the use of these musical resources a way to enhance your own cultural heritage?

We need to overcome our prejudices. I come from a totally Anglo-Saxon musical culture. Personally, it has been a round trip. And if it was a matter of making popular music and not necessarily modern music or anything that you want to be new, you would come across the music that has been done here historically. I did not search for it, I stumbled onto it. I’m not trying to do flamenco, I just want to share all those influences that have come to me in one album. And if a flamenco-style melody comes out of it, that’s just what I’ll do and I won’t have to justify anything.

In Coros de Medianoche [Midnight Choirs] (Buena Suerte-Sony 2018), you collaborated with musicians like Maria Arnal, Hermanos Cubero, El Niño del Elche, Albert Pla and Nacho Vegas, who have a similar way of approaching popular, folk and flamenco music.

There is a generational component. Most of these musicians, like Nacho Vegas, come from a more indie musical culture, including all the Anglo-Saxon influence that goes with that. We have all taken different paths, but ones heading in the same direction and each of us has found a different response with a lot of character.

Maybe your style of making songs is the toughest of all. Your lyrics have a great density of content and meaning.

Striking a balance between form and background is my daily work. My personal challenge is to turn all experiences and reflections into something that can be easily shared.

What kind of music are you listening to these days?

Right now, not a lot. It’s really hard for me to find what I demand from music. Because I am very demanding with myself and I set the bar very high, when I apply that to the music I listen to, it’s really hard for me to enjoy it because I analyse it. In any case, I’m interested in artists who can touch your soul, whose lyrics reach the deepest places with a universal language. I think of such masters as Leonard Cohen, Jacques Brel, Nina Simone... These are people who achieved something very difficult: being popular and having a very deep and critical discourse at the same time.

Are those the ones you have been listening to more in recent years?

Yes. Popular music is not only expressive, but also salutary, meaning that it has to be committed to its reality and not be complacent. And it is not easy to find this with very popular artists. It is a difficult balance that I am looking for because it is easy to fall into contradictions.

Your music exudes a certain sophistication, but in Meridiana and Diagonal there are songs that invite people to sing with you.

I think so, because I understood that popular music consists of sharing, of seeking collective catharsis, and that is partly what I look for.

In fact, at many concerts, you often come down off the stage at some point and sing among the audience, surrounded by your musicians ...

This refers to this catharsis inherent in popular music. One of the lessons I learned from the first concerts of the Diagonal tour is that after an hour-long concert, with all the media, volume, sound, amplification... the audience especially remembers the moment in which we go down among them, singing a cappella. We barely hear it, but there is a real energy because we share a moment in the same space and we experience it in a literal horizontality. This is the energy that people take home and that is what popular music should be like. This is its natural habitat. The anomaly is amplification, which forces you to go up on stage and see things from above. Unfortunately, I can’t always do it for technical issues, but I love it when I do!

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