Miguel Girão is a guitarist born in Castelo Branco, bred in Lisboa, and currently residing in Glasgow. Girão stands between the worlds of classical and traditional music, having graduated with a degree in classical guitar at Escola Superior de Música de Lisboa (ESML) and currently attending the Traditional Music program at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland (RCS). He has also been in the traditional Irish music scene in Portugal for many years, performing with bands such as Crann Mór, MagMell, and The Hilltop Ramblers, as well as being a regular member of The Lisbon Irish Session. Additionally, his solo performances have been featured as part of the concert cycle Lisbon Guitar Masters.
Miguel Girão’s first solo studio album, Prologue, offers a fresh take on folk music with a blend of traditional and original tracks. The album is not only a first for Miguel, but also for Garden Collective as it breaks out as an independent label.
Atlas caught up with Miguel over Zoom as he beamed in from his new home, Glasgow, and talked through the process from start to finish.
How did the album come about?
Well, it sort of came about by accident when I was invited to be a guest musician at Joaquim de Brito’s (aka Shaka) Open Mic, in Camones Cinebar. Before my set, Shaka introduced me to the crowd and told them that I was working on my first EP. It was a lie, but I genuinely don’t think Shaka knew. I never told him in the first place that I was working on an EP, but I think he truly believed it.
This experience stuck with me, and it also happened to be around the same time that I was preparing my audition for the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland (RCS), for which I had to research a wide variety of tunes. I found myself sifting through Bulgarian, Portuguese, Scottish, Irish, and American tunes, and because I had spent so many hours researching and arranging those tunes, it came to a point that I became very fond of the body of work. After that, I started to write a few original tunes and held on to these arrangements. Over time, all these ideas came closer and closer together, and it turned into what I can now proudly call Prologue.
It’s probably the best accident in my life, so far.
When did it turn from a collection of tunes to an album?
At the time of arranging and writing these tunes, I was constantly sharing it with my good friend and bandmate Marco Silva. I always knew that if I was to record something, he would be my guy to work with. He’s a good friend, but also a top-notch professional. So, after composing and doing some home recordings, I showed what would be the final product to Marco, and he just said, “I listened to it, I think it sounds great, let’s record it.” This all happened at the beginning of lockdown, so the opportunities for recording something in a studio were quite sparse. Fortunately, though, in May and July of 2020, I managed to book a few sessions in Atlantic Blue Studios with Marco, and we just worked away there and recorded the whole thing. I could not have done it without Marco.
How was it recording during such strange times?
To be honest, it was a bit of a blessing to have the studio just for me. It wasn’t even just one room, it was literally the entire building. So, we decided to take our time doing it, and really do the best job that we could, experimenting with all the different microphones and gear available. So, in a sense, COVID-19 worked completely to my advantage. Also, previous to recording, and because of lockdown, I had done so many hours of recording in my bedroom that when I came to the studio, I just felt at home. That’s why I luckily had such a good lockdown. I don’t think I will actually get another chance like that again. The album would still have happened even if lockdown didn’t, but it definitely would not have been the same. Having that extra time to really listen back and to experiment was incredibly important.
Tell me a bit about your instrumentation that you used on the album.
Over the past five years, my main instrument has become the guitar, and as far forward as I can look, I always see it being my main instrument. I did, however, have a phase that I went through where I tried to learn how to play as many instruments as I could get my hands on. I tried out the bouzouki, mandolin, violin, banjo, and a lot of other shit. I was trying to do it all at the same time and eventually I came to the realisation that I couldn’t play any of those instruments properly. This is when I decided to just stick with the guitar. It is quite unfortunate and something that I sometimes regret, because I feel like I’m missing out on a knowledge of knowing other instruments and how that influences the way you play the others.
On the album, I recorded all the guitar parts, the harmonium, the banjo, some octave mandolin as well as the vocals. I also had a chance to include some friends as guest musicians. I had Marco (Sillva) play some banjo, the Fonseca brothers (Bruno and Marco) playing a couple of my original tunes, and I also had Andrés Fuzeiro, a good friend of mine, playing the bodhrán. It was so cool to have the chance to have friends playing with me, especially working on my own tunes and arrangements. I like to think that the sonic landscape of the album is quite discreet, in part because of the choice of instruments but likewise, the people that played those instruments. All the guest musicians that I had play are not necessarily extravagant or virtuoso musicians, but, fortunately for me, they happen to be the musicians who I really wanted to have on that recording.
Furthermore, I would like to add, when I first started to produce the album, I was a bit afraid of it being just a guitar thing — not that that is something bad, but that was not the way I wanted to do things. So from the early stage of the process, I always had in my mind that I need a few guest musicians, and I’m quite fortunate that it worked out that way.
Talk us through your process of writing/arranging the tunes.
“The Restless Will” is probably the first song that I ever composed, and over the years it changed constantly until I reached a point of closure with it for this record. As for the other tunes, part of them were arranged for my application to the Conservatoire and some others were just compositions that I had been working on at that time and it all eventually came together. I did compose and arrange a few others that aren’t on the record.
To be honest, I think I take much more delight in reinterpreting old tunes than I do in writing my own music. The thing that I feel about trad music and folk music in general, is that because it exists in this no-man’s-land of ownership, that is an invitation to put yourself in that tune. It’s actually something that I’ve heard a lot of my musical heroes saying. Every time you play or compose a tune, you’ve got to put yourself in it. It’s not in the sense that when you hear the music, you hear the musician and not the tune, it’s actually the other way around. You’re not adapting the tune to your desires. I can’t remember what composer it was who said, “I am governed by the rules of my own pleasure.”
Trad and folk move by word of mouth through generations and centuries. I don’t believe that there is any one version of the same tune. It’s impossible. I think that the idea of constant change in the repertoire and the way people interpret the music is what allows trad and folk music to move forward.
My favourite aspect of traditional music is that it is so versatile when it comes to blending with other styles and approaches. For me, when it comes to arranging and composing in the trad context, that’s what I like the most… the capability of fusion.
Would you ever consider writing a tune outside of the trad/folk sphere?
My area of comfort is without a doubt trad music because I’ve spent so many hours listening to, researching and playing it, and hopefully I will still be doing that in the years to come. I know it well, but there are always more things to learn.
As far as music in other genres goes, for me, unfortunately, I’ve never had a chance to work, from a creative point of view, outside of trad music, but I would never say no to a chance at being creative whether that’s electro, house — whatever, really, as long as I like and believe in it. I’ll do it!
What’s the next step from here?
In the times we are currently living, with everything turned upside down, it’s a good time to live outside the bubble too. Going for walks, reading books, going to a theatre or museum. All of that ends up contributing to the music too.
Any final words?
It’s an honor and delight to do this with the Garden crew. I was originally planning to do this all on my own, and it definitely would not have been as cool as it has been so far. The fact the lads managed to give me this chance is incredible and invaluable. I’m very excited for the music video also.