Let’s Have a Word #3: Surma

Surma is a 23-year-old hailing from Leiria. Her debut album last year was shortlisted for best European independent album of the year. She has been touring non-stop ever since.

Let’s Have a Word is David Soares‘s attempt to make the Lisbon scene spill the beans.

Surma, aka Débora Umbelino, is a 23-year-old pixie-like figure hailing from Leiria. She’s part of the recent revival of the music scene from that city, located in the littoral midlands, very much driven by the label Omnichord records. Guitar, bass, keyboards, electronic effects, loops, and delicate vocals conjure up her unique ethereal sound that she once branded as “experimental noise,” for lack of a better definition. Still, her debut album, Antwerpen, released last October, was highly anticipated and got shortlisted for best European independent album of the year. She has been touring non-stop ever since.

(conversation held in Portuguese)

I attended a gig of yours two years ago at Popular Alvalade where you shared the bill, and there were maybe a dozen people in the audience. Your career rocketed in the meantime, you’ve been getting a lot of attention and playing interesting festivals abroad. What would you say were the highlights so far? I haven’t given much thought to what’s been going on, to be honest. Almost none. I think every show and every experience I’ve had so far has been very gratifying and, again, I haven’t stopped to think about it. I’ve been incredibly fortunate and I think I’ve been surrounded by awesome people who have supported me immensely.
But I think the States rank on top of all the places I’ve played so far.

It was in Brooklyn, right? Yes, at the William Vale hotel in New York, on an amazing rooftop, I have yet to recover from that view. I gave two more concerts that came up while I was there.

There was also South by Southwest in Austin, that incredible festival, that enormous showcase, shark tank of labels (laughs). I had one gig scheduled and I ended up having a couple more, I think the word of mouth has just been working pretty well and I’ve had tremendous luck. Yeah, I find America was one of those lucky shots, it was amazing.

Actually, all of them offered me an unbelievable experience, I always learn a lot when I play abroad, it’s great.

Photo by David Soares

How did you first get introduced to playing and writing music? Ever since I was a baby, I remember being surrounded by music, mostly thanks to my parents. My mother tells me many stories from when she was pregnant, like how she would be listening to music and lean the transistor radio on the belly. After I was born, my father had a rug just for me in the basement, so I could lie there for hours listening to vinyl records of country music and 1950s jazz, so these are my major influences and pure roots at that stage, like Charles Mingus and Hank Williams (laughs). When I was around five, I wanted to learn the drums, but they had me learning the recorder, and that’s not what I wanted so I threw a tantrum. When you’re that little, I guess, they were worried about the drumsticks and that I would scatter them all over the place — and drums don’t have a melodic base.

Nothing to do with the noise or anything? I’m not sure, it might have been that (laughs). I’ve always been very hyperactive.

Then, at around 11 or 12, I took up classical guitar and piano, but it only lasted for six months or so, I didn’t like the theory. In other words, I’ve always been very self-taught, I took classes that gave me a good base, but most of what I’ve learned has been self-taught via YouTube. When I turned 14, I started a cover band in high school, mostly rock like Led Zeppelin and so on.

What were you called? The Rambles (laughs), we were high-school kids, me and four others.

And then when I was 16, with the same bunch, we started doing originals and became Backwater and the Screaming Fantasy, a long and strange name (laughs), we were more into indie rock that was made at the time, and dance music. When I was about 17, I entered the Hot Clube here in Lisbon to study jazz, double bass and voice, I attended three years but ended up dropping out. I’ve never been good with theories nor have I ever leaned towards music lessons. I’ve never felt good being told to learn a certain way — I’d rather learn by myself.

Were you bored by lessons? No, it’s just that you’re supposed to hold a certain posture and follow a given structure and I really don’t like to follow structures in music, I think it limits creativity a bit, hence why I left. Also, I quit the band when I moved to Lisbon, and I decided to create something more peculiar and just mine, because I think my bandmates and I wanted to go on different paths. They were after something more danceable and I wanted something more depressing (laughs). Not more depressing, but more my own.

So at 19, I created a Facebook page with no expectations at all and it kicked off more seriously by the time I was 21.

And your move to Lisbon, how did it go? I left the home nest at 17, which made my parents very sad and everything, but I had always wanted to be independent and have my own stuff.

But I struggled when I came, though. I’m a country girl and I think in my mind I’ll always be — I grew up in a small quiet place outside Leiria. I’m not keen on big cities and chaos, and I still spend as much time as I can there just to clear my head. I like the calm and find most of my creative inspiration in silence. On my first year here, I felt so depressed that I had to go back to Leiria for six months or so. I also had the tendency to isolate myself and be slightly antisocial, so living in a city didn’t help. I had to learn to overcome that. Then I came back, and now that I’ve lived here for seven years, I can’t live without it, I’ve met amazing people and most of my life is here, my work, and my friends. Now that I’ve got used to it, I like chaos (laughs). Well, no, I don’t like it, but I’ve learned to deal with it.

How do you think growing up in Leiria shaped you musically? I’ve always been the black sheep at school and I’ve always identified with certain bands from the local scene at the time, punk rock and heavy metal bands, and even jazz ones. I used to attend many concerts as a kid, even with my dad tagging along, he loves to go (laughs). I find Leiria bands have influenced me a lot up to this day, the whole music that was happening there, and I think it has helped Leiria to grow as well — the city has been changing so much.

Any names you can recall? We had The Allstar Project, which is a post-rock band, they’re still active, but I think they’re on a hiatus. There was this jazz trio that I loved, I’m not sure they even had a name, local musicians who would play everywhere and I would go and see them in jam sessions. They influenced me greatly. I can’t remember their name, I was a kid then. Born A Lion as well, which are a pure rock band. I don’t know, there was so much happening there.

Then Omnichord appeared in 2012, if I’m not wrong, and the ‘Ducks’ (Nice Weather For Ducks) and First Breath After Coma — these two bands are my label brothers. I think they have encouraged me to let loose creatively, we all influence each other, which is cool, there’s no rivalry.

Your album struck several chords at Atlas Lisboa, because they heard something that seemed to come from the land inhabited by a diverse group of some of their favorite musicians: Noiserv, Björk, Flunk, and Grimes. So, who are you musical muses?  At the international level, to me it’s Annie Clark, St Vincent, she has been my goddess ever since I was 11. It’s very much because of her that I got into loops and all the experimentations. She’s the kind of person I want to be when I grow up (laughs), although she’s not an obvious influence musically. It has more to do with her persona, her attitude.

Among national ones, Twistedfreak is not very well-known, unfortunately, and I don’t understand why. He’s a solo act who creates incredible electronic atmospheres. He‘s been around for a while, I think he just doesn’t seek recognition, it’s more for pleasure, but I find him out of this world. As far as the electronic is concerned, he’s quite an influence. Very cool, I recommend it.

You said once that you’ve recorded many raw ideas barely awake at dawn. What moments — however ordinary — inspire you? Good question. Still, now, it’s very weird.

Silence:  When I’m about to compose, I don’t listen to any music the whole day, there’s always something similar to something else coming up, one is not immune to everything that’s done nowadays. But always disconnecting from everything, I avoid listening to music for several days to clear my head and try and create something of mine that exudes from my body out of nowhere.

So when I’m asleep, I think lately it has been sometime between 4 and 6 a.m., I just wake up with stuff happening in my head and I record it, zombie-like, on my mobile. Then I wake up again in the morning, whatever it is I recorded can be utter crap, or something cool might come out of it. For instance, Maasai came out like this and Hemma was also a riff that I started in the middle of dawn, so did Plass. There you go, it’s something ordinary but weird at the same time, which happens with my body, I don’t know why.

But you had slept before, I presume… I think I have a strange body clock. I’m a workaholic, I work day and night, I would for instance start at 9 a.m. and stop at 5 a.m. I sleep an average of four or five hours a night (laughs). Or I would go to bed at midnight to wake up at 3 a.m. I usually don’t sleep more than four consecutive hours. I don’t know, my body is a bit weird…

That and drinking coffee? (pointing to the table)… Yeah, coffee (laughs). A lot of caffeine too, but if I sleep for too long, I get sluggish and can’t work.

But inspirations also come a lot from travels. I try and travel as much as possible outside gigs, at least three times a year. I enjoy knowing different cultures and they inspire me a lot. Antwerpen, for example, came from the inspiration that Antwerp gave me and it opened many horizons for this album.

And I get inspiration from people. Any person that I meet. For example, today maybe you will inspire a tune (laughs). I don’t know, people I talk to inspire me. I think of them a lot. In fact, mankind inspires me, I think that’s what it is.

I’ll be holding my breath for that tune now… Can you tell me a little about how you came up with the song titles in your album? They’re all one-worded and borrowed from more or less obscure languages (often Scandinavian). Any reason for that?

It all started because I didn’t want to include lyrics. I wanted to explore phonetics and mouth sounds, and I don’t think you need lyrics to create a connection with the audience, just because. Also, I don’t consider myself a good lyricist and I thought I was going to write something I didn’t identify with. It’s better to create something that resonates with me and, if necessary, not sing but utter and murmur sounds in the moment.

What you’ve once named “Surmese.” Exactly (laughs), that’s why I created “Surmese.” I think it connects better with the instrumental – even through murmurs that I do in the moment – with the people than through lyrics. That wouldn’t mean much to me. That’s a bit where the song titles came from, I wanted to make a record for everyone and so they could make their own interpretation for each track. I wanted it to be universal, the phonetic is not English, nor Spanish, nor Portuguese nor any set language, I’ve got titles in Swahili, Hindi, lesser known languages.

And this way you remove the weight from the words a bit. Yes, exactly!

But how do you come to those words, is it random? If we translate all the titles in the album, we would get a phrase, for example, one word means world, the other means minimal, almost random words that have a meaning to me and are also universal. I had to do some extensive research. I had a Portuguese word for each track in my mind that expresses a certain notion, and I tried to come up with as many translations as possible and went for the most interesting ones.

I decided to take a chance, because for a while I held off putting the album out for fear that it would sound too weird. Some people would even ask me if I was sure I didn’t want to include any lyrics. But then I thought that if I didn’t take risks, it wasn’t worth it. I tried to write lyrics, but it didn’t sound right. To each their own interpretation. People have sent me lyrics in English for the tunes, based on what these suggested to them, which I found amazing, and I thought, “Okay, this could work.”

But it turned out alright. Maybe for the third album or something, I’ll do lyrics. Now I was more focused on making something good, and lyrics are the last thing that come to my mind. The melody always comes first. That’s why I wanted it that way, it would have sounded fake otherwise.

Now that you have traveled as a musician, what makes Portugal unique for you, especially the audience? There’s a lot of difference. I always want to come back when I travel, not in a bad way, I love going to the places I go to and I love the people I meet. But Portugal is unique and people are very warm. Not to mention the coffee (laughs). I think Portugal has been growingly open to new experiences. For example, at a venue like Musicbox, I’ve always had a good friendly crowd.  Abroad, I’ve also had amazing audiences, I’ve been lucky and I’ve had great experiences both at home and abroad, but here in Portugal the people are very warm. And Lisbon light is incredible, which also helps.

America has made me feel very much at home as well. And Germany too.

You really liked America… I loved it. Even if it was New York, a huge city, I felt like I was back in Leiria, which may sound weird. People were just in a good mood, chilled and chatty.

Images from Instagram courtesy of @surmaee

What are some places you like to hear music in Lisbon? We have a few great ones, that’s a tough question. I used to often go to O Bom, o Mau e o Vilão  at the beginning when I moved here, for the jazz jam sessions. And Hot Club as well. But now….I like to go to ZdB, some unusual stuff happening there, and Musicbox, which is the main music space, where I don’t go as often, but I think it’s also an awesome venue, with good shows. For example, I saw Dengue Dengue Dengue there three years ago and it was one of the best concerts I’ve ever been to. And the acoustics are great. I played there maybe five times and I’ve always loved it.

Let’s have a word: tell me your favorite Portuguese word?  Ooh, such a complicated question. (long pause) I don’t know. I find the word vácuo funny (laughs), it’s how it sounds, not the meaning. That’s what came up now. This question’s nice (laughs).
Actually, uva is also a funny word, I was looking at grapes just now (laughs). But it’s always words with u’s, I don’t know why.

What’s next? There’s the Waves Vienna festival where Portugal is the featured country with Noiserv, We Bless This Mess and Vaarwell. I think it’s going to be cool.

I’m also going to the Iceland Airwaves, I still cannot believe it, it should be amazing.

You totally fit the bill, you’ve already been there, right? Only in tourist mode, I traveled around there for a week, to play, it will be the first time. But that was mind-blowingly unique.

I don’t like to think about the future too much

I’m still going to ask you: I know it’s early, but any plans for a sophomore album? Late 2019 maybe, if all goes well. I already have a few aesthetic ideas, but it can all change until then.

Check out her webpages for details on more tour dates. There might be a show in Lisbon before the end of the year, to be confirmed.






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