Name: Joana Guerra
Occupation: Cellist, vocalist, composer, improviser, sound artist
Current release: Joana Guerra's Chão Vermelho is available from Miasmah.
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If you enjoyed this interview with Joana Guerra, visit her website. Or stay up to date on her work via Facebook, Soundcloud, and bandcamp.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I started creating my own music when I was in my twenties, focusing on a solo project in the midst of a chaotic schedule being a musician, working as a waitress, and studying cultural management.
At that time, after finishing my cello studies at music school, I was really immersed into musicians who approached their instrument in a more rebellious and experimental way, especially string players, and who incorporated the so-called extended techniques, such as Tom Cora, Joelle Leandre, Tony Conrad, Carlos Zíngaro, Arthur Russell, Miguel Mira, etc.
For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
That phase of learning is a continuum, stimulated by desires, curiosity and urges I feel in myself. I had some frustrations because of my music school’s classical approach, in which I didn’t feel the space to reflect about “error” and to transform it musically. Now in free improvised music I do!
Then, fortunately, I had the chance to be involved with the improvised and experimental music scene in Lisbon and Portugal. I met excellent musicians from many countries. I related to their musical references and thoughts, learning and freeing my body to reach new levels of musicality.
The annual meetings of “MIA - Festival of Improvised Music of Atouguia da Baleia”, in a small portuguese village, were also overwhelming. Lasting four days, this festival brings together about 100 musicians, from all over the world, to play with each other, mostly in random formats!
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?
Creating your own musical voice comes from a deep consciousness of self identity, one that is always evolving.
For me, creativity comes from emotional, social and political thinking. My performative body and mind are shaped by several concrete causes, even if I can later transform them into something more or less abstract. I let myself be influenced by a landscape and its inherent culture.
Let me give you an example: three years ago I left Lisbon due to gentrification and moved to a village up north in which the grounds have the reddest clay, there are many brick factories and its trucks bring a scarlet tone to the asphalt roads; in my most recent album, Chão Vermelho (Red Ground), I intersected this landscape reality with causes such as ecology and feminism.
What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
I would start by saying that my first challenge was related to transferring the emotions and ideas resulting from my love of literature, amongst others. What I mean is that as a young person I was already full of ideas and emotions, fed by various life and artistic experiences, but then, as a musician I had to transpose it to my cello and my voice. Such a step is not easy. One needs to be comfortable with the instrument and be confident about one's own voice. Then I needed to find what I really wanted to express based on my life experiences. I faced the challenge and the stage was a great school.
Also, in my early adult life, I went through the usual difficulties related to very empirical steps: finding my pears in Lisbon; looking for a job that pays the bills but that leaves enough time for my musical passion; knowing the nightlife and which are the right places to start playing with others … those are important things that can really challenge the building and creative processes of a young musician.
Now that I live thanks to my work as a professional musician, I still think of the challenges during those first years.
As creative goals and technical abilities change, so does the need for different tools of expression, be it instruments, software tools or recording equipment. Can you describe this path for you, starting from your first studio/first instrument? What motivated some of the choices you made in terms of instruments/tools/equipment over the years?
At fifteen, my first cello was a rented one. At some point I had to return it … later on I finally acquired my own instrument, which I've been faithful to until now. I keep equipping and tweaking it little by little with a great luthier in Lisbon, Thibaut Dumas.
In terms of technology, being a somewhat impatient person with machines, I never ventured much beyond effect pedals and loop stations. I use five pedals in my concerts and feel comfortable with such a set. During pandemic confinements I realized I wanted to have a home-studio. So, I made and equipped my own. It's small but cosy! Also, inviting other people who bring their own techniques and specific gear to join my projects, is one of the things that makes me happiest.
Finally, I find it super important to work with a sound-technician who can be with us in each concert, one who knows and expands our sound universe.
Have there been technologies or instruments which have profoundly changed or even questioned the way you make music?
I continue this exploration with my cello, trying to find particular sounds that I haven't made yet. For that, I try other tuning systems or I prepare the cello with objects (springs, pieces of metal, etc).
Concerning my vocal work, I am always trying to apprehend some technique or sound that I like. Then, it's practicing and developing with what I have available, picking up other instruments that are left in my home-studio, such as a Portuguese guitar, the electric guitar or an organ ... as I don't know how to play them in the conventional way it becomes a challenge, but also a great freedom to approach it in the way that suits me best. It brings originality acoustically and even visually when on stage!
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
Depending on whether the collaboration is with music, dance or theater, the methodology varies a lot. I love collective work and to learn from all of them!
Whether it is a one-off collaboration or something more continuous, it always goes through a process of sharing ideas, thoughts, texts or other musical references, in order to reach a collective understanding of what the final artistic object should be. The rehearsal process can be done in artistic residencies where, for a few days, we intensively immerse ourselves in musical practice. My language is inclusive, always looking for reciprocity.
With Lantana, the female improvised music sextet of which I am a part, the entire organization is horizontal, which can be seen in the way we make music. We all start from the same point, without hierarchical roles, we may be soloing or following.
Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please. Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
It’s all very blended. I have routine packages, depending on which project I am, since it’s a very nomadic life, physically and creatively.
When I am at home, I must say that the morning stage is better for my creativity, I feel more fresh, my mind is ready to fill and bubble, after a large morning coffee ... It’s also about simple rituals, like going outside to the garden to refresh my mind or take care of my two chickens, Bethânia and Elis!
I have a few rituals, especially on concert days: lately, I always put on Albanian polyphonic chants, which I'm completely obsessed with and that appease me.
Can you talk about a breakthrough work, event or performance in your career? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?
I think that each event, however small it seems to me, will bring its own positive consequences. Several performances were especially important to me, namely the collaborations I have done with dance companies. Specifically the shows with the portuguese choreographer Madalena Victorino, for the show “Terminal Station”, presented at the National Theater D.Maria II, in which we worked with professional and non-professional artists, with people on the fringes of society and who created performances based on their bodies and daily gestures.
More recently, I can refer to the concerts I have given with my homonymous project for my newest album Chão Vermelho, accompanied by the musicians Carlos Godinho on percussion and Maria do Mar on violin. I usually perform solo and it's amazing to have the company of these two wonderful partners on stage.
I may also highlight the concert we gave last June, at Lisbon’s Culturgest auditorium: we were able to think about the concert as a whole, bringing together a technical team, with lights and a stage set designed for the concert. It was such a beautiful night!
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
I don't pursue that ideal state of mind for creation. I always try to take over all the states of emotion and deal with them as best I can, being aware that they are always transitory. Even when I don't feel particularly creative, I know that trying and the frustration of failing are essential in that quest.
However, I don't let myself get carried away to a level of despair. If I'm in the studio and things aren't flowing, I engage in other inspiring experiences: take a walk, read an article or a book, for example. It is life that gives us these seeds. And as someone said, “inspiration will find me at work”.
Music and sounds can heal, but they can also hurt. Do you personally have experiences with either or both of these? Where do you personally see the biggest need and potential for music as a tool for healing?
Sometimes, people that come to my shows tell me that they cried during the concert or that they felt deep emotions. It may be cathartic and intimate. Each concert is a ritual, a new celebration, a new “exorcism”, for us the musicians and for the public. I have also been told that my music can be sad and full of melancholy. Such impressions then resonate on inside of me: what is sadness and joy in music, if we remove the typical theoretical standards, such as major and minor chords ...?!
On stage, I have already gone through some purgative experiences. One of those occasions proceeded through a complicated phase on a personal level. In an improvised music concert with the violinist Gil Dionísio, I entered a state, I would say, of trance, and it was one of the most beautiful things that ever happened to me! It’s powerful when the fingers that pluck the strings are governed by extreme freedom based on deep listening and in dialogue with the other, without fear and without constraint.
Music certainly serves as a mediation towards something else, interacting and congregating. It’s a tool to move forward, to make us think collectively and critically. Oh yes, music can heal, hurt and a lot more!
There is a fine line between cultural exchange and appropriation. What are your thoughts on the limits of copying, using cultural signs and symbols and the cultural/social/gender specificity of art?
Since we are globalized beings, we are always assimilating as much as we can and emotionally appropriating. I absorb a lot but always transform it into something else, reinventing something from traditional cultures and sounds. I find such a shift to a more personal and contemporary expression very interesting.
When I listen to traditional Portuguese music, there are many elements that impress me because of their popular and symbolic significance. As an example, I was inspired by mournful singers from the north of Portugal, female characters who were hired to sing crying at funerals.
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work?
Being fully about senses, therefore it’s quite difficult for me to intellectualize such an experience.
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
My main engagement is towards music and I let the public interpret or absorb it as they wish. I want to express what comes to me through mysterious channels and dialogue in a space of freedom. I’m looking to resonate with and for others, on that uncertain line that is life.
Nonetheless, I should mention two musical experiences that reveal a sense of engagement. The first one, concerns Chão Vermelho, which has a connection to nature and embodies an implicit critic against extractivism. The second one, is related to our female sextet of improvised music, Lantana, in which there is an implicit ecofeminist engagement in a musical context that is still much led by and for men.
The danger is always to be reduced to these implicit personal engagements, something I try to avoid, but it’s consciously present and I integrate such concerns in my playing, in my daily attitude towards nature and human beings.
What can music express about life and death which words alone may not?
Music and sound can take us to places we didn't know yet, erasing the definitive nature of death and the temporary nature of life.