Name: Sara Serpa
Occupation: Singer, composer, improviser
Current release: Sara Serpa's Intimate Strangers, a collaboration with Nigerian author Emmanuel Iduma, is out via Biophilia Records.
If you enjoyed this interview with Sara Serpa, visit her official website for more information. She is also on Instagram, Facebook, and twitter.
Where does the impulse to create something come from for you? What role do often-quoted sources of inspiration like dreams, other forms of art, personal relationships, politics etc play?
I have ideas marinating in my mind for long periods of time. There are times I am inspired by a specific musical concept and experiment with it compositionally. Other times, literature, film, a conversation provide a guiding light, or a script for the music.
I think there is always an attempt to process reality through music and art. Sometimes my voice guides me, other times it’s the piano. I have to ask the question: “Why am I doing this?” And then the following question “How can I sing my world of ideas and emotions?” The answer to these questions becomes the process, and it always takes me to unexpected places.
For you to get started, do there need to be concrete ideas – or what some have called a 'visualisation' of the finished work? What does the balance between planning and chance look like for you?
I don’t think I have a visualization of the finished work - I am often surprised by the final result, and am intrigued about how people will react to it. It does help to have a prompt and a deadline.
Lately, I organize things according to the people I want to work with. If I am inspired by a certain artist, musician, or writer, what is it that inspires me? Organizing the material according to my collaborators also opens the door for input from them.
For Intimate Strangers, for example, the prompt was Emmanuel Iduma’s book, a Strangers Pose. I first read the book and selected parts that seemed doable through music. Once the script of the performance was written, writing music for it felt like a musical puzzle. I had small musical ideas for different parts of the story, and started playing around those.
Is there a preparation phase for your process? Do you require your tools to be laid out in a particular way, for example, do you need to do 'research' or create 'early versions'?
Most of all I need consistency and silence. I need my brain to focus daily on what I intend to create, be it 15 minutes or the whole day. Before the pandemic I used to think the I needed the perfect conditions around me to create. It does help to be isolated, or not to be disturbed, but my reality hasn’t been that and I had to adapt to having family around me and still be able to find pockets of time to work on my music.
I usually go through a research phase, before writing … and after the music is on paper, most of the work happens on stage, or performing it - the more often I am able to perform the work, the better I will understand what it needs to get to where I want.
Do you have certain rituals to get you into the right mindset for creating? What role do certain foods or stimulants like coffee, lighting, scents, exercise or reading poetry play?
I meditate before the action starts. Also, setting up a timer, to check how much I can do in a short period of time. I start with 15 minutes, that keeps adding up. This has helped me keeping track of procrastination. I also like to have time to develop ideas and not rushing it - I like to leave the work behind for a few days and get distracted with other things - walk, hang out with friends, watch a movie.
There is a certain aspect of letting the brain work on its own, and solving the creative puzzles I stumble upon. I sometimes impose limitation on the composition elements: just write rhythm, or not to use the piano … it is so easy to go back to my musical habits - the limitations help to discover new paths.
What do you start with? How difficult is that first line of text, the first note?
It is hard to start, sometimes it feels like I try to make all the possible excuses not to start.
Once I start, however, I enjoy the process. I am trying to let go of judgment, and accept what comes out. Writing everything down is crucial.
Once you've started, how does the work gradually emerge?
It might take months, weeks or days - it depends on the deadline or the activity around me.
I don’t usually isolate myself completely to do work. There is always something calling me from the other side that can unblock me. But there is definitely a creative cycle that I love, when my brain is only focused on one thing.
Many writers have claimed that as soon as they enter into the process, certain aspects of the narrative are out of their hands. Do you like to keep strict control over the process or is there a sense of following things where they lead you?
I like to see where things lead me. There are always so many uncontrollable factors that influence the whole process. The strangest thing is to return to music I wrote 2-3 years ago and feel completely surprised by what I wrote.
There are many descriptions of the creative state. How would you describe it for you personally? Is there an element of spirituality to what you do?
I have learned to listen to my inner voice without doubt and fear. The element of play, trying, failing and trying again with a non-judgmental approach is very important.
There is definitely something transcendental when I am able to finish a composition and then play it with musicians. Something autonomous comes into being … like Emmanuel Iduma says :) it’s always rewarding and incredible to realize that whatever I had in my mind worked out.
Especially in the digital age, the writing and production process tends towards the infinite. What marks the end of the process? How do you finish a work?
I like to feel that a part of it concludes when the album is released. It gives me some peace of mind to feel that what was attracting me to an idea or concept materialized into something.
But then a project has a life of its own. The best part are the relationships established with the musicians and collaborators - that exchange and team work is very rewarding.
Once a piece is finished, how important is it for you to let it lie and evaluate it later on? How much improvement and refinement do you personally allow until you're satisfied with a piece? What does this process look like in practise?
When I record an album, it is important for me to let it rest and disconnect emotionally from it. There are so many emotions flowing in the studio and I don’t particularly like to approach the mixing part with these still fresh in my memory. There has to be a lot of non-judgment and acceptance for what came out.
Of course if there is something I dislike, I might do some overdubs, but that has not happened much with the past albums.
What's your take on the role and importance of production, including mixing and mastering for you personally? How involved do you get in this?
Production, mixing and mastering - it is all part of the process. Having an audio engineer that I trust, that knows my music and my sound is crucial for the success of the album. I get involved in all the phases of the project - it is important to feel that I am happy with the ensemble sound, that my voice sounds like me and that the music is something that I will be proud of.
I feel the production part is always a moment of reflection and pause, but it can be quite intense. And once the album is out, I can’t really listen to it for a while.
After finishing a piece or album and releasing something into the world, there can be a sense of emptiness. Can you relate to this – and how do you return to the state of creativity after experiencing it?
There is definitely a sense of emptiness when a big project, be it an album, a tour or a performance ends. The vulnerability in that period can motivate research or looking for music outside of me.
But rest is important. To do nothing and accept that period of calm and less action. Seeing it from the positive side “Now I can read the book that has been waiting for such a long time..”, or just watch specific films from my list. Or just spending time with my family. I love going out in NYC, and check out different shows and performances, that have nothing to do with my artistic world, where I can feel a stranger and where I can have a beginner’s mind.
Creativity can reach many different corners of our lives. Do you personally feel as though writing a piece of music is inherently different from something like making a great cup of coffee? What do you express through music that you couldn't or wouldn't in more 'mundane' tasks?
Our inner world is so complex and I think that cultivating flexibility and openness to whatever I am presented with is crucial in my creative process, while continuously interrogating myself and others. Music allows me to express what words can not while imagining new possibilities in sound and life.
How can I tell emotional stories through music that keep the listener interested in what I have to say? Although the music on the paper never changes, its performance is always different, and that aspect of improvisation and unpredictability is very exciting and inspiring.