An interview with Sarah Linhares
Sarah Linhares is a passionate and eclectic singer, songwriter and performer. She began her love affair with music at an early age through singing in her church choir. Since then, her unique musical style has been shaped by an obsession with electronic music, singing in a multitude of gospel choirs, performing and dancing to Afro-Brazilian Samba, touring and recording in Venezuela, and being selected to the Red Bull Music Academy in 2007.
This Portuguese-Irish Montrealer writes unique ‘Future Soul’ songs that enticingly blend soulful melodies with variations in electronic music and lush soundscapes. Sarah released her impressive debut record, Messages From The Future, on Public Transit Recordings late 2011. One of her songs ‘Step Up’ was featured on iTUNES JAPAN’s mainpage as the ‘single of the week’ and was downloaded 52 000 times in one week! Her album has received tremendous support online and from a multitude of stellar radio shows all over the world including Gilles Peterson on BBC radio 1. Nu-Soul Magazine selected ‘Other Side’ as part of the editor’s pick of Top 25 Tracks of 2011.
Onstage Sarah’s energy is infectious whether she’s performing with her 3-piece band or solo with her loop pedal, beats and visuals. Sarah’s performance highlights include opening at the NuJazz Festival for King Britt, Toronto’s Manifesto Festival, opening with Moonstarr at Mutek Festival for Carl Craig, performing with Soltribe at Pop Montreal, opening for Mount Kimbie, Festival Francofolies, and Festival Nuits D’Afrique.
Sarah has been busy in 2012 with her full length debut “Messages From the Future” (PTR Records). MFTF brings you a blend of Sarahʼs fresh soulful vocals and gospel-inspired harmonies with dirty electronic beats, heavy synthesizers, thick bass-lines, and 8-bit cosmic dust. The record features collaborations with several talented producers / musicians including Moonstarr, Kenlo Craqnuques, Sikh Knowledge, Think Twice, Aklimatize, Camplaix, celebrated pianist David Ryshpan, super bassist Mark Haynes, drummer Anthony Pageot and vocalists Wayne Tennant and IamBlackgirl. Inspiration for MFTF was born in the unlikeliest of places, namely the 1984 film The Terminator. In the movie Sarah (Connor) is given a message from the future explaining that she will have to be stronger than she ever imagined possible in order to get through the darkness and come out the other side. Only then can her future self exist. This concept inspired Sarah’s own personal and creative journey from living in the past to overcoming and evolving into her future self, the passionate artist she is today.
Sarah also travelled to Philippines and Portugal tour and record. MundoVibe’s John C. Tripp interview Sarah just as the new year was beginning.
Sarah, big congratulations on your first full-length recording, “Messages From the Future”, which has received tremendous praise for its soulfulness and vocal depth, matched with seriously heavy beats and electronics. This seems like a perfect title for this sort of record, can you tell us about the overall concept behind the record?
I read that the inspiration for “Messages From The Future” was the film The Terminator. How did this film’s message, of a person coming back from the future with a message inspire this record — how did you take that message and turn it into music?
Just as I made the decision to produce a full-length record, I ended up watching The Terminator again (the 1984 original version). At that moment in my life I was struggling and somewhat stuck living with some difficult emotional burdens. While watching the film, I received a message that would inspire the title of the record and the direction of my personal exploration while writing it. I was immensely inspired by Sarah Connor’s character who was given a message from the future telling her that she needed to be stronger than she even imagined possible in order to get through the darkness so her future son (or self) could exist. I started to imagine the wisdom and knowledge that I needed to know NOW in order to become my future evolved self, in order to get through this difficult moment and come out the other side stronger, capable of producing this first record, and ultimately overcoming what was holding me back.
“Messages From The Future” was well worth the wait and has a very futuristic sound, one that hasn’t yet hit the mainstream. Your sound tends to lean toward heavy rhythms, without putting labels on your music, how would you describe it to those not “in the scene”?
I like to call my sound ‘Future Soul’. I think it’s the best way to categorize the eclectic blend of sounds found on the record. It was mostly electronically produced with heavy synthesizers, electronic samples, dirty bass lines, and 8 bit effects. My version of FS is a contemporary exploration of Soulful music with varied influences such as UK electronic beats along with Hip Hop, Dancehall vibes, and Brazilian inflections. My vocal styling is greatly inspired by Soul, Gospel, Jazz, R&B, Bossa Nova, and even Pop and the total emotional release that is characteristic of some of those genres. Also, I love the word Future. It means endless possibilities and a place where anything can be created out of nothing or everything. Ironically it’s also a nostalgic word for me, as I grew up imagining the Future inspired by Science Fiction fantasies.
“Messages From The Future” was produced over a period of a couple of years, seeing you collaborate with talented producers such as Moonstarr, Sikh Knowledge, Think Twice, Kenlo and Camplaix, and musicians such as celebrated pianist David Ryshpan and bassist Mark Haynes. How did you manage working with so many producers and maintain a consistency of sound and concept with the record?
I worked with so many producers over several years because I didn’t have a band or one producer to work with. I wanted to explore a variety of sounds and work with a variety of people. I realized that I had a wealth of production skills and musicianship within reach, since I knew all these talented guys personally and was friends with them. I also greatly respected them musically and could call upon each of them to help out with my creative vision. So that’s what I did. I asked all of them to send me beats and musical ideas and they did. They sent me amazing demos that I was so excited to hear and collaborate on. Then we’d mostly go back and forth online with ideas on how to complete the songs. This process took a couple years because life happens and apparently music takes time to make! The people I reached out to all seem to have somewhat similar music influences even if their sounds are slightly different. Perhaps that’s the common link between us all. We all possess a passion for damn good music, for neck breaking beats that take you there, you know?
What were the challenges in working with more than one producer? Was it more technical or creative?
The major challenge was coordinating with so many people who all have lives and other projects on the go. That’s why the record took so long to produce. I had to work with people’s schedules and coordinate back and forth creative exchanges on totally different timelines. You can’t force creativity. It comes with dedication and when the time is right. It was frustrating at certain moments during the process, because I just wanted to finish and get it out there. But such is life, things happen when they are meant to.
This record reminds me of Clara Hill’s “All I Can Provide” in which she collaborated with a different producer on almost every track. It’s kind of rare though, usually it’s the producer working with a range of vocalists. How did you come to this approach?
It is true that normally a producer chooses to work with a bunch of vocalists. I think this happens because the producer is most likely spearheading the entire project and in need of some vocal variety to take his instrumentals to another level. You have to be pretty driven to complete an album so you have to want it badly. This approach seemed to be my only option when I made the decision to make a full-length record, since I had no band or no one producer that I shared an identical vision with. I also have such an eclectic variety of tastes and I wanted to explore all of them…cosmic beats inspired by Dilla and Hip Hop, Broken Beat, UK inspired Electronic, Brazilian stuff, Dancehall, etc. My selection of producers and musicians really does reflect them all!
There is both a toughness and fragility to a lot of your songs, the beats and delivery are quite forward, yet the lyrics are often about being vulnerable or dealing with relations. Your wrote all of the lyrics, what was the emotional place you were coming from in writing these songs?
These songs are incredibly personal and reflect a profound cathartic moment in my life. I wrote a lot of them as I was overcoming the ‘dark night of the soul’. I used the inspiration of messages coming from my future evolved self to help me surpass a difficult past that I had lived with for a long time. The struggles that I faced while writing are certainly not unique. I think many people suffer through the same types of things but mostly try to keep it hidden. I had been doing just that and it wasn’t working for me. I came to realize that I had no choice but to honestly express myself in order to grow. Although it left me feeling vulnerable, this release allowed me to build strength and confidence in a monumental way. I needed to share it in order to let it go. My determination to overcome was unstoppable. I feel like when I began writing these songs I was a girl and now I’m a woman. That’s why this album is so special for me because not only did I produce my first full length, I also used it as my therapy, my healing, and a way to liberate me from the past. By putting this baby out into the world I freed myself.
You have a very soulful voice that reflects your background in gospel as a child, as well as a latin flavor. How did your experiences with music early on inspire and shape you?
I began singing in my church choir as a child and then continued to do so for a very long time throughout many different gospel choirs in Montreal. I think I was drawn to Gospel and Soulful music because I could be a part of something that accepted and allowed me to express pain openly and declare with faith, hope for a better and brighter future, and then celebrate it once it arrived. I believe the soul in my voice comes from my life’s experience of extreme and passionate angst. It’s one way that I can express and release my deep sadness and then joyfully celebrate the freedom of releasing it. I’ve always identified with expressing extreme emotions through music and dance. I’m also very moved and drawn to Fado, Mornas (Portuguese and Cabo Verdean Blues) and Brazilian Samba. All of which express profound sadness and then celebrate the joy of release and freedom. I also greatly identify with Latin music as it is exudes passions and extreme emotions that cannot be contained. Although I am much more tame now, my passionate and overly emotional nature has gotten me into a lot of trouble in the past, so I think dancing and singing is a way of releasing it in a healthy way.
You are half Portuguese and half Irish, so clearly there is a strong musical culture that you must have grown up with. What did you grow up listening to and what were your experiences with music?
One thing that my family truly instilled in us was a love of music. We would not only listen to it, we would live through it. I will forever be grateful for this. Both sides of my family are extremely passionate and emotional in different ways. My Portuguese mother had me listening to Fado, Mornas from Cabo Verde, Bossa Nova, traditional folk music from Madeira, and Lusophone African music. My Irish Canadian father was extremely passionate about Italian Pop Rock so I grew up listening to a lot of that, a lot of Classical music, Opera, and Celtic Music. A major album that marked my early musical education was Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack to the feature film, The Mission. I have memories of listening to it on the stairwell for hours and being absolutely enchanted with my imagination and the power that the music evoked in my emotional life. On my own I started getting into Pop music, Oldies, Blues, Hip Hop, R&B, and then later UK Jungle, D&B, Downtempo, Broken Beat, 2 Step and all the exciting variations in electronic music.
Additionally, you grew up in Montreal, a very cultural and musical city. How has Montreal’s culture shaped who you are?
Montreal is an incredible city to live in (during Spring, Summer, and Fall that is). It lives and breeds Culture, Art, and Music. There are so many interesting people here scheming and dreaming. Everyone is seemingly an artist aspiring to conquer a piece of the pie with vivid imaginations. It has been absolutely amazing to be inspired by all the musical talent this city holds over the last 14 years. I am truly a Montrealer now. It is my home and my life is simple but ideal. I am happy and I live a good life. I eat well, I write songs, I sing, I dance, I perform, I relax, I enjoy the city with great people. However, the winters are devastatingly brutal, at first a creative hibernation period, but then end up wearing you down to the bone. That’s why I always try to leave in the winter for some tropical and sunny destination.
Have you always been a singer? Was it something you knew you wanted to do?
The first time I saw the movie Annie I knew I wanted to perform, but didn’t know how considering how shy I was. I started singing when I was around 8 years old in the church choir. I was painfully shy but longed to gain the confidence to do a solo, one day. Then in high school when Dee-Lite burst out on the scene I was reminded that I wanted to do what she did. After moving to Montreal and singing in a handful of gospel choirs my confidence grew. It took me years of singing in groups and in my shower before I finally decided, “I’m gonna do this for real!” The first time I performed solo was in 1999 when I grabbed the mic at the local Drum & Bass night and started rhyming over the beats and then suddenly burst into song. It was one of the greatest thrills I had ever experienced. Back then this was a big deal cause I was the first girl to do it at this male dominated night. That’s where my thirst for singing began in a real way. But years and years were to pass before I once again got up the courage. In 2002 I wrote and recorded a song with DJ Mana for his self-produced record. That was my first time recording and being paid for making music. It was the best $100 I had ever made in my life! We did a couple shows and then I went silent for another several years while struggling through some things. At the same time I became obsessed with Samba dancing and percussion and started performing professionally. I almost lost the drive to do music until I joined Soltribe and fled to Venezuela to record an album and tour with local musicians. That trip changed my life. Once again, I knew that’s what I wanted to do. I was living the dream, performing in the tropics during winter, recording, and living it up. But then we broke up. (The producer had been my boyfriend AND my band mate) And my musical and personal life was left in shambles. I was about to give up on music for good when a very close friend convinced me to apply to the Red Bull Music Academy. I resisted, stating they would never pick me, but finally just spent the time and applied. To my amazement they picked me! I was stunned and was reminded once again to not give up on music. The response was incredible and the inspiration kept me going…fast forward through a couple years of writing the album and struggling and here we are…2012. We’re finally living in the future and ALL I want to do is make music and travel, and perform, and just keep growing and getting better at my craft. Finally, I’m ready for it!
Who were some of the role models or inspirations in your musical development?
Truly, I have hundreds of role models and inspirations. Some of my major influences are Dee-Lite, Sade, Bjork, Lauren Hill, Aretha Franklin, Etta James, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Jill Scott, Sinead O’connor, Nelly Furtado, Cesaria Evora, Ennio Morricone, Beady Belle, Feist, Omar, Alicia Keys, Massive Attack, Portishead, Judy Mowatt, Eurythmics, Elis Regina, Erykah Badu, Lhasa De Sela, Nicolette, Amy Winehouse, Goldie, Lamb, Shy FX, Kruder & Dorfmeister, Depeche Mode, Mobie, Madonna, Prince, Tricky, Radiohead, Soul II Soul, Jay Dilla, Bob Marley, Jimmy Hendrix, The Doors, The Police, Flying Lotus, Mos Def, Tribe Called Quest, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Ms Dynamite, Celia Cruz, Hector Lavoe, Mark de Clive Lowe & Bembe Segue, Michael Jackson, Kelis, Flora Purim, Oscar De Leon, D’Angelo, Amalia ( Fado singer ) , Amalia Rodrigues, Justin Timberlake, Jeremy Ellis, Mariza, Bill Withers, Fiona Apple, Ben Harper, Jamie Lidell, Turbulence, Buju Banton, Jorge Ben, Sidestepper, Herbert, and so many more!
You spent some time in Venezuela in 2006 in an artist residency at a mountainside studio and then recorded the ‘Pura Vida’ EP by Soltribe, which has a strong latin flavor. How did this come about and what was life in Venezuela like? Would you ever want to live in, say, Brazil and do something similar?
My experience in Venezuela was absolutely magical in many ways and incredibly difficult in others. I went for four months to escape some difficult emotional moments and to live out the fantasy life of my dreams, which was to make music, record, and perform with my Venezuelan boyfriend (at the time), with an amazing local band Tumbador, and a Montreal singer Wayne Tennant, who became a dear friend. I did just that. Mixing love and music in Venezuela produced some of the BEST and WORST of times, but overall only goodness came out of it. I learned so much and did more than I ever had musically in my life. I fell deeply in love with Venezuelan life and culture. I fully embraced my passionate Latin tendencies and my South American identity, and was even called the Latina del Norte because people there thought I was Latina. It was a very special moment and I still dream about being there sometimes. We stayed in a mansion in the Andes Mountains and worked on music all day and then partied all night. Then when we were ready, we flew to Isla Marguarita to perform a number of shows during Carnaval. It was like living in a dream. I absolutely would love to spend time in Brazil and work on music there and perform. It’s one of my top musical destinations and I’ll most likely get over there next winter to do just that!
You seem to have a following in Japan since you appeared on 2010’s Cosmopolyphonic label compilation with Japanese beat maestro mfp in 2010 and then had a very popular single, ‘Step Up’, on iTunes in Japan. Any plans of touring there or working with some Japanese producers?
I love Japan even though I’ve never been! I have a deep respect and admiration for Japanese culture and truly hope to work with more Japanese talents this year. There are many amazing producers and musicians there and luckily some of them are my friends. I was almost going this winter but I guess it’s not the right time. I will definitely make my way over there in the near future. The Japanese music market is so vibrant and ready to consume. I really want to tap more into that.
You were also a participant in the 2007 Red Bull Music Academy in Toronto. Tell us about this experience? How did it impact your career and music?
Attending RBMA was a magical experience. I was just about to give up making music since my band had just broken up after touring / recording in Venezuela and then I was selected to participate. It was a saving grace. It was so inspiring to be around so many creative, hungry, and talented up and coming and established musicians, singers, and producers. Meeting Mulatu Astake was such a thrill! He listened to my song and told me to keep singing cause I was onto something good. What a boost! I recorded with Om’mas Keith from SA-RA, which was also really amazing. I’m grateful for connecting with so many talents all over the world. Especially, working with my Portuguese friend Filipe Campos AKA Camplaix who produced two tracks on the record and another good friend David Rysphan who’s also on the record and who performs in my band in Montreal. RBMA inspired me to push towards working on a full length and gave me an essential confidence boost when I needed it most. I am so pleased to forever be connected to this MAD talented group of people all over the globe. I have immense love and respect for them.
Would you ever consider a move to New York City to pursue more opportunities with your music or do you feel that the place isn’t as important anymore?
I would love to explore NYC. I haven’t been since I was 15 actually! I loved it then so imagine how much I’d love it now. Actually, I was just talking to someone about coming down to do a show. I’ll definitely fit it into 2012. Once I get down there, I hear I might fall in love with the place. Apparently it’s a concrete jungle where dreams are made. We shall see!
You’ve worked closely with Moonstarr and his PTR records. How did you first connect with him and how has your relationship with him influenced your sound?
I first heard his music and was immediately impressed then I met him through a friend and ended up working for him and PTR doing research, PR, and bookings for other artists on the label. It brought us closer together. I worked out of his house and started recording in his studio…and now he’s family. I actually wanted to work on a full length with him (cause I am a HUGE fan of his music and talent) but he’s a VERY busy man and couldn’t commit to producing, mixing, and mastering an entire record. However, he’s been monumental in producing MFTF and has definitely left his signature sound all over it. Not only did he produce three songs, oversee the entire project, mix and master the album, BUT he also gave me much encouragement and support. I truly couldn’t have done it without him!
How do you go about composing a song? What is the initial “spark” that sets it off?
It really depends and is unique to every song. Inspiration can seemingly come from anything at any time. Sometimes I start singing melodies out of the blue and record them as fast as I can so I can further develop them into songs. Sometimes lyrics float through my mind, seemingly out of nowhere and I have to run to write them down. Sometimes I’ll be reading something and I’ll be inspired by a concept that will instigate bursting into song about it. I have woken up from dreams where melodies come to me and I’ll record them into my phone with my eyes closed at 5am. Other times I’ll hear an instrumental and instantly be inspired to sing verses or a hook. I’ll record them and then edit out the best bits and start building from there. I just keep adding and editing out parts until I have a solid demo before I’ll do an entire recording session to rerecord it ‘for real’. These processes can take anywhere from one day to several months depending on how everything falls into place. I absolutely love writing songs. It’s one thing I get completely absorbed in and forget about everything else. I find it quite meditative and it helps me be completely present in the moment.
How do you then work your vocals into a track? Is there any live improvisation that is part of the process?
Absolutely! My favorite moment when collaborating with someone is the first time I hear the instrumental demo and I’m instantly inspired by it. Melodies and words just come pouring out of me. Sometimes the words don’t make sense and sometimes they do. Sometimes it’s the melody that I like sometimes it’s the chorus. Often I have to scramble to turn on Logic or my phone to record my ideas right away no matter if I’m walking down the street or in my bed at 1am. That’s usually when some of the best stuff comes out in the first listen / first creation improvisation session. I might record a couple lines of variations and then go back to it with fresh ears the next day and decide which bits are the best. Then I build it up and add back vocals and harmonies. Sometimes I get so carried away that I am left with 12 vocal layers playing at once. It’s all very random and exciting!
You perform live quite a bit, what is your show like? How do you turn on the heat and get the crowd going?
I actually wish I was performing more! I absolutely love it. I find it a fascinating experience because every situation is different and I’m always different too. Whatever the circumstances, I enjoy the rush of pushing myself to rise to the occasion and give my best performance at that moment in time, whether there’s tons of people or barely anyone, whether I’m tired, or whether there’s a blizzard outside. These days I perform in one of two ways. I perform with a stellar 3-piece band made up of David Ryshpan on keys and synth, Mark Haynes on bass, and Anthony Pageot on drums, along with my loop pedal and samples. The energy we have together is amazing. The guys are crazy talented and play really well together. I also perform solo with my laptop, loop pedal, beats, drum samples, and visuals. Whichever way I perform, I feel like I’m truly sharing my passion with the audience. I give a ton of energy. I also love to dance as part of my show. I incorporate variations in Latin and Brazilian dance which a lot of people don’t expect. The dance that I do is an expression of joy, so I’m sure people feel that.
With technology as it is, there is so much more ease at making music. But the challenges of making a living at it seem more daunting than ever. It seems that a lot of people now assume music should be free, yet artists struggle. What keeps you going under these circumstances, what drives you?
In 2010 I wrote a love song to technology called Digital Love, which was released in Japan. I am so grateful for what technology allows me to do in this day and age but along with that comes a darker side, the endless possibilities, struggling to make a living, and getting lost in the middle of it all.
It’s so hard to know how to navigate in this crazy business, especially now. It does seem daunting but I have faith that I’ll be where I need to be at exactly the right moment. Any second now someone will call and want to use one of my songs in a Mac commercial, right? Haha! I am not driven by money but luckily money always comes to me. I was once told that because of my charming personality, people will believe in my passion projects so much that they will give me money and help me get to where I need to. Honestly, it’s been happening and I only for see it becoming more poignant. Even when I feel like nothing is happening the seeds of my hard work are being sown in places I never dreamed they would be. I simply have no choice but to carry on and keep working on improving myself personally and musically. I am striving to write a masterful song and sing my heart out to the world. I don’t know where I’m going but I trust I’ll get there.
It’s a whole new year and “Messages From The Future” hasn’t been out that long. What can we expect in 2012 from Sarah Linhares? Any tours in the works or remixes to look forward to? What will your next project be? Any collaborations on the horizon?
2012 is a BIG year for me musically and I’m just getting started. I’m working on a ton of amazing things right now. I have a handful of collaborations that will be released in 2012 such as tracks with UK’s BUG, Portugal’s DJ Ride, Montreal’s Lotus, Sikh Knowledge, Vox Sambou from Nomadic Massive, and so many more. I also look forward to collaborating with King Britt whom I met in late 2011 at a show that we both performed at. I have plans to collaborate with Altered Natives, Montreal’s House guru Jo Jo Flores, Miguel Graça, Toronto’s DJ Catalist and more…
At the same time I have just received a grant to produce three songs for a new project called Future Falcon, which is a collaboration with up and coming Montreal producer Shawn Laptiste. Our sound is slightly 80’s throwback with bass heavy beats, but is still Future Soul with a potential crossover Pop appeal while still keeping it real. We have already begun writing the material and will release an EP later in 2012.
Also, I’m thrilled to announce that I’ll be traveling in the Philippines for several weeks in Feb / March to write and reflect and will most likely be performing in Manila. Then I’m off to Lisbon, Portugal end of March / April to perform several shows solo and with local musicians. I will be working in the studio with some amazing talents (Camplaix, Syn, DJ Ride, and Mike Stellar). I’m SO excited about that trip and think incredible things will happen because of it. Keep an eye out for that!
I also plan on continuing to perform as much as possible and get my name out there and just keep pushing it. I just want to make music and get better and better doing it. I still have to make a masterpiece album like SBTRKT’s latest. Time will tell.
Well Sarah, thanks so much for spending the time to answer our questions, we expect big things for you this year. Any parting words for your fans out there?
The future is now!
Free Music From Sarah Linhares
Buy at Amazon MP3
Buy at Amazon MP3