The music that Catalan songwriter Joana Serrat makes is in many ways a million (or more accurately 5000) miles away from her home town of Vic. Her Alt-Country influenced sound is routed far more in the Southern states of America than it is the east coast of the Iberian Peninsula.
Last month Joana teamed up with the ever excellent Loose to release her third, and most captivating album to date, Cross The Verge. Featuring collaborations with the likes of Neil Halstead, Basia Bulat and Ryan Boldt; Cross The Verge is a record that expands on her previous output without jeopardising what makes her such an intriguing prospect in the first place. Recorded on analogue equipment in Montreal with producer Howard Billerman, the album is one that never sounds anything less than beautifully recorded. Resplendent with twanging guitar riffs, gentle breezy percussion and Joana’s stunning Caitlin Rose meets Allo Darlin’s Elizabeth Morris vocal style, it might be born out of Catalonia but it’s one of the year’s finest slices of Americana.
The record has been incredibly well received, drawing celebrity fans from including Gideon Coe and Lauren Laverne, and rave reviews from nearly every music site that’s heard it. Whether you’re lured in by the foggy mood of Desert Valley, the breezy pop of Tug Of War, or the ethereal swells of Lonely Heart Reverb; Cross The Verge is a record that demands and rewards repeat listens.
If you’re not already intrigued, carry on reading as Joana was kind enough to answer our questions, and discuss everything from the influence of Neil Young, the difficulties of making it in the current Spanish musical landscape and wanting to collaborate with Richard Hawley.
FTR: To people who don’t know you already, who/what is Joana Serrat?
I’m a singer-songwriter who has signed with Loose Music and just put out my third album called Cross The Verge.
FTR: You’ve just released a new album, what can you tell us about the recording of it?
It was amazing being able to record the album at Hotel2tango in Montréal and working with such talented artist as Gavin Gardiner, Aaron Goldstein, Neil Halstead, Basia Bulat, Ryan Boldt…It really was a dream come true. I felt so fortunate to work with all the musicians who I thought were right for the sound that I had in mind. And, of course, to work again with Howard Bilerman. Working with Howard is really nice, he makes you feel at home from the very first time, he is so respectful with your material and your opinion. He is a guide and knows how to get the best out of everyone.
FTR: How did you end up in Montreal recording with Howard Bilerman? What attracted you to his work?
I worked with Howard on my previous album, Dear Great Canyon. We worked in Spain but for Cross The Verge I wanted to record at his home studio. I was looking for the exact sound that his studio has. I listened to several albums that were recorded at Hotel2tango and I knew I needed to travel there.
FTR: How did you come to work with Loose Records? Do you think labels are still important? Would you consider self-releasing a record?
Loose is a reference for us. I have lots of their records at home, and some of them are my favourite albums. I knocked at the door and Tom Bridgewater turned out to be interested in my record. I do feel labels are still important even though most of them don’t play the same role anymore (the way it used to be). I guess now the business has unmasked itself, everything is clear and it’s easy to see which labels are worth it and which are not. You see the honest ones, and for me that is what counts right now. I love being part of the Loose family because this is the way labels should be: a home. It’s hard to say if I’d consider releasing a record myself or not. I did it for my first album The Relief Sessions and it went well. After this I signed with Primavera Sound Festival’s label. As I was telling you, I think it’s important to know that your label believes in you and gives you a chance. But if you think you don’t need to invest time or money you’re just loosing shots.
FTR: Where does the title Cross The Verge come from? Why did you choose it?
In the beginning I didn’t want to use the name of one of the songs as the title of the record, but then I changed my mind because I thought it meant everything that I wanted to say. When I was writing all these new songs, everything was falling out of place. I was seeing my relationships had changed and my personal life did too. I had the feeling that I was on a journey, like if I was crossing from one side of the reality to another. At the same time I felt that I was receiving some good advice and I was getting wiser, like if I could gaze at everything from another perspective and hold a kind of truth.
FTR: You’ve got some amazing collaborators on this record (Neil Halstead, Basia Bulat, Ryan Boldt etc.) How did you come to work with them? How did they change the sound of the album?
I emailed Neil and Ryan because I thought they were the perfect matches for my songs. While I was writing Black Lake I honestly could hear Ryan singing that song. So I became little obsessed with the idea of him singing this song. Luckily he wanted to take part. With Neil was more or less the same, David Giménez (my manager and coach) and I thought we had several songs like Lonely Heart Reverb, Lover and Cloudy Heart that Neil could play. I was a little under the influence of Ask Me Tomorrow while I was writing Cross The Verge so it seemed logical to ask. Basia was unexpected. She came by the studio (she and Howard are good friends) and after a while she said she wanted to be involved. Which was amazing. So I asked her to play in Saskatoon (Break of Dawn) and sing in Solitary Road, Oh, Winter Come and I Follow You Child.
FTR: What makes a good collaborator? Is there anyone you’d like to work with you haven’t yet?
Oh yes, I would love to work with Richard Hawley, Sera Cahoone, Barna Howard, Israel Nash, Futurebirds and some others. I think when you knock at someone’s door to collaborate on your album, what you’re expecting to capture is their personality, their sound, their vibe.
FTR: What is different about this album compared to your earlier work?
I think in general it’s better and the whole album is more compact than the others. I really like the sound we achieved and I think the lyrics are better. I’ve read somewhere that the album is more mature. I don’t know if it’s more mature, I am not sure if I quite like this expression yet. I am happy because I had an idea in mind that I could transform into reality. I like the vibe of the album, what it means to me, the idea that’s behind the record, what I am communicating.
FTR: You’re from Vic in Catalonia, has that shaped your sound? What can you tell us about Vic?
Vic is a lovely small city. I do recommend you to visit it if you love ancient towns with a story behind them. It is located in a plain (the skyline of the plain is so nice!) and it’s very close to the mountains and also very close to Barcelona. The food is amazing and there’s concerts, cinema, theatre, exhibitions… I don’t know if Vic itself shaped my sound. In terms of genre I wouldn’t say it because when I started to play I didn’t know anybody doing my kind of music. But I feel its landscape and also the fog shaped my writing. Landscape and nature often appear in my lyrics.
FTR: What’s the music scene in Vic like? Does the area have a particular sound?
Journalists talk about a scene and it’s really eclectic. There’s a garage sound, rock, pop, synth pop… It seems like it’s a prolific place.
FTR: Obviously politics and independence are a big deal in Catalonia at the moment. Do you think that has crept into this album?
Not at all. Even though I think all that surrounds us affects us somehow. But I was digging deep into my relationships, love, loneliness, solitude, death… maybe I was also going through a tumultuous period, you know, thinking about what it means being coherent and not liking being lied to.
FTR: You’ve chosen to sing in English, do you find that easy? What made you decide to do that?
Well, I know it can look pretentious but for me singing in English, it feels natural. I have always listened to Americana, folk, pop and all of those groups playing these genres, so for me the natural language for Americana is English.
FTR: Why do you make music?
I feel fulfilled and happy, just as simple as that.
FTR: What draws you to writing country/Americana music? Do you listen to a lot of it?
I love this genre. As a child I fell in love with Neil Young. Then as a teenager, I went through different groups such as Nirvana, Garbage, P.J. Harvey, but in my twenties I went back to Bob Dylan and started writing songs. I think it’s something it’s difficult to choose. I mean, for me it’s honest to write what I write because it comes from inside. I don’t know if I would feel comfortable trying to avoid what’s natural for me and dealing with another kind of music. I think what’s interesting is to go deeper into your field and the trip itself ends shaping your sound and your song writing.
FTR: Who are you influences? Were you listening to anyone in particular when you were writing/recording this album?
I love Neil Young. I think he is a big influence. But I do listen different artists and bands. When I was writing Cross The Verge songs I was listening to Mojave 3, The Deep Dark Woods, Blaze Foley, Futurebirds…
FTR: Do you have a favourite track on this record? What can you tell us about it?
I don’t have a favourite track but I do like the lyrics to Flags and I love the sound we got on Black Lake. I think it’s the biggest and darkness song I have ever written and recorded.
FTR: What are your plans for touring this record? Are you playing many festivals this summer?
My plans are playing around Catalunya, also in Spain and of course, come back to the UK often and, if possible, with my band. I just played in Primavera Sound Festival in Barcelona, I am flying to Mañana Mañana in Hummelo, Holand to play a show, going to Portugal at Paredes da Coura and we are playing at other festivals in Catalunya.
FTR: What are your ambitions for this record? Do you think it’s still possible to make a career out of music?
I am afraid Spain is not the best place to try to make a living with music. I’ve met some musicians from other countries and it looks like everything is fairer where they live. But I do know being a musician and trying to make a living with music, it’s hard everywhere. I believe artists need to stay true to themselves. It’s a huge investment of time (and money) so you better do what you believe in. At the same time, I feel there’s no formula to deal with music. It’s really private and personal, what works for you doesn’t necessarily work for someone else. What really matters is what you feel at the end of the day. See if it’s worth living the way you do for it or if it’s not.
FTR: What’s next for Joana Serrat?
I am working on new songs, attending shows, also I just started my own label in Spain, I did my first job as a music producer on Marta Delmont’s debut album, titled Silver Blaze …I like being busy in music so Is wish this never stops.
Cloudy Heart is out now via Loose. If you live in San Sebastian you can see Joana later this week, click HERE to be kept up to date with all her forthcoming live dates.