Feature/Interview

In lockdown with… vocalist Sara Serpa

Portuguese vocalist, composer and improviser Sara Serpa has been based in New York since 2008. Voted #1 Rising Star-Female Vocalist by the DownBeat Critics Poll 2019, she is known for her unique, wordless vocal style that has led to many celebrated collaborations within the world of jazz, experimental and improvised music. We find out a bit more about her and what she’s been doing and listening to during lockdown.

Sara Serpa. Photo credit Heather Sten

First album you purchased as a jazz musician”?

The first album I have a recollection of is Ella and Louis, which I memorised. We used to listen to it all the time on car trips with my family. It was great to be able to sing along with Ella, imitate her phrasing, understand the form of the songs, and learn how they scat together. It was (and still is) an album that makes me feel happy. 

What are you listening to right now?

Something different every day. Bandcamp has been a good platform to listen to music that I didn’t have the opportunity to listen carefully to when it was released. This week I listened to Ingrid Laubrock’s orchestral piece Contemporary Chaos Practices, Okkyung Lee’s Yeo-Neun, Qasim Naqvi’s Preamble and Kassa Overall’s Shades of Flu.

Because I am teaching a class on the music of Duke Ellington and Béla Bartók, and lockdown marked a period that I had to adjust quickly to teaching remotely, I also had the chance to listen more carefully to some of their music while looking at scores.

Have you done or watched any livestream gigs or events since lockdown?

Yesterday, I watched three livestream gigs – it was great to hear Aubrey Johnson, Ran Blake and Terri Lyne Carrington in the period of three hours. It is a very different experience and has to compete with the family environment around me. I did one pre-recorded set for Act4 Music Online Festival and curated three other artists for the same day, so I watched their sets as well. It was really great to sit and watch/listen.

Recording at home and doing livestream events require a lot of work to put together. I am still figuring out how to navigate these transitions. I’m very picky about the experience and as a consumer/audience member I know what contributes to a good or bad one. The sound and lighting should be great, otherwise it’s very easy to lose the focus.

But artists need to share their work and I am hopeful we will find better ways to do it. It doesn’t replace the live performance and it’s not meant to be a replacement. But I think we will learn to consider it as another way of communicating with audiences. Sometimes I am hopeful and sometimes I am overwhelmed, because spending so much time in front of a screen is not healthy.

Most memorable time in your career or education?

Yesterday I watched Ran Blake’s livestream and it made me reflect about being a student at New England Conservatory – it was such a memorable experience. Studying with Ran Blake, Danilo Perez and Dominique Eade had a huge impact on my music path.

My voice lessons are always a moment of discovery! I took a few lessons with Theo Bleckmann while I was at NEC and those first encounters really changed the way I approached my instrument. Deborah Carmichael, my current voice teacher, is always reminding me about connecting the body with the musical phrase, through breath and movement. It never fails when I do it right.

Instrument you wish you played?

Drums. I also wish I had continued playing the piano, and learnt it at jazz school… I quit playing after more than 10 years studying at the conservatory – at the time I was a bit traumatised by the classical music environment and its pressures.

Has this time in isolation inspired any new creative ideas?

I have many ideas, yes, but I am still processing. It’s been hard, being in the epicentre of the pandemic. It’s hard to focus, and hard to have time for myself, having the whole family at home (which includes a 6 year old!). I find consolation in small (big) things, like walks in nature, reading books, and setting short-term goals for myself.

I’m also looking forward to the upcoming release on 5 June of my tenth work Recognition: Music For a Silent Film, which is a multi-disciplinary work tracing the historical legacy of Portuguese colonialism in Africa through music and film.

What are you most looking forward to once this is over?

To be with friends without being paranoid. To play music with other musicians. To have my son play with his friends freely. My life in NYC is characterised and enriched by so many encounters and I miss those.

A chance to plug a friends music right now…

My husband André Matos just released a solo album Earth Rescue on Robalo Records, which I think everyone should listen to. Okkyung Lee’s new album Yeo-Neun is also gorgeous.

LINK: Find out more about Sara on her website

Listen to Earth Rescue by André Matos

Listen to Yeo-Neun by Okkyung Lee

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