Portugal’s rising star who is making fado her own talks to Gonçalo Frota
Gisela João blurts out “I live in a constant melancholy disguised as joy,” and then stops for a second to make sure of the definition she just invented. It sounds like a PR catchphrase, but there is nothing remotely planned about the newest star of Portuguese fado. With a rarely seen consensus on her storming rise to the forefront of local music, João is all about raw emotion and a thrilling voice, just as convincing while in an overly-dramatic love loss mode as when she starts dancing and chanting popular traditional songs.
And that’s exactly as the singer sees the correspondence between her life and her art. “I really can’t live half-heartedly. I’m very intense and I believe that real fado, the one that really gets to me, is that way too. It’s very extreme,” she acknowledges.
That’s why João claims she could sing no other musical style. She listens to all sorts of music; she has performed with electronics wizard Nicolas Jaar and with raw rock band Linda Martini, but nothing comes close to what the 30-year-old accomplishes when she delivers a poem such as ‘O Meu Amigo Está Longe’, one of the very scarce examples of a fadista picking from Amália Rodrigues’ repertoire and managing to sound brilliant rather than a pale recreation.
It’s highly significant that the Amália song was included in João’s self-titled debut album released in Portugal in July 2013 – the international release is now under way. João was eight years old and, being the older sister of seven, was expected to take care of her younger siblings, do the housekeeping and cook family meals while her mother worked long hours in the north of Portugal. Being the ‘grown up’ around the house made a precocious woman out of her but she resents the fact that the story is often told as if we should pity her. It was however during this time that she first heard Amália on the radio singing a poem, ‘Que Deus me Perdoe’ that says if her silent suffering could actually be seen, everyone would notice her misfortune and how she was bearing a false joy. João felt like the song could have been written for her and that fado was already mirroring her life.
“I’ve even asked my doctor about it, because when I’m singing fado I feel like there’s something bursting in my chest, such an enormous sense of relief I can’t explain. And from very early on I got addicted to it, just like a drug.” João is so passionate about her fado and her emotions that she gets irritated when she’s reminded of the lightness she hears in people speaking of being sad or loving someone. This exemplifies the rawness of her debut – there is no percussion, no strings, no glossy production, nothing that takes fado out of its own habitat. Even when she sings the remarkable new lyrics she commissioned from rapper Capicua or the traditional fado ‘Casa da Mariquinhas’, Gisela João is not trying to reinvent fado, she’s merely making it her own with her heart incredibly close to her mouth.