When Gisela João talks about the fados she sings it’s like she’s really living them and feeling them. I ask her about ‘Madrugada sem Sono’ (Sleepless at Dawn), one of her signature songs that shows off the low, dark side of her voice. “It’s just before dawn and I’m trying to forget my lover,” she says. “It’s that love that you want completely – sex, hot fire, everything. But I’m thinking about everything I’ve done to forget that person, all alone, waiting for dawn, I just bite the sheet on my bed and feel jealous.” Steamy stuff.
I’m talking to João at Babel Med in Marseille where she gave a performance that totally held her audience – at an event that usually has professionals darting from one thing to another to catch a bit of everything. As well as the crowd in Marseille, she also impressed a handful of Songlines Music Travellers who were lucky enough to catch her at Senhor Vinho in Lisbon, in 2011.
Gisela João grew up in Barcelos in the north of Portugal, not the fado heartland. The eldest of seven children, she looked after her brothers and sisters when her mother left for work at six every morning. She heard Amália Rodrigues on the radio when she was seven or eight years old and became obsessed with the poetry. “While my friends were singing ‘Ace of Spades’ and Bananarama, I was singing fado,” she laughs.
As a teenager she started singing Fridays and Saturdays in a fado restaurant in Barcelos for €15 a night. Then she went to Porto and then to Lisbon where she was signed up by Maria da Fé at Senhor Vinho. “But I missed my friends in Porto. For the first year I was crying every night.”
One of João’s self-imposed challenges is to bring fado to people who don’t normally listen to it. “I did a show in Lux, the big riverside disco in Lisbon. Those people are my audience. What I want is to show the art I love and sing with all my emotions. I hate art for the elite.”
A lot of the conventions of fado were putting off her friends, she says. “I love to wear sneakers. I don’t dress in a black shawl. And when I go outside Portugal people don’t understand a word. I want you to imagine you are in the living room of my house, we are friends and I am singing stories about life and love. It’s like the poems choose me. I have a very personal connection between myself and the poems.” See Gisela João next week at one of the gigs below: