Read our exclusive chat with one of Portugal’s most intriguing new artists
Serendipity is a beautiful thing. In September of 2019 I received a press release announcing the impending release of a new album called ~ (that’s pronounced tilde), the debut release from a Portuguese artist called Marinho.
I listened to a bit of the CD that came with the press sheet, and I was immediately impressed. So I listened some more, and found myself drawn in by the folk-rock sound of this young woman from Lisbon.
As it happened, I had already scheduled a trip to that included several days in the capital city of mainland Europe’s westernmost country. So I reached out to Marinho’s label representative; happily, we were able to schedule an in-person conversation to take place during my visit.
Filipa “Pipa” Marinho is a fascinating artist. I’m the first to admit that (ahead of my trip, at least) my knowledge of Portugal, its people and its music was quite thin. I do know a little bit about the fado musical tradition, a melancholy folk music that is as entrancing as it is complex (it has its own lute-like instrument, and the emotions it conveys lay beyond the reach of accurate translation). But as I would learn, Marinho’s cultural and musical foundation has as much – if not a great deal more – to do with American pop culture and music than anything she may have picked up growing to adulthood in Portugal’s largest city. And she certainly isn’t a fado musician.
In the final days of my European excursion, my wife and I met up with Pipa and Street Mission Records’ Dani Zinni. Our agreed meeting spot was the bustling, cross-cultural foodie nexus, Lisbon’s Time Out Market. But the eatery – a chef-centric re-imagining of the food court concept – was far too busy for a conversation. So at Pipa’s recommendation, we walked a block or two to a funky, relaxed-vibe bar called Pensão Amor. After situating ourselves in some comfortable chairs and ordering drinks, our conversation began.
One of the first things I wanted to ask Marinho was why she sings in English. Ahead of the question, I already had some ideas; her English is flawless, and only rare flashes of a Portuguese accent can be detected in her conversation. So I began instead by asking how she learned to speak English.
“By watching Cartoon Network,” she told me. As a child, Pipa Marinho consumed a steady diet of American-made animated programming. By the middle 1990s, the Atlanta-based cable channel had begun its own original programming; shows like Cow and Chicken, Dexter’s Laboratory, Johnny Bravo and The Powerpuff Girls may have put forth a somewhat skewed cultural representation of the U.S. (then again perhaps not), and the dada Space Ghost Coast to Coast was deeply weird no matter what one’s cultural perspective. But they were all English-language programs.
VIDEO: Weird Al Yankovic on Space Ghost Coast to Coast
And it was by watching those and other shows that Pipa honed her English-speaking skills. More conventionally, perhaps, she learned how to play the guitar. But as to why she writes and sings in English … that still left me wondering.
“I started playing music at 14,” Pipa explains. “Of course I’m Portuguese, and I express a lot of my day-to-day emotions and life in Portuguese. But there are also a lot of feelings that naturally pop into my head in English.” She says that she earned her “emotional education” in English, so writing in the language is a natural progression. “Even when I’m writing a poem in my phone or in a notebook – even if the words aren’t meant to be in a song – a lot of the time they’re going to be in English,” she says.
Marinho has spent a fair time in the U.S. as well, so her creative output is colored at least in part by the experiences she had living and working several months in Los Angeles. At the time she was working for a Lisbon-based music startup (“kind of a Patreon for musicians,” she explains), and the company was in the process of expanding to North America. “I went for three months, she says. “But they ran out of money.” Still, the experience was a creatively fertile one, she says. While Pipa very much enjoyed the job, she admits that she was “very, very lonely for a lot of the time. You’re in a new place. You don’t know anyone. It’s a lot more expensive than your hometown, and all that stuff.”
So she bought a guitar.
For a few years prior, Marinho had stopped playing and writing music. “I was focused on other things,” she says. “I was focused on working in music, but doing other stuff.” But during her stay in Los Angeles, she found herself consumed by the need to write and play music. “I was going to a lot of shows. I was meeting a lot of interesting people. I was very inspired. So I bought a ‘baby’ Martin guitar from someone I met online. It’s the guitar that I still write and play with,” she says. “It’s a travel size guitar, but it has a big sound for what it is.”
Several of the songs on tilde were written – or at least begun – during Marinho’s L.A. experience. One of those is “Not You.” Its moody, snaky and alluring melody would have sounded perfect played over the speakers at Pensão Amor. “That one’s a collaboration with Monday, one of my favorite Portuguese artists. She’s also a folk singer-songwriter,” she says. With a wry smile, Marinho adds, “There’s not a lot of us in Portugal; about four or five.”
She says that several of the songs on tilde “were very much inspired by the people and the scene, and what I felt, while in the U.S.” While in California, Marinho got the opportunity to learn the ways in which its music scene is different from the one back home in Lisbon. “They’re completely different, but they’re not completely different,” she says. In Portugal, she explains, the music scene isn’t a self-sustaining industry. The Portuguese music scene “sustains itself out of passion, and not money. And it should be both, obviously. And in L.A., specifically, there’s obviously a lot of money,” she observes.
Except, she allows, when there isn’t. “There are a lot of DIY things happening there as well,” Marinho says. ‘But it is an industry.” She explains that if one is “making music in L.A. or Nashville or New York or even in Berlin or London – if you’re making music in this big creative hub of a city – it might be more difficult, because sometimes there’s more people making music.”
Even with herds of creative artists endeavoring to make music, those cities have at least some sort of infrastructure for all of it. “Whereas in Portugal, sometimes it can be a little bit stressful,” she says. “You know you have the talent and you know that people are going to enjoy your music, but you also know that there’s not a lot of money going around to support your growth as an artist.”
She’s not complaining, though. For her part, Pipa Marinho has plans beyond local performances in support of her debut album. If the many details can be sorted out, there are hopes for a North American tour. And in the meantime, she’s putting together a radio show designed specifically to celebrate women songwriters.
VIDEO: Marinho “Window Pain” live from the WtMM rooftop
And over the last few years, Marinho has been building a solid base of fans in Portugal. But she points out that her home country’s music scene exists as a sort of two-tier system. She mentions ZDB, a Lisbon club where she has performed a number of times (the venue is also a favorite of American singer-songwriter Angel Olsen).
“What happens in Portugal is that there’s not a lot of mid-tier level [music] industry,” she says. “Either you’re small, indie and niche and you play a venue like ZDB, which is cool. Or you’re extra big and you play a coliseum for 4,000 people.” Making clear that she’s exaggerating to make a larger point, she emphasizes, “There are a few in the middle, but not a lot.”
And what thrilled her about Los Angeles was a thriving middle tier. “What inspired me there was to see so many artists that are unknown to almost everyone in Europe, but they make a living out of playing,” she says. “They’re making ends meet, and even more than that.”
With her background in the business side of music, Marinho understands more than most about what it takes to succeed. Talent – a quality she has in ample supply – can only get an artist so far. The shifting industry paradigm that came with the demise of major labels (and their big budgets) can work in favor of an independent-minded artist like Marinho.
“Back in the ‘80s and ‘90s and the 80’s, it wasn’t [always] good for the artist,” she observes. “Because they handed everything over to the labels and to the companies. I think it’s good that the artists are more hands-on now.” Her method of working with Street Mission Records is much more collaborative, she says. “And I like that. I like that we’re doing this together and it’s not like, ‘You make me big.’ Dani’s not saying, ‘You work on your followers, and I’ll collect the money.’ I’ve been lucky that way.”
Ultimately, though, Pipa Marinho’s success comes from more than mere luck. She engages with those who appreciate her music, but in a way that places value on being genuine. “I just try to be myself,” she says. “Speaking of social media, for example, I try not to post anything just for the sake of posting.” If she feels she has something relevant to say, however, she’ll share it.
“And I try to make it as honest and as transparent as I can,” she says, providing an example. “When I post about a new single, I’m probably going to talk about what kind of emotions I’m feeling about posting about that. And what kind of feelings originated when making that song.” She has learned that her followers appreciate that approach.
“Every time that I get a comment or a message from someone, it’s usually something very emotional, something [along] the lines of, ‘Thank you for talking about these things in ways that I feel the same,’” she says. That kind of emotional connecting is doubly important for an artist who makes what she calls “emotional folk” music. “I don’t think there’s any other way of promoting yourself or of communicating with others,” she says. “And that’s how I think you should cultivate a following: aim to have a sense of community and a sense of belonging with the people that follow you, and don’t aim to have a lot more followers.”
That sense of connectedness feeds Marinho as an artist, too. “Even just to have someone listen to my music or be at my shows is a very big validation,” she says. “And I don’t mean validation in terms of ‘You’ve made it because someone cares about your music.’ My music is very vulnerable, and when I’m on stage, singing those lyrics, and even just playing those guitar riffs, people are there. They’re there because they’re listening to me. And they’re there because they want to be there. For me that’s the same as them saying, ‘I see you. I hear you. I’m here.’”
And it’s not necessary that her audience experiences the exact same set of emotions at the same time. “For myself – and, from what I understand, for a lot of artists – a lot of the need to make art also comes from an emotional difficulty, or trauma, or whatever you want to call it,” she says. “Of not having felt seen and heard before. Sometimes you have to write it; you have to externalize it that way, because you didn’t feel like you had [another way to] share it.”
At their core, the eight songs on Marinho’s tilde are about the sharing of those emotions. “The lack of human connection is what sometimes gave me the spark to write the songs,” she says. “The songs were a tool for me to get that human connection, which I am getting in different ways. And I’m very happy about that.”
VIDEO: Marinho live at ZDB
A few weeks before our meeting, Marinho took the stage at the aforementioned ZDB. Her performance of “Joni” – a song on tilde that’s a tribute to Joni Mitchell – was captured with professional video equipment. The ZDB clip illustrates the ease with which the artist combines folk-based songwriting with a solid indie rock sensibility; the music – even when it’s gentle – has teeth.
Also on YouTube, viewers can enjoy a series of Marinho’s entrancing music videos. “I Give Up and It’s OK,” “Ghost Notes” and “Window Pain” all explore fertile emotional territory within the context of catchy folk-rock arrangements. Even when the themes are weighty, they’re delivered in a way that makes them accessible.
“I wrote ‘Freckles’ after I started therapy,” Pipa says. “It’s a lot more raw [than many of the other tracks], and it comes from a place of disappointment. But it’s also beautiful because of that. It’s my favorite track on the record. And I think it’s the most vulnerable one, as well.”