Photos: Frederico Martins
Styling: Nelly Gonçalves
Interview: Lígia Gonçalves

Makeup: Patrícia Lima
Hair: Rui Rocha
Production: Snowberry

Fado and fashion have always been a part of Gisela João roots. Now that she is putting out new roots, or should we say, a new studio album, we wanted to know how those roots intertwine.

A new day exists as a follow-up. It’s the present making its way, as a consequence of the events that came before. That is where the Fado singer (or, as we say in Portuguese, fadista), Gisela João is now: at the brink of a new dawn. She knows her roots and is aware of the path she’s made; she knows Fado’s roots and is grateful for those who came before; she has walked the road, or, if you prefer, sang the road. A road she has always walked while accompanied by an individual and non-transferable sense of fashion. Now, with that knowledge on her side, she is launching new roots, or should we say, a new album, fittingly called Aurora (in English, dawn). With a new day coming, we talked (of course, as current circumstances dictate, via zoom meeting) to her about this perfectly rooted dawning, and how she uses (and always has used) fashion to express herself.

In an interview with the Portuguese music magazine, “Blitz”, in 2018, you said: “I can’t forget where I’ve come from.” So my question for you is, where are your roots?

That’s a good one. I actually think about this every day: I can’t forget where I have come from. And this can be a good and a bad thing, because sometimes I’m too stuck to strike out on new paths. But when I say that, I always try to look on the bright side. I say it because I have done lots of things: I worked in clothes shops; I worked in the fair… I am very proud of those people at the fair. I am very proud of those people from small places. I’m from Barcelos (a city in the north of Portugal with a population of around 120,000), and I am very proud of how things are done there, the good and the bad, since it is a city that is quite remote where people tend to be straight and to the point. And I like that, because in my line of work it is very easy to delude yourself. And I would never want to become that person who doesn’t know what their priorities in life are — and, look, I’m not saying these people are more or less shallow. This is why I can never, ever, forget where I come from.

Do you think our roots ever leave us?

No, they never leave us. But it is the path we take that makes us who we are today. So I believe we must be proud of the path we take. If we had gone a different way, we would not be who we are. And this is why I say to you that I will not forget where I come from, because I am the woman I am and sing the way I do because this path has been my life. I sing the way I do because I’ve had this life, otherwise I would sing a different way because I would feel the lyrics differently…

Yet, despite this, throughout our lives we are always putting down new roots or, if you prefer, expanding our existing roots, don’t you think?

You know that the title of my new album, Aurora, is closely related to this question you just asked. I chose the name Aurora because I absolutely adore the meaning of the word. I adore it because I believe that every day, when we wake up, if we feel like being a different person — the exact opposite of what we were the day before — well, then, we can. I think this is an opportunity we have been given, and one we don’t make much use of. It is only when we face limitations that we begin to question ourselves, only for us to forget about it when things are good. Yet, it remains true that every day you have the chance to become a different person. 

And now, looking at our collective roots, so to speak, what defines the Portuguese soul for you?

Ah! The definition of the Portuguese soul. I don’t want to say what I am going to say, but I have to say it. I think that what defines the Portuguese soul is saudade. I didn’t want to say this because it always seems to evoke a certain burden: as if we were sad. But I don’t consider saudade to be a thing of sadness. I think it is many things, that it is quite comprehensive. I believe the very poetic way in which we see life is a result of this feeling of saudade that is intrinsic to us. To an extent, I even believe our language is richer because of this feeling of respect with which saudade imbues us.

Do you think Fado is a part of the Portuguese soul?

I do. Of that I have absolutely no doubt. Even those people who say they are not big fans of Fado, I am absolutely sure they are not hearing what they should have heard. Fado transcends the spoken and written language that is Portuguese. That is because the language of Fado is part of being Portuguese.

And in relation to the Fado that’s coming out, about your new studio album, “Aurora”, that’s about to come out?

A dawn is coming. It is the first time I have written and sang poems I wrote myself. I never had the courage to do this before: I was always afraid. And my friends always asked: “but why?” [In this] album I composed the music, wrote the lyrics…

Why now? Why in this new “Aurora”?

Because it was a step I had to take. When I released my first album (Aurora will be her third studio album. Gisela João was released in 2013, and Nua in 2016), people said: “Ah, but you need your own repertoire. You need to have your own music.” And, to be honest, I had never thought about it. Because I had always been very proud of the songs I sang, when I sang songs by other people it was always a way of paying tribute to them. I think it is so beautiful that an older song can have a life today and make a girl like me feel it and even take it to younger people. I am just the messenger. However, after doing this in the last two albums, I started feeling I had more to say, that I had melodies and poems in my head. And that is how Aurora came about: with this idea of doing something that is beautiful and, more importantly, very honest. I don’t think I have ever made a record that is so much mine. I am also co-producer on this album, alongside Michael [League, producer of Snarky Puppy], who is someone from a different area, from another country, who doesn’t understand our language. And, as a Portuguese person, it was an incredible experience, being able to share our genesis.

“Aurora” really is a new dawn?

Yes. Aurora is a new dawn. It’s a new opportunity. It’s a flourishing. It is like the flowers that are the strongest things in the world — like women — that are born anywhere, endure everything and anything, and keep their heads held high and flourish. That is Aurora. My Aurora.

Looking back a little, I know in the past you wanted to be a fashion designer.

Honestly, I always thought I would become a fashion designer because my mother sews. She worked in a clothes factory all my life and I grew up surrounded by rags. Music is always what was in front of me.

Your mother brought you bags of fabric cuttings from the factory. You then used this fabric to make your own clothes. Do you think your love of fashion started there, inside those bags?

It certainly did. I began by watching my mother with the paper spread out on the big table, cutting patterns. I watched my mother sitting at the sewing machine, making clothes, the clothes that I wore. For example, when I was at school and wanted something new to wear, something pretty, something I saw my friends had, I couldn’t [buy] it, but I would go home and look through the rags I had and would make something new. Fashion — and these experiences — also gave me something wonderful in my life, something I wish everybody could have: the certainty that if you really want something, you can have it. For example, you don’t have enough money to buy that wonderful jacket made by that label, but you really want it? Then get a pair of scissors and a bolt of fabric, then cut it up and sew it together. It will not be the same, but it will be unique. Another thing my mother brought home from the factory were magazines with annual trends, which were huge. And I was fascinated reading them. For me, fashion is a reflection of my personality, of who I am.

And those bags allowed you to express yourself…

Very much. Very much. You have no idea.

You must have had all kinds of fabrics, in every colour.

All kinds… And not just fabrics. My mother also brought applications, stickers, pom-poms, rhinestones…

What do you think those bags of rags, both then and now, enabled and continue to enable you to reach?

That is a good question. I feel they enabled me to reach the other, but above all else they enabled me to reach myself. 

In a way, these remnants and those sacks were a place of freedom, weren’t they?

Yes! For example, very rarely do I take to the stage with a look I had prepared the week before, freeing me from the need to worry. It’s impossible. I am indecisive right up to the last minute. This is why I always travel with rags, remnants, bits of pieces. And, of course, scissors, needles and thread. Always, always, always. And sometimes before the concert, depending on my mood, I will finish making a dress or alter something or other.

So you were never formally a fashion designer, but you continue to design and make your own clothes. Do you think that, besides being a place of freedom, fashion has helped you better express your identity? 

Absolutely. It has given me a connection with the other, because I represent myself better. It is another thing beyond my way of being, or the way I speak. My image also speaks, it also expresses me, it also makes me known.

There is a specific accessory that I know you love: shoes. And while you love to sing barefoot, you adore shoes. Why?

I love shoes. Look, I wear flats all the time, even although I am very short and can’t reach the shelves here in my house (laughs). But, because I like wearing high heels I came to this compromise: I can come on stage wearing high heels, but I can take them off and put them back on whenever I want. And I can also go back on stage wearing my flats. Basically, it depends on how I feel. I hate being a prisoner. 

So, like clothes, shoes also represent us?

Exactly. I think this story I am about to tell you has also had a big influence on my relationship with shoes. I often remember both my grandmother and mother saying to me: “always look at the shoes.” And for me, shoes still dictate the place.

Do shoes tell you stories?

Yes, absolutely. Shoes help me put a person in a certain place.

Taking your idea literally, our shoes walk to the various places with us. This is perhaps why, when you like a pair of shoes so much it is hard to take them off…

Look, I have some shoes inside that I want to show you (she goes into the house, to the wardrobe, to find them). These are the shoes I wore in the photos for my first album and that I wore during my first concerts. I took them with me on the road. They are worn (she keeps on looking), and there came a point when I thought about throwing them out, but I can’t because when I look at them I think: “these are a part of my history.”

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