Alternative titles could go something like “How to Accept the Unacceptable — an Improv Guide”; “Portrait of a Song: We all feel like Sh** but That’s Kind of OK”. All these will (probably, maybe, here’s hoping) make sense when you finish Vasco Narciso’s interview.
It’s late afternoon in Lisbon. June, mild and sweet, prepares the city for the awakening of a new summer. In the heart of Chiado there are still small oases of calm, and it was one of them that Vasco chose for the interview. The eye of the hurricane, a terrace where he usually comes alone. To read, to write, to be. He says he spent the day finishing a song and he tells us his story without any kind of fear, without signs of holding back or restrained speech. Nowadays, honesty and vulnerability are more disconcerting than a chest closed in on itself: flowers of rare beauty that relieve us because they still grow by the river and let us be spectators of their delicate melody.
Vasco Narciso grew up in Lisbon until he was three. The family then moved to Santo Amaro de Oeiras, so that the kids could grow up in the freedom and security of a small community. “At the age of six, I went to school alone, on foot. We played football in the street, threw water balloons at cars. In that village we were kings. We were kids, we thought we could do anything.” His parents tried to pass on their passion for music. “They bought me some guitars; I didn’t even touch them. They put me in classes and I didn’t go. It was boring.” He wanted to have the speed of youth in his body and, therefore, he was a top-level athlete until he was 18 years old. First hockey, since he was six: the team he played for won the national championship. Then surf, where he was regional champion and was always in the top five national places. With so many early victories, we wondered if being good at everything he didn’t get a consequential feeling of invincibility.
“No, because I always reached a stage where I couldn’t pass, I couldn’t improve, so I thought I was terrible. When I got to a point where things started to get really serious, I thought I wasn’t good enough, so I started to lose my focus, my performance. And I didn’t have the maturity and psychological support to overcome that. I had been in sports for over ten years. There were always a lot of things I didn’t agree with: it’s a super sexist environment, we were bullied. I naturally didn’t fit in, and I didn’t quite understand why. I thought I should start doing something different to fit in with myself. I needed something that would develop my brain, not just my body.”
And so he returned to the guitar. “I remember when I was a kid going to bed and closing my eyes, thinking about the best scenario of my life, and imagining myself doing a guitar solo. At the time, I was listening to a lot of Guns N’ Roses, and they have huge guitar solos, and there I was, with my headphones in bed, imagining it was me. But something really specific: I even imagined what clothes I was wearing, who was watching — the girl I was in love with and who didn’t care about me at all would suddenly see me playing. It was always those dreams. I rejected the guitar, but then I dreamed about it.” But if he decided to go back to the guitar, this time it would be pretty serious. He would go all the way. Vasco was in high school and enrolled at Hot Clube, the jazz school. Friends made fun of him, they didn’t understand: not many teenagers would give up the blessing of a careless life to delve into the density of jazz. But jazz was in all his memories, in all the evenings of his childhood. It was the only way possible. But it was not an easy path. Hot Clube is famous for being demanding, especially when someone tries to combine it with school — not that Vasco went to classes that much, but he still managed to finish high school with an average of 16. And he enrolled in ISEG, in Management. Of course, he barely even started the course; music was already too essential for him, too material, too integral. Jazz was his entire universe.
“My parents had several Blue Note records, and that sound was exactly what I was unconsciously looking for. I had heard them all my life. Dexter Gordon, John Coltrane, Miles Davis. I started playing guitar, but it wasn’t until a lot later that I started listening to guitarists — I always listened to Oscar Peterson, Hank Mobley, I have these records memorised to the core. Everything that comes from bebop and after bebop, and hard bop, I heard them all. Instead of knowing song lyrics, I knew exactly every note that saxophonist played. That’s when I decided I wanted to be a musician, and I started planning my life accordingly.”
His plans took him to Amsterdam, where he continued his training. In the middle of the course, and because of a girlfriend, he began to open his chest and his horizon of interests. “Everything about her fascinated me, I fell in love very quickly, and I started listening to the songs she listened to. I wanted to impress her so bad I started looking and searching for things to show her. Oh, you like Mac Demarco? Wait a minute; I’ll send you Unknown Mortal Orchestra, King Gizzard, I’ll find their most obscure song. The same thing that happened to me with jazz, happened to me with this genre, which you might call alternative music, or indie rock, or indie pop.” And so the chords of what we now know as Narciso began to be drawn. A melancholy as sweet as it is hard, as light as it is thick. In 2020 he released his first EP, Anticorpo. Four purely instrumental songs that are trips, and cradles and dives. They caress and disquiet. Reveal and relief.
“Almost all of my compositions are the result of an improv session. I have a certain practice: whenever I’m improvising and something comes to my mind — and I don’t even need to be holding an instrument; sometimes I’m improvising on the street, or in bed, in my head, or sometimes I hear something where I am — I pick up the phone and record it. I have a Creative Archive folder where there are super-short audio files of all my spontaneous ideas. A big part of my creation process involves putting these ideas together — invariably there will be an idea that links directly to another, and I even know what it is, I don’t even need to go see it, what I’m doing now will be the second part of what I did a week ago, or a year ago. The song I have on Spotify, My One, was partly made in 2021, and another part is from 2018, an idea that I had on standby until the moment I thought it made sense to join it with this one.”
My One was released in 2021 and is Narciso’s first single with words. The market encouraged him to sing and, when he started, he faced it — as he does with everything — in an almost obsessive way: studying, building perfection. Only by doing it in this way does it become possible to materialise improvisation. This new instrument has changed the identity of his music and his way of creating, and Vasco is still learning how to master it. He spends hours at home, book in hand, reading to the walls, “reading poems, reading my words, singing. Now I’m in a very intense Leonard Cohen thing. I’m opening the book randomly, reading it aloud, as if I were in a play.” English comes naturally to him and, with five concerts scheduled in London in July, it’s only fitting. Internationalisation is his most present thought, his most concrete objective. “Being at the beginning of my career, I feel that I lack road experience; I need to know new places, new people, new musicians, new stages. I lack that, that’s what I wake up thinking about every day. What fulfills me is to purely enjoy. Whatever position you’re in, you want to enjoy it. I think it’s the most rewarding feeling of the whole job and the whole investment is about enjoying it.”
What we enjoy is hearing him play. Going from tenderness to the edge of insanity, from zero to one hundred, making constant stops in catharsis. Having explosions in the chest, magnificent balms. “I get very emotional at concerts. Sometimes this calls the music into question. When I was living in Amsterdam, the last project I worked on was noise and free improv, me and a drummer, João Guerra. There were no conditions, no rehearsals, no rules whatsoever. It was a very intense and super-liberating experience, but I left feeling physically hurt. With bleeding hands, the guitar all broken down. I had a slide for making that sound on the guitar, a glass tube, and it broke in my hand. Very high volume. It was the only way I had to release — everything. […] At the Lux concert, which was the first concert with my band, I was so emotional that I missed a couple of things. It’s hard to control, it’s a learning experience that I’m going through, trying to be more serene. Being able to get emotional and going to that place but at the same time being able to have my finger on the ground enough to do the concert. If you don’t have a finger on the ground, nobody gets a hold of you. You’re not there, there is no one watching you, there is no time, there is nothing. You travel alone.”
In the midst of these trips to Mars, he has already written the soundtrack for a short animated film — nominated for the Festival of Animation Berlin — and he says that if he goes back to school, it’ll be to compose for cinema. But in the meantime, Vasco is focused on this Narciso, who is definitely not a myth, but actually quite real: he already has several new songs that he will release soon, that he’s been testing live. The musical project still seems newborn, but the dates keep coming, one after the other, and the critics continue to redouble their applause. The honesty we were talking about at the beginning of the interview is always obvious, the love in every chord, the almost unbridled emotion of someone who just wants to create and create and create. But is the cliché true? In order to create, is it necessary, imperative and obligatory to suffer?
“If a person doesn’t question his life, his reality, the others around him, if he doesn’t reflect on shit daily, it’s not possible. And you notice the difference in the level and depth of the different artists. […] Art and creation are like religion — and I don’t know anything about religion, what I know about Christianity and the Catholic Church is what priests say at funerals, it’s the only time I’ve heard — is a way of consoling each other, of finding a common justification that we can all grasp to alleviate suffering. […] Our role, in a way, is in an aesthetically beautiful way to comfort other people. But for that you have to suffer. And when you are not suffering, you continue to insist on that suffering so that you can come up with a clear, beautiful way of justifying a very specific, very deep feeling. And it’s a lot of work, you have to dive a lot into it, and maybe that’s where this thing comes from that we have to feel like shit to create. We all feel like shit for different reasons, we all break down.”
Is it almost as if art is the object of empathy? “I really think so, yes. I’ve been reading a lot of Alberto Caeiro for a long time now, and this heteronym of Fernando Pessoa has a series of poems called O Pastor Amoroso, and that for me is the sublime. The simplicity and clarity of how he says something we all feel and don’t know how to say, and when you read it, it gives meaning to your problem and you can live with it — because we have to live with it.” We launch into a conversation about Caeiro and how uncomfortable thinking can be, how necessary it is, how painful thinking about thinking can be. Vasco looks in his bag for the poetry book, finds the right verse. Art is also about finding the right verse. “The last few years have been very difficult years in my life. It was a very deep hole. But the thing that I find interesting in my songs is that none of them sound heavy or dark. […] Now that I’m writing, using words in my music and singing them, it’s a very liberating idea and it makes me think ‘yeah, I feel like shit, but that’s okay, so do you. Everyone does, they just don’t talk about it’.” So Narciso is one more piece in this discipline of light melancholy — light, but not joyful. A solace in communion, the beauty of feeling like shit. This generosity, this clean form of sharing is very human. To create, to process and expose the entrails so that the process is now common — is now a living, breathing being of the world. This world in which it is increasingly rare and difficult to be human.