The Groningen Report
The 22 years old SURMA, aka Débora Umbelino, from Leiria in Portugal, masters every instrument that is around her. “Her sonic blend combines ambient music, post-rock and jazz influences. The result? A really unique, warm and intimate sound. Ethereal melodies created by a one-woman-band that will take you to another place.” (Europavox)
Her album “Antwerpen” is a pure magical trip!
„Portugals biggest hope in pop music: SURMA. Musicians like Austra or Zola Jesus will be amazed when they listen to the perfectly matched electronic miniatures in every Surma song.“ (Musikexpress)
Eurosonic Noorderslag 2018 (ESNS18) in Groningen, The Netherlands, presented SURMA this year in 2 performances. Her first performance took place in a small music club called Bij Vrijdag in Groningen downtown on January 18th. There she presented songs of her new album Antwerpen, in perfectly mixed beautiful sound and lights, a body of breathtaking sound design, ambient orchestrations, mind-opening sonic environments and heartwarming songs.
Just after the show I had the chance to talk with SURMA at 1:00 am. Please enjoy a very special talk with this pure and very charismatic artist!
Bernd Ihno Eilts: Last year I had my first Portuguese contact with Nelson Graf Reis “We Bless This Mess” and with Joana Duarte from “The Happy Mess” during ESNS. Through my research I did for them I also found videos of you, dear SURMA. And I loved them! Even more happy I was, when I saw you would come to this year’s ESNS. And now we sit here together for our interview! Thank you very much!
Débora Umbelino aka SURMA: Thank you so much! I have a series of videos on Youtube. The rest of it are live sessions.
Bernd Ihno Eilts: I saw a really nice session from Sofar in Lisbon with you. Another one I found was a video you made in Antwerp, Belgium. Now for my interview with you tonight I watched all of them again and still love them!
Débora Umbelino aka SURMA: That’s so cool! Great!
Bernd Ihno Eilts: First of all I want to wish you a happy new year!
SURMA: Happy new year for you too!
Bernd Ihno Eilts: How did you celebrate New Year’s Eve?
SURMA: I was in Spain, in Madrid. It was really cool, with many people outside in the streets. We had a lot of confetti and we had a really cool party there! A lot of champagne too, which is always good. How was your New Year’s Eve?
Bernd Ihno Eilts: Almost the same essentially. I was in Groningen and spent the night with lovely people, we had a whole bunch of fireworks and a lot of excellent working champagne. I had to recover for a few days after that (laughing).
SURMA: (Laughing). Of course! This is normal!
Bernd Ihno Eilts: You studied jazz and even double bass. Please show me your hands!
SURMA: Here they are!
Bernd Ihno Eilts: They are not double bass hands anymore.
SURMA: I don’t play double bass since 3 or 4 years anymore. I just gave it up. I played the school’s double bass and when I gave up that school I also gave up the double bass. That was easy! Now I just play an electric bass at home. In the beginning my fingers were bleeding every day. The strings are just very strong (laughing).
Bernd Ihno Eilts: Then it turned out, you started an amazing musical journey!
Bernd Ihno Eilts: How did you switch from Jazz, you even love the great double bass player and composer Charles Mingus?
SURMA: I love Charles Mingus, yeah (laughing).
Bernd Ihno Eilts: Was there some Charles Mingus tonight in your show?
SURMA: Oh, I don’t know. I of course love to have Charles Mingus beside of me. My dad is a little responsible for that.
Bernd Ihno Eilts: When was that?
SURMA: When I was a little baby, 3 weeks ago or maybe 1 month ago (laughing). He put me on the floor and let me listen 2 hours of vinyl every single day. I guess, it was something that spoiled me.
Bernd Ihno Eilts: Was it your food?
SURMA: Yeah! My roots are country music and jazz from the 50s. When I was 5 years old I told my mum, I want to learn drums. But she didn’t let me, I was very very small. She was scared. When I was 12 years old, I started playing the piano and the classical guitar. But I gave it up, because the classical music is just too straight and very hard to play. When I was 13 or 14 years old I started to cover bands. Then I also started studying jazz at a jazz school in Lisbon. When I was 20 years old I started as SURMA. All of this journey had really a huge impact!
Bernd Ihno Eilts: Which instruments do you play nowadays?
SURMA: I use the guitar, one synthesizer and that’s all.
Bernd Ihno Eilts: And the bass?
SURMA: Yes, the bass. And the microphone. I guess, that’s all.
Bernd Ihno Eilts: Did you learn on school how to compose?
SURMA: No, I’m very much an autodidact. I learned a lot including all my electronic stuff from Youtube lessons (laughing). Then I rehearse very much every day, 7 hours to be specific.
Bernd Ihno Eilts: Where do you live?
SURMA: Right now I live in Lisbon, but I am from Leiria. It is a really small city with 20.000 people in the center of Portugal.
Bernd Ihno Eilts: What are your main influences and inspirations at the moment?
SURMA: Annie Clark from St. Vincent. She is like my goddess. She’s a genius. She is in my head every single day.
Bernd Ihno Eilts: And you are not in your head?
SURMA: (Laughing). I don’t have a head (laughing). She is my biggest influence. Especially for the period when I started to use loop stations and to play all by myself.
Bernd Ihno Eilts: You are playing really a lot in Portugal?
SURMA: Yes! I have live gigs almost every day. It’s really crazy.
Bernd Ihno Eilts: Wow! Why is it like that?
SURMA: I don’t know. I think it’s because of my label, Omnichord Records. They are my boss in a way (laughing). It’s a really small independent label and they help a lot. Not only me, all the bands that are signed to the label. They really work very hard to let us play all around Portugal. It is very hard to play in Portugal, people are really hard to satisfy.
Bernd Ihno Eilts: Really?
SURMA: Yes! Maybe some venues. Right now this changes. At least for me a bit. But still it takes a lot of hard work to let the bands play in all Portugal.
Bernd Ihno Eilts: Where will you go further?
SURMA: Right now? I want to party now (laughing). Tomorrow I have another concert here at ESNS, at Newscafé. After this I will play in Antwerpen, in Belgium. After that I will play in Porto (Portugal) and so on.
Bernd Ihno Eilts: Just in general, where are you heading with your music? Do you have a bigger dream, where you want to go?
SURMA: I just want to play a lot. I just want to bring my emotions to the people, that’s my trip.
Bernd Ihno Eilts: What were your main inspirations from the last week?
SURMA: Silence inspires me always lot. If I could sit in this room in total silence, then I’m able to hear other things. This always inspires me a lot for creating my songs and my sounds. I have a lot of music, a lot of riffs (riff = a short repeated phrase in popular music and jazz, typically used as an introduction or refrain in a song) in my head, especially synthesizer riffs. After I’m inspired I directly work on those ideas. Sometimes it’s 5 am and I’m sleeping in a zombie mode. Then I just record all in the middle of the night and go back to sleep. The next day I have some new ideas and I just work on them. Most of the songs of my album were made like this. It’s a strange way (laughing).
Bernd Ihno Eilts: I have almost the same. When I’m creating questions for an interview, after I did my research, when I’m still not sure what to ask, I go to bed, often very late, even I hope I’m not a zombie! But just before I close my eyes all questions come up in a sudden! Then I write them down and the next day I just have to put all together, which is really fun and beautiful!
SURMA: Yes! It’s like you have a person inside of you that assists you. It’s really cool and nice!
Bernd Ihno Eilts: You are from Portugal, a very beautiful and special country. I went there last year for the first time and met many great people there already, like Emmy Curl, Nelson Graf Reis, Miguel Reis (Tio Rex), João Cardoso, Pedro Miguel de Melo, To All My Friends, Fast Eddie Nelson, Joana Duarte and so on. And now I met even you!
SURMA: Thank you so much! Come on! You have to go there again! It’s so cool!
Bernd Ihno Eilts: I will, for sure I will! What do you like the most about your country? And what not?
SURMA: I guess I like all of the things that are going on around there. Sometimes it’s a little bit chaotic (laughing) with the traffic and the people, which is very stressful. But in general I just love Portugal. It’s even inspiring me a lot. When I’m at my house even the birds outside inspire me.
Bernd Ihno Eilts: Let’s talk about Maasai, the video you filmed in Antwerpen, Belgium.
SURMA: One day I received a call from Eduardo Brito, who offered me to record a video clip in Belgium. 2 days after that call I packed my bag and went to Antwerpen and there I recorded the video in only 2 days. It was a really crazy trip (laughing). Shortly after I came back to Portugal the video got released. It was really really cool!
Bernd Ihno Eilts: It has a very interesting atmosphere!
SURMA: We recorded the clip in a small city, 30 minutes from Antwerpen. It’s like a ghost city. It’s like Groningen, but without any life inside at all. It’s a really special spot to film.
Bernd Ihno Eilts: Then I was wondering how you compose?
SURMA: Well, my lyrics are just random words. They are not specific lyrics. It’s about my phonetic, it’s pure about the sound of my voice. I just use my voice like an instrument, like I also use my guitar and the synthesizer.
Bernd Ihno Eilts: It sounds a bit like jazz even!
SURMA: Yeah (laughing)! It’s like an improvisation. I improvise a lot in my music. Every time I sing a song, I change it. Then I just compose parts with the synthesizer and add the guitar. Most of the time my songs start only with my voice.
Bernd Ihno Eilts: You don’t need to be in a good mood to start?
SURMA: I just have a lot of things going on in my head which is really cool. I have a lot of ideas and I transpose them to my instruments. I love how people react to my music. I see people just crying sometimes when I perform and it’s a really cool feeling to see this happening. I think in general it’s the reaction of people I love the most.
Bernd Ihno Eilts: You choose the sounds, the bass, the guitar, the synthesizer and today even some extra percussion from a suitcase, which made an amazing sound!
SURMA: Yes (laughing)! So good, thank you! I was a bit scared about it. In Portugal I use to play a traditional tom with this particular sound. Today we used a cymbal from the drum machine and I wanted to improve. Then there was a suitcase and together with a microphone it delivered a really cool sound!
Bernd Ihno Eilts: Do you always play alone?
SURMA: I always play alone. I like to feel the adrenaline in my body, even when I’m nervous, it’s really cool. I like to follow my own improvisations on stage, it’s my way to do it. I just feel very much comfortable to play all the music by myself.
Bernd Ihno Eilts: You are also moving a lot while you play, you are even dancing!
SURMA: Yes. I’m just crazy sometimes (laughing).
Bernd Ihno Eilts: But it looks nice. It shows the people, that you are totally into the sound. You are a part of your sound and this is so nice to see.
SURMA: Yes. When I’m playing I just feel 100 percent into it.
Bernd Ihno Eilts: Can you tell me, what your definition is of good sound?
SURMA: That’s a nice question. I don’t know. Maybe the textures of something, like a really cool noise. Like a noise of a plastic bag, I really like that.
Bernd Ihno Eilts: Very often you cover your microphone!
SURMA: I do not see myself as a singer-songwriter. I just use the voice and the microphone like instruments. I cover it, because then the voice sounds like under water. This effect I like so much. I don’t like the sound of the voice in a regular situation. I love a voice, when it sounds low and chill.
Bernd Ihno Eilts: What do you like about your life?
SURMA: I love to be connected with new people every single day again. I know already so many very nice and good people that I met on the gigs and everywhere. I am very much blessed. I have really cool contacts on all these places I’m going to.
Bernd Ihno Eilts: What do you like about this world, we live in?
SURMA: Good question again! If I had a van I would just travel around everywhere. I love to meet people, just this, which for me is the most important and the coolest thing.
Bernd Ihno Eilts: Is there something, you would like to change in this life for humanity?
SURMA: No money. Money is a really big problem, I would love to kick or send it away. Just to feel free without money.
Bernd Ihno Eilts: What is the general message, the statement of your music?
SURMA: Just close your eyes and feel the journey together with me.
Bernd Ihno Eilts: But you also have videos. Then we cannot close our eyes.
SURMA: (Laughing)! If you close your eyes, you can feel the music so much clearer. This is a really beautiful feeling. My music is really emotional. I want to share these emotions with others. This is really important for me, to feel connected with others through my music.
Bernd Ihno Eilts: Are you a spiritual person?
SURMA: Yes, I am. I love to not think too much about everything, that’s going on around. Just be there in a positive power. If you have that, all the people can feel this too. That is really important. I also love meditation, I really would love to learn it well. It would be good to meditate for myself, because I’m just too busy.
Bernd Ihno Eilts: You work with a lot of electronic effects. Why are they important for you? Could you also play acoustic?
SURMA: No, never. Of course, I could play acoustic. But I just like the distortion and the reverb and the delay. It’s like my universe. It’s like a big ball and you are inside this big ball and you don’t want to come out. I feel it the most, when all these effects work. When all the synthesizer sounds are there together with all the voices, that’s the most cool environment for me. Then I feel my sound the most. I like the raw stuff.
Bernd Ihno Eilts: You also use these very deep sounds a lot, which is so brilliant to listen to.
SURMA: Thank you so much! I have a homemade distortion, maybe this is the source you love so much.
Bernd Ihno Eilts: Can you tell me, how you feel when you play?
SURMA: My body just flows on the stage. I’m always between being on stage and being somewhere else. But I always come back. It’s just me on stage.
Bernd Ihno Eilts: You told me already your songs are about nothing specific, except specific emotions?
SURMA: Well, they are for example about landscapes. I composed a song for my grandmother, called “Hemma”. All the songs on my album are just about my mom, my dad and my grandmother. This album is a gift for them. Basically the songs are inspired by my parents, by landscapes and a lot of textures I hear everyday. The sounds of the streets inspire me a lot, so most of this material is based on that.
Bernd Ihno Eilts: You have a very interesting video with the song dedicated to your grandmother. It shows these two amazing dancers in motion and you stand in the middle between them.
SURMA: Yes (laughing), I can stand (laughing)!
Bernd Ihno Eilts: Beautiful!
SURMA: Thank you so much! Cool (laughing)!
Bernd Ihno Eilts: How did you find out you wanted the video like it became?
SURMA: In the beginning I wanted to have a minimal video for my song with a very strong image. The CASOTA Collective is another creative production collective from Leiria. They helped me a lot with the film making. Surma is a tribe from Ethiopia and I wanted to connect the feeling of this tribe with the world of my Surma. The dancers did an amazing job. We thought, okay, we do it like this, it was an improvised set-up.
Bernd Ihno Eilts: Can you tell me a bit more about your fascination you have with this Ethiopian tribe called Surma?
SURMA: This tribe really means a lot to me because of their awesome costumes. But I am also very much fascinated, because for them it’s natural to not think about the future or money. They just live their life without any trouble at all. They are really calm people! Isn’t that fascinating?
Bernd Ihno Eilts: Now you are working with a German management, with Christoph Hallerberg from Radicalis. Why did you choose to work with him?
SURMA: We met on the Reeperbahn Festival in Hamburg, Germany. I was there in a concert and Christoph saw my live show and he talked to Hugo Ferreira from my label, and it just clicked at once. Then we decided to work together. He likes us and we love him, he’s great. We just connected from there. He is very generous. And if he does not like something, he just tells it. Which is so beautiful and clear and so amazing. He is really honest, I love his way.
Bernd Ihno Eilts: Who are you in private, when there is no music around? Do you also have a pure private life?
SURMA: Yes, always (laughing)! I love photography. I studied audio visual art in Lisbon, but because of my new actual profession I just had to quit. I do not have really time for that anymore. But I love photography. I have 3 analogue cameras and I just love to take pictures. I go out with my camera and walk around to random spots with random people, even on the street. It’s a really cool thing to do. Then I love to read. Cormac McCarthy is one of my favorite writers.
Bernd Ihno Eilts: What kind of food do you like?
SURMA: Oh, I’m a good mouth. I just eat everything. I was a vegetarian for almost 3 years. But my blood pressure was very low, my health was not that well. The doctor’s obligation was to eat meat and fish. Then I didn’t have a choice. It’s hard to be a vegetarian. I guess my body didn’t like it. I love really tasty and simple dishes from Portugal. My favorite dish is called Ervilhas Escalfadas. It’s made from peas with a big egg on top of it, with salted tomatoes and toasted bread on top of all, it’s really GREAT (laughing)! But I am a very bad cook, I even hate cooking. I also do not like to run, all these hectic sports. But I like meditation!
Bernd Ihno Eilts: You are already very active in music!
SURMA: Yes! It’s like a gymnastic excercise (laughing).
Bernd Ihno Eilts: And when you finish a gig, you immediately have to pack all your stuff?
SURMA: Yes, that’s the hard part. But it’s also nice, I just do it, I do not complain.
Bernd Ihno Eilts: Tomorrow you will have an interview with the Portuguese radio station Antena 3. What will you tell them?
SURMA: That I love Groningen and all the vibes and people of this beautiful city. It’s fantastic here. It’s my first time in The Netherlands.
Hugo Ferreira just entered and told us to stop, because of her very busy schedule. So, we had to.
Débora Umbelino aka SURMA: Thank you very much for this interview!
Bernd Ihno Eilts: Thank you very much dear Surma!
For more information, please check: www.facebook.com/surmaee/
Interview by Bernd Ihno Eilts.
Photography by Zoltan Acs exclusively.
SURMA on tour:
March 8, Teatro Capitólio, Lisbon, Portugal.
March 9, Unlisted Festival, Warsaw, Poland.
March 10, FNAC, Leiria, Portugal.
March 17, The Hideout, Austin, Texas, United States.
April 8, HEPPEL & Ettlich w/ Frère, München, Germany.
April 10, FZW w/ Tuys, Dortmund, Germany.
April 11, Stereo Wonderland w/ Frère, Berlin-Friedrichshain, Germany.
April 12, Karton w/ Frère, Bremen, Germany.
April 13, Aaltra w/ Frère, Chemnitz, Germany.
April 14, Monarch w/ Frère, Berlin-Friedrichshain, Germany.
April 16, Pension Schmidt w/ Frère, Münster, Germany.
April 17, Prinzenbar w/ Frère, Hamburg, Germany.
April 18, Hansa 48 w/ Frère, Kiel, Germany.
April 19, Die Börse w/ Frère, Wuppertal, Germany.
April 20, Café Glocksee w/ Frère, Hannover, Germany.
April 21, Musikbunker w/ Frère, Aachen, Germany.
April 23, Café Galao, Stuttgart, Germany.
April 26, Sender, Zürich, Switzerland.
May 26, Festival Aleste, Madeira, Portugal.
July 13, Nós Alive, Mafra, Lisbon, Portugal.