There is something obviously different with this artist. You can stick as many lables on her as you want, Sofia Portanet still won’t fit into any category. She has a deeply personal way of singing in various languages, using a wide array of sensations. Her voice plays up and down a variety of pitches, her curiosity takes her to always new horizons. Her first record « Freier Geist » (« Free Mind ») now hit the shelves. Listen to it, this is fresh, a musical shock immediately followed by an eagerness to just listen until the last note. She kindly and professionally agreed to this interview.
Sofia Portanet was born in Northern Germany on the day the Berlin wall fell. But she grew up in France. « Home » means something important to her. Her Spanish-born father is a musician and singer himself. Their house in the surroundings of Paris is equipped with a recording studio. « We spent much time together in a real connectedness. It was him who sparked my desire to become an artist. » We owe him thanks for that.
In France, she goes to a German school. Her first contact with singing is the « Maîtrise des Hauts-de-Seine »; the children’s choir of the National Opera of Paris. « It was a beautiful experience. I stayed there for 5 years and learned so many things that still stick today. Yet, singing by simply reading from a sheet of music wasn’t fulfilling! » She obviously did not feel like squeezing her creativity into an armour.
She passes her final school exam in France and then goes on to study communication and economics in Berlin. Never letting go of her idea of eventually making a living with her music. She told the German news magazine Der Spiegel that she used to have gigs in bars and restaurants, singing cover versions of old songs, but that patrons just would never pay attention. So she started to exaggeratedly enunciate words so that people would choke on their fries and eventually listen up. Some personality there, I tell you.
She chooses herself the musicians of her group. « It is not only the technical skills that I care about. There also needs to be a good sense of the sound and we also should fit as human beings. » Her drummer is a lawyer, her bassist a teacher and a journalist plays keyboards. Eclectic.
At one point, she feels strong enough to write and compose a whole record. With her partner in music Steffen Kahles, she produces the record and works the arrangements. Steffen Kahles is a seasoned film music composer. 2018 sees the first two singles. Then, for a full year, there are all the tasks coming with writing and composing and producing, and the standards are high.
Influences, yet a singularity
Sofia Portanet cultivates her difference and it certainly is no posture. You immediately grasp that singularity when you listen to the record. Yes, there are immediately recognisable influences, but it never is a replica. « There are several artists that inspired me on my musical quest, like Kate Bush. But I listen to lots of different genres: folk, current music, jazz, soul, rock… I love Edith Piaf and Ingrid Caven who could be sort of her Germen counterpart… Björk for her creativity and her transformative ability. But I could also pick Yma Sumac, whom I find impressive, Madonna, Blondie for her music, her personality and the punk in her. The American singer Lene Lovich… Queen, Klaus Nomi, Nina Hagen whom I only discovered quite lately, or Bowie… »
Reverberations from Catherine Ribeiro
The record contains this UFO of a song, a magnificent track, rich with depth and resonances, a reprise of Catherine Ribeiro’s « Racines » (“Roots”). A powerful text, enlivened, like a church chant, yet fully pagan.
Je ne crois pas en Dieu / L’infiniment puissant / Parce-que je crois en l’homme / A son vol en suspens./ Et je crois au grand vent / Qui souffle nos mémoires / Au saint du temps présent / A l’issue provisoire / Aux germes du printemps / Aux courbes de l’été / Au regard transparent de l’être tant aimé…
I do not believe in God / The infinitely powerful / Because I believe in Man / in his suspended take-off / And I believe in the great wind / That blows away our memories / In the sacredness of present time / In temporary outcome / In the seeds of Spring / In the curves of summer / In the transparent glance of the such beloved being…
She chose this track to conclude the record, like imprinting it with the seal of a very strong personality. « Catherine Ribeiro is among the greatest French female singers, albeit acknowledged as such only quite tardily… Her music and voice are incomparable, nonpareil in conveying emotion. This text had a deeply moving effect on me. The Goethe Institute of Houston in Texas invited me to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. I chose this song because it has a strong meaning that emphasizes the powers of individuals and nature. At the centre of everything, there is the power of the individual. Not God. »
This last track aside, she wrote all the other lyrics, always with eclecticism. There is « Menschen und Mächte » (« people and powers »), the galactic « Planet Mars » initially written in French and available in that language in France. A song of love and farewell.
« My lyrics go with what I feel touched by, like self-exploration or fugacity… When I want to sing in another language, I hire a professional translator to get the most accurate result. » Her personal brand is also about quotes from poets like Heinrich Heine (« Wandering Rat ») oder Rainer Maria Rilke (« The Child »).
« Freier Geist » has already been available on streaming platforms and as a CD for a few weeks. The LP is scheduled for July 24th. « The record gets incredible feedback in Germany. That really surprised me. I got many articles in prestigious media… From the UK I received numerous listeners’ messages. And I know that France is responding well, too. »
The press actually is full of praise for this new artist who renews the « New German Wave ». Those are flattering yet deserved comparisons.
A now cancelled tour had been scheduled, including two concerts in France (Paris and Colmar). With the pandemic, she had to adapt and offers a new, acoustical version. « We do find a new public that did not really respond to the record and finds the voice more present and guitar arrangements more interesting… We are in conquest mode. On August 11th, we will play live on the second German TV programme ZDF. That is another way to directly connect with people during this crisis. » Always confident.
Faithful and determined, Sofia Portanet has all the talent and the personality for a bright future. There is much elegance in her music. Much singularity, too, and an inner strength that makes the difference.
Translation in english : Alexander Hohmann