Interview with Sarah Ferri

I first became aware of Sarah Ferri via “When The Giants Play Poker” (from LP “Displeasure”, out on Jazzhaus Records and produced by produced by Koen Gisen) earlier in the autumn. It’s  a brilliant, arresting, immediate piece of work and it transfixed me. Listening back to Sarah’s previous music it was clear that the new album is a real departure and it made me realise what a talented and versatile  songwriter and producer she is. I was delighted when she agreed to do an interview for SWIT.

Thanks so much for agreeing to do the interview. I picked up on “When The Giants Play Poker” and it really struck a chord with me, it’s a beautiful track.

Thank you!!

From listening to your debut, it’s a big change in direction, what predicated that?

There wasn’t a certain intention. I just sat by my piano and started writing songs the way I felt inspired. The lyrics were sometimes more political or emotionally darker. The happy up tempo swing couldn’t express that anymore. I needed something more epic.

It’s quite ominous, almost apocalyptic – “the middle class is now living in tent camps” – are you picking up on the general unease that’s abroad at the moment or is it more specific to events in Belgium?

The album is also about letting go, inner struggle and loneliness, about what makes us vulnerable. But “When The Giants Play Poker” and “God Gave us a Rainbow” definitely are very apocalyptic. 😉 I wrote the songs in 2014. It’s completely fiction, but inspired by what happened to Greece and the way Europe handled it. Also the growing tensions in the world and the way a few big industries can weigh on political decisions. The environmental issues and the way we struggle handling the “smaller” problems compared to what is coming at us. If you saw the new documentary “Before the Flood” our near future does feel quite apocalyptic. The world is changing fast and we need to adapt now, before the long term problems catch up with us, all at once, which is happening already actually. I’m always surprised about how inventive people are, working out alternatives from bottom up. It’s inspiring. If someone could unify all those initiatives and show the way, I’m sure people all over the world will follow.

You broke from your label and produced the new album yourself, how did you feel about taking that risk?

At first I felt quite lost and very much on my own. I luckily earned just enough money with the first album to produce the second one myself, very low budget though. Universal did a great job on promoting the first album, but with the second one I had to choose between the money or writing the music I wanted to write. So I chose for the music and took that risk. Once I’d made that decision, I felt scared but relieved at the same time.

Are you happy with the finished record and with the reception it’s had?

I’m exhausted but very happy and proud of this album! 🙂 Being in this survival modus, has pushed my boundaries artistically in way I never could have imagined. The album has been very well received, got some great 4**** reviews, still, there’s this hunger to break out of “The Belgian Shire” and get this album out in Europe and the rest of the world.

 What artists influenced you the most for this record? I’m thinking Bowie (Up The Hill Backwards), Kate Bush (Running Up That Hill), and Prince circa Paisley Park…

Wow thanks! You’re talking about the song “When The Giants Play Poker” right? I wanted this kind of “drive” in that song and actually I got inspired by this tune of “Knight Rider” for the bass-synth. The influences from “Up the Hill Backwards” are a coincidence I guess, as I didn’t know that song. I’ve been listening a lot to “I’m Deranged” and “Running up That Hill”. But if we talk about the album in general, “In My Bunker” has this kind of Italian-Bond-vibe and might represent the general sound more. Although every song is quite different.

Did you have a clear idea of the sound of the new record before you started or did it evolve over time?

I started writing pop songs while singing and playing the piano. But while doing that, I already had this strong movie dreamworld in the back of my head from the very beginning. So with each song I already had the choir-parts mostly finished already. The strings & beats came later. For some songs I was also looking for this fusion with sexy ’80 beats or some electronic stuff. Gradually, while trying things out, this picture became reality.

What question would you like to be asked that you never are? And what would be your answer?

When the media talks about female artists, it’s mostly about “singer ….” even if they wrote, composed, arranged or produced the music. It’s as if those jobs are more believed to be done by a guy.

The arrangements on the two singles are quite complex, was that something you directed yourself?

At first I’d asked Chris Elliot and Daniele Luppi for the orchestral arrangements. But without the financial means that was not an option unfortunately, so I did it myself. At first I didn’t know how to start, but after writing lines for the classical double bass, I added up the cello and the violins, the choir, the timpani, horns, synths, sometimes in a rush becoming more and more inspired. Looking back on it, I’m so happy and proud I did it, because that dreamworld finally became real. It might not all be perfect, but no one could have been so close to the voicings I was looking for. I could also stop bothering musicians with “try this or try that”. It was also fun working on the choir layers, making them work with the strings. Also searching for layered grooves was an eye opener, trying something out with a tambourine, a shaker, castanets and timpani, searching for a fusion. I’ve really pushed my boundaries musically.

Do you think Non-UK/US groups get enough exposure in the major British and American magazines? Does it matter to you?

I’m not so aware about that actually. I do know it is very hard for a Belgian artist to break through worldwide, because of the lack of finances. Traveling costs money. It happens more in electronic music I guess, or the very “Arty Indie niche”. I guess in the UK and US they have the music industry to grow big classic artists and singers as well. In that area it’s much more difficult to start from a small country like Belgium, as you easily get the stamp of being a B-production, starting with the lack of budget again. Also in Belgium, on our radio stations we get a lot of import from the UK, so the playlists don’t have that much room left for the local artists. And of course the language matters. English is not our native language, so I can imagine it must sound weird for native speakers, the way we sing in English.

What was the first piece of music you loved, and why?

When I was very little I had two very small pictures of Michael Jackson and Prince hanging next to my bed. I’d cut them out of the papers and had pasted them with “Pritt” on the wall. 😉 I guess my very first song is “Billie Jean”. At that time, the song had something very mysterious, also the video with the tiles lighting up when he stepped on them.

What is your favourite song that you’ve recorded and why?

That’s a hard one. Can’t choose really 😉

 What song (if any) by another artist do you wish you had written and why?

There are so many. Wish I had written “The Good ,The Bad & The Ugly” scores by Ennio Morricone, all the scores he did for the Sergio Leone films. His music in general has this kind of exacting greatness and melancholy at the same time. So “over the top” but together with the images so right and even cool. 🙂 “You Don’t Know What Love Is” sang by Billie Holiday with the orchestrations of Ray Ellis …oh I so wish I’d written that as well. But also the layered grooves Prince could write on “Kiss” or “When Doves Cry” will never bore me.

You sing in English primarily. Have you thought about recording in Dutch or Italian?

It’s hard for me to sing in Dutch, especially in this genre it doesn’t work for me. Although Eefje de Visser has found a very artistic, indie way of singing in Dutch as she replaces the normal accents elsewhere, which gives a particular flow and harmony between the words and the music. I wish I was born in England or the US, just to be able to breathe the language more and know or feel it better if I’m being too cheesy or not.

 Name a song that makes you happy and why does it have that effect?

“Let’s Dance” by Bowie, but Ennio Morricone can open a window of endorphins in my brain, with his minor – major chords, the choir, it lifts me up makes me feel happy and makes me cry at the same time. And his music works in 3 D, something happens behind you, in front of you, left and right. That’s what those composers can do with an orchestra.

Do you consider yourself an optimist?

Not at all. 🙂 I’m rather a pessimistic romantic, trying to be realistic and hopeful.

What’s the best new artist you’ve heard recently?

I’ve been living on another planet, so really I’m lost right now. 😉

 What, outside of the music world, influences your art?

Movies, the elements, the seasons, people and what makes us vulnerable, the “un”cool stuff actually, the things we try to hide. Small things, big things.

What do you think of music streaming sites like Spotify and Deezer?

I think the concept is great, to have a big music library like that, with such an easy access to lots of music for everyone. It’s instantly satisfying, easy to look things up, finding new stuff. But I hate the busyness model behind it. Music has become cheap content for i-phones, computers and online platforms that earn a lot of money on the artist’s back. There’s always another middle man running away with the money. Artists should unify and speak up more. It’s become frighteningly normal to pay for anything except for music.

 Do you know any good jokes?

“I know everyone is panicking about Brexit and Trump being president but there’s no need to worry. Jesus will save us.  Hope that helps. “ Ricky Gervais.

*the playlist


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