5. 6. 2021

English version | We need to talk about music

by Diego Armés


Tiago Bettencourt usually employs the word “journey” when talking about music, including his own. He even has a song named Viagem. We start with terminology to announce what will follow: a journey made of words in between songs – the ones of Tiago’s and others, the music that exists, that we listen to, enjoy and reject. In the end, it’s a conversation about the music that composes us.

If the topic is music, we must not stutter: let’s get on with it. Not about “Music”, the form of art of colossal dimensions and languid delimitations oftentimes hard to define – who amongst us has never been outraged and let out something like “Since when is this music? You call this music?” -, but rather about simply music, that artistic way of living, looking at it from inside out, bringing into the conversation one of its Portuguese masters, Tiago Bettencourt. Tiago knows a lot about music, both in a user’s and creator’s perspective, and in more than one way – because there’s a lot to be said about this music thing, and what we hear, the final product, is just a tiny bit of the whole process that was put in place and of the work someone had to do so that the combination of that particular melody, rhythm and harmony, and in many cases with added poetry, could reach our ears. Tiago arrived a few days ago from Seville, he was there in a retreat to write a song especially for this issue of Vogue. “The last time I was there was during the Expo of ‘92”, he says. He returned fairly impressed with how alive the city was, with its beauty, its people. “At six p.m. everyone is out on the terraces.” We exchanged a bit over the sun in Seville – “I want to go back, I am such a fan now” -, but didn’t discuss flamenco. The beauty of Seville made it so that the retreat didn’t quite fully work as planned. “Usually, I take these trips to stay isolated and concentrated, but there was so much to see, that I was left wondering, always thinking ‘I have to work, but I also would like to go check that out’.” This retreat was necessary though, since here, in Lisbon, “there is always a dinner somewhere, a coffee date”. There’s a lot to be said about these deconfinement dynamics, especially when we all miss each other and the old sense of normality so much. By the way, we want to know: Tiago came from Andalusia with new music, or is he coming back empty-handed? “No”, he exclaims, as if asking us to take it slow, like everything is alright: “Something… did come out, I have a starting point. Now, I just don’t know how I’ll find the music for it.” By finding the music he means to orchestrate, to dress up the song, giving it its final shape. Bettencourt appears indecisive about what path to take, if something more acoustic, more electronic, if it will include flutes and strings. “I’ll start to understand that now.” A world of possibilities might be, for a musician, a real puzzler. One needs to keep cool and search for sensibility.

The Process

Tiago Bettencourt states that, in his compositions, there is no fixed process. “It’s a little bit of a mix”, he assumes and explains that sometimes he will start with the tune and other times with the lyrics. “Sometimes, I’m playing guitar, the chords come up in my head, I record them and then, later, after a long time, I’ll go back into it and try to see what it sounds like. Other times I have some lyrics in mind and try it out… I never follow too many rules. I try to somewhat accept. Because there are a lot of times when you’re not writing, when you do write [music] it comes very organically”, as if there had been a buildup and, ultimately, the new song would pour out of his mind, as well as from other organs where it had been germinating, all contributing to the magic that is bringing new music to the world. Although in some more recent albums the musician has explored scattered approaches to music, for example, with electronics, Tiago considers, without hesitation, that the guitar is his first instrument. “In this last one [album, 2019, Rumo ao Eclipse, from 2020 – we’ll get to that], I left electronics a little bit behind because we got a new guitar player, Pedro Branco, a 20 something jazz kid – he is amazing -, and I put him forward.” It is the first time, since his time at Toranja, that Bettencourt’s band has two guitars. “Therefore, this album has more guitars in the front, but electronics are still in the back.” He admits he is talking about an album that is a little bit more rock than its predecessors. The guitar might be, today, his first instrument, but we know that that’s not how it was in the beginning. Tiago came into music learning piano. Except it didn’t go so well. “I studied piano, but forgot everything”, he starts by saying. “But like, everything. Because my brother and I didn’t really enjoy it. It was only when I went to record my first album with Toranja that I sort of understood again how to play it, but what I do play is very basic, very John Lennon… but I cover it nicely [laughs], because I know in which white keys and black keys to play.” Tiago recalls that he was very young, probably around 13, when he began taking private piano lessons, which is something he doesn’t recommend. “If my brother and I had had classes at school, with other kids, perhaps our motivation to learn would have been different. In our case, although the teacher was incredible, we had classes in her basement, at eight o’clock at night, it was very heavy, we were kids.” Going back to the main instrument, the guitar. “I’m not that huge of a deal either [as a guitar player]. My mastery of the guitar is at the same level as of the piano, it’s all very average, nothing spectacular.” Nonetheless, Tiago’s guitars are always so snazzy. How does he pick them? “By their looks.” He laughs, but he’s not joking. “Jack White says something on that documentary with Jimmy Page and The Edge [It Might Get Loud], because he had a plastic guitar he played while on White Stripes, and the guy would say ‘as long as you love the guitar, you can take a great sound out of it.’ And it’s kind of like that. [My] electric ones are all cheap, but very beautiful.” If with electric guitars the amplifier and pedals are capable of transforming their sound, with acoustic guitars it’s not quite the same, “you have to have good wood, which changes things a lot.” In this case, the concern goes beyond visual aesthetics. “But it also has to have an aesthetic, because you have to love them – and I also come from an architecture background, so I care a lot about that part as well, I need to have a beautiful object.” This concern for aesthetics and with looks can be very relevant when determining if one is successful or very successful, creating a tendency that might result in a legion of followers. We agree that being cool is fundamental for a musician. There might be some exceptions, Tiago suggests: “Look at Bon Iver, for example”, but we quickly conclude that, being a hipster, that lack of style is not a flaw, it’s a character trait.

The beginning

He must have been around 15, was probably in 9th grade, when he managed to convince his dad to buy him a guitar. “I started learning by myself and playing with friends.” Tiago recalls his path in music, the condensed version: he played by himself, then, in high school, he met other kids who also played, later on, he joined the choir of Estoril because his downstairs neighbors would also go there – “in fact, their aunt ruled that whole place”. Around that time, he started arranging music, “typical church music” where he would spin it and “arrange it a little differently”. “Having an actual band only happened when I went on to college and met [Pedro] Puppe, we both were on the first year in architecture and Puppe invited me to be part of a band, it was the first one I ever had.” Not all of it went well, “it lasted two or three months”. “Puppe was already making music, I made none of the sorts, I started composing with his help.” Puppe was the vocalist, Tiago only played the guitar, but the drummer realized that Tiago’s music sounded better in the author’s voice than in the one of the established leading man. “So then, we proposed to Puppe to do something like Los Hermanos, where we would have to vocalists.” Puppe didn’t like the idea, so he quit. Later on, he would end up founding the Oioai and even released a few solo albums – Setembro, 2012, is a fine record and includes Luzia, an extraordinary song that deserves being listened to. “From [that college band], Toranja was born. [Therefore] my first band was Toranja.” Let’s talk about Toranja. “Although Toranja became famous due to the song Carta, it was a band that, in live shows, was very rock. I looked at Toranja a little bit like the Smashing Pumpkins.” A bold claim, but Tiago explains. “We allowed ourselves to do ultra-mellow songs and then very hardcore ones as well, we would do it all. Nowadays, there are very few brands like this. Rarely does one go to a concert where one can hear an amazing ballad plus incredible rock and roll.” We agree on this, that today, at least in a certain genre – let’s call it “indie rock” -, bands offer very little diversity in their repertoires, they remain close to the line and take very few risks. When Toranja came along, there almost no rock bands – and let’s take the term rock in its broadest sense – singing in Portuguese. Ornatos Violeta had ended back in 2001, the year Toranja made their first record, the collectanea Optimus 2001, “which was a mirror of just how much no one was singing in Portuguese back then.” At least, no one who made it into history, therefore, some consecrated players remained and, of course, Clã, who at the time occupied the Olympic place (and widely deserved) they still hold today in Portuguese music. This thing of singing in Portuguese and being successful at it could have made Tiago feel he was someone special, but the following revelation is surprising. “I never felt that welcome in music.” What do you mean? “By the music world, perhaps more by the press. I never got good press.” Nonetheless, some promoters and agencies realized the potential that Toranja had, “that’s why we managed to go into music”. Let’s be real, Carta would have been an obvious single anywhere in the world. “But it wasn’t. It was by chance, it wasn’t an obvious single. That song was ten minutes long before it was recorded. It was something kind of like Velvet Underground, me talking and whatever. Like, that part of ‘ainda magoas alguém’ was part of the chorus, but the chorus was huge – and the dong was huge.” Tiago recalls that he learned a lot from João Martins, the producer that “cut, cut, cut, cut” until Carta became the song we know today, an exceptional one, with the line ‘ainda magoas alguém’ just at the end.

The Producer

“I knew how to make songs, but I didn’t know how to transform them into singles”, the musician, who since three albums back has been producing his own records, shares. “I didn’t know how to edit them, cut them, as you do with a piece of writing.” Tiago reflects on the importance of the role of the producer. “It happens to a lot of artists, and especially with new artists, that tend to become more dependent on alternative forms of press: they end up clinging onto certain ideas to please a certain form of opinion. Perhaps, they place their voice further back in their music, because that is the aesthetic, they don’t want to sound commercial, but then they are actually singing something very beautiful, except you can’t understand a thing – that voice that should be right at the front, higher pitched. That’s what I mean when I talk about extracting the best out of a song”, he exemplifies. “These artists are dependent [of that press] in prejudice of their songs because you can hide a song by arranging it in a mega alternative way, but what you should do is raise that voice, no matter how commercial it might sound to you.” Tiago affirms that one must think about the song: “I think about the way I enjoy listening to it.” Throughout his career, Tiago Bettencourt has had the opportunity to meet the heavyweights of the industry. Obviously, the Canadian producer – who is also a musician – Howard Bilerman is one that stands out immediately. Bilerman, just to contextualize, has his name, amongst hundreds of other projects, down on the production of Funeral, by Arcade Fire, probably one of the best popular music records of the XXI century. Bettencourt and Bilerman have worked together twice: “My first two solo records were recorded with him. That, in the end, was a huge producing route. Before that, I didn’t enjoy recording, I didn’t feel great at the studio, I didn’t understand the concept, what I wanted was for the music to sound as it did in the rehearsal room and live. I didn’t grasp how an album is, or could be, something else. I started understanding that with Howard Bilerman.” It’s almost certain that his experience in Montreal pushed Tiago in his own producing path, also because it equipped him with new tools and knowledge, but the musician – who is also a producer today – states he doesn’t know what made him realize that he didn’t need anybody else to produce his work. “It might have been the lack of money, because, out of a sudden, there is no budget”, he says, laughing, but not too much, because the subject, though fooling around, is very serious. Times are different now, records don’t sell anymore, kids consume more and more music by listening to singles on digital platforms, and, beyond all that, our market is tiny. Notwithstanding, Tiago affirms that he still feels the need to record the album, concluding the project and holding the object.

The Alter Ego

2019, Rumo ao Eclipse, this is the curious title of the most recent album by Tiago Bettencourt, released in 2020. “The album was meant to be called 2019, alone. It is kind of a crazy album, it goes a lot of places. And I wasn’t really grasping what bounded the songs together. Until I realized they all talked about this building tension that could be felt in 2019. No one recalls that anymore because 2020 was what it was and 2021 is what it is, but 2019 was also a very strange year when it came to world events and at a social level.” Tiago recalls how people were just very aggressive towards each other. Maybe things haven’t changed all that much, but what’s for sure is that the musician decided to portray, in his own way, that period, lock it in a disc-shaped capsule, and call it 2019. “Then Pedro, the guitar player, said ‘man, you should add something like 2001, Space Odyssey’, and then I called a friend who is an astrologist – and I know nothing of astrology – and asked her ‘hey, what happened at a planetary level in 2019 to make it a year this intense?’. And then she spoke to me about various things that I mentioned in the album as well, curiously. She talked about an eclipse, with everything falling into place in December, and then in another eclipse in January and that, from then on, everything would be alright.” Not everything went according to plan. However, the eclipses were of great use to Tiago Bettencourt, that managed to assure a great title to his album on so many levels: sufficiently ambiguous, aesthetically pleasing, with a subtle reference to the work of Stanley Kubrick, while still upholding the thoroughness that astrology can offer. It Is also in this record that Tiago reveals himself through a new voice – a lyrical voice, that is. Speaking of lyrical voices, it comes around in the conversation a possible problem within contemporary Portuguese music. Tiago identifies a growing tendency: “Lyrics seem to be less and less literal, there is a fewer amount of subtext, less space for interpretation.” We debate, “Ah, but is that bad, couldn’t it also be good?” We compromise: it’s not always bad, there are some cases where it works well, “when the literal is good, you can read a metaphor there, but in bad literal there’s nothing you can do.” Note taken: be careful with those lyrics that simply say “I was there, I did that and you were home doing something else”. Going back to 2019, apparently, throughout Tiago’s long journey towards the eclipse, he was reborn into this sort of alter ego. The musician admits he doesn’t really know what it is, let alone who it is, and confesses he has his doubts about its longevity. We know that, whenever he’s on stage, or on the cover of the album, he is a glass-wearing character. What’s up with those glasses, Tiago? “I confess I still haven’t understood it completely”, he starts by saying, and then explains that, even during the listening parties he has organized during the release of his record – events where, from Instagram posts, selected people to listen to the album in his presence and then exchanged ideas on the subject (and here we find material for a whole new article, thus we chose to move on from the topic) -, he analyzed this voice and tried to find a name for it. Also, because an alter ego requires a baptism. Unfortunately, no one has found that name yet. “It came out of that poison I was telling you about, of the tensions and weight addressed in the album, what I felt was sort of ugly time in 2019. At a certain point, I didn’t want to fill in those shoes, I didn’t want to carry that along with me. And so, this alter ego appeared to be that poisonous guy, because there are songs like Fachada or Não Queiras Mais de Mim that are poisonous. They have this spirit of ‘I’m going to wash my dirty laundry right here’ and I didn’t want to be that person.” It is certain that this alter ego exists and has a conscience. In fact, going through the images of this production of ours, it looks like Tiago but dressed as a woman. However, with his glasses on, it is impossible to determine with absolute certainty that it is not indeed the alter ego himself, stepping into the spotlight. Tiago says that, maybe, the alter ego will start projecting himself to other matters, “where I would never throw myself into”, and eventually he will go out of his depth. “In the video for Viagem, you can see it – maybe not that clearly – but you can see the end of the alter ego. It starts with a bloody alter ego, with blood-stained hands. The video of Viagem is a prolog.” It makes perfect sense when the lyrics themselves go as follows: “Tens essa coragem eu sei / De largar as coisas mais amadas / Descobrir o sítio onde se lavam / Dores que se querem descansadas.” (loosely translated to English: You have that courage I know / Of letting go of loved things / Discovering the place they wash out / Pains that are meant to be peaceful”).

Translated from the original, as part of Vogue Portugal's Music Issue, published in june 2021.