The optimistic musical tourists

Despite the crisis, a number of foreign musicians have chosen Spain as their home

Australian singer-songwriter Aaron Thomas, who is about to release his third album in Spain.
Australian singer-songwriter Aaron Thomas, who is about to release his third album in Spain.

Thanks to the current crisis, thousands of Spaniards are leaving the country every week in search of a better future. With more than a quarter of the active population out of work, and the highest value-added tax rate in Europe currently weighing on the culture sector (21 percent on cinema, theater and concert tickets), Spain hardly looks like the ideal destination for foreign musicians seeking to make a living. But there are a few people who are looking beyond those circumstances. The US singer Josh Rouse met a girl from Valencia at a gig, and moved to Spain to be by her side. Australian Aaron Thomas also came to Madrid for personal reasons, while Rick Treffers, a Dutchman who currently sings under the pseudonym El Turista Optimista (or, the optimistic tourist), swapped his love songs about girls for love songs about the carefree Mediterranean way of life. The three of them are just a few of the many foreign musicians who have spent time living in Spain, such as Kevin Ayers — who died last week — Nico and Robert Wyatt.

Josh Rouse was the first of the trio of young musicians to come to Spain, after finding love while on a tour of Spain in 2004. “Nebraska, California, Wyoming, South Dakota, Utah, Valencia… I’ve spent my whole life moving around,” explains Rouse. Over nearly a decade he has had time to start a family, refurbish an abandoned recording studio and write songs in Spanish, which were released on his 2010 album El Turista, which is full of Latin influences and references to his new home. The difference between the soul-tinged folk of the records he released at the outset of the last decade and his Spanish sound relate to, he explains, the use of one set of chords or another. “The difference between Spanish sounds and American sounds is just a couple of fingers,” he says with a laugh. Rouse has decided to return to a genuine American sound with The Happiness Waltz, which will be released at the end of this month, and will hark back to his previous releases 1972 and Nashville.

Those records saw him occupy the position of the great hope for the indie-folk world, which owed a great deal to AM radio stations in 1970s America. In Spain he found a family, along with the perfect excuse to redirect his career. “I wanted to rest and to not have so many musicians around me,” he explains. “What’s more, Spain is close to the United Kingdom and France, where I am usually traveling. Plus the euro was cheaper back then!”

It was around the same time that the singer-songwriter Aaron Thomas arrived in Madrid, having left his home, the Australian island of Tasmania, and later spending time based in California and Ukraine. “I have chosen to live and work here against all logic,” he deadpans. In Spain, he says, he has found a recognition that he was lacking in his native land — although he wasn’t exactly looking for it. “I did a few tours there, but I didn’t have the same goals. I take it a lot more seriously here.”

Thomas has released two records in Spain already and there’s another one on the way, The Blues and Greens. But it’s not been an easy process — after the 2009 release of his last album, Made of Wood, he thought about giving up professional music. He is returning this time, he says, with a mental attitude that’s “less moany and more positive.”

“It’s a little bit frustrating sometimes,” he adds. “I see the way the public reacts in Australia and it’s very different. You can see how people are reacting to the lyrics. Here I am lacking that weapon, but it pushes you to work more on the melody and your performance on stage.”

The fact that the Spanish gig-going public are among the most welcoming and grateful in the world is almost a cliché among artists these days. But both Aaron Thomas and Rick Treffers, the singer from the Dutch band Mist, agree on that point. “In Amsterdam there are loads of different groups out there,” Treffers explains. “But there is less love for the music. In Spain the reaction is more intimate and spontaneous, and I like that.”

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