Sílvia Pérez Cruz: a free musical spirit who sets her own rules

The 33-year-old has released a new album of songs that are included in a new musical

Silvia Pérez Cruz.
Silvia Pérez Cruz.Papo Waisman

Blessed with a prodigious voice – an unclassifiable universe in which jazz, flamenco and popular music live together peacefully – and an ever-growing legion of fans, singer and composer Sílvia Pérez Cruz has been writing her own future for a decade now.

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The latest adventure by this woman who sets her own rules is her first solo production of a new album called Domus, which includes the songs she wrote for Cerca de tu casa (or, Near your house), a musical film about the thousands of people evicted from their homes in Spain during the economic crisis.

Pérez Cruz also happens to play the lead role in this production, due to premiere in May. The 33-year-old was persuaded to get involved in the project by filmmaker Eduard Cortés after mentioning “two very powerful women”: Björk and Ada Colau.

The Icelandic singer set a precedent in bringing movies and pop together in Lars von Trier’s 2000 film Dancing in the Dark.

As for Colau, now the mayor of Barcelona, she began her public life as an anti-eviction activist, and clearly influenced the musical.

“The biggest challenge was knowing where the dialogue ends and the music begins,” says Pérez Cruz about her role playing a woman crushed by life. “Things had to move naturally between one and the other.”

Domus is short but intense. And as tends to happen with Pérez Cruz’s unclassifiable work, it is easier to say what it isn’t than what it is. It isn’t exactly a soundtrack: the songs are not narrative, and appear in a different order from the film. Neither is it a collection of protest songs: any melancholy mood comes more from the music than from the lyrics, which are in Spanish, Portuguese and English.

“I wanted to deal with universal problems rather than just talk about evictions,” she says, although the album’s opening song, No hay tanto pan (There isn’t enough bread), refers to “the blame that isn’t yours or mine,” as well as “speeches, bankers, smooth operators.”

Pérez Cruz says it took a lot of persuading to get her to accept the lead role in the film. “I had never acted before, other than a bit part when I was a kid at school. I have never really understood the art of interpretation. We share things, there are emotions, even melodies. But there’s no music.”

Paradoxically, this is how she found a way into the role: “In that second of silence just before and just after the director shouts ‘action.’ It’s a collective experience, just like when you go up on stage.”

Director Eduard Cortés says he could see the actress behind the voice. “If we could just put all the truth in her singing into the film, then this thing was going to work. What’s more, she was tremendously inspiring for everybody who worked on the shoot.”

As tends to happen with Pérez Cruz’s unclassifiable work, it is easier to say what it isn’t than what it is

But financing the film was harder. “It’s not a political film, nor a piece of propaganda, but I suppose the subject matter wasn’t too attractive to television companies,” says Cortés. Instead, he raised €217,000 through crowdfunding. The cast and crew also contributed part of their own wages toward the production.

It is tempting to agree with Cortés: Pérez Cruz has an outstanding ability to interpret not just her own songs, but also covers: “They are like clothes – you might like them, but not all are going to suit you,” she explains.

But the real power of her voice is best felt during a live performance. Her concerts are attracting growing numbers of fans, and have become rituals in which it isn’t unusual to see people of all ages crying. This is Sílvia Pérez Cruz, one of the least-expected success stories in the recent history of Spanish pop music.

How else to explain that an album of cover versions reached gold disc status in Spain, a country where people ceased paying for recorded music long ago? That is what happened with granada (deliberately spelled in lower case), which she recorded with Raül Fernandez Miró, aka Refree, the much-in-demand Barcelona-based guitarist and producer. They have been working together for a decade, after she moved to the Catalan capital in her late teens.

If we could just put all the truth in her singing into the film, then this thing was going to work Director Eduard Cortés

Fernandez Miró also co-produced the 2012 11 de novembre, Pérez Cruz’s first album with Universal. She’s what is known in the industry as a “long-distance artist”, something of a white unicorn in today’s world. When she signed the contract, she says her main concern was to guarantee her own artistic “freedom,” which for the moment the company is respecting.

That record, a refreshing mix of jazz, bossa nova and Mediterranean music sung in Catalan, English, Portuguese and Spanish, was her first venture outside her native Catalonia, where she was already filling theaters.

It was dedicated to her father Castor Pérez, who died in 2010 at the age of 55. “He dedicated his life to music. He wrote books and spent more than 20 years traveling round Cuba collecting habanera songs. I thought it was a bore when I was a kid, but as I have grown older I have learned to appreciate those old songs sung by old men sitting inside a tavern. When things are authentic like that, I love them. But I’m not interested in a postcard picture. One day I hope to record an album of habaneras.”

Cover songs are like clothes – you might like them, but not all are going to suit you

Her mother, Glòria Cruz, is also a singer and encouraged her to study music from the age of four. When she was 12 or 13, she says her teacher recommended that she try jazz. She played the saxophone in different bands and sang in a choir. At the age of 18 she began studying at the recently created ESMUC school of music. “That is where I found my voice. Initially I thought I sounded like a grandmother, so I had to dismantle it and start from scratch. And that was a good thing.”

Saxophonist Llibert Fortuny was one of the first musicians she hooked up with in Barcelona. He had just returned from the United States and was giving classes inside the storage room of his parents’ house. “She came to train for her ESMUC entrance exam,” remembers Fortuny. “As soon as I saw her I knew she was an exceptional artist. Her approach to improvisation was very unusual. Strangely enough, she didn’t want to sing, saying she was too shy.”

She overcame her timidity at the music school, where she focused on singing. She soon became involved in the Barcelona jazz scene, which was enjoying something of a boom with new club openings, a wealth of fanzines and small, independent record labels. Since the crisis, though, the scene has been hit hard by a combination of sales tax, diminishing interest in local talent, and overly zealous municipal regulations.

Pérez Cruz seems to have pretty much won over everyone that she has worked with, says journalist and composer Luis Troquel

In those days, Pérez Cruz would perform just about anywhere. On one occasion, she met veteran jazz bassist Javier Colina, who had just watched her accompany “a group of Argentine folk singers.” Colina says friends recommended her for a project he had in mind. “I was fascinated by her voice and her stage presence. I fell in love immediately,” he remembers. From that encounter came 2011’s En la imaginación (or, In the imagination).

Pérez Cruz seems to have pretty much won over everyone that she has worked with, says journalist and composer Luis Troquel, who met her when she was 17. “I haven’t stopped recommending her to people since then,” he says. Fernandez Miró, who chose her for a project bringing together Catalan and Argentine musicians called Immigrasons.

“I was just 22, and by the time I realized what was going on I was off on my own to tour Argentina and Brazil with a bunch of musicians I had never met before,” says Pérez Cruz.

At the time, she was singing with female flamenco four-member group Las Migas. “In those days I was working with different people and on different projects at the same time. It was all very frenetic and stimulating, until, at the age of 24, I became pregnant. That really was a big game changer. I hadn’t expected it at all. Nobody else had children. I was the only one who did, and what’s more, the youngest. I had to find the way to combine an unusual job with being a mother,” she says.

“The poor thing did some amazing balancing acts to make it all work,” remembers Troquel. Her daughter, who is now eight, sings part of the chorus of Ai, ai, ai a kind of version of a Shakira song on Domus.

Her close circle of friends see her career as one in “constant progression”, with well-defined steps: this concert, that magazine cover… all stepping stones that have taken her to new ground.

One such moment was her Goya award (Spain’s version of the Oscars) for Best Original Song in the 2012 movie Blancanieves, a version of the Snow White story adapted to Spain in the 1920s. That said, the occasion nearly descended into farce when the actress handing out the award, Adriana Ugarte, read out the wrong name, then quickly corrected herself.

“It was a very strange experience: the feeling of losing, and then a second later of winning. My speech was improvised, and I started out by apologizing. I then spent the rest of the evening looking for the poor kids who thought for a moment that they had won. But they had already left,” she remembers.

Her close circle of friends see her career as one in “constant progression”, with well-defined steps: this concert, that magazine cover… all stepping stones that have taken her to new ground

The upside to the fiasco was maximum news coverage in Spain. “People asked me if I minded being known for this. I didn’t care. I know that the idea is to take it one step at a time, but sometimes it’s two or even three steps. I have been lucky enough to have time to come to terms with my success: I’ve been at this since I was 14.”

Another important milestone was the release of granada in 2014, which led to a tour of Spain that climaxed with a Madrid performance in July 2015. Asked if she thinks the collaboration could have continued, Pérez Cruz says that all good things must come to an end.

“It was the same with Las Migas. The day comes when it no longer makes sense to carry on. It was the end of a decade working with the same material,” she says. Fernandez Miró agrees: “We played our hearts out every night. We began to see that we were a bit tired and so we decided to leave things. It was such a special thing that we didn’t want to take it to the point where we were getting bored. In my opinion, we took the right decision at the right time.”

The record also taught Pérez a bitter lesson. “That was the first time in my life that I felt a machista response to my work. I have always been surrounded by men and I have always felt they respected me. But when you put a musician and a singer on a cover, a man and a woman, people imagine it’s the man who does the thinking and not the woman. I was surprised at that. But I think it is also the result of a certain upbringing, a way of seeing the world, that I might have initially shared myself. The album is the work of two people from start to finish. Publicly it has become something else, but one cannot go around defending oneself the whole time,” she says.

The record she has just released is a good indication of what she can do alone. For this reason it is being promoted as her own work, and she intends to perform at a handful of concerts before taking a couple of months off in June, despite the pressure she will be under to play at the many festivals that take place in Spain throughout the summer.

But as she has demonstrated throughout her career, Sílvia Pérez Cruz sets the rules.

Domus will be released on February 19.