Interview: Madalena Alberto
Songwriting meets a Portuguese singer-songwriter with a background in musical theatre, who’s now going it alone… with a ‘Heart Condition’
s Britain’s only magazine for songwriters, we’re always interested in people’s back stories: how they came be writing the songs and making the music that they do. So when Heart Condition, the debut EP from Madalena Alberto, landed on the Songwriting doormat we were intrigued to note that this Portuguese singer-songwriter, while ‘new’ as a solo artist, is no newcomer to the music biz – having been treading the boards in musical theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue and beyond for quite some time.
How, we wondered, does a girl go from performing other people’s songs as one of a huge cast in some of Britain’s best-known theatres, to singing her own songs armed only with an acoustic guitar? Only one way to find out…
Tell us a little about your background: you’re from Lisbon originally but now based in London, is that right?
“Yes, I’m from Lisbon but I’ve lived in England for many years. I came here ten years ago to study at a performing arts college. I wanted to be an actress at that stage: I’d been in a film in Portugal and I guess I thought I might end up in a soap opera or something! But once I got to college I found out I could sing… and then I discovered musical theatre. It was a whole new world to me, because we don’t really have that in Portugal. But it was an obvious place for me to be, because it meant I could combine the acting and the singing.
“And after I left college, I was lucky to get some pretty good parts in some well-known musicals. But at the same time, I’d really started getting into other music. It’s weird: my father was a classical musician, my mother still is an opera singer, but there was never really much music in our house… I’m not sure if I’ve ever even hear my mother sing! So it was only when I came to England, and particularly after graduating when I met the guys in a band called Tankus The Henge, that I started discovering stuff like Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Bob Dylan. All pretty basic stuff – I was a late developer!
“And so about six years I started writing some songs, just messing about with the Tankus guys for fun, really. But then four years ago I started learning to play guitar as well, and everything’s just gone from there.”
Do you think your background in musicals has influenced your songwriting style?
“I’ve never thought about it to be honest, but I’d say… no, not really. Not on a conscious level, anyway. One of the reasons I enjoy the songwriting so much is that it’s completely different. The songs in musicals are different in terms of structure – they don’t go verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge, for a start! So it’s a different way of working and writing entirely. I suppose some of my earlier songs like Mr Player have a bit of a jazz influence which might have come partly from the musicals, and obviously it’s something I’ve done for a long time so it must influence me on some level, but mostly I’d say no.”
Was it daunting to write your own material, when you were used to performing material by some of the biggest names in show business?
“Not really, because I’ve never compared the two. I certainly don’t think I’m ‘better’ than them or anything, I just see the two as being completely separate things.”
What about performing in your own intimate shows, as opposed to being part of a big-scale production? There’s a certain anonymity if you’re one of a large cast and the audience is hidden by the footlights…
“Well again, I’ve never really thought about it. It wasn’t that big a leap, though: doing my live shows is very different from being on a big stage in the west end, certainly, but I’ve done lots of smaller, more intimate musicals as well so it wasn’t a complete leap into the unknown.
“I do get more nervous doing my own gigs. When you’re in something like Les Miserables, then sure, there’s a pressure because it’s such a big multi-million-pound production and stuff, it’s kind of a big responsibility. But then again, the whole show doesn’t depend entirely on YOU… and you’ve got eight shows a week for a year to get it right! If you have a bad night, you have a better night the next night. Whereas with my live shows, it IS just me and I’ve got one chance to get it right. So yeah, I do get nervous. A lot of that’s due to the fact I’m not actually that great a guitar player! But I’m learning all the time and getting more and more comfortable with it.”
“I USED TO WRITE WHEN I WAS FEELING SELF-INDULGENT”
Can you tell us a little bit about your songwriting technique? Do you have a set time of day or place you like to write, and so on?
“Not really, I just write when I can and when the mood takes me or an idea comes to me. I guess if anything you could say I used to write when I was feeling self-indulgent, given that so many of my songs are about heartbreak and stuff like that. But now I try to find solutions! [laughs]
“But no, there’s no set way of going about things really. When I first started out, I’d already written a lot of poems so a lot of my earlier songs were just setting those to music, really. But now it can happen any way around: sometimes it’ll be the melody that comes first, other times it could be just a phrase. Like Gentleness Is Power, from the EP… that was just literally that phrase that came to mind first.”
Ah yes the EP! Tell us a little bit about that?
“Well it’s out now, it’s a four-track EP and you can buy it on iTunes, or through my website. The response so far, via Facebook and Twitter and so on, has been very positive. I’m amazed how far away some of the people are, like in the middle of the US or something. But that’s where the musicals have helped: I’m on the Les Miserables cast album for instance, so I guess if people have liked that, they’ve then found my own music through Google and so on.”
Is social media important to you in promoting your music, then?
“Very much so: again it’s very different from being in musicals, you have to work very hard to promote yourself. But I have a PR team helping me now.”
“I WRITE MY SONGS FOR MY OWN VOICE”
So what plans do you have for the future? Any plans to work with other people, or to write for other people, for instance?
“I don’t know about working with other people… I’ve had some bad experiences with that in the past, where you work a little bit with someone and suddenly they claim to own the song. So it’s a bit of a case of once bitten, twice shy… I wouldn’t rule it out entirely for the future but it’s not something I’m particularly looking to do right now.
“As for writing for other people, well, I’ve been told that’s what I should do! Some people at major record companies have said my voice is “too trained” and I should let someone else sing my songs. But, y’know, I wrote them for me… everyone has their own voice and their own way of singing, and that’s what I wrote my songs for, so I’d hate not to perform them!
“That said, I’d be very, very flattered if anyone did ever decide they wanted to cover one of them… and yeah, if I came up with something that was very ‘rock’ or very ‘pop’ and I thought someone else could sing it better than I could, it wouldn’t be a problem. We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it, I guess.”
And finally – sorry it’s such an obvious question – any plans to write any musicals of your own?[Laughs] “Well it IS an obvious question I guess, but funnily enough it’s something I never really thought about till very recently. And now I’m thinking, well, maybe… but I don’t have any very definite ideas what it would be about, or anything. I have more ideas about what it wouldn’t be like: it wouldn’t be a big, glitzy, all-singing, all-dancing affair with a huge chorus line and everything. More like a story that happens to have a lot of songs in it.
“If you’ve seen the film Once, there’s a musical of that coming to London soon: that’s the kind of thing I could see myself doing one day. Maybe!”
Interview by Russell Deeks
Hear Madalena talking about her career to date in this YouTube interview. To find out more, and to hear the EP, visit her website