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Escape Velocity

Four Words I’ll Never Tell: Marlene Ribeiro Interviewed
Alex Rigotti , February 6th, 2023 09:21

The former Gnod member speaks to Alex Rigotti about working with her grandmother on her hypnotic debut solo album, her time at Islington Mill and the importance of being mysterious in music

Photos by Renato Cruz Santos

Marlene Ribeiro has just plonked herself in front of the camera, home from her job painting sets. “Today, we were making some rocks out of polystyrene,” she says. “We were making some sort of forest today with a waterfall.”

One could almost envision themselves bathing in that waterfall when listening to her debut solo album, Toquei No Sol (I Touched The Sun in Portuguese). Hypnotic, gauzy, the album is a personal triumph after years of playing in Gnod and collaborating with the likes of Thurston Moore and Valentina Magaletti. “I do like to take time off and do normal stuff,” she says. “It can be a bit of a chore if you’re not feeling creative. You get writer’s block. I like to take time off and then feel the need to do it and go back to it. It works for me that way.”

Ribeiro moved from Portugal to Reading as a teenager, enrolling in a local BTEC course to study music. She learned to play bass and eventually moved to Manchester to study a music diploma at college, where she eventually met Gnod: a “loose constellation of stoner weirdoes” as she calls them. As a core band member, Ribeiro spent multiple years at Islington Mill, a converted cotton mill and an enclave of Salford’s finest avant-garde, cross-disciplinary artists.

Toquei No Sol sprung from stints in not only Portugal and Salford, but Ireland and Wales, the latter of which is where she currently resides. Perhaps the most creatively inspiring location she recorded in was her grandmother Emilia’s house, where she would record her singing fado songs. These complex, mournful songs were originally sung by agricultural workers such as Emilia, who worked collecting olives and fruit.

Essential to the fado is the idea of saudade. It’s one of those words that is quintessential to a nation’s soul, but annoyingly difficult to translate. Typically described as a deep yearning or longing framed by sadness, you can hear it in spades in the rhyme Emilia chants in ‘Quatros Palavras’: “These are four words that I’ll never tell you, they will stay within me forever”

You’ve had such a wide-spanning career. How do you maintain your creativity?

Marlene Ribeiro: I don't, actually. If I do, I can't think of anything specific. Everything that I do is not premeditated. I just go in with a blank page and try and get ideas in the moment. I like to experiment with different instruments and different ways of mic-ing it or putting it through different effects. Even just playing around with things that are objects that are not instruments, but they make a nice sound. I just try and go with a complete blank page and see what happens – normally, something will flow.

How did this project start?

MR: I put this album together from recordings that I have in my Zoom. Probably around 2014 or 15, I started doing more music, recording just little bits of this and that – not with the intention of releasing it, just playing around. I wasn't doing this full time because I was playing with Gnod quite a lot, it was more like a part time project. It ended up recording in all these different places, just because I was living in that place or staying in that place that time, not specifically because I want to record the track here, record the track there. I lived in Ireland, so I recorded a few tracks there, I now live in Wales. I recorded between here and Manchester and Portugal whenever I went to visit my family. I used to set up in my grandmother's kitchen, or an old chicken shed that she had in her backyard.

Can you tell me more about your relationship with your grandmother, Emilia?

MR: I used to go and visit her a lot, every summer at least. She was always, let's say… a very stern person. But as soon as I started bringing some gear over, she got a bit curious. She'd be dismissing it: ‘what are you doing playing with that stuff?’ One day she came over and she was like, ‘do you know how to play this song?’ And then she starts singing. I was like, ‘I didn't know you could sing!’

She used to work in the fields picking olives or fruit. She said that at lunchtime, all the girls used to get together and sit around singing all these old songs. She was quite a good singer: she got invited to a studio to record at one point. She decided not to do it because she was scared of what it could bring. There was a sort of mentality back in the day, that if a woman is involved in a thing like that, she will be drinking and smoking and hanging out with men. It was quite sexist around that time, so she decided never to pursue it.

I just saw her getting excited about singing again. I've got like, 20 songs that I've recorded of her singing. I could see her being a child again, because she was so stern all the time, and it felt like I gave her a new life – a more different energy and something to look forward to. Whenever I went back, she would listen to the songs again. I could never play along with it because they're quite complicated songs, but I would record the voice and play it back to her. She loved it. Unfortunately, she passed away before she could hear the intro for the album.

When making Toquei No Sol, what was the most important thing you wanted to capture?

MR: It marks a change in my life when I decide, ‘okay, I'm not going to do this. I'm going to start doing this instead’. It's hard to explain without giving too much away. I guess I never intended to have a narrative. Even when I'm writing words and stuff, I try and be cryptic. I don't like to give too much away.

Why is that?

MR: I don't know, this is something to ask to my therapist. It's a good question, though. Maybe it's just being shy, nervous. I can tend to be in the back of the room in social events, so I guess it's to mask the anxiety. I want to create something but not want to say it out loud, so I'll just say it quietly or cryptically, so I still get to do it, but I feel safer.

Is writing songs in Portuguese part of this strategy to hide?

MR: Yes. When I first started doing this project, I was like, ‘I'm really crappy writing words. I'm going to pick Portuguese words that sound good phonetically.’ It might make no sense whatsoever on the song, and a lot of them don't make any sense. I like it because it phonetically sounds good but won’t necessarily have any deep meaning around it.

In Portuguese, people go, ‘What do you mean by that?’ Like, not a lot, you know? [laughs]. I just like the sound of it. I try and pick words that people can then imagine what that could mean. Could it mean this or that, too? So I'd like to keep it as hidden meanings.

How did you end up getting involved with Gnod?

MR: I met Gnod through a mutual friend. I went to college in Manchester to do a music course; it was only a national diploma. I'd stopped playing music for a while and I decided, okay, I'm just going to go to college, do this, and see if I can get the inspiration again.

A mutual friend, Michael O'Neill, was in my class. He invited me to this New Year's Eve party, it was 2007 or 2008. Gnod were playing in the basement of this house party. I remember it was the craziest thing I've ever seen. It was like, ‘what the fuck is going on?’ They were all wearing these mad dresses, like, just banging drums. There were no lights in the basement, there's just craziness and people in sheets. I was like, ‘okay – this looks exciting’.

I started playing a snare or something at some gigs and finally started playing bass after a few months. Both me and Chris were playing bass at the time, so we just experimented with different instruments – we were pretty freeform back in those days. It was fun.

How does your solo work differ from Gnod?

MR: I'd say it's nearly the opposite of what Gnod were doing in the sense that there's not much melody going on in Gnod. I had that need to experiment more with softer music. I really wanted to explore the melodic sides, composing, for example. I did start messing around with my own music because of not being able to do that in Gnod, because that was my only musical output at the time.

It was nice to do it and to see myself create music. Different layers, experimenting with different loops and all sorts of instruments, just messing around, really. It was a fun process and it's easier in the sense that you don't need to have an argument with anyone about whatever. You know it's your own thing and your opinion. So it did come off the back of working too hard at Gnod.

How has your time at the Islington Mill influenced your album?

MR: It influenced it quite a lot. I was always watching people making amazing things out of nothing with loads of different projects and art that went on in there. There are loads of parties and just meeting loads of new people, you do get energised by what you see happening around you. I've been neighbours with loads of creative people. It keeps you flowing, it becomes your way of life.

Do you think you’ll release anything with Gnod in the future?

MR: I left about three, four years ago. I decided I needed a break from music all together. It was really hard to leave, you never know when to stop. You just go like, ‘well, I could just do that one gig, or that one project’. At some point I had to say, ‘no: this is it’. So I decided that was the end of that era. I wouldn't change it for anything – it was an incredible journey and I'm really proud of what we achieved and what the band continues to achieve.

Marlene Ribeiro’s debut album Toquei No Sol is released on 10 February via Rocket Recordings