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Joana Serrat – Deaf Institute, Manchester, 24/01/2019

Joana Serrat is from the small town of Vic, near Barcelona, in Catalonia as she specifies, so in deference to her politics I’ll leave it at that.

Interestingly, her Facebook page strapline is, Singer-songwriter. Cross the border, close the gap. Like so many other Spanish artists and bands she hasn’t quite closed that gap, and lies somewhere below the radar here. In fact I think that most people couldn’t offer up more bands than Hinds if pressed to name a current international Spanish group or artist, and they’re from Madrid, where the Spanish scene is over-centralised. ‘Name a Spanish pop group’ isn’t really a good question for ‘Pointless.’ If any contestant could conjure up an answer at all, they’d all be pointless.

Spain lives in its own bubble where popular music is concerned. Go into any Spanish bar or disco, in the cities or on the Costas and you’ll hear the same formulaic Hispanic pop every time. They rarely try to export it elsewhere in Europe (they probably couldn’t anyway, except to Latin America) and ambitious UK artists trying to break into Spain might as well try Paraguay or Myanmar.

It is precisely for those reasons that exactly two years ago, in the middle of that post-Christmas wasteland where there are very few live shows, I was attracted by a press release inviting me to attend a ‘headline’ gig by Joana at (and I’m not making this up) Fred’s Ale House in Levenshulme, south Manchester, an up and coming but still slightly dodgy district. Fred’s is so-called because it used to be a BetFred, but in fairness to the management there (who had researched her themselves) the conversion, including the modern performance space, is excellent.

I could not resist watching someone who had the balls to travel from warm Spain to freezing England in January. Not only that, she was traipsing around the country on her own by train – have guitar will travel – and the previous night had played a show in Bexhill, East Sussex, in a working men’s club, and had sold it out. But then, not much happens in Bexhill.

The whole thing was slightly surreal, but she was entrancing, and I knew I had to listen to her if she came this way again. Two years on and she is supporting Israel Nash and The Delines around the UK (remaining dates below), a much better way to do it than before, when she was likely to find herself alone in the same railway carriage as #sadmanonatrain Michael Portillo, or railway anorak Pete Waterman.

Joana Serrat usually plays with a band, one that includes her brother on drums, and prefers it that way, but is highly adaptable to intimate solo performances as was the case here as the Deaf Institute was only half-full when she took to the stage; the cognoscenti, as ever, long settled on the tiered bench seating at the rear. The latecomers missed a treat.

I’m uncomfortable trying to classify artists or to compare them with others but out of necessity I must. Joana Serrat bills herself as “foggy-folk-americana”. Foggy is appropriate because she straddles genres, especially the way in which she blends Americana and pop such as on ‘Cloudy Heart’ from her third album Cross the Verge, in which the strings on her iconic Guild M20 guitar are really put to work.

She has been compared to Mazzy Star’s Hope Sandoval and there is an element of dreaminess in her songs and also, in counterpoint, sadness. I know of no Catalonian equivalent of the Portuguese Fado style but she comes close at times to what I would expect it to be though considerably more tunefully.

She’s one of those people you’d want to sing to you when your Premier League team has been knocked out of the FA Cup by a bunch of part-timers from Division 17.

Her personal influences are Neil Young, Bob Dylan and a wide range of classical music and they are all evident in her work.

The dreaminess I allude to manifests itself in tunes and lyrical accompaniments that collectively have the effect of a series of lullabies.

But at the same time she dissects life and its uncertainties from the point of view of someone that you suspect has already lived it.

One of her most endearing qualities though is not a musical one but rather her lack of on-stage pretentiousness, which is unusual in someone who is also an actress; in my experience such people usually gush. (In fact she is something of a polymath as she also runs her own label, Great Canyon Records, and acts as a producer).

The eight-song set, which included one new one, was, as ever, too short but needs must when you are supporting. She really needs a full show of her own (Fred’s ran to 18 of them) and I’m a little at a loss to understand why she isn’t headlining venues of this size and reputation herself. She shared support duties for The Handsome Family a while ago with Courtney Marie Andrews who has since gone on to great things.

In Joana’s case it’s high time that gap was closed for good. Mind how you go.

Tour dates (with Israel Nash):

27 January – Brudenell Social Club, Leeds
28 January – Thekla, Bristol
29 January – Komedia, Brighton
30 January – O2 Institute 3, Birmingham

(With The Delines):

01 February – The Met, Bury, Greater Manchester

02 February – Portland Arms, Cambridge

03 February – Railway Inn, Winchester

God is in the TV is an online music and culture fanzine founded in Cardiff by the editor Bill Cummings in 2003. GIITTV Bill has developed the site with the aid of a team of sub-editors and writers from across Britain, covering a wide range of music from unsigned and independent artists to major releases.