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Music & clubs

Sofia Portanet: “They would always struggle putting me into one genre”

We talked to pop starlet Sofia Portanet about the beginnings of her fast-track career, handling the pressure of making a second record and what it’s like to sing in four languages.

Photo: Makar Artemev

Freshly arrived from a short retreat in Paris, Sofia Portanet is seated on the stage at 8MM Bar on Schönhauser Allee, ready for her photoshoot with The Berliner. It’s the very same place she made her first live appearance back in 2018. Nowadays, you’re more likely to catch the Berlin star performing at a festival or strutting on bigger European stages, complete with a backing band.

Earlier that year, Portanet signed her first single, Freier Geist, with the Berlin indie label Duchess Box, itself a launchpad for some of the biggest names in local pop. It was the first single that would also appear on her acclaimed debut LP of the same name two years later.

By mixing together not only genres but languages, featuring songs in English, German and French, Portanet’s approach epitomises her multicultural upbringing growing up in France to a German mother and Spanish father. We talk to the indie starlet about the beginnings of her fast-track career, handling the pressure of making a second record, Chasing Dreams, and what it’s like to sing in four languages.

Do you remember what that first show was like?

It was just me and my keyboard player with a sampler with some tracks on it. Just keys and singing, and it was packed. It was the beginning of 2018, I think. I then had a band setup in March 2018, my very first real show at Bassy Club [Prenzlauer Berg, now closed].

Photo: Makar Artemev

You grew up in France. How did you end up in Berlin?

I studied in a German school just outside of Paris, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to leave. I had been singing in a choir for five years and it was really tough. I then moved here in 2009.

What happened between 2009 and you starting your career?

I studied at the Berlin University of the Arts until 2012, but I decided I didn’t want to do a Masters. So in 2012, I had to get to know myself and what I actually wanted to do. The real turning point was in 2015, when I met a lot of people in Berlin with bands and was really inspired, if only to sit at home, write and do vocal exercises.

One of these bands was [instrumental psych outfit] Camera, and that’s how I met Steffen Kahles, who would go on to produce my songs. I went on tour with them several times, on and off. As they’re an instrumental band I would go on stage and improvise and do ad-lib vocals. That’s when I started writing my own stuff.

I don’t think about genres when I make music; I go by feelings and emotions.

At the time, I was subletting my apartment and living with a Korean director, and he was asking me if I knew any German bands or German music. He was doing an animated movie about North and South Korea, wanting to make a comparison to West and East Berlin and using German music. I said, “Yeah, I also make German music. I have some demos, and I can send them to you.” That was when I realised I needed to do it now and started working with Steffen. Freier Geist and Wanderratte, were written for the film [which eventually didn’t happen], but then I also knew I also wanted to make a record. Sometimes things just need to align.

Your sound can be described as being new wave, pop, with touches of operatic vocals. Do you find this leaves you in between scenes and styles?

I played every showcase festival, including SXSW and Eurosonic. I did all the stuff that was there for indie and newcomers, but they would always struggle putting me into one genre. If I’m honest, I was so surprised that people found it so unique. It actually annoyed me a little because I thought I was just doing pop music. I also never thought I’d be singing in German. It wasn’t until a friend of mine wrote me a poem in German, and then I thought it was so beautiful, and I was going to do it.

How do you decide what language you’re going to sing in?

It does have something to do with where I am. If I play in France, I always sing Planet Mars in French, which was the original version. But then I also sing a few German things, because the French love hearing German songs. When I was in London making the new record, we did all the songs in English as all the songwriters were English. For the second record, I have a song that’s in Spanish because it’s a cover. I thought about translating it, but then no – I liked the original more.

Photo: Makar Artemev

What else changed when making the new record?

Until the end of my twenties, I was still on the first record. Then I was like okay, what am I going to do next? The first record we made without a producer; it was just Steffen and me. Sometimes I would record and edit my vocals myself, then do the post-production myself. This is not something I would like to do again. When we made that record we basically had no life. I thought, this can’t be it. The voice is an instrument – depending on your daily state, it changes. I do not want to put us in that situation again. I knew I wanted to work with a producer, and I wanted to find management.

I was so surprised that people found it so unique … I thought I was just doing pop music.

The whole of the production was done in Cologne with Steffen still playing the instruments. I felt like I wanted to give the vocals a more central meaning, you can hear the lyrics better. I don’t think about genres when I make music; I go by feelings and emotions.

How did you manage the expectations of making a second record?

There was so much pressure, so many people talking around me. The most important thing was for me to be happy with it musically, and be 100% sure of what I’m delivering, and to be a fan of what I’ve done. It’s like a plant. When it’s too big, you put it in a bigger pot, and sometimes it dies because it doesn’t like the new environment. I want to grow and be involved, but I don’t want to lose myself and lose the people I was working with. It was hard for me to say that I want to grow and not lose myself, but I must say, I’ve done really well.

Maybe people will say, well there’s yet another language on the album. I grew up with three different cultures and languages, with completely opposite cultures. I’ve always felt torn, and for me, making a record that has all these languages is an act of bringing together these different pieces. Some will like it and some will not like it. You can’t please everyone.

Album Cover for Chasing Dreams released with Duchess Box Records.

Mixing together different languages is a big part of your musical identity now. Would you say that you’ve become a musical poster child for multiculturalism?

I feel at home in Germany, in Spain and in France. They all feel like home. I think at the end, I’m an incarnation of what it means to be multicultural. When I see everything that’s happening right now with extremism and radical things, it is connected to a lack of open-mindedness and seeing what else is there.

How do you feel now that you’ve got that difficult second album off your back?

Yeah, I’m so glad I’ve done that now. I’ve come from an indie background and managed to have three singles in the radio charts. It’s great. I don’t make music for radio explicitly, but I am proud of that.

Who would be your dream collaboration?

I’d love to do a collaboration with Christine and the Queens, there’s something about their energy that I admire a lot. And with Rosalía, for my Spanish side.

These are both artists that have found success through being multilingual.

Yes. I didn’t realise that. You’re right!