In conversation with Surma

Interview by Shannon Lawlor

Débora Umbelino aka Surma is a musician and composer currently based in Leiria, Portugal. Although difficult to pin to one single sound, her music could probably be best described as an experimental blend of ambient electronica and intimate post-rock moments, drowned in delicate classical compositions containing elements of jazz, and a touch of trip-hop. Her ‘child-like’ vocal approach has been likened to artists such as Björk, Joanna Newsom or Imogen Heap, although Surma has successfully developed her own signature style experimenting where most artists are afraid to go.

Surma’s debut LP titled Antwerpen, released in 2017 via Omnichord Records, is a deep, unexpected voyage into nostalgic, albeit forgotten territory. Riddled in sound-design and crisp production, the album is more of an art piece than a typically recorded collection of songs and could probably serve as the official soundtrack to uninspired dreams.

We caught up with Surma on studio insanity and performing covered in honey:

For anyone foreign to Surma’s enchanting eclecticism, how would you personally describe the music you make?

To be honest, I don’t know what my real genre is! I don’t really like to label music in general. I usually just say that I make ‘noise’ and ‘experimental’ music.

I’m actually really inspired by the sounds and silence of the streets.

Surma’s debut album titled Antwerpen was released in October 2017 via Omnichord Records, could you explain the recording process behind this release and how it may have differed to past sessions?

The first year of Surma’s was like a “gap year” for me! I was trying to discover which way I wanted to go and which atmosphere I want to connect people with me! This album has that ‘sound solidification’, and has a certain maturity that I want to keep up with Surma!

The recording process was really intensive. I recorded the album with Casota Collective (Audiovisual producers from Leiria, featuring 3 members of First Breath After Coma) for about 1 year. At that time, I had so many gigs and so many things happening at the same time that we had to organize our time around this. We were working every day from 9am to 3pm – we were going crazy by the 5th month of production, ahah! I produce the majority of the songs on the road, and next day we work on those same songs for about a week or so. It was such an amazing time, and I’ve built such a perfect relationship with them. They’re now like my older brothers; they’ve helped me a lot with everything!

It’s clear that you are an accomplished multi-instrumentalist; weaving genres in-and-out of one another to create something completely original and of your own. Musically, what is most influential to you?

Silence is my main influence. When I’m about to compose new songs, I try to abstain from listening to any music that day, to try to write something out of the box – which is really hard nowadays.

Surma’s visual aesthetic is whimsical, spellbinding and probably best described as dreamlike. Where do you find most of your artistic inspiration?

I have a lot of artistic friends that also work with a lot of artistic people!

I really love Scandinavian minimalist designs and similar styles. I’ve found a lot of current artists this way, and it really inspires me a lot! Maybe my main artistic inspirations are like Olafur Elíasson, Elmgreen and Dragset! They have a really unique perspective of their own!

The official music video for ‘Plass’ was produced and directed by CASOTA Collective. How did this breathtaking audio-visual collaboration come to life?

We had a lot of ideas for the video, so Casota came to me, and they we’re like, “Is it ok if we lie you down in honey, clay, bread dough, shaving cream and you perform on top of that?” I was so nervous and excited at the same time that I accepted without a doubt! They are genius to me, and we get along very well! We have a really nice relationship and it helps a lot! It was also my first ‘performance’ ever, ahah.

How would you describe Leiria, or more specifically, Portugal’s live-music scene, and do you feel there are ways it could improve?

Leiria and Portugal in general improve a lot year after year. People are now more open-minded, and they support new artists that have come out of their shell – we feel that we’re in a really good position! Leiria is a very close-knit, small city; it helps the growth of culture a lot, and the growth of so many bands. I think if we maintain that way, Portugal will grow a lot in that way. We hope so!

Travelling seems to be quite an important aspect of Surma’s performances – where are some of your favourite places to travel or perform in? And where would you like to visit that you haven’t already?

I love the road, travelling and meeting new people! It’s really important to me. I’ve always loved moving around; so I can’t choose one specific spot or country because It’s always so special and so unique!

But I would love to play in Iceland; it’s like a dream to me!

Could you list Surma’s three favourite albums of 2017?

St. Vincent – Masseduction
Ermo – Lo-Fi Moda
Fever Ray – Plunge

Surma is scheduled to perform at Eurosonic and SXSW Festivals in 2018. What are you most looking forward to about performing at these events?

Just the simple fact of being able to play at these amazing festivals – I’m just the happiest girl in all the world. I just want to reach people and to connect with them, meet new musicians and talk to them about so many aspects and the most important of all, just play a lot and have fun!

What does the future hold for Surma?

I don’t really like to think about the future at all! We don’t seem to have a very good relationship, haha! I just like to live in the moment and whatever has to come, will come. I just want people to connect with me as they are! They are really important to me.

For more information follow Surma on Facebook
Order Antwerpen by Surma via Bandcamp

(Image credit: Hugo Domingues)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *