Slow J Feels It All

An emotional meeting with the Portuguese phenomenon...

There is a word in Portuguese, saudade, that has no English equivalent. It describes a particular kind of bittersweet incompleteness. A friend once described it as a deep longing for connection, the kind that blankets you without warning. British folklorist Rodney Gallop referred to it as a “yearning for something so indefinite as to be indefinable”. I hear it in songs. I feel it in fleeting moments of introspection. But never have I felt saudade consume a space the way it swallowed the Altice stadium the night of Slow J’s performance.

“Slow J doesn’t usually do interviews, especially around shows like this” his A&R tells me, as we chat over an espresso ahead of the show. Yet, when I met with J shortly after, this detail almost slipped my mind. After warmly ushering me backstage, Slow J, born João Coelho, plops down on the sofa. Here, in the fluorescent lit dressing rooms of one of Europe’s biggest stadiums, J is composed, serene almost. “I remember maybe five years ago, before a massive show like this, I wouldn’t have been able to give an interview. I wouldn’t have been able to physically do it. Little by little, I’ve been reflecting on the past in ways that help me move towards the future” Slow J leans in and explains, his fingers laced together and his back slightly curled. He speaks softly but purposefully, his eyes dance when he laughs, and although he was about to step on stage for an immense performance that evening. He remains still, powerful, present. 

As the interview continued, J weaves profoundly insightful answers into each question with a patiently knowing smile, promising: just wait and see, wait until the performance. The arena show was in celebration of Slow J’s fourth album,Afro Fado‘, which quickly claimed a spot as one of Portugal’s most streamed albums on debut at 4.4 million. This is a big number, especially given that Portugal’s entire population is only 10.3 million people, and based on the extensive coverage in the country’s major media outlets – along with casual conversations with pretty much everyone I know here – Portugal can’t stop talking about him.  

The truth is, the fire that burns inside Slow J can only truly be comprehended by seeing and hearing it for oneself. Watching Slow J perform shakes the soul awake. Delivering chilling propulsive songs that decry the lingering effects of social inequality on songs like ‘Casa‘ or the complexities of cultural identity on ‘Vida Boa‘. It didn’t matter how prominent the artists performing that evening were; whether you really understood their relationship to identity, or even knew what the words meant. It was all about the feeling it evoked.

‘Afro Fado’ marries these rhythms of traditional fado with elements of hip-hop and afrobeats. The lead single ‘Tata‘, really shows this off. It starts with the line “Tata wanange, quanto tempo p’ra te encontrar?” Here, ‘tata’ is a respectful term for a father and ‘wanange,’ from Kimbund (the second most spoken Bantu language in Angola), means ‘how are you?’ His way of paying tribute to his Angolan father and acknowledging these defining roots. 

Describing his own record, the 31-year-old reflects, “the whole idea of ‘Afro Fado’ was trying to pull from these two very different cultures. Our exercise was more based on instinct…” The intricate, stream-of-consciousness verses that have inspired a generation of like-minded rappers are still present, but he’s having fun with it too. “I love the feeling of when you hear a song that sounds totally different, but it’s natural for you to like it, or dance to it, or to enjoy it. So, I’m always searching for that specific thing in my music.”

As with fado music, where ‘souls communicate with each other’ as the extolled fado singer Amália Rodrigues (commemorated on the cover art of J’s latest offering) once put it, Afro Fado communicates with the listener. It evokes a feeling. Fado is a heavily expressive genre, centred around this concept of saudade, with centuries of history behind it. As I wandered through Lisbon earlier that afternoon listening through the album, the atmosphere echoed this fusion of cultures and depth of emotion, language barrier or not. Fado is not only the sound of Lisbon but fundamentally the feel of the city. 

The mix of Portuguese and African (Angolan, Mozambican, Cape Verdean) sound cultures is a unique style that is blooming recently. Dino d’Santiago, uses Creole and rhythms from Cape Verde, like funaná, with electronic music. The late Sara Tavares also mixed Creole with Portuguese in her music. “Nobody else has this music. Fado is a style that only exists here, and it’s an important part of our culture, part of our very way of expressing ourselves.” When I asked him how he went about stitching fado into the textures of his own sound he explained that he didn’t necessarily pour over research on the formula for creating fado, but instead embraced its very foundations, which is this construction of art through feeling. “I feel like the inaccuracy makes it my own. If I go and reference the exact patterns, the exact way they did, it’s going to feel like their music.”

In a way, J is not surprised that so many young people are connecting to his music. “A lot of the songs I wrote were in a period where the politicians were having a lot of anti-immigration discussions. Which moves me a lot, because my father is from Angola, and my mother is from Portugal. I wouldn’t be here if there wasn’t immigration. In my album, I wrote a lot about that” he explains. “It’s really interesting how many people just relate to the simple message of… In Portugal, Africans and Europeans have grown together for generations and generations. For most people, it’s natural. Synonymous. It’s together. We all went to school with each other, we all grew up, we all have some uncle from somewhere.”

After moving to east London in 2013 to study Audio Engineering at SAE, Slow J started exploring the dizzying possibilities offered by new technologies, prefiguring his interest in the layered complexities of music production. He also found inspiration in the unshakeable (and almost delusional) confidence of the Brits, many of whom had aspirations of being ‘the next Dr. Dre.’ After graduating, he arrived back on his home ‘terra’ in Portugal where he discovered there were limited options for creative freedom. 

Deciding to take matters into his own hands, he joined up with some friends and on a shoestring budget co-founded a label under which J was able to release his first EP, ‘The Free Food Tape’, in 2015. In the intervening years since, J has gone on to gather global renown through projects like ‘The Art of Slowing Down’ in 2017, followed by ‘You Are Forgiven’, and ‘sLo-Fi’, collaborating alongside Portuguese greats like Richie Campbell, Gson and Teresa Salguiero to name a few.

When it comes to acquiring knowledge, J isn’t one to sit still. Learning is a proclivity of his. “I have been chasing this moment for many many years, working as an independent artist – I started doing my albums entirely by myself, mixing and producing.” His DIY approach, built out of necessity, seemed to serve as an impetus to shatter boundaries, whether socially or self-imposed; in our conversation, he speaks repeatedly about embracing musical freedom. 

“A lot of the time, the dead ends that we find artistically, are trying to make something prettier…” Slow J leans in and explains. There are no rules to his approach, he admits. “I’m kind of letting my subconscious flow, I don’t want to make my work too esoteric… Sometimes I’m in the shower and think of a melody and record it there and then. We have the number-one song in the country right now [“Tata”] and the hook is recorded on my iPhone. That’s the final version of the master. I was just chilling in the garden. It was a sunny day and the vibe was there” he shrugs laughingly, “and it’s a really small garden. A bunch of fake grass.”

Slow J’s music reflects Portugal’s intricate amalgam of social and cultural identities. Slow J finds ways to express emotions that echo these wide stretching influences, converging them to create something uniquely beautiful. In a world that often seeks perfection, Slow J reminds us that it is our imperfections and vulnerabilities, our scars and stories, that make us truly remarkable. His music becomes a testament to the resilience and richness of the Portuguese spirit. 

We’re sitting together backstage, ahead of the second night performing in one of the biggest stadiums in Europe. You seem calm?

It’s a really beautiful moment. I have been chasing this moment for many many years, working as an independent artist – I started doing my albums fully by myself, mixing and producing. It’s a beautiful moment to release an album, get number one in Portugal, and never feel that we compromised the message or the integrity that went into the album, which I’m very proud of.

I understand it’s ten years since you left London, consistently building your career off your own back. Do you think you’ve been able to reflect on these huge accomplishments?

Definitely. And it’s been a process. I don’t feel like it’s an ‘artist thing’. I feel like it’s a human thing to try and understand how you can keep growing – and being mentally healthy in general – that’s something I care a lot about. I remember maybe five years ago, before a massive show like this, I wouldn’t have been able to give an interview. I wouldn’t have been able to physically do it. I feel like, little by little, I’ve been working on being more chilled, more reflections on the past in ways that help me move towards the future.

That’s really moving. Does that happen through the music as well?

Definitely, music is a very therapeutic process for me.

As a listener you can feel that, there’s an emotive impact. Obviously, without speaking Portuguese, I had to search a lot of the lyrics, and otherwise, I’m being made to pay attention to the feeling. This album has a powerful emotional impact through the sound alone.

This is what we’ve always been working for. It feels like it’s the beginning of a new journey, do you know what I mean? Even though I’m singing in Portuguese, we still want to be heard by the whole world, I’ll find a way. I look up to artists like Rosalia, Stromae.

The heritage comes out through their art… Even without understanding the lyrics, it’s possible to connect with the feeling. It resonates.

Exactly. I never feel like the path is very clear, but I feel like if we keep on working on it in a very honest way, we will find it eventually. It’s a funny thing because for the past year or two years, pretty much at the middle of the process of building this album, I started to really focus on physical exercise, going to the psychologist,  doing things that, way back, I would always feel like, okay, I don’t have inspiration for a new song, I need to go and learn more guitar skills, or I need to learn more music. And it’s funny how, if you grow as a person, your music will naturally grow.

Absolutely. Perspective, discomfort and growth go hand in hand.

Definitely. And I really feel like most of the growth from the previous album to this one comes from personal growth in that sense, and really focusing on myself. I’ve also been a father, my son is five years old now, and it’s an awesome experience. There are things that have nothing to do with making music, but they have a massive impact on the way I make music.

There’s always skills you can learn, and it seems like you’re very willing to be a baby of something again, and not just a master.

 I’ve been trying, I’ve been trying. It’s that idea that you can do something completely different, and you will benefit from that. In the thing that you do care about. If you do fatherhood, it might teach you a bit more patience.

You’ve taught yourself production for example, is that something you’ve been conscious about? 

I feel like, as a writer, you’d relate to this. A lot of the time, the dead ends that we find artistically, are trying to make something prettier. Like, how can I make this sentence better, in a way? I feel like, when I’m inspired to do something, when I know what I’m doing, conceptually, everything is really obvious. The whole way to the full album is really obvious. When it’s not, I need to go back and check within myself what I’m trying to hide from the art, what I’m trying to evade, how I’m trying to mask myself. I really feel like, once we click on those more internal matters, the whole thing becomes really obvious. There’s no need to be chasing aesthetic, beauty, or the rhyme being super perfect. It’s almost like it walks in front of you, it already knows the part it’s doing.

I know what you’re saying. 

Raw emotion. In Portugal, a lot of the songs I wrote were in a period where the politicians of Portugal were having a lot of anti-immigration discussions. Which moves me a lot, because my father is from Angola, and my mother is from Portugal. I wouldn’t be here if there wasn’t immigration. In my album, I wrote a lot about that. You would expect a lot of backlash for some of the things that I wrote. And there was none. I feel like it’s very interesting how, in a way, representatives of the people don’t always say what the people actually feel. They have their own narratives. At the same time, it’s really interesting how many people just relate to the simple message of… In Portugal, Africans and Europeans have grown together for generations and generations. For most people, it’s natural. Synonymous. It’s together. We all went to school with each other, we all grew up, we all have some uncle from somewhere. And it was amazing to see that album with that message, Afro Fado, going number one and the people voting on an idea. 

Incredible.

The way they resonate with it. It’s crazy. Last night was the first time I heard one of the songs played live. Most of the songs were played live for the first time last night. One of them is called Terra, which is about missing your… How would you translate it? Because we say Terra for Earth, but in Portuguese, we also use Terra for… A minha terra means my birthplace. Or my country. My home country. So, the song sings about the idea of missing your home country. In two different senses.  In the sense that the place where you were born changed so much over time that now you don’t recognise it anymore. Which is a very conservative type of thought. And the opposite idea, the idea that your birthplace doesn’t accept you. It doesn’t create space for you to be in there.  Which is the opposite of it, a very progressive idea. Where you are should accept you more, should make you feel more comfortable. And it’s amazing how I wrote the song so that both would sing the same. And it would make sense both ways.

You mentioned living in London and studying sound engineering. Are there people that you met there that you still talk to, or bounce ideas off of? 

Yes, in Haggerston. Some friends from uni. In Portugal, I don’t have access to a lot of people who don’t understand Portuguese. So I always try to send the masters to some of my friends who I kept in touch with, who are still working around sound engineering, with different artists, English artists. To be honest, London was really good for me. In Portugal, there is a tendency to dream low, to be honest. Some people say it’s because Portugal was like a dictatorship until 1975, but in general Portuguese people dream very low. They don’t believe a lot in themselves. And when I got to London, the first impact was that all of my classmates wanted to be like Dr. Dre. The best producer of all time. All of them. And that was weird for me. But I feel like when I came back three years later, I was completely changed in the sense of what I believed I was capable of achieving. 

And you say to work with people is something that’s important for you. How does your creative process differ when you’re working on your own versus when you’re working collaboratively with someone? 

Nowadays, I don’t work a lot on my own. Especially this album, I did it in its entirety with two producers. But I don’t know, I love that. I started off as a sound engineer and then became a producer. And I love the whole creation of a landscape, the identity of an artist. The songwriting and the creation of music are my favourite things of all time. I prefer that to shows. I think if you chase the high of a show and you’re chasing the curiosity, the intrigue, the knowledge that you’re gaining from it.

So, you learned production first. When you get into the writing of a project, what’s first now? Do you create the melody, start on production or is there no real structure to it?

It depends from song to song. To be honest, there are no rules. Sometimes I’m in the shower and think of a melody and record it on the voice notes. We have the number-one song in the country right now on Spotify. It’s called “Tata”, the first song in the album. And the hook is recorded on my iPhone. That’s the final version that’s on the master. I was literally just chilling in the garden. It was a sunny day. I sang that and the vibe was there. It’s a really small garden. A bunch of fake grass.

You record your melodies in the shower, the garden, wherever… How did you start figuring out your vocal ability? When did you settle on something you felt was unique to you?

I started by rapping only. Which is more of a conversational tone. I didn’t think of myself as a singer for a really long time. And then I started exploring it. I wrote this one song, a proper piano and vocal song on my first EP. And then I had to sing it live. And from then on I just got more and more comfortable with it.  Nowadays I even do singing lessons once a week so that I’m properly on top of my game. To be honest this year I can do a lot more things than I used to not be able to before. 

I asked a friend from Portugal if she knew about this project – the first thing she said was about your vocal range. 

Oh wow. 

She’s also an anthropologist so she was fascinated by your background and how you communicate that through an album like Afro Fado. Being Portuguese, she could relate heavily to this story being told through a crossroad of cultures.

I’m so happy that it resonated in this way, that’s exactly what I wanted out of this album. I’m honoured.

Do you find crafting the narrative structure a natural part of the songwriting process for you? 

Yeah, definitely. I’m very methodical with songs. I love songwriting and I love studying songwriting. I’ve studied it a lot and I’ve crafted my own way of writing songs. It took me four years to write this album. And I’m kind of letting the subconscious flow, I don’t want to make this too esoteric. I’m just writing songs every day. Today I feel like this, tomorrow I feel like this. And at the end, there’s a story that naturally emerges from it. And that’s the album’s story.

Our story can’t be forced. Do you feel like if you’re just working towards one big thing, you might miss what’s on the peripheries?

I get that, you can’t see the sea of opportunity outside of that one goal. I feel like personally I kind of struggle with that at some points. Throughout this process I probably had a break of four to six months where nothing was coming out. 

During that time, do you consciously stay away from music altogether? 

I ended up doing that for a while. And then it just started coming back. I let it flow. You start worrying like it’s gone. Where has it gone? But ideally I want to let things go with the flow. I feel like sometimes I enjoy it. Sometimes it’s difficult. Especially again, that’s going back to what we said at the beginning.

Sometimes I wonder if creativity requires a ‘dance like no one’s watching’-attitude to keep going in a way. 

That’s interesting! One thing for me is, sometimes I’m really sure about the songs I make; in the sense that I really connect with it. So I just trust it. Because the rest we don’t control. I’m not an artist that is just going to say I don’t care about the public. I care if people understand what I mean, if people enjoy my work. But I cannot control that. So I cannot try to control it. I need to stop myself from trying to control it.

You also talked about being a father. Do you find inspiration can come from being around the imagination of children? When you take a break away from music, for example, have you ever seen the cogs turning in your son’s mind and thinking…

Of course, it’s like a miracle! When you see a child figuring something out. It’s fascinating. It’s very miraculous. I haven’t really looked at it that way, to be honest. I feel like family grounds me a lot. Throughout success, I feel like it’s helped me a lot in just staying a normal person. The fact that I was already together with my girlfriend before I started becoming a bigger artist… and then having our kid and having that responsibility. I feel like it made my life much better by forcing me to stay within certain boundaries in a way. I feel like I had to adapt, but the place I got to is much better for myself than where I feel like I was headed before. That’s important. I mean, that’s naturally going to happen as well – you look back and you see the growth, I suppose. If you’re not seeing the growth, then maybe it’s time to question where you are going.

That’s a powerful quote there. And you started an independent label with two friends when you came back to Portugal. What was the motivation to do this?

I came back to Portugal and I started making music. I got to make my first album, and it had quite some impact. I remember the day we dropped the album after so much work, it was so strange. Six months later I started having enough shows to support myself. So the album had a lot of impact, but it took some time to get to people. And afterwards, as a producer, I really wanted to do production work. And I had this friend called Papillon, who was the first artist we signed – the only artist we signed – and I really wanted to produce his album. Creating a label was only to have a structure so that we could do that. To be honest, I never wanted to, and I still don’t want to be in the business of that side of things. We do things without considering so much when we’re younger. 

We take risks or leaps of faith when there are less responsibilities perhaps. Are you still able to access that now, this sort of risk-taking mentality? 

Definitely. At that point, we definitely took a big risk, especially financially. As independent artists, to say – OK, we’re going to fund another artist’s album – and you’re investing in yourselves as well.

Believing that eventually that would make us twice as big or more. We would feed off of each other. When I started, you couldn’t really find good deals with Portuguese labels, to make albums. You had to kind of work for it, do everything yourself, kind of figure out the way. 

Is there quite a big culture of independent artists in Portugal because of that?

Absolutely. I feel like all over the world, since streaming started, a massive independent culture started. Before, you had to be on MTV, you had to go through the proper channels to be heard, to go to the people. I feel like I’m one of the first artists in Portugal that benefited from the massification of streaming. And going straight to the people through social media, not having to go through labels to make it work. We had to fund all of our albums, we had to take a lot of risks. In a way, I feel like I’m not very risk-averse, also because I didn’t grow up poor. I grew up middle-class, we had everything we needed. So I don’t feel like I have a lot of fear of like… You have to get that opportunity, all of these things can hold us back, almost. I’ve always been kind of chilled about risk-taking, and it’s faith, you know? At the end of the day, you have to have faith in yourself. It’s kind of like what you were saying. At the end of the day, if you don’t believe in it and you don’t take the leap, you’re never gonna know. A lot of people wouldn’t believe that we were going to sell out one of these arenas when we booked the date.

Do you think back to when you first started having a taste for this, maybe back to those teenage years?

To be honest, I feel like back then, I did see myself doing this. I don’t want to say that I knew that I was sure it was going to be the outcome, but I did dream about it. When I first started playing in punk rock bands, when I was a little kid, like a teenager, we always had those dreams of being like those artists we were watching on YouTube, playing shows, that kind of thing.You tend to visualise those things. It’s not that I knew I was going to be there one day or anything. But I feel like I always had a vision of it. I feel like I’m making the kid proud right now.

I love that. It’s incredible how your listeners resonate with your music, the way they speak about it. And this has gone beyond the reach of your listeners in Portugal. Is globality something you pay particular attention to? 

Definitely. I feel like it’s the next step. First country I would love to be very present in is Angola, my father’s home country. I would love to, first of all, grow in those countries, Angola, Mozambique, Cape Verde; the Portuguese speaking countries. I would love to go to Brazil as well. But obviously, I have a big connection with the UK because I lived there. My music is very influenced by UK sounds as well. It’s just trying to figure out how to build a bridge over the language barrier.

There is the idea that you were saying earlier, how, now more than ever, we don’t want to label artists. Are there other sounds you want to try and explore?

Definitely, to be honest. I’m at a point where I worked for four years on an album, I put it out, I prepared this show, I’m playing this show, and next week I’m like, ‘ah.’ You know? And once that happens, I start thinking about the next one, because every album for me has to be new. I don’t want to do album one, then album 1.1, then album 1.1.1. I’m not trying to go backwards, so I try to make every single one of my albums very different from each other. The next one will be like a search for something totally different from this one. And I have no idea what that is yet. I love it, because as a producer, at heart, it’s what excites me in the studio. It’s looking forward.

Do you go crate digging, trying to find obscure things?

Not really. I’ve never had that vein too much. I’m very much into learning the guitar, playing instruments. That’s been my curiosity. I do work with other people who do crate digging. 

I imagine from having a musicality within, rather than looking for it elsewhere.

Exactly, I explored. I just wasn’t very good at it, to be honest. Maybe that was it. The feeling of finding something in the studio that moves you in a totally weird way, but it makes you react. How can I explain that better? I love the feeling when you hear a song that sounds totally different, but it’s natural for you to like it, or to dance to it, or to enjoy it. So I’m always searching for that specific thing.

Can you think back to some of your earlier musical memories?

It’s something that breaks my heart to this day, but my parents, they wouldn’t play music at the house, you know? So when I wanted to go and learn the music that they used to listen to, I had to study it as a grown-up. 

Would you say that made you curious to find music for yourself?

Definitely. I remember the first time I heard a rap record, and it was Sam the Kid, a Portuguese rapper. Old school, still active, still makes music. We have a song together now, it was the final song that we played last night. My first albums were… Moby, I think it’s called Jumping. I had a Skank and Nancy album. Fatboy Slim. Red Hot Chili Peppers. I remember exactly when I got my first radio at nine years old. And my older cousin, he burned some CDs for me.

Perhaps that’s part of searching for your own identity, especially as a teenager – finding the music you like and the music you don’t like. My older brother loaded up his library onto mine through an MP3 converter.

It’s crazy because, in that moment, they have no idea how much they’re skewing you in life. I could have become a totally different person with four different CDs. 

Do you know what other interests you would have leaned into otherwise?

In general, I love tech, so I would probably have gone into programming or IT. It all came back to engineering. I went into sound engineering because of that. I love making music because I used to always be on the computer, playing games. And I found out that there’s software for making music and that’s the way I became a music producer

How have you seen production change in those last 15 years or so since you started?

Interesting. I feel like… Accessibility has changed, obviously. Accessibility changing is amazing. But now, I feel like we’re kind of in a weird place where hip-hop kind of stopped growing. Like hip-hop production, it’s mostly samples, I haven’t heard a new thing in a long time.

I have this theory that it’s because everyone’s so stressed, nostalgia acts like a comfort.

True. But hip-hop used to have the flexibility to kind of respond to everyone’s needs. It’s this idea of bringing two worlds together. That’s really exciting. Every decade, hip-hop always kind of had an answer and now, I don’t know, I find myself listening to a lot of different stuff. 

That’s a really interesting point.

What’s the name of the jazz drummer from London? Yusef Dayes. 

Oh, wow, yeah. He’s a legend.

I find myself listening to more different genres. Burna Boy, I love his music. A lot of Afrobeats. I’ve been listening to Tems. I feel like innovation is being made in different genres, not as much in hip-hop right now.

When you’re introducing a culture into your music or a genre, how do you do it justice? Do you research it, or do you do something that’s very much instinctual?

To be honest, I’ve always gone by instinct until now. Also, I don’t feel like I’ve made music that’s very distant from my personal family culture. 

Was it an understanding that you had from conversations or observations when you were younger? 

That’s interesting. I thought about this.. should I go and listen to really old records and see the way they grew? And to some point, I’m referencing things that I know. But I love the exercise of just imagining how it felt to me and trying to… Give that feeling back. Because I feel like the inaccuracy of it makes it my own. If I go and reference the exact patterns, the exact way they did, it’s going to feel like their music. And I’m trying to build something new. The whole idea of Afro Fado was trying to pull from these two very different cultures. Our exercise was more based on instinct and the feeling that it gave us when we heard it.

Stay in touch with Slow J on socials.

Words: Sophia Hill

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