by Iris Johner
It’s lost and heavy-hearted that I decided to settle down on my own in south Portugal in November 2017. After three years of travels around the world and a summer back to my hometown realizing time was flying and driving my dreams away from me, it appeared to be the perfect deal for a start over – as the one place I would most likely call home.
span style=”font-size: 80%; color: grey;”>Listen to the album while reading the text.
I arrived there with two suitcases, two guitars, a straw hat and a feeling of uncertainty contorting my guts. Nothing came easy. I crashed my first car after two weeks. I got kicked out from my house by a pregnant woman with an urgent nesting syndrome. I had no friends. Not much money. I lost myself in despair several times looking at the vastness of the starry sky. I dove into profound aloneness and introspection. Drowned into self-pressure. But out of nothing and step by step, I created a custom reality for myself. Perfectly suiting. I learned to trust, and I learned to believe – when all doors are open you gotta find faith in yourself to initiate the right things.
Fall / Winter
It is thus on the blank page of this new chapter that music naturally made its way back to me. (If I had been quite active in the past writing, recording and playing live, when I got to Portugal my last musical performances dated from two years in Peru, and four years in France – I had dropped it for lack of time and space, in favor of disappointment and discouragement, I guess.) I started by listing the skills I could use to earn money, willing to challenge myself.
After a couple of weeks, I would take my guitar, thumb a lift to the biggest town nearby, look for a promising spot on the street and start playing. November is a treat in this part of Europe; the sun was shinning, flowers blooming and tourists flowing. I soon discovered that somehow this place was adored and renown by all sorts of buskers. I quickly joined the community, made my place on the street and got my routines: Rua 25 de Abril in the mornings, little green square in the evenings, Praia da Luz in the afternoons…
Although being fundamentally shy, I was never scared there. I had all the freedom to be myself, and I was getting recognized for it. How gratifying it is to get directly rewarded for your talent ! How exhilarating it feels to get paid for singing your soul out! I was amazed by the whole process. Everyday was a new crazy adventure.
I met loads of people, some of them became good friends. Jochen appeared, grey hair in a tail, rollie at the lips, playing guitar on his balcony while I was performing down his window one afternoon. He waved at me before going down with this corner smile of his, coughing his lungs out, shaky hands and sparkly gaze. He was all support. He hired me as a recruit in his violin repair workshop in the winter when the busking season went quieter. Work days would end up in his smoky remarkable music studio for a jam, which he would meticulously film and put on Youtube. We would share music, gossips, and lunches. We would play on the street together. And get coffees, soups, and pasteis de nata sheltered from the winter rain.
With the spring came tourists again, so as the opportunities of work. I got contracts in a few bars and restaurants: some were fake promises, some were great journeys. Some were late nights in dark traps full of lost souls; some were facing the ocean at sunset. A couple who saw me on the street hired my services for their wedding – when they were entwining and spinning in tears on my acoustic version of the first dance, I really felt like a professional musician.
I got to play with amazing artists from all over. The area is filled with travelers, backpackers, expats, locals, all sharing the same taste for authenticity and freedom, for a life out of the beaten track – the kingdom of do it yourself becoming a nest for special talents. There was always a reason to play, join a jam, get on a stage, add percussions or harmonica. I once ended up improvising my guitar for the spoken words of a poet from Congo.
I was putting the rest of my time into writing songs, making video clips, feeding an Instagram page and Youtube channel with videos and challenges. I was doing whatever felt right, in total freedom. I was making a living exclusively from my passion. I sold out a hundred and fifty of my CDs throughout the year. I met such inspiring artists, and I inspired such amazing humans. There has been so much love shared on the pavement. Presents and admiration were pourring. I was right where I was supposed to be, doing what I was supposed to do. I don’t think I have ever been that happy, driving my shit car back home full of gratitude in the golden sun, with my guitar case on the passenger seat and my pleased wallet heavy of coins. Yeah, you bet coins have been a set up in itself.
I was splitting my weeks between days of work, and days of van life and surf on the west coast of the Algarve. I had fallen in love. Days were warm and joyful. Nights short and peaceful. Breakfasts made out of wild fruits. Salty hair and brown skin. I have no doubt affirming that I was living the dream. I felt proud, strong and free.
But the high season, August especially, brought pressure. The busier the road got, the hotter the days, the more packed the streets, and the less I was enjoying playing my songs. I found myself trapped in a whirlwind of impatience and yield. I realized at my expense that more people don’t necessarily mean more tips. I contracted tendonitis on my right wrist, which forced me to step back, to play less, to reflect.
This was getting too much of the same thing. Too much of confronting the crowd. Too much of putting myself out and openning up to strangers. Too much of hearing the same questions and telling the same stories. Of course, there were still a lot of enjoyable moments, but the picture got tarnished a little. I was emotionally tired. The daily practice of gratitude helped me to keep smiling.
Over the year, I gathered a solid 50 songs setlist in a white document holder, filled with names like Rolling Stones, Fleetwood Mac, Bill Withers, Beyoncé, Outkast, Neil Young, and many more. I dedicated to covers; they would attract people and had me deployed extra efforts of creativity. Changing often the turn over of songs quickly became a necessity – I would never again hear Angie the same way.
But when things calmed down, I devoted to my own music. A local festival scheduled me on their stage in October. The crazy cold wind challenged both my resilience and my hairstyle, but a giant red setting sun had my back, and the pleasure of my own art being highlighted was a gift.
A couple weeks afterward, I recorded my second 5-track album in the private home studio of a French producer. “Far Down South” named itself as a tribute to this whole experience – the most perfect way to end and honor this journey. I wanted it intimistic and personal, of raw and accessible production. “Far Down South” evokes the fresh ocean breeze twirling in the heavy dust of golden hour; the eucalyptus and pines scents, the wild ocean, the deep roar of my car, the solitude, the dreams and hopes, thoughts and reflections, Love,…
Untouchable, Free and Loving
In November 2018, I left Portugal fortunate and grateful. I gained enormous confidence playing on the street, being my own boss and making a living from my passion. I had enjoyed being on stage before. But when you stand alone and sing your heart out, anonymously, for a passing crowd of strangers, when you get direct recognition and reward for it, and when you witness the pleasure and joy that you’ve been spreading, then it opens up the doors of a totally different realm. It makes you feel alive, light-hearted and worthful.
And when nobody is even paying attention to you, when you go home hungry with empty pockets after two hours draining your energy, then you humbly learn not to expect anything and not to take things personally.
Most of all, you learn to be yourself and to keep doing what you’re supposed to do no matter what you earn from it, no matter who’s watching, no matter who’s judging. Because the world may be spinning around you, the faces may be passing, and the crowd streaming, you are still standing, offering your soul, smiling away, untouchable, free and loving.