Marinho on writing honest music and finding inspiration in quiet moments

Photo: Marta Olive

Marinho’s debut album dives into her childhood, difficult relationships, and personal identity, but she says it still surprises her when people say that her lyrics are vulnerable. “I didn’t know I was that open and that I was that honest until people started saying that to me,” she told me over the phone.

Filipa Marinho is based in Lisbon, Portugal, and released her first single as Marinho on March 8, 2019 — the same day as International Women’s Day. Her songs are inspired by the lyricism of Joni Mitchell and Adrianne Lenker, and she uses melodic guitar riffs to transform poetry into vocal hooks. Now, Marinho is preparing to release her debut album ~ (read: “tilde”) on Friday October 18.

I caught up with Marinho over the phone to learn more about how she uses poetry to write songs, takes inspiration from life’s quiet moments, and is looking inwards to write some of her most honest music yet.

Marinho Tilde
Album artwork for “~.”

When did you start playing music and how did you start releasing music as Marinho?

Playing music, I started at a very young age, or at least I would say somewhere around seven, maybe eight. I started out playing piano; I had piano lessons, and my grandma on my mom’s side was a piano teacher for almost all her life. 

When I was a bit older I dropped out of the piano because I was kind of bored with it and my brother, who was a guitar player, he taught me how to play guitar and that resonated a lot more with me than the piano did. I guess from around 13, 14 was when I started playing guitar, and that was around the time that I started writing songs; it was more on the guitar than the piano.

I had bands before, but releasing music on my own as Marinho, it just started out — the first single came out on [International] Women’s Day: March 8. That was the first one, and it’s been a great ride so far.

Did you choose Women’s Day specifically as the date to release your first single?

Not initially. I have this weird thing with the number eight; it’s like my favorite number for some reason. I was hoping to release on February 8 initially. Then we had to delay a little bit — you know how these things go — we had everything ready to come out and everything. And then I realized that actually delaying it a month, I realized it was Women’s Day, and I was happy about that. I was very proud to release it. 

It was a very happy day for me, but also a serious day. I joined the Women’s March in Lisbon. At that time, the numbers of women that were victims of violence and the numbers of murder victims of domestic violence had been coming out quite a bit, and this year has been one of the worst. I think this is sadly almost everywhere in the West, or in society.

That was a sad day because we had to protest and everyone was feeling a bit sad about that. But at the same time, coming out with a single on that day was very special. I ended up playing a gig on that day as well, and I got to also say a few words of protest. It was a sad but beautiful moment at the same time.

It’s been a couple months since then and you’re coming out with your debut LP now. First of all, congratulations. How does it feel to be coming out with your first album as Marinho?

Thank you. It feels amazing. It feels like only yesterday that I was going into the studio and saying to myself that I didn’t have any expectations. My thought was that, if I leave the studio with at least one good song, one potential single, then I’m going to be happy with it. And then I ended up doing a whole album. It’s been a crazy ride.

Since then I’ve made friends; I’ve started working with new people and have made more friends because of music. I’ve never felt like I’ve been this honest with myself and with others around me, and the album is a very big document of that. I’m very proud of it and it feels amazing.

It seems like a very personal album. Would you mind speaking a little bit about where you were at when you were writing this album and what inspired you to be so open in your lyrics?

I think the album reflects a transition that I was going through, and that I still am going through, somewhat. Some of the songs are more a reflection of a time when I was focusing a lot more on romantic relationships, for example, and diving a lot more into the kind of pain, the kind of heartbreak you get out of those relationships. 

There was a point in time where I started to look into myself a lot more, and to look inwards a lot more than outwards, and started to try to figure out: why is it that some things hurt the way that they do, or why would I have certain limitations or certain difficulties dealing with people. 

It was my brother that actually started going to therapy. He didn’t ask me to go do that, but watching him grow as a person and being more in touch with who he is and why he is the way that he is, it influenced me to do the same.

The last songs that I wrote for the album are more of a reflection on who I am, what my memories are of how I grew up, what my relationship is with the world, and how my childhood influences that relationship. I think the album is proof of the personal growth that I have been undertaking. 

About it being honest, I guess I never really thought of making honest music. There was never a conscious decision; it’s just that when I play and when I write, I do it because I have to, and if I don’t write the way that I feel, it just doesn’t sound true. It’s going to eat me up inside. That’s why I think my music is so honest.

Although to be fair, and this is kind of funny, the other day I was saying to a friend that I think I’m very cryptic in my lyrics, and then someone else on an interview said, “I think you’re very honest. How can you expose yourself so much and be so open?” I don’t know — I didn’t know I was that open and that I was that honest until people started saying that to me. 

One  thing that I heard when listening to the album is a sense of loneliness, and it is a very self-reflective album. One song that talks about that in particular is “Ghost Notes.” What inspired that song?

I like to do a lot of analogies. I use that a lot to express myself, even when I’m talking to someone. In this case, it came to me while I was watching a BADBADNOTGOOD show. I was really into what the drummer was doing. Usually when I’m watching a show I focus on the drummer or maybe the bass. I guess I’m more drawn to the rhythmic section, although I play guitar when I write. 

I was just paying attention, and I realized that probably not a lot of people notice the ghost notes — those are the subtle notes that are in between the main beats. Those are only noticeable if you’re really paying attention. I was coming out of a more troubled relationship. You know when you’re going through that phase when you’re analyzing everything and every moment? You find yourself thinking of that one time when the person looked away in a certain way or they drew in a sigh — you know those little things you hold on to, which are basically not healthy, but you do it anyway because it’s part of the grieving process. 

Then I realized that sometimes relationships have their own ghost notes; times when the signs are there that things are not right or that it’s not meant to be. I don’t usually use phrases like “meant to be” because it sounds very fantasy and movie-like, and it’s not as real. 

But sometimes there are moments where if you’re actually paying attention and letting yourself learn about the other person, then you realize the signs are there. And the opposite, which I tried to do before, which is trying to project my own expectations onto the other person. I guess the ghost notes are when you realize that you weren’t paying attention, and then you don’t understand anything. 

That’s really cool to use that musical analogy, because there are so many things going on in those silences.

Exactly. Then in the chorus, when I write, “dreams are the only place where my feelings survive,” that’s referencing that stage when you’re in your day-to-day life and you’re rid of that and you’ve gotten through it, then when you’re unconscious you’re awake and you’re asleep literally — you might dream about it or it might pop up in your dreams. 

Do you feel like that process happens when you’re writing a song; maybe when you’re writing lyrics things will pop up and you’ll be like, “Oh, I didn’t know that’s how I was feeling?”

For sure. Because I think writing is very therapeutic. I have a friend who still writes in a diary, and people usually associate that as a child-like or a teenage thing to do. But sometimes talking to her she tells me that it helps her process things, it helps her to understand the way that she feels. 

Sometimes if you don’t do therapy or if you don’t have someone to talk to or if you don’t have a soundboard for what or how you’re feeling, writing it down can be a great way to understand how you’re feeling. Even if you don’t show anyone or if you don’t turn it into a song, just writing it down, externalizing it, takes away the weight of the pain and we get to see things the way they are. That’s a big relief. 

You said you usually write on guitar — does it vary song-to-song, or do you usually start with music or lyrics first?

It depends really. I’ve had tracks that were born out of the music, out of the guitar riff. For example, “I Give Up and It’s OK,” that was just a guitar riff and then we did all the arrangements in the studio. I had the melody for the lyrics — I knew what I wanted to sing — I had the top line, as people say. I just didn’t have the lyrics. Somewhere in the middle of all my writing I had to dig up a poem that I felt made sense to fit the song, and it actually did and made total sense.

That right there is like magic. I can’t really explain it. There’s no formula to writing a song and there’s no formula to explaining why you might write a guitar riff two years after writing a poem, and then it feels like they were both meant to be together. I don’t know why I’m saying “meant to be” so much, I really don’t want to believe in that. [laughs]

And then “Ghost Notes,” I wrote those lyrics and voice melody and the guitar all in one sitting, in one night. So it really depends. I don’t know if there’s a method, and I don’t think there should be. 

But you like to write poetry as well, and sometimes that will turn into a song?

Yes. Sometimes the poem will find a new life in song. Or sometimes I will write a song with specific lyrics that don’t fit the song anymore, and then I’ll change them. At least for me, there’s no certain way of writing a song. 

One of the songs on your album is called “Joni” — is that Joni Mitchell?

Yes, it is.

Would you say that she is an influence on your guitar playing or your music in general?

I would say that she is a very big influence on how I as an artist deal with emotions. Not necessarily the way that I write — Joni’s guitar playing is super difficult. She basically invented her own way of playing guitar. She has her own weird-ass tunings and the chords that she does and everything, it’s very Joni-like. If you think about it it’s funny, because it’s also her personality. So maybe not necessarily in terms of how I play the instrument, or even how I write a song, but for sure a big influence on what kind of artist, or how deep should I go as an artist.

When I found out about her, it was through a documentary called [Joni Mitchell:] A Woman of Heart and Mind. I’ll always remember her saying, when she went into the studio to record Blue, she said that she felt so vulnerable, that if anyone looked at her, she would burst into tears. 

Not that I want to necessarily feel like that every time I’m writing or recording — I don’t believe that art or music should have to take you to that place every time — but I really do believe that the kind of music that touches people’s hearts is raw and is genuine and is true and honest. At least the kind of music that I enjoy and the kind that has stuck with me throughout the years. I always try to replicate that and learn from her and artists like her. 

For example, transporting that to a more modern age, you have artists like Adrianne Lenker from Big Thief. If you look at the way that she writes and the way that she channels her emotions and her memories through the writing, it’s all so very raw and true and genuine. So I try to have that as my influence.

What does that feel like when you are performing these songs? You’re putting yourself in a vulnerable place to write these lyrics and conjuring these raw emotions. Do you feel like you have to put yourself in that place to perform these songs? Is that cathartic to do, is it difficult to do?

It’s very cathartic. Luckily I enjoy being onstage. I don’t necessarily enjoy being the center of attention in other areas onstage, but when I’m onstage it feels like I’m home. It feels like having a conversation, actually. I know that If you look at it very basically, you’d say that it’s just a monologue; that the performer is giving something to the audience, and it might not feel like a conversation, but it actually is. 

It’s about the performer or the artist presenting feelings and ideas to the audience, and the audience respectfully listening to that. That in itself is a conversation. And then the audience applauding, and reacting positively — or not. But the audience reacting positively is a way of saying, “We hear you. Your message is valid, and we know what it feels like.”

That is very valuable. Having, specifically for me, having grown up in a household where sometimes as a child I didn’t feel like I had much space, or someone to just listen to how I was feeling. I don’t know if that’s the reason why I went into music, but when I’m onstage I feel like people are actually listening. It’s a very loving connection. 

You can find Marinho on Facebook and Bandcamp. Her debut album ~ comes out on Oct. 18.

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