Joanna Hecker came from United States to Lisbon, just passing through, but turned out staying. It’s been two years since she and Ricardo Lopes started leading world music to our living rooms. Lisbon Living Room Sessions
is a singular and intimate project and Esporão is their partner since day one.
In interview, Joanna Hacker tells us how everything started and remembers some stories.
The Living Room Sessions started in 2015 but the idea came earlier, in 2014, during a concert. Want to tell us a little bit more about that story?
JOANNA: I was in New York for work in the autumn of 2014, and I discovered that some friends had hosted a few private concerts in their Brooklyn flat. It was such a simple and inspiring idea. And of course, immediately I knew that we could do it too – especially because Ricardo already had so many connections in the Lisbon music scene. We spoke about the idea as soon as I returned home to Lisbon, in September or so, but we didn’t do anything about it for a while. Then, one night in December, we went to see a wonderful flamenco band perform in a bar in Cais do Sodré. A friend of Ricardo’s was playing the trumpet that night. The music was beautiful, but unfortunately, we could barely hear it over the noise of group Christmas diners, clanking dishes and raised voices, smokers always in and out of the door, diners calling for the waiter. We felt frustrated for selfish reasons, because we couldn’t enjoy the show – but we were also frustrated for the sake of the performers. We thought that it must be very difficult to give so much of yourself, as a musician, if your audience is barely paying attention. And that’s when we got serious, thinking that we should really make it happen: we could host an intimate concert in our own house. We could invite the musicians that we were curious about, and friends who were just as curious; we could focus entirely on the music that we wanted to hear. And we thought that it wouldn’t just be good for us, it’d be good for the artists, too, to perform at arm’s length from an attentive, appreciative, enthusiastic audience.
In January 2015, that same flamenco band from the bar in Cais do Sodré – the Diego el Gavi Band – accepted our invitation to perform at the first Lisbon Living Room Session in our own house. We weren’t sure what to expect, but everyone loved the experience, and it just took off from there. Less than a week after the first session, we had already booked our performer for the second.
During these two years many artists passed through the project. From many places in the world and with different musical styles. Despite the diversity, it seems to us like jazz is the most evident style and the one that gives form to the project. Is that right? Where does this passion for jazz come from?
JOANNA: We both have a soft spot for jazz, and we both have our own special stories with it and memories of it. For me, love of jazz has its roots all the way back in my infancy: my father used to sing old American standards like “Summertime” and “Dream a Little Dream” as lullabies for me and my sisters. He played old records on the stereo in our house: Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington and Miles Davis and Cole Porter. When I was a teenager I got into some more complex, pure instrumental stuff: Thelonious Monk and Sonny Rollins, and the later Miles Davis. I don’t know how a love of classic American jazz developed in Ricardo’s early life, but already in his 20’s he was producing series of jazz concerts with the great musicians here in Portugal: he produced the Leiria Jazz Sessions (2003-2005), moving into the Lisboa Jazz Sessions (2005-2006) and culminating in the renowned Lux Jazz Sessions of 2007. Especially in the beginning of our project we drew many of our contacts from the group of friends and associates that he had cultivated with those projects, nearly a decade previously. And so, when we were looking for a name for our project, that term “sessions” was an intentional throwback to his previous work that had been so well-respected.
Many living rooms, balconies and gardens have been ‘invaded’ by you. In a city like Lisbon it must be hard to chose the place. How does this chosing process occurs?
JOANNA: Very early in the project friends, acquaintances and followers began offering to host our sessions in their homes. People began passing the word among their own networks. The process was all grass-roots and word-of-mouth. More recently, since we have begun to appear in the press in late 2016, we sometimes receive inquiries from people who’ve read about us in a newspaper or magazine. They write an email to say, “I like your project, and I’ve got this great space in my house, and I love to welcome people… Do you want to hold a session here?” (This sort of initiative has led to a couple of really wonderful concerts, and even a couple of friendships.) When someone suggests or offers a house, we go to see the place. We estimate how many people can fit comfortably, and we get a sense of the spirit of the home: casual or formal? Traditional or contemporary? Minimalist or cozy? What’s the style, the feel, the energy? We keep the space in mind, and then as each concert approaches we try to make a “good marriage” between the musician and the space. We go either for a match (classical music in a formal living room) or a contrast (gospel music in an industrial converted loft), to get the most interesting experience out of the combination.
Do you have some backstory that you can tell?
JOANNA: I think we have a single backstage story, always on repeat, with slight alterations each month, but always with some drama: the entire event is usually put together at the very last minute. Sure, we have a rolling list of hosts and a list of artists, and we do our best to keep up with things during the month – sometimes we have an idea of what’s going to happen. But I work full time and Ricardo has lots of projects going on, and of course, LLRS is something that we do out of love (not for money) – so somehow we often end up delaying our preparations for it. And then we end up really scrambling in the week or so before the event, to get everything set. We’ve had some very anxious days toward the end of the month, when we don’t yet have an artist booked and we don’t yet have a venue selected. I’ve been learning that this might just be a very Portuguese way to do things. In New York people would be having heart attacks. But somehow, month after month, it has always worked out so far.
In two years, there may have been many special moments lived. Some you would like to highlight? Some artist or place?
JOANNA: I will not name names, because this story involves the private health condition of one of our performers – but the story illustrates one of my favorite moments of the project. Immediately after one of our best-attended concerts, our musician told us that she had just received bad news, a couple of days before the session. She was very sick. But in spite of everything going on, she managed to be present on the concert day. For her, then, this intimate performance – so physically and psychologically close to her audience and fans – became a very moving experience. She said that she felt literally surrounded by love on that afternoon. She was filled with the energy of people who appreciate her hard work; she felt overwhelmed with a sense of community and support, everyone gathering together to celebrate life and joy and beauty and art, and she was overcome with gratitude. She told us that the experience of the session prepared her for the physical battle that she faced in the coming weeks. The whole thing was just really beautiful, and for me, it represented some of the best of what a project like this can bring into the lives of the people involved.
Lisbon Living Room Sessions isn’t just about music. And it’s here that we come into scene. How does this partnership with Esporão came to be?
Our partnership with Esporão was also one of the fruits of friendship and community and connection, and is absolutely crucial for the project. For our very first session in January 2015, Ricardo and I bought the wine that we served. But after seeing how well it had gone, and once we had booked our second performer, I think I recall that Ricardo decided to go out on a limb and ask a friend about possible partnership with Esporão. But if I remember correctly, Esporão was enthusiastic about the project from the very beginning. Began to offer wine to each of our sessions starting already with #2, in February of 2015, and the support has increased ever since then. Now Esporão supports our photography and videography as well.
And even better, to pair with its wine, we also have the generous participation of a wonderful local restaurant that features inventive Portuguese/Brazilian fusion food: Aromas e Temperos. So LLRS has really become a gastronomical event, as well as a musical one.
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Pedro Gomes Almeida©
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Pedro Gomes Almeida©
Will Lisbon Living Room Sessions have some news this year? What can you tell us about the future of the project?
The future of the Lisbon Living Room Sessions is a tantalizing riddle, and a paradox, because of our spreading notoriety. Someone recently asked me how we will accommodate the growth that fame brings – and the answer is, we will not. By its very nature this project must remain small: it can never outgrow the intimate spaces of private homes. If we were to abandon the literal “living room” we would lose one of the most important parts of the experience. So our growth model is more like an anti-growth model: we will always stay small. This means that we seem increasingly “exclusive” in the sense that – as more people request attendance – more people must be excluded. This is, by far, the hardest and most unpleasant part of what we have to do: we hate turning people away. We hate having to say “no.” We really struggle with it. But for the time being it seems there’s no way to avoid it. Now, our sessions often “sell out” within just a few hours of being announced. That’s the hard part.
Meanwhile, that being said, the incredible attention that we got in 2016 brought all kinds of new opportunities and possibilities for 2017. And the whole thing has grown so organically, so naturally, of its own easy momentum. Of course it requires a lot of work from us, but really, the project is so obvious – so simple – it touches something that so many people just really want and value in their lives – in some ways it has barely really needed our help to grow. So many people have been together, so many unexpected and happy connections, so many hours of music and conversation, so many post-concert parties and dinners. It’s really astounding.
So we’re thinking about doing several different things with the project in 2017, much of it having to do with expressing our thanks to our hosts, our musicians and our community. It’s all going to remain like this, as far as our role is concerned: word-of-mouth, friend-to-friend, and all from the heart. We couldn’t be happier.
Which artist do you dream of having in your living room?
JOANNA: We know so many wonderful people in the world of music and the arts; we have already hosted internationally-renowned musicians from Portugal and elsewhere, people who play in grand auditoriums to crowds of hundreds or even thousands. Our dreams are big. Who knows?
For example, we’re only about two degrees of separation away from Seu Jorge: he is a friend of a friend. He came to Lisbon to perform with Ana Carolina in October of 2016, and if only his flight back to Brazil had been scheduled slightly later in the evening, we are sure would have welcomed him into the living room. Sara Tavares was an absolute phenomenon that month – so we have no regrets whatsoever. But once you’re at the level of Seu Jorge, there is really no limit. Our hopes are very, very high.