EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: 5 Minutes With… The Gift

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Alt-pop quartet The Gift have been tipped for global success by countless publications, from The Independent to Drowned In Sound and Music Week. The band have collaborated (even co-written) with Brian Eno, opened for The Flaming Lips (during the 2003 Yoshimi tour) and are previous winners of an MTV Europe ‘Best Act’ award and countless other honours in their native Portugal.

With their latest music video, “Clinic Hope”, the band continue to demonstrate their penchant for writing quirky, interesting songs, full of gorgeous, interlacing vocal lines and character-filled synthesizer parts. As lead singer Sónia Tavares and Brian Eno share vocal duties on the playful, compelling hook, the view is also introduced to another of The Gift’s great strengths: their appreciation of the importance of striking visuals to ‘complete’ their sonic offering.

The video for “Clinic Hope” was directed by Carleton Ranney (whose previous film credits include the excellent and under-appreciated hacker feature Jackrabbit), and is an edgy, inventive portrayal of New York City that also works as a metaphor for the feelings of community and soul-release that music can offer to isolated urban individuals.

It is a beautiful, life-affirming video, and the track itself should convince audiences craving textured, intelligent pop music to look no further than The Gift. We caught up with synth player John Gonçalves and music video director Carleton Ranney to chat about the difficulties of filming in Brooklyn, what to do about music streaming, their Philadelphia blues, and how to resist authoritarianism with your headphones…

For those not familiar with you, how would you describe your sound?

John Gonçalves: I always think about our sound as something indie, alternative, with a mix of electronic and pop-rock, but with a sense of elegance to it. I like the word “elegant” to describe our sound, but if I have to highlight something, it is the versatility of the sonority/compositions and the incredible voice of Sónia Tavares, our lead singer.

What are the 5 albums that have influenced you the most?

Radiohead, OK Computer
Arcade Fire, Funeral
Depeche Mode, Songs of Faith and Devotion
U2, Achtung Baby
Beck, Odelay

Which other artists are you into at the moment and why?

John Gonçalves: When you say at the moment, that means this past week, because, fortunately for us, we listen to a lot of music every day! Last week was a great week of new music. We listened the new song from The Flaming Lips which reminded me again of the good times of the Yoshimi album. We also listened to the new song from Gorillaz with Benjamin Clementine. We are all huge fans of Damon Albarn: I believe everything he does is incredible and always worth listening to. Besides this, I was listening to the last Angel Olsen album – that was a big surprise for me in last year.

Are there any key pieces of equipment that you are use to define your sound?

John Gonçalves: Nuno uses a Korg MS20 and I have used a Roland Juno 60 for some years now. These two instruments are hallmarks of The Gift’s live sound, even if we’ve changed a lot throughout the years and albums.

What would you say some of the challenges artists face today in the music industry?

John Gonçalves: I really believe in streaming as a powerful tool to make music available at a reasonable price to everyone. So, my dream is that everyone can pay $10 for a streaming service in the next 10 years. If we can make 1 billion people worldwide pay $10 for a streaming service in the next 10 years, I think the industry of music can be financially saved. Over and above that, touring is and always will be a big challenge.

Where do you gather song writing inspiration?

John Gonçalves: Nuno is the composer of the band, and he always says he gathers song inspiration from a lot of things that he sees, lives or listens to on a daily basis. He normally records a lot of little ideas on his phone, so that way he doesn’t lose the momentum of an idea if he feels one brewing. He sings the piano lines, vocal melodies and even some lyrics, and then works all of those ideas into a piano arrangement. After that, he normally starts to shape the song with ideas for sounds and rhythms.

What’s the best gig you have ever done and why?

John Gonçalves: I have this idea that the best show sometimes is the one with the best energy, rather than the one with the biggest audience or that happened in a very important venue. I always consider that our best and most important show was in June 1998 at Aula Magna in Lisbon. We were a 100% DIY band and we sold out one of the most beautiful and important venues in Lisbon. We were just some kids, but finally we understood that we could have a career!

And the worst?

John Gonçalves: I don’t know why, but every time we’ve played Philadelphia we always consider those the worst shows of our career.This is something we will change on our next American tour!

Where did the idea (or concept) for the “Clinic Hope” video come from?

John Gonçalves: The idea for the video came from the director Carleton Ranney. We’d worked with him before, and we trust him 100%. So we called him up, sent him the song, he did two treatments and then we all decide to work on the second one he presented to us.

The video seems to suggest that freedom, personal fulfillment and a sense of community can be found in music… Can you elaborate on this idea?

Carleton Ranney: The video is a visual representation of how I identify with music. When you’re young and you first discover music, real music, the music that will stay with you for the rest of your life, there is a discovery that happens. The universe has conspired for a piece of music to come out of nowhere and hit you like a bolt of electricity. I can remember the first time I heard “Here Come the Warm Jets”, it was life-changing. Ultimately, the kind of music you love leads you to other people who love that music as much as you. This is your tribe. The common thread amongst my closest friends is that we all enjoy the same music. I mean some of my best friends I met because we started a conversation over a band we loved. Regarding freedom, music gives me the most freedom because I can take it anywhere. It’s in me. Music is in my soul and my heart. If I’m stuck on the subway wallowing in the fact that my country elected a would-be authoritarian, I can play “The Clash” or “The Stooges” or fucking Coltrane or Pharaoh Sanders or Joy Division, and I’ll be okay. It’s mine forever. Nobody can take that away from me. In the “Clinic Hope” video the character is reminded of this freedom that music provides him.

The lighting design of the video is particularly impressive. Are there any specific feelings/situations that the neon lighting is meant to evoke?

Carleton Ranney: In the treatment, I had written that Sónia would have specific lighting to indicate that she was a goddess of some sort, and she would bring music and joy to these people. Jeff Holman, the cinematographer, chose the pink neon for Sónia’s lighting. It is feminine, lurid, and lively. This contrasted nicely to the world of our main character, prior to hearing the music. The neon is meant to represent vitality. I think Jeff also had recently watched The Neon Demon and was inspired by this look.

Were there any unusual/unexpected challenges in filming this video?

Carleton Ranney: We shot most of the video on the streets of New York, so that always presents an array of challenges. Finding and locking down locations is always difficult. Our main location where Sónia performs got locked in a day before the shoot. I was worried about that one. The band had already booked their flights to NYC, but if it hadn’t worked, I guess we would have figured something out. With anything you’re creating you have to be spontaneous and on-the-fly, because when you’re shooting in NYC, anything and everything can and will go wrong. We were very lucky – too lucky. This video was the smoothest I’ve done. I’m grateful.