Vakia Stavrou's latest album, Alasia, is shaping up as one of the surprises of this year, with word of mouth quickly spreading about the eclectic song collection.
The album, which was released in the final few weeks of 2016, is a mixture of Greek and Portuguese torch songs that have begun to register with an international audience. "It is a good feeling," the Paris-based singer says after a recent performance in the Moroccan capital of Rabat.
She has completed tours of Europe and North Africa and has plenty more shows to play.
“I am getting the sense that people are waking up to the album now and they are really interested by it. Which, of course, makes all the performances a wonderful experience.”
Like most recommendations, you need to hear Alasia to appreciate it.
There are plenty of elements floating around the beguiling 15-song set.
Backed by a four-piece band that mixes acoustic guitar, contrabass (used for its lower register than a traditional bass), violin and percussion, the delicate arrangements evoke a nocturnal Mediterranean vibe. Soaring on top are Stavrou’s vocals, at once crystalline as a soprano yet delivered with a sensitive phrasing recalling jazz greats such as Ella Fitzgerald.
The whole affair is winningly captured with a warm production that sounds like the ensemble is performing in your living room.
Stavrou says it was a reaction to the more clinical recording experience of second album, 2013's Anemoessa. "This time I wanted to record every instrument together," she says. "On the last album it was done separately, and I never really like that. I wanted us to be in the same place and get that band vibe. I wanted it to sound warm and friendly."
It is the subtle yet intricate arrangements, not to mention the lush and poetic love-lorn lyrics, that elevate Alasia above pleasant dinner music.
Homa ke nero (Soil and Water), which is sung in Greek, has Stavrou's pleading vocals matched with some impressive plucking by guitarist Carlos Bernardo.
While in the stark Xehases, Stavrou recalls a doomed relationship with icy detachment with the lyrics "... you forgot all those nights, you forgot and you threw me into the dark, so far that I can never see the light again".
The album highlight is Sozinha, another ode to heartbreak and one that's underscored with a skeletal acoustic guitar – the track recalls the melancholic elegance of Nick Drake's Pink Moon.
Ever since the first public performance of the song more than five years ago, the reaction from the crowd meant the track became a mainstay of Portuguese radio, and attracted fans right across the Mediterranean.
With lyrics that include "A story without an ending, how sad this is my love, how bittersweet", Sozinha has moved one of Portugual's best-selling novelists, Jose Luis Peixoto, to contribute lyrics to two songs on the album.
“It is something that I will never really understand,” Stavrou says, referring to the reaction the song gets from her audiences.
“It is one of those songs that came almost like a gift, in one moment. I wrote it eight years ago in a few minutes and the lyrics came not long after.
Sozinha became Stavrou's calling card, with its appeal spreading to non-Portuguese speaking territories such as France and Morocco. Indeed, after her performance in Rabat – prior to this interview – the song received a standing ovation. It just proves that music is a form of emotional release, Stavrou says, adding that sometimes understanding the lyrics isn't necessary.
“It all comes down to feelings,” she says. “I am here performing in front of an Arabic audience as you can see. I am singing a Greek or Portuguese folk song maybe they don’t know any of the languages but they feel something. This is what is important and what people will always remember about the song. This is why music is beyond words.”
And in Stavrou’s case, beyond categories. Born in Cyprus to a father who was an amateur musician, Stavrou recalls a childhood spent listening to international artists, including arguably the Arab world’s first international superstar, Egyptian-born Italian singer, Dalida.
“I grew up listening to her and people like Julio Iglesias,” she recalls. “Then we would always discuss the idea of how does these people’s music affect us with us not knowing what they are saying?”
And what was the ultimate realisation born from all those family discussions?
“That without knowing the words we end up imagining your own story,” she says. “The singer gives people that liberty to imagine their own story. That’s a beautiful thing.”
But record labels don’t share such lofty ideals. After launching her solo career in 2003, once completing her studies at the Prague Conservatory where she earned a degree in vocal jazz and contemporary vocal interpretation, Stavrou’s multi-lingual approach befuddled music executives who placed her under the controversially ambiguous genre “world music”.
Stavrou says she has grown to accept the distinction. “There is always this issue about categories. I can never be precise because I love doing so many things. I feel that what is important is to make the audience feel certain things and these things are personal. The label never tells you that,” she says.
“Then again, they told me that by giving it a category it will be easier for the listener to find and that’s important.”
Alasia by Vakia Stavrou is out now