For someone who is the highest-scoring winner of the Eurovision Song Contest to date, Salvador Sobral shows little interest in the competition.
This year’s final will take place in the Dutch City of Rotterdam on 22 May.
But the Portuguese singer, who won in 2017 with Amar Pelos Dois (Love for Both Of Us), says: “I have to be honest, I don’t know anything that’s going on with Eurovision.”
Sobral, who is now bringing out a new album, says the only two competitors he knows anything about are the Portuguese band, The Black Mamba, and the French representative, Barbara Pravi.
He says of The Black Mamba: “I’m actually friends with a couple of them and I love their music.” Pravi lives not far from his Paris apartment. “I listened to her song and I felt that intense Jacques Brel vibe that I like.”
After winning in Kyiv in Ukraine, Sobral – who had a life-threatening heart condition at the time – memorably said: “We live in a world of fast-food music. This is a victory for music.”
Speaking to the BBC, he says: “I still hold to what I said in Eurovision about my song. It was very real. The instruments were real, the voices were real, nothing was artificial. I guess that’s what touched people.
“I think my history with Eurovision ended there. Now I have to go my own way and have some other goals.” But, he adds: “If you’re true to your art and honest, I think it’s a great platform for people to know you throughout Europe and the world.”
Just seven months after winning, he underwent a heart transplant operation.
“I had a lot of rehab. I had to learn how to do everything again, learn how to write, learn how to sing. That was the toughest part.”
He looks much healthier than he did at the Eurovision final four years ago, when his condition forced him to miss the first week of rehearsals.
“I’m feeling great, playing football twice a week, which is a miracle. Sometimes we’re playing and we’re losing and I’m just like, ‘Damn it, we’re losing’, and then I’m like, ‘I can play. This is a win already.’”
He has to go for check-ups and take immunosuppressants to prevent his body from rejecting the new heart.
Did the operation change his outlook on life? “It would be beautiful to say that after my operation I could see things clearly because I was on the verge of dying.
“It’s true that when I first came out of hospital I said to myself I will never be mad again at being in traffic. And for a while I lived like that, but then I adapted to being healthy and sometimes I get mad at being in traffic.
“But somehow, I know a little secret, like everybody who has been in a situation of life or death. So, I guess I have that little secret that helps me to be humble and just enjoy life at its fullest and do what I like to do, which is sing.”
His new album, due out at the end of May, is called bpm, which stands for beats per minute. “Because of my history, I thought it was interesting to call the album bpm. Your beats per minute of your heart is what gives you life and it’s what gives music life, the beats per minute that the music has.”
It is his fourth studio, but first self-penned, album. “The songs are mine, so they’re my beats per minute of my heart.
“I decided to write my own songs now to try something new and to have a new challenge. And to try to talk about what I’m feeling, my fears, anguish and the joys of life and love, of course.”
The album was written last year during lockdown, along with his producer, Leo Aldrey, at a house in southern Portugal and over Skype, and then recorded in January 2021 in the French Basque Country.
“We started off with a concept: a theatre that is going to close down the next day. We started thinking about who would be there: the cleaner, a very old couple watching the play, a singer, the lighting technician and we started creating our characters.
“So, the album is a bit of a hybrid between my life and my soul and some characters from the last night of the theatre.”
His sister, the singer-songwriter Luisa Sobral, wrote his Eurovision winner and performed it with him in Kyiv after he won.
“My sister says she feels like this album is my first mature album. She’s proud of it. Her opinion for me is the most important.
“She doesn’t feel left out because she also wrote the lyrics of one song, Fui Ver Meu Amor. I wrote the music and she wrote these amazing lyrics. It’s about a man who goes to see his wife every night at the theatre, which is ironic because my wife is an actor and I go to see her a lot in the theatre and I think it was a little bit based on my story.”
His wife is the Belgian-born, Paris-based actress Jenna Thiam.
“This album is more organised than my other albums. So, it wasn’t just four jazz musicians playing live. We wanted to have a lot of influences between pop and jazz to find our sound.”
Most of the songs are in Portuguese, with some in Spanish or English. Sobral lived in California as a teenager, which explains his almost-perfect English.
“Different languages mean different resources, different sounds you can do with the mouth, different rhymes you can use. I have a different personality with a different language.
“I never do music to please an audience. I would prefer to work in a coffee shop than do that.”
He plans to take the album on tour in Europe, beginning at a jazz festival in Germany in June, and eventually go to South America.
He says he has already had Covid-19. “Because of the immunosuppressants, the body doesn’t have a strong army of immunity, so the virus just stayed in the body. I had some headaches, lost my sense of smell, but it was a very tiny flu.”
The 31-year-old is waiting to be called for vaccination. “Last time I checked I still had some antibodies, but the doctor said it was a good idea that I get vaccinated because of my situation.”
He is speaking from a rehearsal space in the Portuguese capital, Lisbon, where he is working on a play for children, in which he will make his stage debut when it opens in October. He is also jointly composing the music.
“It’s sort of an adaptation of La Strada by Fellini. It will be called Estradas, which is Roads in English. We talk about the life of a musician on the road. We talk about the conflicts on the road, the joys, the music.
“I play the part of the singer, but then I have to act, which is something that I’m not comfortable with, but I love to be uncomfortable in art because that is when it comes out more real and you get out something better.”