NEW YORK — “When I’m in Portugal, I’m an American,” says Nathalie Pires. “And when I’m in America, I’m Portuguese.”
It isn’t a complaint about being caught between two worlds. Rather, for the 27-year-old fado singer from Perth Amboy, N.J., it’s a statement of fact that captures her memories all the way back.
There was her bilingual childhood in northern New Jersey’s close-knit Portuguese community. The long summers in Portugal in her grandmother’s village, riding bikes and hanging around cafes.
And the late nights with her musician dad, who’d bring along his only child and hide her behind the speakers while his band played Portuguese pop covers in Newark social clubs.
But Pires has taken her dual identity to heights rarely – if ever – scaled by a second-generation Portuguese-American kid.
She’s been the rare American fadista to sing in Lisbon, in the fado clubs and taverns that are the genre’s sacred ground, amid the ghosts of Amália Rodrigues and the great fadistas of yore, and not get laughed out of the room.
Far from it. Slowly, almost without trying, Pires has been rising in the ranks of fado’s new young guard. She released an orthodox, Amália-inspired debut album in 2007, and now is maturing her sound and making it more personal as she performs a split schedule of European concerts and smaller gigs on the Portuguese-American circuit.
She’s a regular in New England, including in Lowell, where she’s played in Portuguese halls. This weekend, however, she presents her fado to all, with three performances at the free-admission Lowell Folk Festival.
Over salad at a French cafe in the West Village, Pires, who also works full-time as the accounting manager for a construction company, strikes an engaging balance of hard-core, committed fado connoisseurship leavened by Jersey-girl verve.
Though she always sang as a child, she says, she found her challenges in choral practice or in trying out Celine Dion or Mariah Carey tunes, not the hushed rooms and ritualized drama of the fado that her father sometimes dragged her to hear in Newark.
“These fado singers, they looked like witches to me, with the black dresses, the long hair,” Pires says. “And now I’m a fado witch!”
Her epiphany came at 13, when her father convinced her to accept a local fado promoter’s invitation to perform.
“My dad gave me an Amália CD and said, ‘Pick your three favorite songs,’” she says. She learned three classics: “Foi Deus,” “Gaivota,” and “Ai Mouraria.” She hit the malls with her mom to get the right outfit, including the hard-to-find three-point shawl.
Onstage, she closed her eyes, sang – and found her vocation.
“Just the energy that I got from the audience, the dim lights, the quiet – I never felt a connection with the audience like I did at that moment.”
Teens don’t usually sing fado. “As a young girl, you don’t emotionally connect to the songs,” Pires says. “You can’t relate. But people thought it was cute. And the older I got, with life experiences, and the more I went to Portugal and came back, the more I could relate to these songs.”
Respect for this maturation process also leaves Pires with mixed feelings about her debut CD, “Corre-me o fado nas veias” (“Fado runs through my veins”) which she cut at 21. It put her on the map, earning awards and strong reviews in the Portuguese press. But she says it was also more like an Amália cover project than a personal piece.
“The last thing I want to do is to imitate someone else,” Pires says. “I’ve grown so much, my voice has changed so much. There’s a word in Portuguese, ‘castiço.’ It means fado that’s harsh, to the point, like you’re really singing it. You don’t have to sing pretty. You have to have that emotion.”
Pires is now working on her second album. Having performed numerous gigs in Portugal and around Europe, worked with most of the specialist Portuguese guitarists in the United States, and shared the stage with the likes of Celeste Rodrigues – Amália’s 90-year-old sister – she feels ready to commit her sound to a new recording.
At the same time, she continues to revel in her dual identity. She has no desire to move to Lisbon and make her career in the holy of holies. She has a happy life in New Jersey, and she appreciates the way that her American base allows her to serve as fado’s ambassador, introducing the genre, its history, its emotional depth, to new audiences.
Pires tells the story of performing a particularly anguished song one day in a Manhattan restaurant. She noticed that at a table of novices to fado, one man was so affected that he began weeping, and eventually took refuge in the bathroom. Later, she spoke to him.
“I asked him if he understood Portuguese. And he said ‘No, but you seemed in so much pain, so sad, I need to know what this is!’ And I replied, ‘This is fado! And it’s only going to get worse from here!’”
She laughs. “That’s how I know I’m doing it right.”
Siddhartha Mitter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.