Musician Clarita de Quiroz on how fate led her to Dubai, love and an album deal
There’s much to envy about Clarita de Quiroz. She is, frankly, annoyingly flawless.
An accomplished classical pianist, she can play solo with sonata-like tenderness. A confessional singer-songwriter, her heartfelt songs won her a slot supporting Elton John. A sassy frontwoman, she topped the UAE album charts with on-hiatus house-pop duo SickAsSwans. Oh, and a former full-time model, she’s also in possession of all the self-assurance and good looks such a job demands.
But despite all her accomplishments, in person she’s also ridiculously humble, chatty and down-to-earth. The truth is, she is just too darn nice to dislike.
We’re meeting to discuss her debut solo album, Speak. Delete. Repeat, which was released by Sony on Sunday, April 12. An assured set of soulful, piano-led, classically tinged pop, it’s a striking departure for anyone familiar with the clubby, youthful, radio-friendly beats of SickAsSwans’ 2012 album These Words, a partnership with Dubai DJ Dion Mavath.
“I would never claim that to be my first album,” says de Quiroz, politely but firmly drawing a line between that project and her own work. “I was so happy with the success we had, but it made me realise that I had to do something on my own.”
This time, it’s personal. Making an album is often described as a labour of love, but for de Quiroz it was the very flame that sparked the fire of love.
It began at the end of 2013, when the Scottish singer, who was born in Abu Dhabi to a Filipina-Spanish mother and English father, sent a track to singer-songwriter Mike Ross, a fellow Scot who helped tighten the lyrics.
By the end of last year, the duo had jointly written her debut album. Somewhere along the way, the pair – she a pianist, he a guitarist – also became a couple. While supporting Paolo Nutini in Dubai last Friday, Ross cutely dedicated a song to her.
“This album is a product of what happened – or perhaps it’s the other way around,” says de Quiroz, adding that the relationship is “very interesting, very controversial – but it works. It’s very weird, but we are both very weird individuals.”
The seeds of both the romance and the collaboration were sowed two years ago when Ross, a resident performer at Dubai’s McGettigan’s pubs, reluctantly booked his future flame to perform at the Dubai World Trade Centre venue’s sister restaurant, The D.
“At my first gig he said: ‘I’ve heard things about you, I’ve heard you’re absolutely rubbish’ – he was brutal,” she says.
It’s safe to say his opinion was quickly changed – “I whipped out all my classical stuff and that shut him up” – and de Quiroz began joining Ross onstage after her own set ended.
In a story straight out of a Hollywood movie, last summer a representative of Sony Middle East was in the audience.
“I just jumped on and did a couple of songs with Mike for a laugh,” says de Quiroz, “and I got signed pretty much there and then. Easy, peasy.”
Released by Sony off the back of three singles – Blanket of Secrets, Broken and Addicted – the album was a collaboration from start to finish, with lyrical contributions from Ross on seven of the 12 tracks, two of which are vocal duets with him.
“Me and Mike fight a lot about music – he’s a massive snob,” she says. “He’s a wordy person and I’m a music person, and the one thing he always criticised all my previous work on was the lyrics. And he was 100 per cent right – I just find words and shove them in. That offends him – phrasing, word-painting, that’s what’s gone into this album.”
For all the poetry, the record’s most distinctive, memorable moments come when there are no words at all, showcasing Clarita’s musical strengths with a series of four short, haunting, classically styled solo piano pieces, influenced by Nina Simone’s solo segues on her 1958 debut Little Girl Blues.
“I’ve studied piano from the age of 4,” de Quiroz says modestly. “I have no memory of not playing piano – it’s the same as talking to me.”
Singing came later, at age 11, but it was more than a decade before de Quiroz began singing from the piano stool. “It was one or the other,” she says with a laughs. “My brain couldn’t cope”.
She was also in her 20s when she began writing songs. Her inspiration? A teenage girl in her backing band called Emeli Sandé. You might have heard of her.
“Ah, man, she’s ridiculous, even at 16 she blew everyone away,” she says. “I was doing covers at that stage and she actually made me write my first original song.”
Yet music was not de Quiroz’s first calling. After studying for an MA in economics she worked as an oil and gas project engineer in the Scottish city of Aberdeen. After two years she decided: “I’m too young for this” and quit, moving to Glasgow to pursue a career in modelling.
Six years ago, a short-term gig came up in Dubai and tempted her back to the country of her birth. “I came out to model for one month and never went back,” she says.
“Out here there were better jobs, better money, less competition – I didn’t have to be as skinny.”
While she still models for “the odd campaign”, today de Quiroz likes to be considered a musician, first and foremost.
“No one really takes you seriously [puts on whiny voice]: ‘I’m a model but I also play the piano’ – ‘Yeah, she’s going to be rubbish’. It’s like Paris Hilton trying to sing.
“I was a musician from the age of 4, I did modelling for 4 years, and people still say ‘Clarita the model’. Nah, it’s a curse.”
Perhaps, but it is a curse de Quiroz is outrunning at a furious pace.
While her CD has only just left the printers, she hints that a follow-up single with an “international label-mate” will drop soon.
Most exciting, however, are plans to collaborate with regional artists on an “Arabian fusion” project. De Quiroz recently returned from a month-long stay in Lebanon, where she performed gigs and began writing with the acclaimed composer Michel Fadel. A return visit is booked for next month.
“I was performing my original material one night and without even telling me, the producer put an Arab beat on – and the crowd went crazy, nuts,” she says, grinning.
“They didn’t know me, they didn’t know the song, but they were so supportive, it gave me a real vision of what I could achieve. Singing in Arabic scale quarter-tones is like a next level for me.”
Speak. Delete. Repeat is available at Virgin Megastores and on iTunes now. Clarita de Quiroz will perform songs from the album at And Lounge, The Address Dubai Marina, on April 23 at 8pm