Melancholic dream pop-ers PORTLAND return with new album 'Departures' today, Sarah Pepels' final project with them as she exits the band.
“PORTLAND is a project born of instant connection, yet it’s also one that has survived some of the darkest life can throw at them. Dreamy song writing bathed in beauty, the Belgian two-piece thrive on pure expression, infusing their beatific, ethereal work with incredible honesty. New album Departures pushes them to the brink, forcing them to open up as never before, and in the process discover themselves all over again.”
This was supposed to be the perfect intro to the band’s new album Departures. A collection of songs that wears its heart on its sleeve. An album with a woefully prophetic title… Singer Sarah Pepels announced her leaving the band just weeks before the album’s scheduled release. Departures set out to initiate the mending of 2 broken hearts, but in the end, failed to do so. ‘For Emma, Forever Ago’, ‘Rumours’, ‘Blood On The Tracks’, ‘The Boatman’s Call’ or more recent and closer to home Warhaus’ ‘Ha Ha Heartbreak’ … the list of classic break up albums is endless. Fragile and personal stories that touch a universal chord and from which you can draw comfort, understanding and strength.
Let’s go back to the start…
The story begins almost a decade ago. Sarah Pepels was new in town, a music student attempting to make some roots. Hearing music coming from down the corridor in her student home, she knocked, and met Jente Pironet for the first time. One conversation led to the next, and within hours they were writing together, playing each other their ideas and sharing some profound secrets. “We shared the same passions,” she reflects. “We became best friends, soul mates… and the band emerged from that.”
“I’ve never met someone I’ve had that sense of immediate connection with,” he reflects. “It’s a funny story, but it’s unique.”
Portland won the prestigious De Nieuwe Lichting prize – one of Belgium’s top honours for young songwriters – before releasing their precocious debut album Your Colours Will Stain in 2019. Word quickly spread on their hazy dream pop – reminiscent of Beach House or School Of Seven Bells – and Portland got invited to play Rock Werchter, Pukkelpop, Eurosonic and The Great Escape. 2020 started with two nominations for the Belgian Music Industry Awards (MIA’s) but then then pandemic pulled the shutters down on their burgeoning careers. As Jente puts it: “We went through some difficult times, I guess. The pandemic was very isolating for us both, and as a result the music took on board those emotions.”
“It felt overwhelming,” Sarah recalls. “It felt like you were just drowning in this sea of emotion.”
2021’s limited vinyl Besides saw the pair channel their fear and doubt. This bruised compilation of B-sides and acoustic tracks illustrate an increasing reliance, and inter-dependence upon one another. Jente recalls with a degree of under-statement: “We were going through a lot in our lives, so we had a lot of different things to say.”
But things had changed. The two fell for one another, the lines of friendship crossing into a relationship. It wasn’t to be, however, and both Jente and Sarah worked to maintain their friendship. Throughout all this PORTLAND remained, a vessel for their emotions and a means for deeper communication.
“We worked to improve ourselves, as musicians and songwriters. To get to know ourselves a bit better.”
Label [PIAS] Recordings invited PORTLAND to spend time in London, introducing them to producer and songwriter Oli Bayston. Lightning struck twice, with the same chemistry that runs through the duo’s friendship infecting this East London creative. Holing up at the labyrinthine Pony Studios, they overhauled their sound and pushed the songs to the limit. “We had to grow up a little,” Sarah puts it. “We had to organise ourselves and be respectful… and be awake in the mornings! We matured during this record.”
“We all lived together in the same house for a month, which was quite intense,” Jente reflects. “The sessions would be relaxed, but we’d work through a lot as well. It was about finding the right balance, to make space for everybody, and to make everyone feel appreciated.”
Lead single ‘Sensational’ is an emphatic starting point. Confident and mature, it hones their pop instincts with precision, while retaining the evocative nature of their songwriting. It dips into the pure essence of PORTLAND; crafted at night, Jente sent across the demo after midnight, Sarah quickly downloading it and adding her parts. “On the surface, it sounds melancholic, but if you listen to the lyrics they’re quite hopeful. It’s the ideal combination of a modern song,” she insists. “It’s about not giving up.”
‘Sensational’ thrives on that dichotomy of light and shade, with sorrow and beauty intermingling before that emphatic conclusion. “It needs to feel real,” explains Jente. “You have to feel everything within the song. We want people to relate to those emotions.”
Album highlight ‘Good Girls’ is a neat portrait, one that tackles late night ennui. “I wrote it when I was still a bartender,” Jente recalls. “It’s about these girls who would come to the bar and be disrespectful to people. They broke every single guy’s heart in that bar, and I would work there, observing everything. It’s a real story.”
Watch the official music video for ‘Good Girls’:
As the sessions continued, PORTLAND found themselves reinvented. Songs such as ‘Last Trip’ and ‘Never Leave’ were overhauled, with Raven Bush – the nephew of Kate Bush – assisting on string parts. “It’s a cathartic album,” Sarah notes. “We want to get our feelings out there and help other people. Listening back, at times I’m almost crying because I can hear the feelings those songs catapult me back to.”
‘Little Bit Closer’ cuts right to the bone, a post break up song from two people who really lived through it. Jente comments: “It’s where you’re trying to heal, and almost deny what’s going on. I wanted to take all those feelings, and make it as condensed as possible.” It’s a track that’s sums up these recent developments and the album as a whole. “It’s hard to listen to sometimes,” Jente notes. “It’s so honest. We got our feelings down in those songs, and I’m incredibly proud of that.”
Great art come from those willing to be vulnerable. Departures is just that. The Portland story continues without Sarah. It will be different, but also magical.
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