Many is the time I have recommended a Croatian album to a friend only to find that that they are not altogether convinced by my enthusiasm. Either the language is too much of a barrier, or the music sounds out of kilter, even out of date, compared to what regularly booms out of the speakers back home. Thankfully my reputation as globetrotting beat connoisseur looks like being saved, thanks to a new generation of Croatian singer-songwriters who are not only producing startlingly wistful, elegant and catchy songs, but are performing them in perfect English.
The last 12 months have seen a trio of must-listen names rise to the top of a growing indie-folk scene. Singer-songwriter Irena Žilić’s album Travelling blew people away with its polish and poise; Marshmallow Notebooks’ eponymously-titled album of wistful, witty songs was more low-fi in style but no less compelling.
We chatted with folk chanteuse Irena Žilić, a science graduate who works in a biology lab. As self-deprecating and down-to-earth as she is talented, this is a seriously gifted songwriter who wields the English language with the same poetic skill as any of her native-speaking contemporaries.
How did you start out as a songwriter?
I started writing songs pretty soon after I got my first guitar at the age of 16. As soon as I was able to play around with chords, the songs just kind of fell out.
Why did you choose the English language?
Writing in English was a natural development because the music I listened to was American or English. And, in a way, it’s easier because the Croatian language doesn’t always go very well with this kind of music. So I’ve never actually written a song in Croatian. It was a choice that never really presented itself.
Is it accurate to talk of a singer-songwriter scene in Croatia and did it actually help you get started?
Croatia is too small a place for us not to know each other. Many of the other singers are the kind of people I would go out for a drink with or talk about music. The Cuckoo Sessions, a series of videos of singer-songwriters I made and posted on YouTube, were actually my way of meeting people who did the same thing.
Are you primarily an autobiographical songwriter or do you pick up stories from elsewhere?
My songs come from all kinds of things. Some are personal, but a relationship is not the only place I can get a song from. Days of Innocence, from the EP of the same name, is about nostalgia for childhood.
The photo on the cover of your album Travelling features an arid landscape of mountains and agaves. It looks as if it could be anywhere from Dalmatia to New Mexico and fits in perfectly with your European-Americana sound.
It’s actually a composite image made from two photos, one from Catalonia and the other from Andalusia. It goes very well with the music itself. All of the songs on the album are in some way connected with the title, although it’s important to say that the title is supposed to refer to a state of mind rather than an actual travelogue.
Does the ubiquity of free music on the internet mean that it’s more difficult for a musician to make a living?
Croatia is too small for each specialised genre to have its own audience, so few people here would ever think of trying to make a living. The internet makes everything available and if you can self-publish your stuff, then everything is possible. There’s a lot of choice out there but if your songs are good enough you will find listeners.