Martha Da'ro dances from Netflix hit to debut album: 'I have never had so much ambition'

Tom Zonderman
28/11/2023
Updated: 30/11/2023 10.57u
© Agneskena | Martha Da’ro at full stretch: “I am not good at love, I am afraid of letting people in. That’s contradictory, of course, because at the same time I’ve never let my heart into my music as much as I have on this album.”

“I see my music as sound without image,” Martha Da’ro says of her debut albumPhilophobia. The Brussels-based singer keeps the images for her parallel life as an actress. After her roles in Black and Roomies, she is now breaking through internationally with her role in the Netflix hit Lupin.

Who is Martha Da'ro?

  • Born Martha da Rossa Canga Antonio in 1995 in Mons, grew up in Mechelen, but has been living in Brussels for a few years now
  • Broke through as an actress in 2015 with her lead role in Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah’s film Black. She could then be seen in the films Adoration and Cleo, and in the Flemish series Open water and Roomies. This autumn, she plays the role of journalist Fleur Bélanger who is tracking down superstar Omar Sy in the Netflix hit Lupin
  • Debuted as a singer in 2018 with the single “Summer Blues”. Then followed the single “Sugarman” and the epCheap Wine & Paris. Earlier this month, she released the album Philophobia, on which she confronts her murky relationship with love in a dreamy mix of soul, R&B, and pop

“Sometimes I need to miss Brussels a bit,” says Martha Da’ro at Bar Beton, a patch at the end of Rue Dansaert. “To cherish a place, you also have to leave it for a while, and then come back.” A getaway that could be to Paris, as the Brussels-based singer and actress recently moved to French management. “I wouldn’t be afraid of that if it is necessary for my career, but don’t see that management switch as strategic,” she says when asked if she would consider a relocation to the City of Light à la Angèle. “It just clicked well. If I could choose, I would leave for Lisbon.”

Martha Da’ro, or Martha da Rossa Canga Antonio, speaks Portuguese, she has Angolan roots. She grew up in Mechelen, but a few years ago she made the move to Brussels. In 2015, she broke through with her lead role in Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah’s film Black. She had never acted before. At the Berlinale she was named as one of the ten European Shooting Stars. Smaller roles followed in the Flemish series Over water and Roomies, and in the films Adoration and Cleo. This autumn, she is shining on screen alongside superstar Omar Sy in the Netflix hit Lupin.

I really like it when my music makes people go quiet. That makes me feel like they are really listening

Martha Da'ro

But Martha Da’ro acts in parallel worlds, she wants to break new ground with her music too. In 2018, she released her first single, “Summer Blues”. The EP Cheap Wine & Paris followed in 2020. Now, she is adding the album Philophobia, where she showcases an equally dreamy and indefinable mix of electronica, soul, and pop that only Belgians can make. Or American genre-blending artist Frank Ocean, whose record Blonde was an inspiration for Martha Da’ro. “That album is like a film without images. I love the way how he adds ‘extra-musical’ elements to tell his story.”

You do that too. You start your album with “Another Dreamer”, in which you hear footsteps, a beating heart, and someone (a man?) describe a weird dream about angels, a lost voice, and a dark tunnel. As a listener, you immediately think of the images.
Martha Da’ro: I wanted to create a sort of space that you walk into, another world. That male voice, that’s me. I enjoy experiments like that. The idea here was mostly to be like some kind of narrator who leads you into the story.

Your music resides somewhere in a no-man’s land between dreampop, R&B, avant garde and hip hop. You once called that mixture “Diaspop”. What were you referring to with that term?
Da’ro: I often get asked what kind of music I make, but I don’t think it’s my job to give it a name. I use a lot of influences from a lot of different genres. I find it important to speak your own language. I don’t think I really fit in R&B. So I made something up myself, as an abbreviation of “diaspora pop”, my word for alternative pop.

Do you have an audience in mind when you make this music?
Da’ro: I don’t think that works. People evolve, if you make something for their taste, and they don’t like it anymore, you’re out. What I make is purely for myself. Of course, I do hope that as many people as possible enjoy my music. I also always send SoundCloud links to friends and family to hear what they think.

What is the best feedback they gave you?
Da’ro: I really like it when people go quiet. That makes me feel like they are really listening.

SLT DEC23 Martha Da'ro DEF COVER
© Agneskena | Martha Da'ro swirls through life: "I've never had as much ambition as I have now, but at the same time I think: we'll see. I do feel I am on the right path now, the rest will follow."

I saw on Spotify that you released your record with Aniratak. I have never heard of that label.
Da’ro: That’s because it does not exist (laughs), it’s just “Katarina” spelled backwards. That was my great-grandmother’s name. My grandmother often says how much she would love it if I named one of my children Katarina. But I don’t have any children, so I just gave my album, which is a bit like my baby, a fictional label to make my grandmother happy. My music is self-released.

You released your first single five years ago, but this is your first album. You take your time.
Da’ro: My music is very special to me, I only want to release something when I feel sure that it is right. I should be able to be truly proud of it. Often, there are perhaps ten versions of each song; I can keep tinkering with them. I am strict with myself, but I am also patient.

With ten songs totalling just under 30 minutes, you are still very economical.
Da’ro: It’s basically a mini-album. There were more tracks on it at first, but in the end I didn’t think they worked well with the story. It’s not that I didn’t work on music between my last EP and now, in fact I made quite a lot of stuff.

“Perfection”, the first single that announced your album, only lasts 51 seconds.
Da’ro: (Grins) I thought it would be fun to release an interlude as a single. They even played it on the radio. It’s actually a snippet that derives from the music I made with Pepijn Leenders to La ave, a dance piece by (the Brussels-based dancer, performer, and creator, ed.) Nina Muñoz, covering dance genres like ballroom, krumping and old way. “Perfection” is my take on ballroom, and an ode to the energy and self-confidence I got from the people I worked with on that piece.

Loco in the coco
“Love is a losing game,” Martha Da’ro sings in “Move Me”. A deliberate reference to Amy Winehouse, we got that bit. She laughs, when she puts on Amy Winehouse’s music, she immediately goes into a “loop”, she says. “You just keep on listening to her. She wrote the most beautiful lyrics. No one performed them like she did. There are a thousand and one covers of her songs, and they are beautiful, but you need her voice to really get to the core of those songs.”

That phrase from “Move Me” also says a lot about Da’ro’s own murky relationship with love. She did not call her album Philophobia (Latin for “being afraid of love”) for nothing. “I am not good at love, I am afraid of letting people in,” the singer explains. “That’s contradictory, of course, because at the same time I’ve never let my heart into my music as much as I have on this album.”

SLT DEC23 Martha Da'ro 4
© Agneskena | Martha Da’ro lets her hair down: “I have never had as much ambition as I have now, but at the same time I think: we’ll see.”

She is quick to add that it is just a part of herself that she bares. This music opens a door that is normally always closed, she says. She has had some dark times in the past few years. Sometimes, she has felt like nothing more than a hunk of flesh, as she tells us in the song “Flesh”.

Did you push people away?
Da’ro: I think so, but subconsciously. I find it easier to lock myself away for a week and not see anyone. That’s my way of processing things. It is almost impossible to be able to give anything to someone else if you don’t feel good about yourself. Doesn’t matter if it’s in a love relationship or a friendship. But I am working on it.

In “Pretty Ugly”, you sing that you couldn’t see nor feel love. That’s heavy.
Da’ro: Sometimes, I feel numb. Then it is very difficult to see or feel anything anymore. It makes you very lonely and you don’t realise that there is a whole support team waiting for you. You constantly overthink everything and it is as if the fear offers you more comfort than the person standing next to you. “His words go through my heart, in his arms I fall asleep,” is how I articulate that thought in “Mr Fear”. Because those fears and doubts are feelings you are familiar with.

There is one bit in Portuguese on your record. In “For So Long” you sing “Deixa cair tudo, mana”, literally translated: “let it all go, sis.”
Da’ro: Sis is not my sister, it rather means something like “bro”. (Laughs) It actually refers to a well-known Angolan kuduro song. I tried to give that a different meaning. It’s a reminder to myself. Sometimes you just have to be, and not keep looking.

Philophobia is not all dark. You also call yourself a “mad soul” and “loco in the coconut”.
Da’ro: Indeed. That’s why this philophobia is merely just one part of me, magnified. Mad soul is also a nod to Soul’Art, the hip-hop collective in Mechelen with which I took my first steps into music. If anyone knows how crazy I can be, it’s them. (Laughs)

Your album comes out just as you are impressing as the journalist Fleur Bélanger in the Netflix hit Lupin. Is that a fortunate coincidence?
Da’ro: Yes. I did not know until late that the season would air this autumn. Shooting took place in late 2021. There was some post-production this year, I never expected it to be on TV already. I watched the first season with my mother. Then, suddenly, I was allowed to audition myself. That was unreal. I get a lot of reactions, I had forgotten that so many people watch that series.

Forgotten? 100 million people watched the first season!
Da’ro: Haha, yes. It seems like I don’t care, but that’s not true at all. I am really very happy that I could be part of such a massive production. That took some time getting used to. Every few episodes you have a different director and a different team, you clearly have to know what you can do with your character.

What was it like to be on the heels of Assane Diop, who is played by Omar Sy?
Da’ro: Great. Some people are just really funny, and Omar Sy is. I only have one scene with him. The French was not so easy though. I speak it fluently, but I need a millisecond to translate it in my head. That made it rather difficult to remember my lines.

This series undoubtedly gives you a lot of exposure. Are you being inundated with offers now?
Da’ro: Yes. There are quite a few auditions coming in, which is nice. But I can’t say much about that yet. I am keeping my options open.

“Hollywood is flipping on Martha,” Adil El Arbi said after your role in Black. In LA, you auditioned for Black Panther and Star Wars. Did anything come of that?
Da’ro: Did you see anything? (Smiles) I’ve never had as much ambition as I have now, but at the same time I think: we’ll see. I do feel I am on the right path now, the rest will follow.

On screen you are Martha Canga Antonio, on stage Martha Da’ro. Are those two different people?
Da’ro: I wanted to keep the two worlds separate, but they are starting to blur. Music is something very personal, but you also cannot act without putting a part of yourself into it. Someday I hope just “Martha” is enough to know where I stand. I am looking for a medium in which film and music come together.
This summer, I curated two wonderful days at Decoratelier (the Molenbeek arts lab, ed.) during the Making Time festival under the title Holy. I used the space itself, there was dancing, poems were recited, the singer Porcelain id performed – which was so beautiful I cried – and there was performance. A complete experience, and the audience was part of that too. In the same way as I cross boundaries in musical genres, I want to demolish walls between disciplines. As long as it comes from (taps herself on the chest) here.

Philophobia is out now (self released)

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