Victoria Canal: “ I’ve always put a huge emphasis on being honest through the music“

I meet Victoria Canal on a sunny late summer day in Berlin, when she is in town for one of her solo headline shows. Not long ago she was on tour supporting Hozier, and a number of people who had been at the shows asked me afterwards if I had already heard of Victoria Canal. I hadn’t, I have to admit, but the way friends and colleagues raved about her, left me in no doubt that I had to check her out. When I did, I was instantly hooked. Victoria Canal simply writes beautiful songs. She accompanies herself on the guitar and the piano, and the way she sings hits you right in the heart. 

Seeing that she is coming back to Berlin, shortly after the release of her recent EP “Well Well”, I grab the chance to meet her. We end up having a coffee by the water, sitting in the sun, chatting about the journey that brought her here. She tells me the secret to why her music sounds so incredibly heartfelt and what her grandma has to do with it. We talk about how she managed to take control of her own narrative, establishing her own significant musical and visual style, instead of being reduced, as an artist with a physical disability, to the “girl with one arm who plays the piano”. Oh, and the journaling! Watch out: Victoria Canal knows how to make dreams come true. With (spoiler) hard work. But also with a little bit of magic. 

I have to admit, I only found out about you recently. And then seeing how much effort you’ve put into your career over the years – no matter where you come from, you have to be very dedicated to get there.

Yeah. There is this saying that it takes ten years. I remember listening to an interview when I was 14 with the lead singer of The Script, who I was obsessed with at the time, Daniel O’Donoghue. He said that it takes ten years to make a career happen. And it’s rung true. So from 14 on I was like: I’m gonna give this ten years my full shot. And it’s true enough. I’m 25 now: just over ten years of touring and gigging and it’s finally at the point where I’m selling tickets for my headline shows. It’s taken a long time! 

How do you keep going, throughout all this time?

How do I keep going? It’s an obsession! I have no choice. If I could choose to do anything else, if I was good at anything else, I probably would do that and keep music as a hobby. The industry isn’t a pretty place. If you’re an artist, it’s what you have to do. I know that sounds really pretentious and self-centred, but it’s true. I feel bound to it completely, for life. Obsessively. 

Did anyone ever tell you that from a certain age you are too old to still break through? 

That happens, for sure. Oh yeah. Except sometimes they don’t tell you to your face, you can just tell. The rhetoric starts changing. There is so much emphasis on the “wunderkind”, 17-year old TikTok star. Once you are 27 or 28, it feels like a whole other thing. It definitely feels like a pretty ageist industry, particularly for women. 

I see kids getting record deals these days, who have never played a single live show in their lives. 

I’d say it’s harder for that kid than for me. Obviously, I want to reach a place in my career where I feel success. To a certain extent I feel some success now. If you had asked me ten years ago what I wanted to be doing, this is it. Headline tour around the world, opening for artists like Hozier… he was on my list when I was 14. When I was journaling who I wanted to open for, he was one of these artists. So, it’s definitely coming true, but I have bigger ambitions too. And also, I would love to make more money (laughs). That is what’s really changed. However, what I’m really grateful for is, I have a foundation of hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of gigs over the years as well as many collaborations, working with many people for a long time. That helps me have a stronger foundation for the rest of my career. Which is why I’m glad that it took me eight years to get signed to a major label. Because I knew what I wanted by the time I signed. And now I feel like my vision is pretty strong. I know how to stand up in a corporate meeting and say: “This is what I need. No, I’m not gonna do what you say, this is what we’re doing.” There are no systems in place to protect the artist. I’ve learned enough over the course of ten years about how to protect myself, in many ways. 

Just before I came here, I had a long conversation with one of my best friends about the emotional impact music can have on you. I am convinced that music is the art form that most directly influences your emotions. Would you agree with that? I know people can see it quite differently. For example, I recently talked with someone about the emotional impact EDM can have on me, and the person was quite surprised, because they saw it as a rather unemotional, distant genre. 

Yeah, it can be seen as something escapist. Rather like avoiding your feelings. That could be the impression. It’s funny that you say this, because I just had a session with Milky Chance. We finished the session with Phil, the producer, showing me some electronic music he was working on. Same thing, it was goosebumps all over, super emotional. And I never thought I could feel like that with dance music. It’s so inspiring. Something I’m lately realising is, that I hardly had any drums in any of my music in the last few years. And I’m working on my album, and I really want to bring rhythm back, drums back into my music. I’m tired of being slow all the time. I am itching for life in it. But it’s a matter of how do I strike what you’re saying, rhythm plus feeling, deep emotions? Because that’s what interests me in my music. It’s the deep stuff. I’m hoping as I sink further into the album process, I can actually manage to find that balance. 

I would love to hear that! And yes, the emotion is very raw and honest in your music. I find it really brave, opening up that way. I don’t only mean it lyric wise, which is a lot of personal storytelling. But even the way you use your voice, it sounds so honest to me. 

Well, thank you… funny you say that, I have this tattoo that says “con alma”. It’s my grandmother’s handwriting and it means “with soul”. I love the word “alma”, it translates to “meaning”, ”soul”, “care”, “love”… My Cuban grandma always used to tell me to play “con alma” and to sing “con alma”, when I practised. She always said: “I have to believe you, when you play. Even when it’s just a scale. Or when you’re singing a song that has nothing to do with your life. I want to believe every word you sing and every note you play.” I’ve always put a huge emphasis on being honest, through the music. Even if it’s someone else’s song, finding the truth in it and singing it with my most vulnerable, true self. Thank you for picking up on that. It matters to me. 

Is it scary sometimes? Have you ever gotten to a point where you felt like “Shit, I can’t go there”?

It’s just always tricky. You want to speak about stuff. But there is this tendency these days to overshare, almost to commodify or sell something. I am wary of being an artist who is oversharing everything in the attempt to do better in my career. I don’t want that to be the source of it. I just want to express what matters to me and what I think would make beautiful art and touch people and help them through their thing. I don’t want to overindulge. I’m hopefully striking that balance right now with the music that I’m putting out and the way that I’m talking about it. It’s definitely a navigating thing – I don’t want to be cringe. Do you know what I mean? I don’t want people to sit there uncomfortably as I spill out my feelings. 

Getting back to the honesty – I don’t necessarily think oversharing is being honest.

Ah. Interesting. 

I think it can be the opposite.

Do you think?

Yeah, it can be a way of being performative. I don’t think “talking about mental health” is enough of a unique story for an artist these days.

Yeah, everyone’s depressed! Everyone’s anxious! Exactly. It shouldn’t be your brand. I don’t want fucking body image or body dysmorphia to be my brand. I’ve only discussed it in two songs. The fact is, I wasn’t talking about my limb difference before. I have other issues than my limb difference when I think about my body and my relationship with my body. My arm isn’t the first thing where I’m like “oh, I don’t like that”. I feel too overweight sometimes. Or I feel like my face isn’t pretty enough. So, I feel those things and I talk about them in the music. But then I am afraid that it might get commodified beyond me. It gives me a headache to think about. I just want to be able to do whatever I want in music. If I wanted to make really shallow stuff tomorrow that is just about getting fucked up on a Friday night or whatever, I wanna have the freedom to do that. Without it cancelling out me talking about grief or any of these other things. You’re right, it’s just tricky. Some artists get it right and some don’t. It’s hard to tell what you are doing as an artist. I have no outside perspective. I just have to be honest. 

That’s where I think having a good team comes in.

So true. To tell you how it is. Definitely my manager will call me out if I’m oversharing. Definitely. Especially online. He’ll be like: “Dude, take that down. No one needs to see that.” He’s a good monitor for me. 

And what you just said is such an important point. That as a disabled person you can still have other body issues bothering you. 

It’s so tricky. Before I started talking about that stuff in my songs, everybody would talk about my disability, whether I wanted to or not. To the point where there would be headlines and stuff without my name in it, that talked about my limb difference. Like: “Girl with one arm plays the piano”. That kind of cheap thing. It feels so reductive. That’s why I wanted to talk about my body in a way that felt like owning it, for me. Even if I’m not owning it in the way that I’m like “I fucking love everything about myself”. That’s just not honest. And it would be that inspiration porn that isn’t realistic. I just want to be more open with the journey about it so hopefully, when I’m having these kinds of conversations, it’s just more rounded, more comprehensive. It feels more autonomous. 

You did so well with that. Putting it out in your art and saying: “Here it is, that’s where I talk about it”. That’s what makes you own it.

Thank you. I really appreciate that.

And I also have to say, I just LOVE how you wrote in your journal you wanted to open for Hozier one day and it came true. Did you write any other things in your journal that came true along the way?

Oh yeah! I wrote about wanting to meet Chris Martin. For ten years, every New Year, instead of doing resolutions, I do manifestations. And I did open for Hozier on tour. I wrote about wanting to meet Chris Martin, go on a headline tour with a band, which I’m now doing… what else did I put in there. Get a manager – got a manager, sign to a label – signed to a label, live in London… I had a goal of how much I wanted to make a year, I have achieved that.

Really? That is so cool.

Yeah! Just musical things. Collaborators I wanted to work with, win an Ivor Novello… that’s an award I won earlier this year. That was something I started dreaming about last year. So yeah, it’s been awesome. But obviously there are many more things I’ve written down that haven’t come true. The silly ones, you know. Win a Grammy, star in a romcom (laughs)

I totally see that happening in the future! Journaling can be so powerful. When you practise yoga regularly, they say, if you don’t feel physically well enough to practise, at least sit down and journal. It has a similar effect on your brain.

I agree. I think it does. Every time I sit down to journal, within the first five to ten minutes, it’s like I’ve done stretches, but for my brain. It’s like doing a little sun salutation for your brain. It’s the healthiest tool I’ve found, other than physical exercise. And I’ve been doing it religiously since before I could write. I remember getting my mom to transcribe my thoughts onto paper before I could write. That’s how I started journaling. And then I slowly started journaling in very messy handwriting and occasionally they would take over when I was tired. I have my journal with me right now, I have been doing it since I was five years old. It’s so consistent and you can do it anywhere and on anything. Napkins, your phone… 

Does the songwriting feel similar to it now?

I think they are two different things. The journaling is to tidy up the mess in my brain, and the songwriting is more like a puzzle or a play, like having a play with something. So, usually I have to get the mess sorted out first, via journal, and then I’m ready to open up the laptop or set up the instrument. But I’m also always noting down things that people say or things that I’m thinking about or observe. Or if I get stoned, I write down my thoughts when I’m high and oftentimes that informs the lyrics and the music (laughs). What I find pretty unique about songwriting is that you have to collect a billion things to reach a certain place. You can’t skip it. You have to go collecting scraps. Even if 99 percent of those get thrown away and are never seen again, it still informs the next song. Does that make sense?

Oh, totally. I have to say, I find songwriting almost magical. I have no idea how you do it.

It is pretty magical. It feels like a bit of a channelling-through-you-thing. That’s the way Chris Martin sees it. He’s like: “I don’t write songs. They come to me. They are received through me. My job is to put them out into the world.” It’s funny to think about it that way. You are just the channel for it to happen. 

And how much do you think showing up and doing the work is part of it?

I think 90 to 95 percent. Definitely. I’ve been sort of toying with how to get my album done. I’m so busy with other stuff, I don’t usually block off the time, I just do it bit by bit, song by song. But I really would like to hide away and finish it in a month or so. Touring is the most physical draining thing ever. It’s completely unnatural. I have no idea how we ended up doing it that way, but it’s now the standard. It’s insane. That’s something I would really like to achieve: Sleep on a bus. That’s the goal. Who would have thought that my manifestation journal as an adult would say “sleep on a bus” (laughs). That’s all I want in my life. I don’t know how we do it. I think you just manage, little by little. It’s just time management. I definitely would love to do more than I do. That’s one of the reasons I don’t have an album out yet. But I also just wanted to make my debut the strongest statement that I can, and I think I needed the years of development to get there. I needed to take my time.

You know, I normally have this rule that when I talk to amazing women, I try not to make it about the men they work with.

(laughs) Well that’s okay, you gotta work with great men too!

But I have to say, I found it so cool when I saw that you are working with Ross from The 1975.

I do! It’s funny. I have a lot of friends that are dudes anyway (laughs). I think I have a really easy creative time in the studio with people that happen to be dudes. On the visual side and on the label side, my team is a lot of women. My mastering engineer is a woman. But yeah, working with Ross is amazing. He is a great songwriter. I don’t know what we are making yet, we’re just messing around. It’s been really awesome to work with people I actually listen to. Ross and I just met at Jools Holland, because we played the same episode, and we became friends. And then we were like: “We should get into the studio sometimes.” Just casual, the way it should be.