When a new talent is ardently supported by Hinds singer/guitarist and all-round star Ana Perrote, it’s wise to pay attention. Claudia Vega has been Perrote’s friend since she was 12, but has left their native Madrid to live in London and crack the capital’s music scene.

Vega supported Hinds at their secret Sebright Arms gig in London on 29 January but is now ready to headline. Her chosen venue is a cosy Dutch barge on the south bank of the Thames at Vauxhall. She has added two musicians on strings to round out her singer-songwriter sound, and the three of them line up to play along one side of the barge’s narrow hull. As chit chat reverberates around the old boat, it seems a difficult and unlikely place to perform quiet, thoughtful music with a string accompaniment. But Vega triumphs. 

The first thing she does is sort out the crowd. “Come closer, sit down. So many people, I’m getting nervous”. In truth, less than a hundred fans can cram on to the bohemian barge, even with some people perched up on the lower deck, peering down through railings into the hull. The next thing she does is sing in French — a beguiling, gravelly purr — accompanying herself on a wired up acoustic guitar. Cellist Lucie Trémolières and Clémence Robert on guitar join in for ‘All of My Freedom’, which is a beefed up, heart-on-sleeve adaptation of a Mexican folk song (‘La Llorona’) sung in English, French and Spanish.

A lot of Vega’s success owes itself to the different voices she adopts as she moves through her multi-lingual lyrics. Her throaty English rasp turns almost into talking on ‘Spanish Manners’ when the guitar drops out: “I guess the time has come to say goodbye to an old friend.” 

The switch from English to Spanish in ‘Goodbye Korea’ is a hairs-on-the-back-of-the-neck moment, as she crosses from a homage to Bob Dylan’s ‘Farewell Angelina’ (as recorded by Joan Baez) to the Andalusian poetry of Federico Garcia Lorca, intellectually bridged by Jack Kerouac and ‘A Supermarket in California’, the Allen Ginsberg beat poem. Vega has set ‘Preciosa y el Aire’ from ‘Gypsy Ballads’ to music, with our hero Preciosa chased by the predatory male wind on the pine-clad slopes below “las blancas torres donde viven los ingleses” (the white towers where the English live). 

The mournful ballad ends with another wind blowing at the English consul’s house: “El inglés da a la gitana un vaso de tibia leche, y una copa de ginebra que Preciosa no se bebe. Y mientras cuenta llorando su aventura a aquella gente, en las tejas de pizarra el viento furioso muerde” (translation: the Englishman gives the gypsy girl a glass of lukewarm milk, and a shot of gin that Preciosa does not drink. And while she tearfully tells these people about her adventure, the wild wind bites on the slate rooftiles). 

The husky English on single ‘I Could Cry’ brings to mind not just Dylan but also Tom Waits through a Spanish prism: “I moved to London I was feeling depressed… oh please shut up, you are taking me back there.” The troubled narrative of the song is underlined by self-accompaniment on guitar with big chords that churn slightly discordantly.

Rolling Spanish rr’s, harsh j’s (harder than the ch in loch) and rounded z’s (a soft th) illuminate and elevate ‘Calaveras’ (translation: Skulls). “Te corté las alas’” she sings — I cut off your wings. Vega holds the whole barge to her every word during the solo ‘Creep’ and, by this stage, many of those sitting on the floor nearest to the musicians are quietly mouthing the words to every song. She looks down at them affectionately.

Multi-instrumentalist Robert turns from guitar to fiddle, and next plays a charango to add a South American feel to ‘Lolita’, which Vega introduces as “a story you may know. It’s about an old man and a little girl”. A verse sung in Spanish adds a cheeky change of tone. That South American folk feel is heard again on ‘Master and Margarita’ — from the book by Mikhail Bulgakov with Robert switching form guitar to violin, while Trémolières adds dramatic dynamics as her cello bowing alternately scratches or drives the melody.

Guitars interplay on ‘Farewell Korea’, with the sonorous cello enhancing the beat poetry. And, on the Cajun/Quebecois ‘Oranges Ameres’ (Bitter Oranges), Trémolières taps the cello strings for percussion and bass while Robert drums her guitar. Clapping, plucking and clicking by the musicians — with a round of flamenco clapping by a partly Spanish audience — bring the emotional rollercoaster of ‘Cheek to Cheek’ to life before it darkly ends amid sad cello notes: “I remember that night when you punched me in my face… And I know you were being weird that night.”

A cello solo enhances ‘Mom’, a song ringing with affection. “We have one more song, for my mother, who is here. I hope you like it,Vega says. “You’ve got a heart, the biggest heart,” she sings, and there’s no doubt that the crowd love the song. Stripped of the recorded version’s drums, tonight’s arrangement for cello, charango and guitar intensifies the depth of feeling in the songwriting. The audience erupts as she ends the set and heads into the crowd to hug her mother. 

Claudia Vega setlist at Tamesis Dock:
01 ‘J’ai Bien Dormi’
02 ‘All of My Freedom’
03 ‘Spanish manners’
04 ‘Calaveras’
05 ‘Lolita’
06 ‘I Could Cry’
07 ‘Master and Margarita’
08 ‘Creep’
09 ‘Farewell Korea’
10 ‘Oranges Ameres’
11 ‘Cheek to Cheek’
12 ‘Mom’

Photos from Sebright Arms, supporting Hinds, 29 January 2018: