Photo by ELIOT LEE HAZEL
“Rodrigo Amarante is from Rio de Janeiro and these days lives in Los Angeles. You may know him from a few other projects: Los Hermanos is the band from Rio but even more likely is Little Joy, the Brazilian/American band that included Binki Shapiro and Strokes drummer Fabrizio Moretti. What you probably don’t know is that Rodrigo Amarante has made the most tender record of 2014. Cavalo is both sonically rich and spare at the same time: Every instrument breathes, every sound blends, yet every sound is distinct. At the core are songs of the heart and Rodrigo’s voice, both sweet and smoky. Prepare to be drawn close to this intimate music. You’ll want to crawl in bed with it.“ — FROM NPR’S BOB BOILEN’S TOP 10 ALBUMS OF 2014
PHAWKER: Has anyone ever told you your voice has the ability to soothe the most savage of beasts? When did you realize you could sing like this and when did you decide that music was what you were going to do with your life?
RODRIGO AMARANTE: I have certainly never heard that about my voice and it’s very flattering, I makes me feel useful, I like that very much. If this was a 1940s film off of a 1780s play in the end of the story it would be revealed that I am in fact the worst beast myself and that singing is the only way I am able to keep sane and integrated to society. Quite touching, I wish it wasn’t true. Now, aside from the love for music and playing instruments I’ve had since very early age probably from being a apart of a musical family I didn’t particularly want to be a professional musician until I was already one, it actually took me a while to accept it. I wanted to be a painter through my childhood, I wanted to be Popeye and Picasso but then sometime in my teens I made up my mind about being a film maker and got as far as being accepted to a film school but I was in denial to the fact that I didn’t have enough money to go there so I took journalism for a couple of years until music took me out of there. I only started writing songs because I was invited to be a part of a band (Los Hermanos). I thought, OK, I’m in a band so I might as well try to write some songs. But even then I thought it would be something temporary until I could find my way into film making. Although I’ve fully accepted music as my trade I’m still dreaming about working on film somehow.
PHAWKER: The first sentence of you bio states:
This is my first solo record. It was made during an unexpected but very welcome exile, in a land I wouldn’t predict I’d moor my boat for long but that, given such difference and a refreshingly nameless arrival, gave me the opportunity to recognize my nature, to recoup my ascendance and to disclose a new perspective over myself.
Let’s unpack this. Where were you exiled from and why? What land did you wind up in and why? How did it give you a new perspective on yourself?
RODRIGO AMARANTE: My decision to write this record release or “bio” in this fashion, with a deliberate lack of specifics and a focus on the actions and intentions rather than on the facts and places was for it to feel more like fiction than like a cold report to make a point about how I feel memory and identity operates, to point to what I believe is the important part of the story, verbs rather than adjectives, perspective over fact. I wanted to describe a scene with no background to allow room for imagination, to allow for it to reflect someone else’s story or fantasy. Releases are usually done by someone else other than the artist and it’s some objective description of what they find appealing about that record, layering adjectives trying to have you imagine what it sounds like. I wanted to talk about what led me to write it and what it’s about rather than what it sounds like.
Other than that a record release ends up serving as a template for some lazy journalists to copy and paste what’s written there so I figured I might as well write it myself and leave as many facts out as plausible to try to engage them. Now, to answer your question, I am from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and there I grew up and had quite a successful career as a musician in the last 15 years. My exile, as I say, a voluntary one, was from the world that was known to me and that reflected back an idea of who I am supposed to be or what I’m supposed to do, an escape from my comfort zone, from my previous career, from most everything that defined me to discover what would remain. The idea was to challenge my identity, to see how I would express myself in a different language to different people, what these limitations would do to my writing, to me. That’s how I got a new perspective over myself and with it, my country, this country I ended up porting, the USA, and my writing ultimately.
At first it wasn’t my intention to come here specifically but chance brought me here first as a guest of Devendra Banhart for a recording (the album Smokey Rolls Down…) then to write music with Fab Moretti which turned into Little Joy and from then on I decided to stay. It was an opportunity I embraced rather than a plan I made. It felt incredible to give away my belongings, furniture and take off somewhere new and listen to what the silence and space would reveal. That’s the search for a new perspective. Isn’t that what traveling is all about? Aren’t we looking for a new view of people, of ourselves when we travel? A new perspective is what I wanted and it’s the the best thing to get and what I hope to give, somehow.
PHAWKER: You go on to write, “I began to see the double that looks at me from the outside, that reflects the vision I call mine, vehicle and invented accomplice to which I am also a channel, the one I name Cavalo.” Explain this alter ego that you assumed for the recording, how is he different than you? Why is he named Cavalo?
RODRIGO AMARANTE: It’s not that I assumed him or that he is different than me, there’s no me, when I write I am both and what I speak is an agreement between the two. When I left my city, my country, my friends, I feel that I left a part of me there, one that I can see from afar and, like I said, can see me because when I communicate with others in this new place, in this new language, I can see how different I am from what I used to be back home, how my sense of humor translates differently and so on, my writing too. He appeared, so to speak, because I was alone and had to share the experience somehow, turn it into words so I needed an accomplice, someone who understood what I was saying.
Once this thought solidified I started to understand the writing as a dynamic between two sides of myself as well, an emotional and open side, in love with the process and not interested in the outcome and the other who’s just the opposite, who doesn’t really know where ideas come from but has the intention of finishing it up, accomplishing the work, finalizing. So this dynamic between these two sides seemed to me like the dynamic between a horse and a rider where ultimately, as horse riders say, guide becomes guided. This symbiosis between these two sides is what I look for with the writing, an utopia I’ll probably be searching for for the rest of my life.
Other than that in Brazil we call Cavalo (horse) the ones in either spiritualism or in the African religions who receive a spirit and communicate through them. They are vehicles to something external or, depending on your believes, outside of the self, behind the ego somewhere, a part of us that’s outiside so I thought that this relates to writing as well, an attempt to tap into something we discover as we do it, a strange unpredictable mirror of ourselves.
PHAWKER: How did Kristen Wiig become part of this and what role did she play in the process of making the album?
RODRIGO AMARANTE: She became a friend when dating Fab and when I was looking for someone to pair him on the choirs, a woman preferably. He asked her if she wanted to join and she did. She has a beautiful singing voice and is very in tune aside from being a sweet heart so it worked like a miracle, I ended up having her sing in three different songs.
PHAWKER: People often say that English is the universal language of pop music, but you make a very good case for Portuguese being the universal language of pop music. What does Portuguese enable you to do musically that English does not?
RODRIGO AMARANTE: I think that these ideas are very ephemeral and circumstantial and I’d like to contribute to destroying them so I’m glad you think I made some sort of point with it. I say that because I myself listen to music from all kinds of places in many different languages so I don’t see why I couldn’t write in these languages and mix them up with other music genres. I feel more free musically with Portuguese because I feel that this language traditionally allows for a prosody more unconventional than English but once I noticed that I wanted immediately to try to apply that to English so what comes as a difficulty first becomes a delicious challenge. Looking for new obstacles in writing is a way to find new answers and meanings, new threads, it’s great. Rhyming for example was something I rejected for a while because I felt there were other more interesting ways to make it musical and I never wanted to compromise meaning with structure but once I tried to use it again to see what would come out I realized that rhyme introduces an element of chaos because although it limits the scope of words it made me bump into words that I wouldn’t go to normally and with them take off to a new side of what I was trying to convey so that’s a nice thing.
PHAWKER: You are carrying on the tradition of the Tropicalistas — people like Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Os Mutantes, Gal Costa,Tom Ze. Can you talk a little about what each of those artists mean to you, what makes them special, and what you learned from each?
RODRIGO AMARANTE: As much as these are, in higher or lower degrees, my masters and muses and that I am deeply influenced by their music I’m not interested at all in carrying their tradition, or any tradition for that matter, maybe even the contrary. I listen to a lot of field recordings of all kinds of places in the world but what I’m interested in is to mix them up, to forge something new. My constant comment on identity, individual, regional or national has to do with how we as individuals or collectively hang on to these ideas so we can feel safe and accepted and I’m not particularly interested in feeling safe, I want to feel like I’m doing something dangerous, new. The interesting and paradoxical thing about that is that what they did was essentially to doubt and temper with what the Brazilian musical tradition was at that time, to mix the un-mixable and now, the sound that came out of it became a new tradition. I understand people trying to keep it alive somehow because it’s hard to cope with the idea that there is only one Caetano Veloso in the world but that is just the truth of it, nothing we can do but to go back and listen to him over and over again. But to emulate them is just not interesting to me. What we Brazilians got from the Tropicalists and that turned into a big inspiration for all kinds of art forms is the sense that we can mix everything in one plate, like we Brazilians do with food, and that art shouldn’t be taken vertically but horizontally, that genres should be mixed to produce yet new genres, that there isn’t one genre that is more important or should this way be taken more seriously than another. That idea yes, I’m very much interested in but it’s just a radical view of what art has been doing ever since it’s called that, to combine new elements in a form already established to make it move to a different direction, to give it and whatever it is referencing a new perspective.
PHAWKER: Last question is a hypothetical: you wake up in the middle of the night and your house is on fire and there is only time to save one record from your collection, which one do you grab and why?
RODRIGO AMARANTE: I would burn trying to decide.