When I was sent the Cavalo LP from multi-instrumentalist Rodrigo Amarante last year, it was a very memorable experience that doesn’t always occur in this line of work, gluing itself to my subconsciousness and replaying in every cycle of the year since its worldwide release in May of 2014. Creating music in the same scope and emotional significance as Brazilian icons Caetano Veloso and Antônio Carlos Jobim, he’s been involved with many groups and projects before enacting his solo career. Beauty in music of the highest levels spread across the entirety of Cavalo, enhanced by many of his friends taking contributions, including the highly popular Venezuelan multi-instrumentalist Devendra Banhart. A sophisticated energy is interjected into a playful orchestration of layers and tones on every song, pulled off with the chemistry and color of Os Mutantes in their prime. It’s a true gift to have an artist create music of such authenticity of influence tied in with 60s and ’70s Brazilian music culture and he doesn’t just stop there, incorporating elements from Europe and the States as well. His music is crafted with a special touch of human emotion that is honest in every light, radiating with the raw resonance of human experiences.
The process of interviewing an artist thousands of miles of away is a beautiful perk of the internet age, activating a grid of connection that has become undefinable from its sheer scale and size of interconnecting networks. Through this medium of expression, I was able to connect with Rodrigo Amarante this month with a batch of questions that cover his new LP and the many topics that stem around its creation and touring process. He gave detailed answers to everything I asked and for that alone, I thank him greatly for participating in this project with that level of interest in the questions. I’ve had a profound level of respect for his music for awhile now and appreciate him as an artist even more so after the type of insight and knowledge he gave us with this interview. Check out the dialogue we shared through email and if you are in the North American region, don’t miss seeing Rodrigo perform live soon. Starting in Los Angeles on March 31st, he will bring a small group of musicians along with him for a 15 show stretch across the States. Dates and opening acts below the interview.
Erik Otis: Hello Rodrigo, I wanted to congratulate you on such a wonderful album in Cavalo. I have been listening to the album a lot over the last few months and it’s truly special and gratifying on levels few albums have ever reached for me. I am very thankful for what Cavalo represents to me and I thank you for releasing this type of music to the world. We wanted to first talk about your debut solo album Cavalo for this interview. It’s truly one of the most gorgeous albums we have heard all year and we can’t stop playing the record. Do you feel Cavalo has set the tone for the type of solo records that you will continue to release or will there be a lot of new adventures for future albums that deviate from where Cavalo goes?
Rodrigo Amarante: Thank you for the very kind words, it flatters me very much. I’m not particularly interested in repeating a sound or theme consciously, or holding on to an identity that has formed to whoever listens to it because I know it’ll still be me, whatever that means. If I have any direction, it’s usually to move on from what I’ve done before because safety isn’t what I’m looking for. That said, it turns out that the bigger half of my intention is slave to what’s underneath that intention and writing is the way to know what that is, or to get closer to what is beneath the plan. Cavalo was like that, it started with a very different sound and feel and as I started getting more satisfied with the writing it slowly shifted and became what it is, very different from the initial plan. As the themes emerged, the sound followed, a unity became more apparent and as new ideas followed it, older ones became weak and had to go. I threw away a bunch of songs after I realized what I wanted to sing, to write. I think that’s beautiful, the surprise that there is in digging deep, pulling things out. I do have something different in mind for the next solo record but it turns out I have very little control over what it’s going to become.
Erik Otis: I feel so comfortable and relaxed when I listen to the more acoustic driven pieces and so alive and ready to dance instantly on those full of electricity. It’s a very interesting ride that the album takes on from beginning to end and a very cohesive one. With the amount of sonic variety involved, did it take you long to figure out the structure of how you wanted the songs to run from beginning to end on Cavalo?
Rodrigo Amarante: Yes, it wasn’t easy to find that thread and the final mix had some sixteen songs, five of which I abandoned. I’m a big film enthusiast so I wanted to think of the record in a time line like a film. I wanted to put counterpoints where they would disconcert the expectation but still hold interest without feeling too schizophrenic. Some songs I abandoned were songs I liked in the end but they didn’t seem to belong in that story. It wasn’t easy. Language was also a thing to consider not to concentrate them in one spot. Noah Georgeson (the producer) was a big help with that because he had an outside view and assured me that what I thought turned out as a bumpy ride in the end wasn’t crazy because to him it was all me, whereas to me it seemed like a bunch of different voices sometimes.
Erik Otis: I couldn’t agree with Noah more. The clarity of instrumentation and vocal separation and fullness found on Cavalo is phenomenal! I really feel it’s mixed so well. How much involvement did you have in the mixing process of the record and how much did this add to the album?
Rodrigo Amarante: With all credit due to Noah who did all the knob tweaking and ninety percent of the engineering (I did record some things by myself) and is an incredible mixer, I was there every minute of it and knew exactly what I wanted. I love mixing, it’s the delicious moment when final decisions are made and an idea that’s projected can really come to life. Because the record is about space and distance, I kept arrangements fairly empty except on the counterpoints “Maná” and “Hourglass” to give that sense sonically, not only lyrically, to make things that would be details come out important. As you know, mixing is a big part of creating space in a record, it’s where you can really separate sounds, assign certain places in frequency to particular instruments, leaving room for imagination to fill the gaps.
I write like that too, avoiding adjectives, leaving judgement to the judges, so to speak. I’m all about the gap. I think incompleteness, when done right, plays the role art should play, which is to serve as an invitation for imagination, a tool of discovery, to serve as an unpredictable mirror that reflects the view, not the viewer’s idea of themselves. I know it sounds exaggerated as a concept given that this is only music, a record with songs, but it’s how my mind works. I’m looking for more than a dead enigma with one right answer, I want to send them out alive. I want these songs to creep in and lodge in a certain shadow in somebody’s mind. I want to tell somebody else’s story, not mine.
Erik Otis: That’s beautiful and everything I strive for in my own musical practices. Thank you for sharing that with me. The musicians that you brought on for Cavalo do a fantastic job, including of course Kristen Wiig, Devendra Banhart, Adam Green and Fabrizio Moretti, amongst others. Can you talk a little bit about the players on the album and what they bring to the identity of the record that you absolutely love?
Rodrigo Amarante: The choirs were the highlight of it to me, that’s where I saw my vision truly come alive through these friends who gave me their time and talent. Fab was and is the choir genius, I knew that well from Little Joy. I wrote the parts but needed a delicate voice, angelic yet cold and I knew nobody could do it quite like him. Sure enough, he killed it! But only one voice doesn’t make a choir and doubling doesn’t work well so he had the idea of asking Kristen, his girlfriend at the time, to come and sing along. She was spending time here in LA and we were all hanging out, so one night Fab proposed the idea and she was thrilled. He told me that she could sing and I trusted him but when she came in and did it, it was magic. I couldn’t’ believe how good she was and with Fab, they made the perfect pair! Then I needed a baritone voice to give the Russian accent “Tardei” needed so when I was in NY with Devendra we thought of nobody other than Adam. He was perfect for the part and with Devendra in the middle, it was a five star choir. Dev sang on “Maná” with me too and even though he didn’t play as much on my record because he was recording Mala at the time, he was always a great adviser, always there listening to demos, helping me choose one song over another. A true enthusiast and the most encouraging friend.
Fab also hung out in the studio quite a bit and ended up doing justice to the drums for “Maná” and “Houglass”, which I had recorded myself before but sounded like shit. He of course made it come to life as the good drummer that he is. I’m lucky to have these wonderful people help me. It was refreshing to have others contribute because most of it was just me. Not even Noah wanted to play, I practically forced him to do a synth solo on “Maná”. He would say, you don’t need me, play it all yourself. But again, Noah, who was there most of the time, was the real partner on this record, very strongly opinionated but also without any pre-conception. Very creative and musical, open minded and very patient, especially with my saxophone and clarinet playing and that’s because I love trying but truth is I suck!
Erik Otis: Listening to music is one of the most rewarding experiences that I am afforded the ability to enjoy and take part in daily. When I listen to Cavalo in various environments, I pick out different layers, subtle textures, colors and so forth. Do you have a favorite environment or setting that you have experienced or performed your album in?
Rodrigo Amarante: This record does best where people are there to listen. It sounds obvious but when the crowd is seated, or in a place that inspires listening rather than mingling or getting a drink or flirting around, then I can work the dynamics of it and conquer the silence it demands. When we play and we do it as close to the recording as possible, there are a lot of dynamics. I go really quiet at times and if the room is generous, then it’s heaven. That said, I’ve had some of the most rewarding shows in rock clubs like the one in London last time, or in Paris to a big standing crowd, or in Lisbon outside under the trees in a courtyard of an abandoned school. It’s all about how the audience is set, where their minds are.
Erik Otis: How are the live shows translating on your current tours right now and what type of feelings do you get from the various crowds you play to with Cavalo’s content?
Rodrigo Amarante: I can’t complain, it’s been wonderful and a thrill given we’re just four musicians onstage. With so little people for what the record demands, most of us are doubling on keyboards and string instruments, playing percussion and singing at the same time. It’s fun to figure out how to deliver the most with just the four of us. But what I like about playing this record is that it feels as dangerous as I wanted it to be. I say dangerous because it’s much easier to scream and shout, to push and be loud all the time, it’s much harder and more dangerous to be delicate, to try to have them come to you. That’s what I wanted with this record, bet on courage rather than fear, try to invite rather than invade. Even in big festivals like Primavera Sound, it seemed to work well.
Erik Otis: I love that you write and sing lyrics in various languages. Do the languages pick themselves when you get an idea on what to start writing about or do you have methods and a process that is a little more planned out? I am very fascinated that you are able to sing in so many ranges within each language, I’d love to know more about how this process all came to be.
Rodrigo Amarante: It feels natural to each song and I didn’t feel like I was thinking too much about that but the more I have to answer about it the more I realize that there is in fact some thought to it. One good example is “Mon Nom” where I chose to write in French because of the theme. I wanted to write a song from the perspective of a foreigner who’s inside physically but outside socially and the French, having been the anthropologists of the world, the ultimate voyeurs of exotic cultures, inventors of world music as a genre, have both an attraction and a repulsion for foreigners. They don’t know how to deal with the flux of North Africans who have been robbed of their language amongst other things and have been coming back to France with that imposed language claiming historical responsibility, space, a debt. In short, the French are afraid of who they’re in love with, they’re uptight and dangerously so. Not that it doesn’t happen anywhere else, I just felt that it was a perfect scenario for that story and the right challenge because it would put me on the very spot of my character not having a very wide vocabulary in that language and needing to convey a story.
When I say character of course it’s a part of me but in the song it’s not really me, more of a projection of a feeling I have. Of course I didn’t know if it was going to work, if my French was good enough to get through but I wanted to try and it turned out pretty good, the French really liked it. A similar thing with “The Ribbon” and “I’m Ready”, two views of the same story (although that’s not very easy to detect). Because of its military theme I thought it would be more powerful in English where this is an important issue, I thought it made sense to speak to English speakers about that. The ones in Portuguese are either about what I have left behind (“Irene”) or a friend who died (“O Cometa”) or the one about my sister (“Maná”) and these had to be in Portuguese. It was a challenge to write in these languages that are so new to me and I wanted to try my best so I exercised it in different ways to see what it would do to my writing and it reflected back to my language. I wouldn’t have written the song “Cavalo” the way I did, so oriental and clean, if it wasn’t for the attempt to translate a feeling with such short vocabulary in the other languages, I think. I know that this is the kind of stuff nobody, or I should say, very few people care about, dig in to find something else and I’m fine with that because I’m writing to them, these few. It’s a privilege to do so.
Erik Otis: Brazilian music is one of the most fascinating aspects of music culture to me. Bola Sete is a guitar player that I am always listening to, regardless of the time of the year or where I am at emotionally. Do you remember the first Brazilian records that really blew you away?
Rodrigo Amarante: I’m a big Bola Sete fan too! He’s the perfect mix between pristine technique and playfulness, sense of humor, a true genius. But I discovered him later as an adult. My first heroes were Caetano, Tom Jobim and Chico Buarque. These were the first ones I tried to imitate, the first ones I learned to sing. Of course it didn’t work so I learned every Ramones song before I got to play my first Jobim at 14. But I grew up in a music lover’s house and family so these songs were there since I was born. 60’s rock was religion, bossa nova and samba a constant and I feel that it all has really influenced me but I was used to it. But when I heard Os Mutantes for the first time it really blew me away, I thought that they were the best band in the world and I felt like forming a band and doing the craziest music I could possibly pull off.
Also Novos Bahianos made me think that nobody had ever played electric samba like them before, I was addicted. Another important one was a record by Caetano called Circuladô because it sounded nothing like what people were making at the time. It was so subversive and free, very avant-garde in structure. Maybe because it was a contemporary record it felt like a revolution and it was very encouraging to me. But this is a hard question, can you imagine if I asked you to tell me the first American record that blew your mind? In Brazil, we hear more of our music that any country in the world other than the U.S., so there’s a lot of good stuff playing on the radio all the time.
Erik Otis: Oh man, that’s an easy one, Bad from Michael Jackson. I love that record to so much and it was released a few years after I was born so it was always on the radio, television and my parents record player. The breakthrough stages for any project or endeavor in life is something I truly love about the process of creation. That moment when you really feel confident in knowing the capabilities of your craft and how that can translate to the rest of the world. Do you remember when you entered your breakthrough phase as a musician?
Rodrigo Amarante: I don’t really. When I was a kid my family ran what in English is called a samba school, which isn’t anything like a school in the educational sense, more what a school of fish is, a drum collective moving in a stream during carnaval. So since I was maybe six years old I was performing with them and because I was so young and it was a competition between schools they gave me a solo moment in front of the jury, I was their secret weapon. I felt very important and powerful doing that. I would move forward and stop the whole drum ensemble with a certain fill, do my little solo and bring them back with a different fill that felt like magic and it was so intense and the crowd cheered and we won every year I played, not necessarily because of me! It made me feel I was good at that, I felt like a champ, like a musician with my little hands blistered and bloody from the playing.
But I never thought of that as something I would do outside of carnaval or even seriously because all of those people had other jobs the rest of the year and I thought I would too, it was a hobby, not a serious thing. It actually took me a while to accept that music was going to be my main thing even after I was already on national television with it. I wanted to be a painter as a child and then a film maker in college when I joined my first serious band, Los Hermanos. I wasn’t writing songs then and I was only supposed to be a musician in the back but I thought, well, if I’m in a band I might as well try to write some songs, so I did. That’s how I ended up becoming a lead singer in that band and eventually realized I could make a living out of it or at least keep doing it. But I honestly feel like I’m still learning how to do it, figuring it out, doubting the form, noticing the vices. Every song is a new puzzle to solve and I know I still have a lot to learn and besides, I never really gave up my fantasies of painting or making films. I feel very lucky to be able to write music for a living, I still can’t believe they haven’t figured out I don’t really know what I’m doing.
Erik Otis: What are some of the most important things that you have learned about the world and yourself through your music?
Rodrigo Amarante: I learned that it doesn’t matter which art form I use, if it’s art then it’s the same thing. The same rules apply, which the most important one is that there isn’t a rule until you invent it. So I invent that there needs to be a gap where the audience enters and there should never be one answer to what’s proposed otherwise it’s an enigma, a game to kill some time. I learned that the hardest thing is to try to fool other people and that underestimating an audience is the death of the artist. I learned that repetition replicates nature and that time takes care of it is never actually repeating because we change along with it. I learned that to give is the only motivation to make art, that to take is the work of advertisement and that you either give yourself to it fully or forget about it. I learned that collaboration has nothing to do with democracy and that democracy has little to do with freedom. I learned to know nothing but what I feel at the moment, to use my instinct, to respect the gut. But again, what do I know? I’m just beginning to get a sense of how little I know and it’s quite alright. I’m writing to find out what the hell I’m writing about.
Erik Otis: I feel every word you say and it’s a beautiful and inspiring feeling. Thank you so much for your time again Rodrigo. Cavalo is a very special thing for the world to us and we wish you the best of luck in the near and distant future. Cheers.
Rodrigo Amarante: Your words are the most generous and you made me a very happy man today. This is so encouraging and it fills me with joy to respond to your interest. I dearly hope there’s something here worth the ink to print, even if it’s virtual ink. Hope to be able to play for you someday. Cheers!