A Conversation With Rodrigo Amarante

By Brian Martin

Photo by Eliot Lee Hazel

Photo by Eliot Lee Hazel

I first heard Rodrigo Amarante’s voice on a buzzy, independent station my family’s car radio had caught on our way out of Los Angeles. My father, attempting to melt away my unreasonable teenage contempt, had been playing classic rock songs and quizzing me on artists names-- an act I had decided was totally uncool. It’s not exactly that I didn’t like the music. Rather, it comprised the few CD’s my family listened to for 5 or so tumultuous years and symbolized a lot of unfortunate events. If I didn’t want anymore, it was for want of something new and independent of the life I’d been living: a different place. So my father relented and changed it to static. That static turned to Little Joy’s With Strangers, with Rodrigo’s voice floated over hymnals and strung like a Western movie. My father and I looked at each other like “who the hell is this?”, and, for the first time in years, wholeheartedly agreed: this is some gorgeous fucking music.

Rodrigo is not a new artist by any means. He’s been a core member and songwriter for Brazilian bands such as Los Hermanos, Orquestra Imperial, as well as Little Joy, a so-called “supergroup” including The Strokes’ Fabrizio Moretti and Binki Shapiro. More recently, he’s been part of a cross-ethnic overlapping of contemporary Latin American musicians for past five or six years. For example, Amarante has toured with Leon Larregui, and been featured in the works of Devendra Banhart, Marisa Monte, and Gilberto Gil. (If you’re looking for somewhere to start listening to these collaborations, I highly recommend his duet with Natalia Lafourcade on Azul). He was also featured in an NPR Little Desk Concert.

2014’s Cavalo was, however, his first “solo album,” blending a myriad of musical and cultural symbols into spacious, sometimes soft recordings. Moreover, if you were to ask me about Cavalo, I’d tell you it was one of the best albums of 2014. To quote Rodrigo himself:

“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 re-cognize my nature, to recoup my ascendance and to disclose a new perspective over myself. It was as a foreigner, separated from others and yet still somehow attached to the furniture I had left behind, bits of myself I hung up around me like dead mirrors I could no longer turn my face to, that came to focus the beauty of the empty room ahead, a hint.”

Rodrigo Amarante is also part of the Chicago Park District’s latest Music in the Park’s series, performing June 13th @ 6:30 PM on the main stage at Millennium Park. Marking his transition from “unexpected but welcome exile,” the concert will feature Cavalo in its entirety as well as new, forthcoming music. Hooligan had the fortune of speaking with Rodrigo prior to tomorrow’s concert to discuss his position on the term “world music,” Brazilian cultural heritage, polyglot life, and his role in activism regarding the World Bank. Read on, and please follow Rodrigo on Tumblr, Facebook, and Soundcloud!


Rodrigo: Hello?

Brian: Hi, this is Brian from Hooligan trying to get in touch with Rodrigo Amarante for our scheduled interview.

Rodrigo: Oh, that’s me! Hi.

Brian: How’s it going?

Rodrigo: A little crazy, but good. I’m starting to make a new record, writing, rented a new space to make a studio of sorts-- like I did the other time.

Brian: Do you mean you found a place where you want to record and are building your home there, so to speak?

Rodrigo: Well, yeah, for the other record what I did was I rented a space, you know, in an industrial kind of part of town. And then I put the equipment there. It’s not exactly a proper, designed-by-an-architect-type studio. But just a room with some stuff to make the acoustics decent, and enough equipment to make the sound good-- and, you know, a minimal setup still takes a lot of work, unfortunately. I wish it was some other art form like painting or just writing, but, music, it’s quite annoying how much work you have to put into the simplest of settings.

Brian: Have you considered leaving the industry because of how annoying it is-- becoming a painter, or a chef?

Rodrigo: Well, yes, I do paint, too, and I write, and I make little films, and shit like that. But just because I’m stubborn, music kind of turned out to be my profession. I don’t mean to sound too arrogant, but the feeling is that I could have done any other art form. I’m interested in art more than I’m interested in music, really. It happened that I started to make a living from music. But I never abandoned the fantasies of all the other artforms, and practice in some case-- doesn’t mean I’m good or prolific, but I am all these things.

Brian: When you approach songwriting, do you approach it industrially (“you know, I have to do this, I have to pay rent, I’m tired of couch surfing”)?

Rodrigo: Not at all. It is challenging enough that it is interesting. If it was like that, I wouldn’t be doing it. I’ve churned out things that don’t inspire me. Money is not my goal, which is why you don’t see any of my song on commercials-- it’s not because I haven’t been asked. It’s just because that’s not how I think things should happen. And I do love music. I just mean that my interest is broad. When I write a song, I am thinking about a story: I am approaching composition as I would approach a storyline in a film. Or a composition in a painting. I know there has to be enough space so that the audience, the listener-- so that he or she can complete the picture. And be treated as an intelligent being rather than someone who needs to be told something, or, just as an example, I know there has to be space for a movement to happen inside the picture. For the eye to cross the frame. And in musical terms, that can be applied, too. There has to be enough incompleteness or surprise, and I’m usually thinking of a story, too, even if it’s a portrait of a moment. It’s still a story in lyrical terms. That’s what I mean by “it’s the same thing”... the same principles apply… it just happens that the technique for writing the song demands a different skill and experience with the material.

Brian: In terms of storyline, then, I feel like Cavalo was really lonely. It felt isolating, at times distant from within the music; it made me sad, though uplifting at points. Do you feel like this direction has changed in working on this next album?

Rodrigo: Absolutely. I feel like that first record was, as a whole… A portrait of me, far away from everything that I had around me. Purposely. Career, friends, family, familiar things. It was the exercise of being isolated, being in California, in all that space and silence. On the other hand, it was inevitably an exercise in thinking about identity, because it’s the first record I made where my name is printed right there on the cover. All of a sudden I have myself a piece of paper, but it’s not me. It’s something outside of myself. It became an inevitable exercise of doubting identity, of conceiving what it is. It is kind of lonely, kind of sad, because if you’re really going for it you’re finding things which are not so uplifting-- what you see in yourself. I think it is a healthy, but violent process, and to me that chapter is written. I’m done with it. That’s the first chapter, now I have a second chapter that I’m writing, and as I write I’ll find out where it’s going, but the idea now is to look to the outside… a portrait of what’s around me rather than what’s inside… though I can’t promise it will be uplifting because the world is getting more facist, and crazy, and, so, I don’t know. I’ll try not to make such a sad album. [Laughs]

Brian: Sadness is fine! Part of fascism, after all, is trying to obfuscate certain feelings by replacing them with patriotism, and nationalism, and warfare, and consumption. I think feeling is good. When I come back to Cavalo as an album, I come to the feeling of nostalgia. As someone who’s traveled and been displaced consistently in life, and forced to adapt to different languages, I’m excited to see what this next chapter is. Especially moving out of this internal space and going to the outside. Do you feel this change in direction is one which is looking forward as opposed to looking to the past?

Rodrigo: When I talk about the past, memory, and all that, it ends up being as much a projection as it would be to look into the future. I mean, at least we’re supposed to acknowledge that. And that was an important thing in the exercise of thinking about identity, is how memory is a creature in itself. It manipulates the information that it gathers. Projecting is also that. So I have to acknowledge that, too, how much looking into the future is a creation. But, definitely, that’s my intention now: to look ahead and try find something encouraging in the future.

Brian: When I say philosophy, poetry, who or what comes to mind? What are you consuming?

Rodrigo: Now that my english is good enough, I got the chance to read about political science, I can read Thoreau in English, Erikson, of course Chomsky. But one great joy of mine is Alan Watts, which I did not know at all before I came to the states. I like him for his sense of humor. It would be hard for me to give you the anchors of whatever thought is reflected onto my writing, because I feel like I have a failing memory. All the stuff that I’ve read in the past kind of surfaces now, and I don’t remember where it’s coming from. It’d be a mix-match. Which is kind of what Brazilians are culturally proud of-- for not having a hierarchy between arts. That’s the thing with Tropicalismo. There’s one shelf for everything. Classic music or philosophy isn’t superior to folk music or street philosophy-- necessarily. One might argue that something is more sophisticated or “elaborate” than the other. You might say that the 9th symphony is more sophisticated than, I don’t know, Blowing in The Wind, but… What is the use of organizing things in a vertical way? If you organize them in a horizontal way, then you can cross them with each other. Whatever writing, philosophy I’ve been exposed to, or conversations, too… sometimes those are more important than books.. They’ve all been mixed in the same plane.

Brian: Though I’m not extremely familiar with Tropicalismo, I’m familiar with Multiculturalism or CHicanismo in a US context in terms of this “horizontal,” hybrid understanding of art. I, personally, had assumed that Brazil would have had the same hierarchal exclusion of the cultural practices of, for example, indigenous people that other Latin American countries have suffered from.

Rodrigo: The culture that we have, the language, it’s very different. We are exposed to a completely different array of cultural texts, and that includes music and literature. Simply because we have a more mixed society. So it is very different. In that sense, at least. Even in Argentina-- arguably the most sophisticated country in South America in terms of having the first universities in South America, the first theatres in South America --but you walk around and everyone looks Italian… because they are Italian. And, so, the music reflects that: it wants to be European. Brazil is the opposite. Brazilian music wants to be Brazilian, and it is. We’re kind of proud how things are not separated culturally, even though the inequalities are still pretty dramatic.

Brian: It seems whenever non-western or European musical artists are introduced effectively into the Western canon-- afro-cuban jazz or bossa nova, for example --they are dubbed either as “Latin” or, more pervasively, “World Music.” Which, I think, are these really strange genres meant for the “Others.” I wanted to know how you felt about being put in the genre yourself,

Rodrigo: You’re right. It gets understood like it needs to be put in “that drawer” somehow. A big part of my job is to destroy that-- to blur these limits, and destroy the split between those boxes. Yeah, so, I would like to have one foot in each of these places. Not purposely, but, actually, naturally. When I finished [Cavalo] the labels were kinda confused on how to market it, and the only thing I told them to do is not to understand my music as “world music.” Because, as you said, the best way to describe it is that “world music is music for others-- not us over here.” And this is a fucking dumb, dumb approach. I have an album written in many languages, and English is one of them, and I’m not writing this just to be international, no. Because I have something to convey in each of these languages. Hopefully. I want to have a cross over in styles. So, yeah, I feel like that’s an interesting thought to have, to disrupt the notion of what’s “latin” or what’s “world music.” Y’know, I’ve played in festivals where I probably was seen more as world music and I’ve played in clubs in England where I was probably seen more as an Indie Rock act. But I’m happy with the task.

Brian: I was actually really, really curious about the usage of language in Cavalo and, really, your music in general. I came to it through Little Joy at first, and there’s obviously a song you sang in Portuguese, “Evaporar”; then I found a song you did in Spanish with Natalia LaFourcade, “Azul”. How did you come to decide what languages these songs were written in? Was there external influence in terms of where you were living?

Rodrigo: I think it was a case by case thing. I understood before I started that was gonna happen, but I didn’t have really a plan, so I was like, “I wanna write a song about all the women I left behind, all the loves that I’ve had, and I’ve had to abandon.” I know that feeling. I want to write a song about overcoming a love in the name of having to move on. Well, that song, I had to write it in Portuguese because the feeling comes from that place-- from Brazil. Or, “I’m gonna write a song about my friend who died.” Well, that has to be in Portuguese, too. Then I was, like, “well, I wanna write a two-song thing, two parts of the same story,” which is The Ribbon and I’m Ready. Yeah. They’re the same story, but seen from two different characters. It’s about a boy or a man-- or someone between man and boy --who decides to be a soldier, and dies. One song is the soldier after he’s dead, retrospective, understanding what choices made him arrive to the place where he died and thinking about whether that’s a good or bad thing. The other song is his mother, receiving the visit from the official with the medal. None of this is crystal clear, perhaps especially the fact those two songs are to sides of the same story. But, anyway, if I’m writing a song about how stupid the military is or how a person chooses to be a soldier out of pressure from a father figure without understanding who they’re fighting for, that has to be in English. We don’t have that problem in Brazil. On the other hand, I don’t want to preach to the choir. I don’t wanna make an anti-war song in Portuguese because there’s no point in that. The song in French is a song about being a Foreigner-- about the tension in being marginal, in being inside-physically but outside-socially. I wrote it in French because I thought, “I bet it’s going to be really uncomfortable [for the listener] to hear that, or interesting.” But, also, there’s a violent separation between the Arab and African community and French society-- it’s like different countries inside the same country. And the French invented world music. They’re the anthropologists of the world. They invented the ‘exotic,’ how that word is a positive or intriguing word. In a way, they’re in love with what they’re afraid of. That was my thinking. That’s why I decided to write it in French. So. It kind of goes song by song. I don’t really know.

Brian: Oh wow.

Rodrigo: Yeah… sometimes I wonder I should reveal how much thought there is behind what I do because I’m sure the outcome doesn’t appear to be thoughtful. But the fact is there is a lot of thought. [Laughs]

Brian: The music, at least to me, seemed perfectly thoughtful, but I’m really being hit in the head by these lyrics: “up goes the flag / An ox has been killed / In display the head.” You really are blowing my mind.

Rodrigo: Oh, that’s cool! Finally. Yeah! I mean, I kinda made a point of putting the lyrics on the cover of the record. There’s different reasons for me to do that, but one is to say, “Yes, this is very important.” I don’t want any shortcuts of cuteness, because it’s really about what’s in here. There’s something cool about what you can’t decipher or see from afar-- you have to go in to understand. Anything from afar is just  jumble of symbols. You only find out if you go in. So I guess that relates to my attempt to have some meaning, or something. I mean, I only think about these things in depth because (1) I really enjoy it and (2) I want to honor the opportunity of being heard. Y’know, I have to give you something. Not just take something from you. If you give me your time… if I’m going to demand that you stop what you’re doing and listening to me, I better be giving you something. Rather than just pickpocketing you.

Brian: Do you have any involvement in politics or activism? Are you around those circles at all?

Rodrigo: Not here in the United States because I haven’t seen anyone do anything here. I mean, I’m sure-- I shouldn’t say that. I’ve been in touch with people here and there who are actually doing stuff, but it’s a different environment from the environment I had in Brazil. And, well… Now that I have my green card I guess I can talk about that. I was part of activist groups and discussion groups who did… “tactic media.” In Rio in the 90’s you have students in Universities who have meetings with people who are affiliated with all the different parties. And, y’know, the elections are important for who is going to be the student union leaders, what kind of policies we’re gonna enforce, and so on. During that period, Brazil had a huge debt to the World Bank, who said “You can’t pay it back so we’re gonna have to take a piece of your flesh.” At the time what they wanted was a reform in the educational system in Brazil to reduce the centers of excellence, research, to reduce the courses from 4 to six year courses to two year technical courses. Pretty much [The World Bank] wanted to do what they’d been doing all over the world under the United States’ direction, which is to turn the outside countries into factories or places with no research or development, just workers in manufacturing who have to deal with product and waste. They wanted to do that and there was a whole thing in the Brazilian congress to reduce research, and so on. And, you know, in Brazil the best universities are public and you don’t have to pay a dime to go to them. You just have to be a good student and pass a test, be competitive, and then you get in. So what we did was to steal media from whatever other events were getting media to draw attention to that. Because the newspaper, the TV wouldn’t say anything… so what we did was that there would be, for example, there would be a volleyball match between Brazil and Russia or some other world competition transmitted live. We would find a way into the court in the middle of the game, and open up a sign. Or, I chained myself to the police headquarters once so that the TV stations would have to come. We were taking media opportunities from other events and turn those towards current events. I’m still involved, though not in an activist way, because, for one, things are different here, but I’m just as active in reading and understanding. I feel like one of the best things about having my English be good now is that I can read the originals. Again, Chomsky is one of the most admirable political writers of our time, Naomi Klein, too. But it is of my interest. And it’s on my mind.

Brian: I think that there’s folks who might be new to you or being introduced to your music now who are gonna read this and think, “Oh my gosh! Rodrigo is this radical import.” Which is exciting to me, personally. But, thank you for sharing with me.

Brian: As a matter of course, I have to ask you a question about Chicago and how you feel about coming to us on June 13th at Millennium Park and what we can expect coming to it.

Rodrigo: I’m very excited because I really like Chicago, and Chicago is famous for its good music. Not necessarily huge acts, but very important people, musicians, and writers. On top of that, Millennium Park is a fucking beautiful, amazing place. I played there once with another band I’m a part of, Orchestra Imperia, many years ago, and it’s kind of an honor for me to come back and play there. I’m gonna play a few new songs when I’m there. I don’t know which ones yet, but I’ll certainly play the whole of my first record… I just hope people enjoy it and like it. I’ll play all the slow tunes that I’m now famous for. So, there you go. I don’t know! You can expect to see me, that’s for sure.