Rodrigo Amarante receives the Tigre Sounds video call from his home in Los Angeles, the same space that sheltered him last year during the lockdown, with a handful of new songs, even closer to the work in progress than to the finished idea. There, at his time and almost always alone, he was able to finish it and give an identity to his second solo album: Drama.
This exquisite singer-songwriter, born in Rio de Janeiro 45 years ago, has been living in the city of stars for about a decade. Back in time was Los Hermanos, the rock band that made him known in Brazil and had some celebratory reunions. Many years have also passed since his adventures with Orquesta Imperial (a big band that brought typical rhythms like samba to younger audiences) and with Little Joy (the indie trio he formed with Binki Shapiro and Fabrizio Moretti from The Strokes). Both projects kept him pretty busy in the 2000s.
“Tuyo”, the theme song Amarante wrote for the Netflix series Narcos, also has its years, but it seems to continue to profit from its success on the screens. Beyond his long musical journey, however, if you only listened to Cavalo – Rodrigo’s solo debut record from 2014 – surely you were looking forward to this moment: his long-awaited new album Drama is here.
Drama is the kind of album that envelops you in a magical world of songs, a world of fantasies – animated by experiences, but not necessarily real ones. A tailor-made staging, where everything, every detail, has its place and its moment: warm melodies, suggestive arrangements, acoustic tones, and sonic subtleties. It’s like a unique and breezy dive, in a sea that rescues the challenges and avant-gardes of the past, where everything seems to be in transition and yet is never meaningless, either in Portuguese nor in English.
What events or themes triggered these new songs? Why are they grouped in an album called Drama?
Songwriting is a discovery exercise for me. It’s how I have to find out if there is a concept and embrace it, which is a posthumous instance. The title of the album, in fact, came almost towards the end of the process, because I detected a change in my way of writing. I started with the intention of making an album more modal than tonal, more rhythmic than harmonic. I was thinking of doing something without so many modulations, something drier perhaps, less exciting in harmonic terms. But then, in the process, I realized that I really wasn’t doing it. So I was wondering why I wanted to do that. And I just finished understanding it when I heard the word “drama”. That word was a trigger for me.
What feelings did the word “drama” give you, to the point of shaping the concept of the album?
As soon as I heard it, I thought of my transformation from boy to man. I thought of all the things my father told me, with his codes, about making this transition. I understood that for him that meant not having drama, not being dramatic. It was about controlling your feelings, about being cold and more rational. This was the distinction: “Now you are a man and you have to be this way.”
There, then, it’s reflected how society tends to understand women. They’re assigned emotional issues, sensitivity, and a certain delicacy. It’s all part of a very patriarchal discourse: “Women are more unstable, while men are more objective and that’s why there are things that only we can do, blah, blah, blah…” So when I heard the word “drama” the moment my father cut my hair came to mind. He totally shaved my head. Because I was a beautiful boy, with long hair, and according to him I had to be a little uglier, more aggressive. There, from that word, I decided that I had to change that initial intention and embrace all those feelings, all this drama, all those things that, as a child, I had been told I couldn’t do.
So I started talking musically about it, with the violin arrangements, the counterpoints, and other musical resources that represent the theater that we are. Somehow, I abandoned that idea that songs come from the depths of the soul, that they are a pure expression of my soul. There’s no such pure expression.
“Drama is intentionally artificial, fantastic and cinematic,” announces your press release. So you set up your own bubble in the land of the film industry…
It was very rich to contemplate all this theater, all this intention, all this partiality that I have when I write. It would be something like dressing to undress, like dressing in many colors and a hat to show everything. Instead of dressing only in black, for example, to protect me, which would be the opposite and perhaps the most comfortable thing to do. I decided to reveal myself with this colorful staging, with all this baroque decoration. So, each song has its history and its time, but there’s a feeling that the arrangements bring to unite everything.
Seven years have passed since the release of Cavalo, your debut album, although the tours and soundtracks also kept you busy. How far back do Drama’s songs go?
About two years after my first album, “Tuyo” – the song I wrote for Narcos – came out. So that sparked a whole second tour – the agents called me to do it, which lasted a year and a half more. So, in the end, it was a total of four years on the road for Cavalo. Then they commissioned me for a soundtrack. It happened like this. There’s a very old song: “The End”, the last one on the album, the one I do on the piano, I started writing it ten years ago. It’s a song that I played with other words and other parts, but it always seemed to me that it wasn’t ready.
At the beginning of 2018, I started recording some demos and thinking about this album. That same year, I did a tour in which I got to play several of these new songs. When I came back from that tour, at the end of 2018, I went with the band to a studio and recorded four songs: “Maré”, “Tango”, “Tao” and “Tanto”. That was the kickoff of the album, its true beginning. Then, during 2019, I was doing overdubs and writing more new songs. The plan was to go back with the band to the studio, to do more live takes, but the pandemic didn’t allow me to.
So the album had different stages, and an inevitable change of plans that surely ended up delaying times…
Exactly, I ended up completing the album on my own, in this space, a limited home studio. And it took longer because many things that I wanted to record I couldn’t play first hand: before I had to experiment with the instrument. For example, I wanted to record a saxophone, but I’m terrible at playing it. Same with drums… I’m terrible at everything (laughs). I need some time to practice well on the parts that I want to record. All of that took me longer. Recording and overdubbing, writing the string and the brass arrangements… David (Ralicke) was able to record some horns, here at home, but the pandemic complicated the whole process in general.
Is there a song that has been recorded and performed all on your own?
Yes, “Eu Com Você”. There I played all the instruments, even the horn.
Cavalo has several guests (including Devendra Banhart, Adam Green and Fab Moretti). Does Drama have less interaction with other musicians?
Well, in Cavalo several friends participated, it’s true, but I played the vast majority of the things that you hear. Drama’s biggest interaction was in the live session: drums, congas, bass, and me on guitar. Everything else, from percussion to keyboards and pianos, all the little arrangements, I did here in my studio, adding one little thing at a time. For me it’s very fun to work like this, it’s even educational because I’m learning while I do it. This album, actually, I didn’t want to do it like that; that is, mostly alone. I wanted to do it with more musicians, rehearsing and recording together, but it was not possible due to the pandemic. I had to rearrange ideas and plans.
Your melodies are warm and tender – a bit in the great bossa nova tradition. They have their own flight, but they never take the listener away from the atmosphere that the song sets up. Actually, atmospheres seem to be a key sound for this album…
It has to do precisely with the name of this album, Drama. It has to do with the theater of life, which is the opposite of this ambiguous thing that is often heard today, a kind of music without courage, which babbles without saying anything at all. It interests me that the words make sense, that there is a well-marked direction. This album brings that drive; it brings this entire sentimental and romantic load. It has nothing to do with fashion or music industry trends. It’s more like a movie, a world created from a story.
It’s not part of reality. No, it’s a charm, a manufactured universe, a story that I want to tell. Because of this atmospheric sensation, the arrangements have that intention, from the first song, with its introduction with strings, as if it were a musical tunnel so that you enter this world. There’s an intention, an unspoken idea, to understand the songs as chapters. You don’t go in and out of songs just like that: there are transitions.
It’s been a decade since you settled in Los Angeles, but your music still feeds on your nomadic heart, that of a world explorer. Is there something from your daily life in L.A. that comes through more on this album?
It’s hard to say because the experience of being a foreigner here was actually kind of gradual. It’s not that one day I decided and said “Okay, I’m going to live in the United States, I’m moving to Los Angeles.” It gradually happened: they invited me to come, then they invited me again, and then one more time until at the end I stayed; I fell in love and all that. Cavalo talks about that, of distance and space, of being a foreigner.
This album actually looks more outside than inside. Right now, I honestly don’t feel rooted. I have many friends and I have spent the last decade living here, but I’m not tied to the place. I always want to travel, move, go elsewhere, look at other things, find out about other problems and talk to different people. Maybe now this feeling is stronger than ever because I was not going on tour or traveling or having the experiences that I normally have. I always travel and I’m in contact with people from all over the world, but this last time it couldn’t be like that… Maybe it’s time to move.
Languages run naturally through your repertoire, especially between Portuguese and English, although you’ve also sung in Spanish and French…
I love words. I love languages. I love everything that happens in that linguistic world, and what is revealed in the transition from one language to another. I’m interested in everything that can be seen and learned about a culture from the words we use. Each language has its own thing. Americans, for example, use the verb “need” much more, while Latinos use the verb “want” more. We say “I want an ice cream”, Americans are more inclined to “I need an ice cream”. That example shows something cultural: in the United States, what you want is your right; for Latinos, life isn’t so like that. There are many cultural differences in those subtleties.
Do the melodies arise in each language? Or is there a preconceived idea or plan?
Everything has to do with the beginning of the song, with its seed. It may just be a bit of a melody. Or it could be something that I’m playing, on the guitar or the piano, and that brings a melody. Until I know what I mean, I don’t know what language to use either. It all depends on how it will happen: what am I thinking about, who is it for…
“Um Milhão”, for example, is a song that I wrote in Portuguese but could also have been done in English, because it’s about a more universal story. “I Can’t Wait” is purposely in English, because it’s something I wanted people who speak English to hear. Anyway, in general, it’s difficult to know which language I’m going to use: the song, at some point in its writing, is formalized and I follow its current.
Speaking of going with the flow, “Maré” is based on a Spanish proverb (the tide will fetch what the ebb brings), but there you don’t sing in that language…
Yes, it’s true, and I don’t know why it happened like that (laughs). Many times I don’t realize in which language I’m thinking. That usually happens in my head: I can switch from Portuguese to English without realizing it. If I just spoke to my sister on the phone, it’s more likely that I’ll write something in Portuguese. If I was talking to a friend here in Los Angeles, it may be that I write in English. I don’t know how to explain it.
You did a significant job writing the soundtrack for the film 7 Days in Entebbe. And before that you made the theme song for the Narcos series. How much did these experiences change your way of producing music?
I love making film music and working on soundtracks. It’s something that has always interested me. I love having that challenge. My first experience writing the music for a film was somewhat difficult, but I learned the lesson: I already know what to do and what not to do. The thing is, editors work with temporary music. And as a result of that, the director and the producers end up getting used to this temporary music. So when you change that music, they don’t accept it that easily, they don’t like it, and they want something closer to what they temporarily had.
I ended up writing something that was not what I initially wanted, a bit held by those references. I mean, it wasn’t the music that I thought the film needed. It was difficult and not so pleasant. What interests me is to have a dialogue with the director and editors, a work that can be developed as a team. I’m not interested at all in copying or imitating something that is used as a reference. Now they asked me to write something for next year. I can’t say much about it yet, but the agreement is more interesting: to make a song from the script as I did with Narcos. In that case, I work on the song first, before they start shooting.
Your collective projects – Los Hermanos, Orquesta Imperial, Little Joy – seem to remain in parentheses: they are never sentenced to a definitive end. Do you like them like this, as situations that can be taken up again?
They are projects from the past. For example, I loved playing with Los Hermanos again: celebrating the past. It was very nice because there are young people who love it and who didn’t have the chance to see us live. But all that thought of doing things all over again, one more time, doesn’t make a lot of sense. Play a little and celebrate, yeah. But to think that we’ll go back to being what we were, that illusion doesn’t make sense.
The same thing happens with Little Joy: today’s relationship is very different from the one we had ten years ago. Going back would be a bit vulgar. I always seek to go forward. The case of Orquesta Imperial is different because it’s such a big band… Its members change all the time. It’s more of an idea than a group. So if they ask me to write and sing a song, I’d love to do it.
The world has become an enigma in these times, without the possibility of planning anything beyond tomorrow. How do you go out to present a new album?
I want to tour with everything. Of course, everything isn’t possible: I can’t go out with a big band, especially in this context. But there are ways to assemble the sounds and arrangements, so that the listener feels that the record is there, on stage. It’s not easy. Maybe I can do it with five musicians. In my case, it was always a bit like that. I like to think about the arrangements and see what each of the musicians can play, what they play with their hands, with their feet, with their head (laughs).
If I can have a saxophonist, then maybe I’ll put a harmonizer on him. Or I test if the one who plays the mellotron can do the trumpet part. Or that the drummer has something to trigger sounds. I can do all of that. And I can play alone, which is something that I also do and I love. Now, with the pandemic, it’s easier to go for that reduced format – by myself. I’ll probably start out playing solo until I can actually tour with a band.