First Person: Rodrigo Amarante
Troubadour Rodrigo Amarante sits down with Artbound Presents Studio A to discuss transitioning to Los Angeles, his time with Los Hermanos, and the use of language in his album.
On the decision to come to Los Angeles:
RA: I never chose to come to L.A. really, and I don't think I would have from the experience I had before when I came here to visit for an award thing. I thought it was really strange, the city wasn't anywhere. Cities that I'm used to, you get there and you know you're in the city. Here it wasn't like that. And it's funny, I was invited to come here to do one recording, and then another one, and then write another one, so I kept coming back and then slowly understanding that the city was not really apparent like that. I don't know, the culture here is not so much like in New York where you go to bars and you go out and you think that everything is happening-- you feel that you're 'in it' and you might not be 'in it.' Here, everything is happening in people's backyards. So slowly, as I met people here, I realized one thing that was very interesting about this place is that it relates to the genesis of the West. I feel like California, and Los Angeles, it's still the West in the sense that people come here to look for something very improbable, some dream that would otherwise be ridiculous somewhere else, or to run away from ghosts that are present from somewhere else. But ultimately, to look for gold. And California is the West of the West. And so what it does to the city, from my point of view, is that it groups all these people who are free, they have an open mind, and they mix with all different kinds of groups and are very open-minded. I think a lot of cities have that genesis in them. New York is still like an island trade, like a weird version of Amsterdam in a way, and I think it will forever be. But anyway, I started to realize that about L.A. over time and I really like it and I ended up staying.
On finding his center in Los Angeles:
RA: I'm aware that identity is something ephemerous and transitory. And I saw this place as a great place, an opportunity. When you travel, the good thing about traveling is that you are not surrounded by your environment so you feel different, you feel like you're looking at things differently. Someone driving a bicycle becomes interesting, whereas in your street you don't even notice that, just an example. And so coming here and staying was a method for writing for me. I wanted to be alone to write, just to doubt identity, to talk about memory, to go back and realize how much of it is invented -- identity, memory, sense of self, and all that. And it's funny because as you doubt it, you construct it again. It's impossible to run away from yourself. This is my first solo record so it is in a way defining an identity, but I don't want to do that. I wanted to doubt the identity that I have but it's a snake eating it's own tail because it can't see it's own head. You look in the mirror and you see the reflection of your own head flipped, but you never see your own head. The idea that I have of myself is very different than the idea that you have of me. And I think that's interesting.
On being in Brazilian band Los Hermanos:
RA: I've been in different bands in Brazil. Los Hermanos was the one that lasted the longest or was the most important one that I was in. I also formed another band called Orchestra Imperial, very different from that one, but when I came to the United States and got out of Brasil, it could have been a different place, it could have been Italy or Japan or somewhere else but I didn't really feel like I was running away because I didn't even choose to do it. I was invited to come here at first to record with Devendra Banhart and ended up staying longer, becoming a part of his band. Then I was invited by someone else, a guy called Fabrizio Moretti from The Strokes, to write music and we ended up writing a record, me, him, and Binki (Shapiro), which turned out to be Little Joy. So it was like, I'm coming here to visit, I'll stay here for two months, then I'm coming again, I'll stay for six months and then come again and stay for six months. So at one point I was like, wow, it really feels like the wind is blowing this way. And it was great, the feeling of starting something new, it's very rare that you get that opportunity. I think it's the best if you write or create anything. It's a great feeling that you can go somewhere where no one knows you and write and see what the reaction is going to be, and in my case using a different language. And so it was an opportunity that I couldn't let go. It was very interesting, I could put it all to test. I could see and I could do something in a new place and it's great. It's like Gauguin going to Haiti or Tahiti or wherever he went, you know?
On the album title:
RA: "Cavalo" means horse. It was something that kind of built up from this: at first I realized, even though I was wrote songs by myself before, I was writing them for someone, for Los Hermanos or for Orchestra Imperial or for whoever it was. And so it felt like I had someone who I was talking to, and in fact there was. If I was writing a song for Los Hermanos I would have to talk to them and explain "I feel the song should be this or like that," so I realized the importance of having someone to express the ideas to, how important it is to verbalize concepts and that it is a tool to develop these concepts. Every time I give an interview I realize something new about what I'm doing. But back in the process where I was alone, I started to feel that there was a sort of double of me present in the room, maybe because I needed an accomplice to that experience which I couldn't share with anyone else. It was somehow an image of the possibility of me. I left a certain place and came here, but I imagined that possibility.
Being here, talking to you in English, I "see" myself doing that, I realize and observe how my sense of humor changes or how I communicate in a different way. This double is watching me and I'm watching him too. With that in mind, I realize in writing that there is also a sort of double there. When I'm writing it feels like there's two sides of me. One is in love with the process and just wants to convey an idea for a second, it has no attachment to it, to just go to a piano and play a melody then the melody goes away, it doesn't matter. And the other side is the side who is interested in accomplishing something. So I play a melody and that rational side says, "No, play it again. Where does it go?" Or when writing an idea on a piece of paper, "Well wait, where could that idea go? What does it say? What's behind it?" It feels like there is a guide and a guided. And so I thought it has to do with what horse riders say what a perfect ride is. They say that the perfect ride is when there's a symbiotic relationship between horse and rider, so the guide, which is the horse rider, becomes the guided. The horse becomes the intelligence and the horse rider becomes the essence. And I thought this was interesting because ultimately I don't want to feel like I'm observing myself writing. I want to merge and be free and fluid. It's a utopic thing.
And then the minute I thought of that I realized that the word "cavalo," in Brasil and other countries where there is a mix between African religion and spiritualism and all that, we say the "cavalo" is the person who receives the spirit, the person that serves as a vehicle for something external. So if you believe in spirits, it would be a spirit. If you don't, it would be some sort of shade of the psyche that manifests. And I thought that that related to writing too because if you embrace these two characters, the rational side doesn't really know where ideas come from-- it's a moment where some sort of spark comes out. And the other side doesn't really know how to develop them. So I thought, that's interesting and sounds good, and I wrote the song "Cavalo" which has nothing to do with that (laughs) no, no, just kidding. The song has to do with other things but I could talk for half an hour about that.
On the multiple languages in the album:
RA: The languages are there because it started to become more and more a true portrait of this moment for me. I have been writing in a way where I try to leave as much space as possible. That means that when I tell a story I'm trying to make it fit your story. I'm trying to tell your story, not mine. I'm trying to leave enough space so that it will reflect something that you have in you. So how do I do that? I throw away objectives. I leave incomplete what I find not to be necessary, I take it out. Because I'm doing this record by myself, I thought, well it's an opportunity to exercise that in its maximum potency so to speak. So what I did with it is I withdrew a lot of instruments. I made arrangements very empty and tried to give a sense of space. So instead of hiding space, hiding the room in which the instrument is, I tried to enhance it and focus on that to kind of give an image of space. I also talk about space in one or two songs-- but how does that relate to language?
When you're a foreigner, in the beginning when you're learning a language, you find yourself not understanding half of what's being said. Either literally you don't know the words, or you don't comprehend the meaning or you don't get the sense of humor, etc. But then there are all these other things that you can understand. Sometimes you get half of the words but you get the body language, you know the context, you hear the music of the words, so there's a lot more than the words themselves to communication, we know that. So I thought, well, if this record is going to reflect this, then it's going to have to have all of these languages. I think in English now today but if I have to talk to my mom in the afternoon I'll think in Portuguese. For example, the song in French, I thought of writing it in French because I wanted to write a song that dealt with the issue of being a foreigner and feeling separated from the space, being inside the space but nevertheless feeling marginal to that space. And so I thought that French was the perfect place for that character because they have a lot of tension there from having colonized African countries, changed their languages to French, and now have them come back. They love their culture, they're the anthropologists of the world but now they don't know how to deal with it. So I chose that language for that theme because I want to talk about this with them. And "The Ribbon" too, that story has to be in English because it deals with a choice that relates to the American in English culture.
I wanted to make a point about space and about our time too. Records have been smashed. Each record has to be louder than the next so dynamics disappeared from recordings. Because there's so much space, virtual space, there is a competition for space. Each one is screaming louder than the other, each font is bigger than the other. So there is a lot of attention to texture, to form. Content is in the second place. So I thought, well, I'm going to throw it all away. My record cover is also that-- I threw it away. The font is very small. To see what's in it, you have to stop and go in. Of course it's risky, making a record that's half-Portuguese is risky. I don't know, I wanted to reflect what was happening in my head. Because honestly, you don't have to be a foreigner to relate to the feeling. You might feel foreign in your body, you might feel foreign in your work and the way people see you. And you're like, "I feel that people treat me in a way that I don't feel represented." I thought of making this record to talk about that and other things.On his dedication of the album to late Brazilian poet Ericson Pires:
RA: Ericson Pires was a very good friend of mine. We met right when I got into the university. He was already in his last year and I was just getting in but we became very good friends and worked on a number of different things: theater, cinema, bands, you name it. We did most everything together. And he eventually became a teacher there at the university. My group of friends was very academic, a bunch of them went on to be academics and professors and Ericson was one of them. But he was like a mix between a professor and a punk, he was like a clown. And a very important person for me, very generous with his knowledge. He died very young and so I wrote a song for him, the song called "O Cometa" is a portrait of him. I lost him the year I wrote the record and another good friend too which I dedicate the record to called Nelson Jacobina who was also an amazing teacher to me.