In Brazil, Marisa Monte is an overwhelmingly popular singer, famous for being lucky enough to do exactly as she pleases. Blessed with a beauty that matches her voice and possessed of a work ethic one is not sure whether or not to envy, she only records what pleases her and only promotes her records in ways she deems fit. Like so many of us, she loves the truly exquisite, the truly popular, and the self-conscious reflections that come with all that popularity. Which leads us to the subtext of this interview, the New York Times review of her show at the Beacon Theater here in New York, a few days prior to our conversation. Written by the very Brazil-knowledgeable and intelligent Ben Ratliff (who happens to be a friend of mine) the review read detachment into Marisa’s style. Ratliff noted that her predominantly Brazilian audience didn’t stand up and dance until the end of the show—long after they usually do. But he didn’t interpret this silence and concentration as evidence of awe of and love for Marisa’s singing, as I do.
Before we began to tape our conversation, I translated the portions of the Times review that Marisa had not understood into Portuguese, and we returned to the subject as our chat wound down.
Arto Lindsay When do you first remember singing?
Marisa Monte At the beginning of my teens, but I’ve always loved to listen to music. When my older sister had piano classes, I’d watch her learning and the teacher, noticing my interest, gave me the last 15 minutes of each class. My father was involved with a samba school in Rio de Jainero and they saw that I liked to dance. I had a lot of rhythm; when I was nine, they gave me a drum set.
AL So, hold on. When did they give you a drum set?
MM I studied drums from when I was nine until I was 12. I knew I had a nice voice, but it was something very private. But people in my family, and then people in school began asking me to sing, “Sing, sing Marisa. Marisa, sing that song for us.” And when I was 14, the teacher for the school theater put on The Rocky Horror Picture Show. He asked, “Who has a nice voice here?” And everybody said, “She has!” (laughter) I sang the first and last song in the play. After that I started meeting musicians, I studied singing and did little recordings and shows with friends. After I finished high school I went to Italy and studied opera there for a year.
AL You studied opera in Italy?
MM Yes, in Rome. And for the first time, I noticed Brazilian music from outside of Brazil. I saw Brazil, and I saw myself outside Brazil. And I felt how strong all that information was for me; it would be impossible for me to express myself without using Brazilian culture. Opera was so separate from contemporary productions, from any contact with what was going on. So I went back to Brazil and I started to perform live. I became well known very quickly through my live performances. I toured in Brazil.
AL Outside of Rio?
MM And São Paulo, selling out in theaters with five hundred or a thousand seats—without a record, without being played on the radio, without going on TV programs. I worked like that for a year and a half. And when I was 20, I recorded my first record live.
AL Wow. How many times have you told this story?
MM Hmm, millions. And I am sure I’ll keep telling it forever. Even if I write it down, it’s not the same as hearing it in my unique voice. (laughter)
AL So tell me, these first shows, what were they like? What kinds of songs did you sing and what was the staging like?
MM I wasn’t confident enough to play my own compositions. I didn’t have any contact with other people from my generation, I was very outside the mainstream. I used to sing artists’ songs from the Brazilian generation before mine: international pop standards like “I Heard It Through The Grapevine,” and jazz standards like “Speak Low.” My second record was the first one I did with you, Mr. Lindsay.
AL Right, but didn’t you do a Philip Glass song back in the early days?
MM Yes. “Freezing.”
AL What was the staging of those first shows like?
MM We didn’t have much money. I had some friends who used to do a simple but functional stage set.
AL I remember seeing a video of you singing “Freezing” in some kind of cage.
MM No. (laughter) It was, how do you say, a premonition of my recent stage work. There was a white veil around where I was standing; it was very low-tech.
AL It was a big tube. Was it clear plastic or something?
MM It was fabric. Exactly like an installation of Ernesto’s.
AL Does Ernesto know that? Ernesto Neto, the Brazilian sculptor, made Marisa’s latest set. We should tell him.
MM We should show him. I don’t know if I still have that video, it’s a home video.
AL Of course you still have that video. I have a copy of it. Your first record was a huge hit in Brazil, and the song that became really popular was a Brazilian version of a Pino Danielli song by Nelsinho Mota—an Italian pop song, correct?
AL At that time, you established the practice of releasing a long-form video at the same time as a new record.
MM Yes, all of my records have an audiovisual work that comes out at the same time showing images of the tour, or work in the studio, things that are somehow a part of the work. Back in 1990 nobody used to do them on film; we didn’t have MTV in Brazil at the time so it was all done on video. Very unglamorous. And TV programs in Brazil are very low-tech. You don’t really have the means to perform music on them. I have many friends in the movies in Brazil, and they have become partners, people that I trust and like to work with. When I involve myself in this kind of film work, I have much more control. I can work on the concept, the mixing, and there’s control over the final product.
AL You don’t like to go on these vulgar, tits-and-ass, raunchy, comedy TV shows that everybody has to go on in Brazil in order to promote their music.
MM No. I do very few TV shows—only the ones where I can really play music. I love MTV in Brazil. It’s really about the music and it’s always cool to be there. I like a few talk shows, the ones where I can sing as well because it’s always better to sing than to talk about music. It’s very abstract trying to explain an arrangement, a concept, but if you can simply show it…
AL It would be nice if people could understand how thoroughly and completely you do your job: you do your own videos, which are shown as a TV special and then sold; you take a lot of care with your stage show, and you tour relentlessly in Brazil.
MM Yeah, Brazil is huge, man, it’s a continent, touring Brazil could take me two years. We’ve done more than 50 shows in the past three months. My entire career is structured on this direct relationship with the audience, being there physically, breathing together. I believe in that. I trust in that. It’s the best way to communicate with people, from the producer to the consumer with no intermediaries. I became very well known in Brazil through my work on the stage. I have this kind of fame for being very cool on stage. And I could spend years there. The only thing I get tired of after a while is—
MM Hotels, and no home cooking. Luggage, you know.
AL Okay, let’s go back to your second record. When you decided that you wanted to reach out to people from your generation and collaborate with them.
MM After the first record, it was very important that I chose people to grow with and accompany me on my road, on my way. I looked for the guys in my generation that I admired the most, like Arnaldo Antunes, Carlinhos Brown, Nando Reis, and I started to compose with them. Some of them are now people that I couldn’t imagine my life without. They are like my brothers—people who are very important references for me. Also, I knew that I would have to look for a producer who could give me more security in the studio.
MM My first record was a live one; I had never worked in a studio. So, I looked for you, Mr. Lindsay, because you had done the beautiful Estrangeiro by Caetano Veloso that I so admired, and you also brought in a lot of musicians from outside of Brazil who were interested in my work, such as Ryuichi Sakamoto and Laurie Anderson, Bernie Worrell and Philip Glass. I met many musicians through our work, and now we’ve done four records together. And we’ve become close friends. You are one of those that I couldn’t imagine my life without.
AL I’m red. I’m blushing. Before we started the interview we were talking about the New York Times review of your show here at the Beacon. The writer talked a lot about how you mix pop music with more intelligent music, or how you mix ideas into your show of pop music. I wanted to talk a little about your interest in literature and art. I know you love 19th century literature, especially Brazilian and Portuguese literature. And I know you love contemporary, modern and pop art. Let’s talk about how you use those ideas in your music, what those ideas have to do with your music.
MM It’s similar to the way that a sculptor or writer listens to music while working. For me, it’s all art—there’s integration in this who process. I’m interested in what’s going on in other artistic expressions as a reference for what I’m doing. And I like to talk to people from other cultural areas because I think it’s interesting to compare the process of creation, the concepts in the works, and to exchange these kinds of feelings and ways of production. In visual arts, I love the rigor that good artists use in conceptualizing their work. They are better at it than musicians. For the most part, I mean.
AL I agree with you.
MM That’s what I try to learn from them. And in literature, I love the imagination. Writers have to be so creative to write a book and the words, as palauras — the way they can be combined, and the precision! They are good food for my soul.
AL The way you use these ideas in your work is very interesting. Particularly your understanding of the way pop art works. You have a huge, huge audience in Brazil. Your work is very open in many ways, simple and bright and welcoming for anyone to enjoy regardless of their level of education. But at the same time it’s very sophisticated and has a lot of ideas. It’s controlled, as said, very rigorous.
MM I like to use this contrast: if you use something colloquial, simple, it’s a hook for more sophisticated information to reach a bigger audience. I do use simple songs like, “Amor, I Love You,” to open the new record. Then the least demanding listener is hooked; he falls into something more difficult and sophisticated than what he expects. And the balance between those two is very cool.
AL There are so many levels. “Amor, I Love You,” is written by Carlinhos Brown who is a very aware, modern, innovative musician. And yet his song is very simple, so pop. The sophisticated songs that you mentioned are products of the slums of Rio.
MM Yeah, materially poor people with rich souls. (Marisa peruses the New York Times review of her show) What does it mean—this word, arty?
AL Arty means…music that has ambitions beyond being popular. It can be a positive or a negative term.
MM Ah. Well, the show has a serious side, it demands something from the audience. I wonder if the Americans think the pop songs are too American (reading): “She was presenting songs for the audience to regard and coolly analyze from a distance.” (pause) I guess so.
AL There are so many different styles involved in your records and shows: traditional sambas of various kinds, songs from many Brazilian pop traditions, and songs from outside Brazil. How do you decide whether you want to keep the style pure, or whether you want to modernize it?
MM To talk about Brazilian music is to talk about diversity, variety and mixing. I grew up there, so this process is very natural for me. It’s not something that has to be…
AL Coolly analyzed.
MM Yeah, it’s something that is just an extension of the songs that I’ve heard. It’s a reflection of what I grew up listening to. So for me, I’m not afraid of losing my personality by mixing together such different things because that’s the personality of Brazilian music. And all of Brazilian culture is about that, not just the music. That happens in our religion, our race, our food, all kinds of cultural expressions; they all reflect this diversity, this variety, this mix. I’m in Brazil; it’s what’s most natural for me. It’s something I can theorize over after the fact, but it’s not something I theorize about beforehand. Or as I’m doing it. I just do it.
Translated from the Portuguese by Arto Lindsay.