Rodrigo Amarante 2021
Photo: Julia Brokaw / Courtesy of Pitch Perfect PR

Rodrigo Amarante on the Joys of Interpretation in Latin Music

Award-winning Brazilian musician Rodrigo Amarante talks with PopMatters about diversifying Latin sounds and ringing the political alarm in Brazil.

Rodrigo Amarante
Polyvinyl Records
16 July 2021

There’s a lot one can talk about with Rodrigo Amarante. The Brazilian musician is a member of the indie rock band Los Hermanos, with whom he released four studio albums and received nominations for Latin Grammys. His work with the band earned him Best Instrumentalist at the Multishow Brazilian Music Awards in 2006. Amarante was also a part of music projects such as Little Joy and Orquestra Imperial. As a solo artist, he got international acclaim by writing and recording the opening song for the Netflix show Narcos (2015) and just released his second album, Drama.

Amarante speaks with PopMatters mainly about Drama here, but he has a world of things on his mind. From the choice of the album cover art to the arrangements of a song, every detail in Drama tells a story full of “bubbling meanings”. While some of these meanings are plain and simple, some are yet to be unlocked –even for Amarante himself.

For the album’s lyrics, themes go back and forth, creating beautiful intertextuality that a less attentive listener might mistake for uncreative repetition. “I play repeating myself and I think there’s fun in it, it’s fair. Otherwise, I’d just be pretending that I transcended something, and [actually] I didn’t,” Amarante notes.

“I feel at ease to understand that songs, sometimes– although not all of them–are different points of view; it is me trying to see something, some truth that is worth it.”

Drama also tells stories through sound. Throughout the album’s 11 tracks, Amarante experiments with bossa nova, jazz, folk-pop, and the subtle, melodic rock that Los Hermanos fans will recognize. There’s also a flowing Latinity in Drama, be it in the percussions reminiscent of Caribbean salsa or in the swing running through some of the arrangements.

Someone less knowledgeable about Brazilian music might think it’s all a part of the Brazilian mix. Actually, it’s a result of Amarante’s exposition of other Latin American music, “especially Mexican, Salvatorian, and Puerto Rican,” he says, as he lives in Los Angeles, whose demographic is largely made of Latinxs.

It’s an interesting place and position: Brazilian, living in the United States, close to the border with Mexico, soundtracking a TV show about a Colombian, making multilingual music. There’s even a track in Drama called “Tango”, an allusion to the Argentinian genre and dance form. I ask Amarante how he thinks he’s perceived by non-Brazilian audiences and how his artistic choices might influence it. “Now that you’re asking me, I think the perception of me is fluid,” he answers.

“For example, because of the Narcos song, there’s a portion of the public that maybe hadn’t come across my album and might understand me as a guy who writes boleros,” he continues. “But as many people ended up listening to my album, and as the song opened horizons for me and led me to tour internationally, this thing about perception might come across people’s heads.”

However, Amarante doesn’t seem as concerned with how his identity is perceived as he is with being true to himself and his art. “I don’t have a plan on how I want to be understood,” he notes, “but at the same time it is inevitable not to let go of my intention, it will always exist.”

Regarding the Latin swing and sounds in Drama, he tells us that “When writing the arrangements, as much as it is a nonverbal thing, these things have flavors. This syncopation, this swing, has something to do with Latinity, be it the Afro-Caribbean or the Brazilian. It all was fundamental for what I wanted to say. And it has to do with me being exposed to Latin-American cultures here [in Los Angeles].”

Amarante not only signs every songwriting credit in Drama, but he also produced the album and was involved in its creative processes. The cover art, which is signed by Argentinian artist Hernan Paganini, was chosen by Amarante because of its abstraction, its “almost childlike” approach in colors, forms, and generosity. Amarante loved it when he saw it, as it suggested, “a figurative, narrative pulsion, [as of something] trying to tell a story through what can be seen, and seeing figures where maybe it wasn’t intended to be.”

I notice a connection between the modernist approach in Paganini’s art and the lyric writing style in Drama, which recalls Brazilian 1920s Modernism poems, such as Carlos Drummond de Andrade’s No meio do caminho (1928). and their deliberate fluidity. “It wasn’t a conscious thing, I hadn’t made this connection, but there really is a link,” he tells me. As Amarante shares his impressions on Paganini’s art, I can understand how it spoke to him in conscious and unconscious ways and why the image earned a place on the cover of an album like Drama.

“[The image in the cover] looks like two involucres, one over the other, or maybe two heads gently coming over one another,” he says. “The upper part is made of some sort of architecture, it looks magnetic. It makes me think of engineering, memory, the building of identity. It looks like a head, and a head is but the building of connections, colorful magnets, a vibration.”

His rich interpretation is suggestive of the many underlying themes of Drama that would bloom as our conversation continued. “I love interpreting, that’s what makes me write. The joy of interpretation. This art ended up on cover [of the album] because it brought me all these meanings and connections.”

Just like the covert art, the first track in Drama also sets the tone for the album. “Drama” depicts a paradox of glee and pain. We hear waves of laughter over a sad, almost mournful, string melody. The contrast brings forth the nemesis of an artist stripping his soul bare for the entertainment of other people. Or, even sadder, it reminds of the pains of sharing one’s feelings and being laughed at and made vulnerable. 

Rodrigo Amarante
Photo: Eliot Lee Hazel / Courtesy of Pitch Perfect PR

The laughing sounds in “Drama” recall an audience in a theater play, while the music evokes silent film. I ask Amarante if my interpretation makes sense. “It’s a genuine read,” he says. “It’s interesting that you mention silent movies because it is about the language we have in our heads, to tell a story without the need to speak.”

He shares something I hadn’t noticed, “a third element which, because it is amongst all these other intense elements–music on one side, audience on the other–many people tend to focus on these elements and might not hear it. It has something to do with what you said: a laugh from someone who comes not as something joyful, but something painful”.

As my curiosity grows, he reveals what the “third sound” in “Drama: is: “It’s the sound of a shower curtain opening, a faucet turning, the water falling. People don’t hear it consciously. But maybe, unconsciously, it got to you.” He’s right; it probably does. This detail both justifies and adds a new layer to everything I felt about the song.

Another song where themes of pain and joy dialogue is “Tara”. The lyrics speak of dying love and how such death is perceived differently by two people in a relationship: “Your scene deleterious when nothing is so serious / everything is a joke / is it that funny to see the circus up in flames? / A love without heed it is dammed / lives in a dream / wakes up too late”. Interpreting these lyrics along with the song’s title (which means “tare”, or “kink”), I envision a sort of masochism, where one lover is pleased to see the relationship go up in flames.

“What I attribute to the other [person] is actually my own madness, my lack of perspective,” he says of “Tara”. He uses the Portuguese word “implicância” which is used in the context of unprovoked bullying. 

Perhaps his purest intention is found in the arrangements of “Tara”. Amarante addresses interpretation through the musical arrangement as “the curve that relates to the idea I had before writing the lyrics. Maybe that would be redundant, but as many people don’t speak Portuguese, it wouldn’t be a bother.”

“I created an introduction made of chords; a solar, intense thing as if it were an arrival, the feeling of falling in love,” he continues. “This is the first moment of a relationship. From then on, the arrangement empties itself and becomes bossa nova.

“I wait for the guitar to enter. It’s as if this is the moment after passion when you begin to hold yourself on so you won’t let your own projections show. When the chorus comes, you’ll hear that section of horns that recalls the period before 1940s bossa nova, as if the horns are making fun of the feeling in the song.

“This creates a humorous contrast. It’s the memory of what you felt when you fell in love, there’s something ridiculous about that. There’s this humor [in the arrangement] that may not be in the lyrics–to start together, and then splitting up.”

Indeed, being one but apart (and vice-versa) are recurrent themes throughout Drama. It’s in “Tango” where Amarante sings: “and we become, and we become, and we become one”. It’s also in “Eu com você” when he sings in Portuguese: “If what I call yours is me / It’s the part that ends in me / […] If I lose the air I breathe what you are / and am much less the weather / I am the other / […] I am the grace of every being me with you.” In “I Can’t Wait”, Amarante is assertive: “to be free is to belong.” There’s some sort of symbiosis in the feelings conveyed in these songs.

“Days ago, I was thinking about how funny it is how we think it’s beautiful to feel small, much more than feeling big. This is a good feeling, we like it, it gives us relief. I understand this as something related to the unconsciously feeling that we are part of something complex and unique,” he says. “While, for another side, feeling big does not give the same relief, it makes us nervous.”

He elaborates upon “the idea of understanding ourselves as predators” as “something we borrow from naturalism.” But to him, “the more we are bees, worms, the better. The permeability between us, that’s where the great beauty is.” He even adds, like a note to himself: “Maybe I should write a song about ants.”

“The best way to synthesize it is: freedom is to belong. Together, we are more. The fear of losing individuality through cooperation and union is nonsense. We know that freedom cannot be an individual thing, freedom is a condition of the whole.”

Could this personal feeling also be political? As a Brazilian, I can’t help but asks Amarante what he thinks about the rise of anti-democratic feelings in Brazil, boosted by President Jair Bolsonaro’s politics. “It’s a mix of feelings,” he tells me. “I came to the United States with a certain Latin-American arrogance of thinking that we are different, that we know how much [people] need each other. It was sad to see that changing in Brazil, and I do not think of this as a natural change.”

While I didn’t want our conversation to stray too much from the music, I had a feeling that his thoughts on Brazilian politics could also say things that can be tied back to the themes in his music. “I see it all as phenomena of fear, fear of the other, fear of affection, fear of joy, fear of freedom,” he shares about what’s happening in Brazil. “But I have faith in transcendence.”

Drama is universal in its range of emotions, but the album is about Amarante and no one else. It’s genuine and human in how it is vulnerable and paradoxical. It’s a beautiful tragedy, also infused with an elegant calmness, displayed through a balance of lyrics in English and Portuguese. Thinking and writing in different languages can provide the chance to take on different personas, so I ask Amarante about his songwriting process and the language choice for his lyrics. “It’s rarely strategical,” he answers.

“I once wrote French lyrics for Cavalo [2013]. At that time, I wanted to write in French so I could put myself in the shoes of a foreigner, trying to communicate in a language I haven’t mastered. It was an experiment.

“Other times, like in ‘I’m Ready’ and ‘The Ribbon’, I wanted to write about two characters in different but interconnected moments. A boy that called himself a soldier and went to war. There are no wars in Brazil, so I thought this had something to do with the United States a bit more.

“Apart from that, it usually goes with prosody,” he continues. “Melody guides me, sometimes. Melody calls for words. At least in my case, that’s more common than the opposite. Prosody imposes a set of rules, tonics. I don’t like when the tonics of the syllables are not respected, for example.”

Amarante’s songwriting approach is like that of a goldsmith; precise and beautiful. Yet he’s humble in acknowledging that the ideas driving his creative choices change. There’s rarely a definite angle. Instead, he explores many perspectives, even if it means he’ll find himself “coming back to places”. In many of the songs in Drama, “metaphors circle back to themselves,” he says. “I prefer to accept this and build these bridges. There’s a lot of this in the album.”

Interestingly enough, such circularity is found even in a song with a direct, precise title such as “The End”.

“I started writing this song ten years ago, or maybe even more. I repeat a line in the same tone from a song from the Cavalo–something that maybe no one will notice–which to me has something to do with the myth of climbing and falling back. It’s a circular thing, and it’s also related to the connections between the songs. It’s me, trying to write the same song, but because of the spirit of the time, the place, I end up writing different songs.

“In the end, it’s just me rolling from the same mountain. So, ‘The End’ is about one end, but it’s a line that splashes itself to somewhere out of the album.”

It’s a perfect way to end the journey that is Drama, suggesting that no end is ever an end; or that, at least, even an end can be subject to the joys of interpretation.

This interview was conducted in Portuguese and edited for clarity.  Rodrigo Amarante’s words were translated to English by the writer. Translation of the Portuguese lyrics in Drama were provided by the publicist.