Marisa Monte is a true musician. Her albums routinely go putf8um around the world, and her shows sell out wherever she plays — whether in or out of her native Brazil — but her approach is not at all that of a pop star. Her musical background is rich and combines the samba traditions of her hometown, Rio de Janeiro, European classical opera training, and Brazilian and international popular music. Music for her is not a means to an end but a process, a way of life, as she explained by phone from her home in Rio.
“I don’t do a career. I do a life, and sometimes out of my life something happens that can serve the music in my career as well professionally, but you know I do music every day with my friends,” Monte said. “It’s really part of my house, of my environment. Most of my friends are musicians — we play almost every night at home, and so it’s a natural consequence of the style of life.”
Out of this atmosphere were born her new twin EMI albums, Universo ao Meu Redor and Infinito Particular. Her seventh and eighth full-lengths were the product of a hiatus of a few years — agonizingly long to her fans — during which she took time off to have a baby. This gave her a chance to comb through her tape archives, both of her own unreleased material and of sambas known only through oral tradition in Rio. Out of these archives came most of the material for the new releases.
Although these records were issued simultaneously, they take distinct approaches to Brazilian music. Universo ao Meu Redor reflects her commitment to and exploration of Rio’s rich samba heritage, whereas Infinito Particular focuses on original compositions written over the years by Monte in collaboration with various songwriting partners (Arnaldo Antunes, Carlinhos Brown, Seu Jorge, David Byrne, etc.).
Though Infinito is in the vein of some of the pop music Monte has recorded in the past, it has a conceptual depth and consistency surpassing that of her earlier work.
“Most of the songs were composed on the acoustic guitar, so all the harmonic texture is basically based on the acoustic nylon string guitar,” Monte explained. “But we also invited different arrangers to do different songs and had them all write for the same group of instruments, the same quartet, which is bassoon, cello, violin, and trumpet. So even if we have Philip Glass, João Donato, Eumir Deodato — each very different styles — the unity of the record happens through the same group of instruments, and it’s the same group of instruments that I have on stage now with me.”
For several years Monte has been archiving sambas passed around by veteran Rio sambistas, and her other new recording, Universo, collects her versions of these, combined with more recent sambas written by Monte and other contemporary Brazilian musicians. These are approached not as historical documents but as contemporary recordings of traditional music.
“Even if the repertoire sounds very classical, I didn’t want to do a traditional samba record,” Monte said. “I wanted to do a record that could dialogue with my other works — dialogue with the other references that I like and that are present in my work. So I wanted to do samba that I could call mine, and that’s Universo ao Meu Redor.
“The subjects of the songs are very pure, very naive as traditional samba,” she continued. “Most of the songs, they talk about love, about nature, about human common feelings like the values of the community … and yet it sounds very psychedelic. We deal with a lot of freedom with the sounds.”
Both records, as with most of her previous work, rely heavily on collaboration, not as a crutch but as a stimulus for collective creativity. For Monte, music is a social act both in process and in spirit.
“I really love to work together,” she said. “It’s something that stimulates me. It gives me discipline … and I like to think together. I’m very open in my work. I’m not very attached to what I do. I like to exchange and to collaborate, and something that’s very strange about music is that for me it can be also a lonely activity. You can be a solo artist, but for me it has always been a collective way, with bands, in the studio, with composers. I’ve been always finding ways of reutf8g with people and with life through the music.
“Sometimes I think if I was a plastic artist, like a visual artist or a writer, I would suffer a lot. If you are a painter or something, you have to work alone,” Monte added. “Though I would love to one day also be able to do a concert only myself. Maybe one day.”
DIALOGUE OF TRADITIONS
This spirit of collaboration has manifested itself as a dialogue between different styles and approaches within Monte’s music. In addition to the Brazilian and international pop she grew up listening to as a member of her generation, more traditional and classical elements found their way into her life. Her father was a teacher at a samba school in Rio, and she grew up hearing and singing popular and traditional sambas.
“The fact is, samba is the most important musical expression from Rio, and I grew up in Rio,” Monte said. “It’s very natural, loving music.”
Later, Monte became a serious student of opera, which also continues to inform her music, both as a discipline to aspire to and as an aesthetic to avoid.
“When I was 13 or 14, people started to ask me to sing because they noticed — friends in the school and in the family — they noticed that I liked to sing and that I had a nice voice, and they started to ask me, ‘Sing for us. You sing very well — sing for us.’ And then I started to study,” she recalled. “It was very important for me to know my vocal apparel, to learn how. Until now I warm up before every concert with vocalizes that I learned when I was in classical training, but I don’t use that technique for popular music because it’s a technique that was developed for a premic world: you had to sing over a whole orchestra, so it’s very intense — a lot of volume, and it’s a little bit artificial.”
As with many musicians whose voices happen to be their instruments, Monte is forever linked in the minds of her fans with her timbre and delivery. (On Infinito, she plays with this idea of her voice as an instrument, employing wordless melodies and textures and using audio effects to alter and disguise her voice.) In any musical context, it is her profound sense of phrasing that captivates, while focusing the listener’s attention not so much on her own voice as on the song itself.
“I really search for simplicity when I’m singing. I love to sing, and my intensity, I try to find something very similar to the conversation we are having here,” Monte said. “It helps to communicate with people, to be direct, to be without any oversinging. If I am singing a song that is intimate, you can sing really slowly, you can sing it low, you can sing it soft, you can sing it with intimacy. It’s something that I really search for — the exact intensity that the songs ask me to do.”
For Monte, music is a social activity, and communication and collaboration are key elements. In her music and in her process of making music, dialogue flows in all directions: between songwriters and musicians, between audience and performers, between different musical worlds, between musicians and the music itself. The emphasis is not on creating commodities to sell but on sharing the musical process with as many people as possible.
“When we do a song, we don’t do a song to be recorded. I don’t do it like that. I just do it because it’s fun to do. It’s like a game. It’s like playing — a nice thing to do with friends, instead of playing cards or video games,” she offered. “And sometimes something comes out of this universe, this atmosphere, and can be part of something that you can share with a lot of people.” SFBG
Sat/4, 8 p.m., and Sun/5, 7 p.m.
Palace of Fine Arts Theatre
3301 Lyon, SF