Interview: Rodrigo Amarante On Brazil, Saudade And New Album 'Drama' NPR's Ailsa Chang talks to musician Rodrigo Amarante about his second solo album, Drama, which he says was inspired by a personal reckoning with his own understanding of manhood.

Rodrigo Amarante And His Great Musical Tantrum

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

And last week I was standing on a balcony overlooking this gorgeous vista of the east side of LA.

Wait, so first of all, how many stone steps did I just climb up to get to you right now? (Laughter).

RODRIGO AMARANTE: A hundred and eight.

CHANG: Are you serious, 108?

AMARANTE: Yes. Yeah.

CHANG: I got my workout in already then.

AMARANTE: Yeah.

CHANG: We were at the home of musician Rodrigo Amarante. It's a bungalow perched on a lush green hillside.

Wait, so what happens when you forget something in your house and you have to go back up?

AMARANTE: I work on my Brazilian butt.

CHANG: (Laughter).

Amarante, who's originally from Brazil, has been known in the U.S. for his work with the band Little Joy. Today, he's out with his second solo album called "Drama," which he finished right here at his home.

(SOUNDBITE OF RODRIGO AMARANTE SONG, "MARE")

CHANG: How long have you lived in LA?

AMARANTE: I think 13 years now - something like that.

CHANG: Thirteen years.

AMARANTE: Yeah, and in this house for nine.

CHANG: I read that you felt LA allowed you to, quote, unquote, "start over." What did you mean by that? What were you starting over from?

AMARANTE: So I didn't really choose to come here. I had a career in Brazil as a musician. I had two bands, very different from each other, and they were both quite successful. So starting over in the sense that I was, you know, somewhat known in Brazil for my music - so when I'm here, no one knew who I was, you know?

CHANG: What did that feel like?

AMARANTE: Still, a lot of people don't know who I am.

CHANG: What does that feel like as someone...

AMARANTE: It feels wonderful.

CHANG: ...Who feels known in Brazil?

AMARANTE: It felt wonderful because it was...

CHANG: You liked being anonymous.

AMARANTE: Yeah, but not only for the sake of, like, not being recognized or something like that - in terms of the challenge of writing, you know?

CHANG: Yeah.

AMARANTE: I'm not playing for my fans.

CHANG: Yeah.

AMARANTE: All of a sudden, I have to conquer a room of strangers with my music, right? And that's treasure. That's punk.

CHANG: That wasn't daunting?

AMARANTE: No, that's - I mean, that's what I wanted. It puts the music to test. And I'm starting to write in this language that I'm learning as I go, you know? And so this is - the whole challenge is perfect, you know? Performance is danger.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MARE")

AMARANTE: (Singing in non-English language).

CHANG: So then when you first moved here - I'm just curious - if someone were to ask you, what does LA represent to you?

AMARANTE: Being a foreigner, in that sense - it's a very valuable experience.

CHANG: To be new to a place.

AMARANTE: Yeah, we all know the feeling, you know? But when you actually move somewhere, it's different than visiting. Visiting, you get this, like, hypersensitivity, right? But when you're actually living there, you go through - especially if language is involved, it can be very hard, you know?

When I first came, my English wasn't very good, and so I felt like I didn't get the sense of humor that was presented to me. I felt like I couldn't transmit my sense of humor. Therefore, I had the feeling that people thought I was dumb or not interesting. And that's a process that a foreigner lives through. And it's painful, but I feel very rich and important. It was to me, you know?

CHANG: Well, I'm curious how perceptions of where you belong have evolved as you moved through life. Like, you've called this latest album "Drama." Tell me why you chose that name.

AMARANTE: It was a name that came - I was writing this string arrangement. And I didn't - at the time, I was like, why am I writing this thing? But it was just feeling right, which ended up being the introduction of the record.

(SOUNDBITE OF RODRIGO AMARANTE'S "DRAMA")

AMARANTE: And I was sent to this memory of me being a kid. It was the moment where my dad - and I must have been 8 or 7 - where my dad, who was a wonderful father, but brought me outside. And it was the moment of ritual, of turning from boy to man. So he shaved my head. But I was sent to that moment and understood that drama was what I was supposed to get rid of to become a man, in this fallacy that is repeated and that my father was passing on to me.

CHANG: When your father says it's time to cut your hair for you to become a man, what were the thoughts that went through your head?

AMARANTE: So I felt ashamed that I felt ugly.

CHANG: You were ashamed that you felt ugly.

AMARANTE: Because I understood that I wasn't supposed to...

CHANG: Have vanity.

AMARANTE: I could have had a certain type of vanity - you know, maybe the vanity of muscles. But the truth is, the next day, I felt ugly. But that feeling - you know, I knew I wasn't supposed to care about being pretty, but I did. And so I think that is what stayed with me.

CHANG: The concept of manliness that your father had as a person who is not concerned with being pretty - do you agree with that concept of masculinity today? Is there...

AMARANTE: No, of course not. That's why I wrote this record and called it "Drama," because I'm responding to that. I'm rejecting that idea.

CHANG: You've told me that when you came here to the United States, that you had to learn this whole new language. And sometimes when you're communicating with people, some aspects of your emotion and your humor don't get transmitted to the people you're talking to. Does that happen when you're performing in front of an English-speaking crowd, that there's a part of you that doesn't get transmitted?

AMARANTE: I can't remember who said that, but someone said learning a new language is like having another personality. And it's an exaggeration, but I can relate because language is - it's so fun to learn a new language, but exposes so many things about the culture, you know, that you can see reflected. So yes, if I'm performing - but in a way, it's not important because music lovers listen to music in all kinds of languages. And there's something beautiful about it, too. If you don't understand the words, you have more space in that mirror to project. You can invent something that's there, you know? And you can occupy that space and make your own.

Sometimes I ask, like - and I will ask you, do you want me to sing in Portuguese or in English? And I don't know if people feel uptight with the question, but they keep saying it doesn't matter. I was like, it must matter. And then I can say, well, my words don't matter?

(LAUGHTER)

AMARANTE: But I know what they mean, you know? There's something in each one of them, you know?

CHANG: And with that, Amarante invited us into his living room. He sat us down, picked up a well-worn white guitar named Butter (ph)...

AMARANTE: Butter - you know, it has the marks of my labor. And it's the guitar...

CHANG: ...And treated us to our first live music performance since the beginning of the pandemic. It was his first, too.

AMARANTE: Oh, yeah. So because we talked about it, what language do you want to hear?

CHANG: How about Portuguese?

AMARANTE: All right, more room for imagination.

CHANG: Exactly. Because I don't understand a word.

AMARANTE: You know you understand it, in a non-verbal way. So this song is called "Tara."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TARA")

AMARANTE: (Singing in Portuguese).

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