With a new album, the singer and composer blazes new trails for Brazilian music.
From behind a guitar and a pair of thick-rimmed, Elvis Costello-worthy glasses, singer and composer Lucas Santtana is quietly leading a revolution in Brazilian music. In a country smothered in its own rich songwriting tradition, Santtana has worked hard to escape the mold and forge new directions for the Brazilian sound.
Each of his five studio albums has had a guiding concept behind it, ranging from a re-imagining of ’70s Tropicalia to experiments with Jamaican dub. In 2009, he put out an album Sem Nostalgia (Without Nostalgia), using just voice and guitar in the tradition of Brazilian greats like João Gilberto. Except, apart from the instrumentation, there was nothing traditional about the album at all. The album uses sampling and effects, taking techniques from electronic music to transform the acoustic guitar into a 21st century sound machine.
This February, Santtana put out a yet newer album, called O Deus Que Devasta Mas Tambem Cura (The God That Devastates But Also Cures). The album, which comes out in Europe and the US in September, mixes samples from classical music with contemporary arrangements influences by everything from indie rock to technobrega. It’s garnering raving reviews in the Brazilian press so far, cementing Santtana’s position as one of the leading voices of his generation.
We caught up with Santtana over the phone from Rio de Janeiro to chat about the new album, the importance of texture in music and why he really is without nostalgia for the ’70s.
So tell me about this new album, O Deus Que Devasta Mas Tambem Cura (The God That Devastates But Also Cures). What’s new about it?
Well, the other albums were born from a musical idea, and the songs followed that idea. This album started because of a set of songs that were made at the same time. So, the album’s sound, its concept, came after those songs were created.
It has a very different sound from the previous album, Sem Nostalgia. That album is mostly just voice and guitar. Why the change?
I have five albums and all are quite different. I don’t know, I’ve always listened to all kinds of music. Ever since I was a teenager, I’ve been interested in various musical universes. In each album, I try to live in a different musical universe. It provides an opportunity to learn. For example, I released a dub album, and it made me learn a lot about dub and Jamaican music. Then I did a guitar album, and since the guitar has a long tradition in Brazilian music, I went and researched it. And now this new album uses a lot of samples from symphonic orchestras, from Beethoven and Ravel. That music took me back to stuff I listened to a lot when I was younger. Each album has allowed me to experience new things, so maybe that’s why each album is different. For me, it’s normal to be this way.
Why did you want to work with classical music samples? Where did that idea come from?
Well, I had a friend over to record some wind parts on the track that opens the album (see below). He recorded it, and then, I realized it was missing something. So I put an excerpt from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, a movement called “The Musician”, and it sounded really cool. I began to understand that it was a new way of approaching the album, because the lyrics talk a lot about relationships; they’re very emotional. And the sound of the orchestra helps to intensify these emotional things. Most movie soundtracks are made from orchestral sounds, because they have the power to incite emotions. The album’s lyrics needed it, that emotional quality, and I learned to see it as something to do with the album.
You also used a number of Brazilian rhythms, for example there’s a song with tecnobrega.
Yes, it’s called “Ela é Belém.” There’s a sample of tecnobrega, but the truth is that the beat is closer to reggaetón than tecnobrega. I sample Waldo Squash, a leading tecnobrega DJ.
Although tecnobrega is massively popular, there are a lot of Brazilians out there that think it’s a worthless kind of music. Do you like it?
Since I was a teenager I have listened to all kinds of music. I don’t care if it’s considered tacky, I will listen first before I judge. Every musical genre has good and bad elements. In rock, there is a bunch of garbage, horrible music that everyone loves in Brazil. It’s not the genre means something will be classified as good or bad. It is the music itself, depends on the quality of those who make it.
I’ve noticed many Brazilian rock and experimental musicians becoming interested in these supposedly “tacky” kinds of Brazilian pop styles recently – not only technobrega, but axé, funk carioca. Is this something new?
Brazilian popular music has always been this way, always using everything. It’s always been like that.
How is the current Brazilian music scene today, in your opinion? Is it a good or a bad moment?
It’s a very good time, many good artists, making good songs, and good records. There are artists receiving many excellent reviews here and abroad, in Europe and the US. The songwriting is also very diverse and very rich, almost like we’re living in the 70s again. I think it’s a very special moment.
Is it hard to compose knowing that there have been so many very good composers in the history of Brazil – from Antonio Carlos Jobim to Caetano Veloso and Hermeto Pascoal. Does this intimidate you in some way?
No, no way. I think what we do is different from what they did, not in terms of composition, but in terms of instrumentation. Today, the sounds of the albums are very different from the last generation. I think the records these days have an international sound, because they aren’t just Brazilian – they are from the world, you know? We are connected to everything that’s happening in the world. So, I don’t feel any nostalgia of the 70s in that sense.
I read on your site that you are more interested in musical texture than melody and chords. Tell me about that.
In terms of melody, rhythm and harmony, almost everything has been done in Brazil. Like you said – we’ve had all these famous composers. Nobody is going to reinvent the wheel in terms of melody and harmony. You will make beautiful songs, but to say you have made a song with an entirely new harmonic sequence is a lie. So what we can do is layer the sound in a new way. And working with sound creatively is new in Brazil.
There are only 12 notes, after all.
Exactly, it’s restrictive.
You’ve worked with many different producers on this album and the last as well, including Arto Lindsay and João Brasil. Why work with so many different people on one album?
I started doing this on the last album because, with the core of just voice and guitar, I found working with several producers enriches the record. It brings something new to something that was limited.
I noticed that one of your collaborators on this album was your son. What did he play?
Yes, my son did a song with me. He’s nine. I wrote a song for him and in the process he made up the rest of the lyrics. He was my partner in the composition.
I’ve seen that the magazines and newspapers in Brzil are speaking highly of the record. Do you think this album will do well?
I don’t know, honestly, I hope that people like it. People are downloading the album, that they have enjoyed it. Here in Brazil and also in Europe, the journalists loved it. They wanted to talk about the album, but I couldn’t, because it will only be released there in September, so I ended up doing three new songs for the album in Europe, to be different from the album in Brazil.
I’ve always loved Radiohead. I like the way they work with sound. They think a lot in layers when they compose, the way to arrange the instruments in the composition. I identify with that.
How about those thick glasses I’m seeing in all your press photos – have you always worn them?
No, that’s a recent thing. [silence]