The voice of Marisa Monte is supple and sage enough to explore the multitude of musical styles from her native Brazil, to channel our hopes and frustrations as we attempt to emerge from the cloistered dolor of the COVID era and to provide succor through the sheer beauty of song.
Monte will appear at the State Theatre on Saturday night, part of her current tour with an eight-piece band in support of “Portas,” her first solo album in ten years. Although many of the record’s 16 compositions were penned before the pandemic, some seem tailor-made to parry with the current era’s enforced uncertainty, while others brim with escapist romanticism and the gamut of emotion that accompany affairs of the heart. What they share is the sensibility of a mature singer-songwriter, an independent woman capable of conveying nuance and sophistication in the sprightly context of pop music.
Feeling connected to Brazil
Born into a musically-oriented, middle-class family in Rio, Monte learned to play a variety of instruments, but her first love as a vocalist was Maria Callas, and in 1985, at age 18, she went to Rome to study opera. The trip was indeed transformative but not in the way she had imagined. Speaking by phone as the tour stopped in Atlanta last week, she recalled that, as much as she enjoyed the music and landscape of Italy, “I discovered how much of Brazil was inside myself, and how strong the culture of my country is musically,” she said. “I didn’t want to be limited to the classical repertoire, I wanted to be more connected to the contemporary repertoire of Brazilian music and to contemporary life in Brazil. So I went back there and worked very hard.”
While in Italy, Monte met up with renowned producer and family friend Nelson Motta, who staged a show for her in Venice and had a hand in generating a series of live performances in Brazil that wedded different genres and generations of music. There was the samba pervasive in her home since birth, plus jazz, bossa nova and the politically-tinged Modern Popular Brasileira, or MPB, that was an offshoot of the Tropicalia singer-songwriter movement. And there was the more modern, cosmopolitan amalgam of rock, blues and soul. It generated an enormous buzz that sold out venues across the country and resulted in a live television special that became her first album, selling half a million copies.
Having achieved “overnight success” at age 22, Monte shrewdly protected her independence while seeking various ways to deepen her artistry. Her contract with EMI Records secured the rights to her music even as she dove into the label’s archives to research vintage singer-performers such as film star Carmen Miranda.
She established a relationship with Arto Lindsay who was intimately connected to both Tropicalia artists and the downtown New York music scene. Before long, Monte was collaborating with Philip Glass, Laurie Anderson and John Zorn and covering a Lou Reed song. But she became enmeshed with Tropicalia royalty, covering a song by Caetano Veloso and collaborating with Gilberto Gil. She recruited renowned keyboardists as diverse as Japanese electronic whiz Ryuichi Sakamoto and American funkateer Bernie Worrell.
Most significantly, however, Monte was co-writing most of the songs on her records, in tandem with Brazilian musicians such as Arnaldo Antunes, Nando Reis, and especially Carlinhos Brown. In subsequent years she would form the popular trio Tribalistas with Antunes and Brown, even as they remained vital contributors to her own albums. Meanwhile, she began co-producing her records, and even launched her own record label for a while.
For all her multi-tasking and genre-blending, however, Monte will always be primarily defined by her voice, the instrument that sews the breadth and scope of her ambitions together. The Allmusic website puts it this way: “Brazilian vocalist, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and producer Marisa Monte is widely considered the greatest singer of her generation.” After declaring that Monte’s voice is “the most perfect in the world,” her good friend and longtime collaborator Carlinhos Brown explains why. “It’s like the wind: soft, gentle and caressing, but it messes with everything in its path.”
Monte’s takeaway from her early immersion in opera was not the firepower and melodramatics most commonly associated with the form so much as the maintenance of her vocal chords and the use of that strength to broaden and refine her narrative expression.
‘Like a remedy’
Released on her 54th birthday last July, “Portas” utilizes Monte’s narrative acumen in a variety of ways. Recorded between October 2020 and March 2021, the process of making the music was dogged by pandemic complications, even as Monte’s perfectionism produced rehearsals and then recording in Rio and New York, along with remote-controlled string and horn arrangements and other input from Lisbon and Madrid.
“We are in hard times and uncertainty,” Monte said over the phone. “I wanted to connect with the future and offer something that could be healing, like a remedy. There are passages and changes in our lives. They can happen because of things outside our lives but sometimes also in our inner abilities and life.”
The opening title song, which translates in English to “Doors,” is about the opening and closing of options. Monte’s voice is both stately and warmly empathetic, leaning into phrases that stress that our choices aren’t necessarily binary or clear cut.
That’s followed by “Calma,” the album’s first single, translated as “Calm Down.” After a foreboding intro, Monte repeats the title and then sings, “I’m already thinking about the future,” at once firm, flitting and carefree. “I’m not afraid of the dark/I know the dawn comes soon/Let the sunshine hit the road/Light up the black asphalt.” Declarative sentences are suddenly punctuated with her quick, trilling coos, tagged by chiming piano notes and a bevy of horns. It’s exhilarating.
The album’s latest single, entitled “Pra Melhorar” (“To Feel Better” in English), in sung with co-writers Seu Jorge and Jorge’s daughter, Flor. A video for it was just released this week, depicting the three of them seeking underground shelter from a terrible storm, only to emerge the next day to a glorious, magical environment.
An expansive concert
Those three are among ten of the songs from “Portas” that Monte will play on Saturday as part of an expansive, 32-song performance. Monte, who once memorably described her blend of artistic creativity and control-freak work habits by saying “I am a cicada and an ant,” has pretty much locked in the program, to the point where the entire set list can be heard in order on Spotify.
The concert will encompass nearly all the many hits of her career, concluding with her first, “Bem Que Se Quis,” from that televised concert more than thirty years ago. Material early in the concert relies on the latticework of strings common to the folkish Tropicalia days, and a series of songs toward the middle seem to chart the evolution, dissolution and productive resolution of a romance. This is where Monte’s subtle caresses and gentle “messing with things in its path” is most effective. The vocals bear the wisdom and restraint of a woman on her own path, with children and a career, by turns wary and serene.
There are songs with great horn arrangements, sandwiched around a gorgeous samba, “Elegante Amanhecer,” from “Portas.” There are frequent references and analogies to the lush environments of Brazil. “Comida,” an abrasive, hedonistic song from her debut live album is juxtaposed with that shelter-from-the-storm into magic tale, “Pra Melhorar,” from the latest album.
“We don’t have control, or know exactly how things are going to come out,” Monte replied when I asked her how much her singing is conscious and how much is intuitive.
“Brazil is a verb. It is a huge country with so many traditional styles it is hard to talk about one. We mix samba, jazz, reggae, rock, folk, and all the others. This happens not only in music, but good, religion, every aspect of our culture. When I sing, it is exactly the reflection of this person who grew up in this place, where there are no limits and everything can be tried.”