Written by NPR Staff from National Public Radio
Brazilian singer Luciana Souza has worked in many genres, from jazz and bossa nova to classical music and even, as a small child, commercial jingles. A graduate of Berklee and the New England Conservatory of Music, Souza has been nominated for four Grammys and worked at a prolific pace. In fact, she’s just released two albums of covers, Duos III and The Book of Chet; the latter finds her covering the works of Chet Baker. Souza discussed her career, her vocal techniques and the language of music with All Things Considered host Melissa Block. Hear the radio version at the audio link and read more of their conversation below.
NPR: What do you hear as the links between bossa nova from Brazil and the West Coast cool jazz of Chet Baker?
I think there are very obvious connections. Both records are records of covers. I’m just singing songs that have already been recorded. They’re very simple; they’re very direct live recordings done with very few instruments. Those are the obvious things, and then for me, stylistically, I’m not changing anything when I’m singing in English and in Portuguese. I’m really looking for the common language between these two records as if they are Side A and Side B.
Obviously, Portuguese comes very naturally to me — I was born and raised in Brazil — so this is the music that’s my native music. English is sort of my adopted language, and America’s my adopted country. I’ve been here for over 25 years now, so more than half of my life at this point. So singing in English for me right now is almost as natural as Portuguese, but looking for repertoire that suits me is still challenging.
NPR: Do you think there’s something in the sound that links these two albums together — that you’re hearing something in both bossa nova and in songs that Chet Baker made famous that really are of a piece for you?
Yes, absolutely. There’s a deep connection between Chet Baker and bossa nova. It’s known and it’s well-documented that musicians in the bossa nova era, so mid- to late ’50s and early ’60s, were listening to Chet Baker, who had the height of his popularity in the mid-’50s as a singer and trumpet player.
So this music was coming to Brazil — these players were listening to that music, and with the advent of microphones, people were getting closer to the mic and able to sing more subtly and not belting out with a lot of bravado. It’s the same sound you find in the music coming out of the U.S. at the time, especially coming out of L.A. — the sort of the West Coast jazz, and especially in the voice of Chet Baker. So there’s that connection, and then the music I grew up listening to is primarily bossa nova, which is quiet, straight-toned, very still and subtle. There is definitely an obvious connection there.
NPR: It’s interesting to me that you’re calling bossa nova subtle, because there’s so much spirit and joy in the faster songs that you do on the album — like “Doralice,” for example.
Yeah, but it’s still for us Brazilians samba — “Doralice” could be considered the samba, as well. When it’s done with a large band and a lot of percussion, then that’s what we call loud. So if it’s done with just guitar and bass and drums and a little percussion, then it can be considered bossa nova or treated like a bossa, which is what I do whenever I sing anything, basically.
NPR: Talk me through this conversation you’re having [in “Doralice”], with your sort of scatting vocals and guitar.
“Doralice,” like many of the songs I sing, is about a love affair. In this case, it’s a guy who feels quite pressured because this woman, his fiancée at this point, really wants him to get married and is really pushing him. He says, ‘No, no. Doralice, listen. I’m fine.’ It’s sort of like a man at a corner being forced into a situation he knows is not going to turn out very well. So we try to infuse it with humor, obviously, because it’s in the lyric. The dialogue between the voice and guitar is the dialogue between the woman and the man.
NPR: It’s a lot of words to fit in there.
It certainly is, and it’s always a challenge with Portuguese, but I like to force myself into these places… I think that’s sort of my jazz spirit coming through, also. I want to be able to do something different with this song, so it’s been sung slowly; it’s been done differently. What can I do to it to create some interest and challenge for myself, so I can make something new with it?
NPR: And what are you singing there?
I’m saying, “Well, one day you showed up to me and I tried to run away, but you insisted. Something was telling me. Something was telling me very deeply that I should run away, but I stayed.” And at the end of the song, they actually end up getting married. He throws his hands in the air and says, “Okay, I’ve done it.”
NPR: You have a few guitar players playing very different guitars on the album. Did you find yourself changing your singing based on the kind of guitar you were singing with?
Definitely, with each player. With Marco Pereira, for example, who’s classically trained and a real master of Brazilian classical guitar, I chose keys that were specifically higher so my voice would be brighter. He was playing a seven-string guitar as opposed to a regular six-string guitar, so he has more bottom on his guitar. The idea of contrast between bottom and top was very attractive to me. So I wanted to be on the far right, if you can say that, and he would be on the far left. Although I’m a Democrat, I need to say that. [Laughs.]
NPR: On what song might we hear that distinction you’re drawing between [Pereira] being sort of down on the bottom and you’re up high?
I would say “Chora Coracao” [by Antonio Carlos Jobim] was a good example where he uses the range of the guitar in sort of in extremes, and I’m singing very high. I wouldn’t even call it a classical sound, but I have a lot more bravado, and because the key is higher it’s much brighter. I wanted something a little more dramatic; the lyrics really talk about a broken heart, a crying heart.
NPR: What does the seventh string add with that guitar, do you think?
It adds a bottom, so an extra string that you can tune a fourth down from the low E so you have to voice it differently. It brings different overtones. The lowest sounds that you add onto an instrument, the more higher overtones you get. In terms of the spectrum of sound for the listener, I think, it’s a richer experience. So for me, I can sit in the middle of my voice and go brighter in the higher part, and there’s just more support at the bottom.
You know, when you’re speaking about playing in a duet situation, what’s interesting for me is that the dialogue is a sonic dialogue, obviously. It’s an emotional dialogue, and yet there’s always these other aspects of music that I’m thinking about — what do the lyrics say? Do I have a lot of consonants? A lot of vowels? Brazilian is a very syllabic language, so what exactly am I saying? How much counterpoint do we have between the two sounds? Am I holding? Am I sustaining? Who’s being percussive? So all of these considerations come into play, but in the moment of singing, all you do is just deliver your sound. It’s very abstract — you think about it and you send out a sound, and then hope that it will arrive at the right place. You communicate, really, your spirit, your lyricism and, of course, the work of the composer.
NPR: When you’re doing a Chet Baker song — a song that he played and sang, and you were talking about Portuguese language and how it fits as you’re singing — what’s the difference, say, when you’re singing a song like “The Very Thought of You”?
Well, when I learn a song in English, I try to learn it for many different singers. So in the case of the songs on this record, I of course focused on Chet. I really dissected his sound. I’ve been listening to him for many, many years — really decades. His sound sounds very normal to me, his voice, but because he’s a trumpet player, his sound is very focused. Trumpet is an instrument where you’re mostly tonguing; it’s hard to slur on the trumpet, so it’s very precise, although you can change it with a mute and whatnot. But what comes across with Chet is a vulnerability, a brokenness of his soul. We know his tragic life — his involvement with drugs and his tragic death, as well.
But in terms of singing in English, I bypass. I go through the diction. I go through the words. I go through the meaning of the text, and then I have to arrive at something else. Obviously, this process is much faster for me in Portuguese. I read something, it immediately communicates, it has a context for me. So, English, I do have to listen to a lot of different versions and then settle on something. But, in the moment of the recording — because we do all these records live — what I’m looking for is the experience of listening to the other players, listening to the tempo of the song and on purpose we chose tempos that are really, really slow to allow for me to let silence play a part in this recording, because I think that’s what makes a ballad speak: the amount of silence you have as counterpoint to sound.
NPR: It’s interesting that you say that, because I was thinking there’s so much restraint and holding back in how you sing these songs.
And that’s something that was quite deliberate on our part. We went through the harmony of each one of the songs and took out everything we thought was unnecessary. So we looked at the original chord changes, the original harmony for each one of the songs, and really took away everything we felt was excessive. If we strip this down to the core of it, what were we left with? What was the composer really saying with these lines?
When I think of a song like “Forgetful,” for example, you know it’s got a really sweet melody, almost like a lullaby if you sing it without the words. [Sings it without words.] It’s a very simple, sweet, almost joyous melody, and then when you listen to the words, it really is a song of complaint, complaining about this love that’s not the same as it used to be — all the romance, all the kissing. So what we put underneath the melody was a sort of a rocking chair, coming and going, lullaby-like. So I’m complaining, but it’s quite detached, as it would be in bossa nova. I’m not screaming. I’m not crying. I’m not begging. I’m just stating it.
NPR: And that rocking motion underneath you…
Yeah, with the guitar creating, exactly, and the single notes here as if I’m poking, gently poking you. Will you be there for me again? Will you kiss me again? Will you love me again? I think Chet did this so beautifully — because he was, maybe because he was so high on drugs, maybe because he was so deeply broken inside. Something comes through; he respects the melody very much. Outside of his scat singing, he delivers the melodies pretty straightforward, and I would say even a reverence for melody. So what comes across is his soul that comes from his sound, which is not masculine; it’s not feminine. It’s a hybrid. It’s somewhere in between, and I think that’s very comforting for us as listeners.
NPR: When you were growing up in Brazil, your father was a singer and songwriter, and your mother was a poet and lyricist. Would they have been listening to Chet Baker?
Oh, definitely. I can say that I’m a product of what I grew up listening to in my parents’ home. I left when I was 18 to go to Boston, to go to school, and so the memories I have are all of the music that I grew up with, and that’s why I’m still singing the same songs. I’m still singing standards, and I love jazz for that reason — for that tradition that you can take old songs and do your own reading and bring them to this moment like taking a photograph of now, of this song now.
NPR: One of my favorite songs is the Hoagy Carmichael song “I Get Along Without You Very Well.” The pacing here is so deliberate and intense.
Yeah, it’s so strange to me that we can get to this with so little. Like nobody’s making an effort; it really is the fact that we slowed down the tempo so much. We have no choice but to sit very still, very present and just really play the music and sing the song. To me, this one was the hardest one to record. It’s interesting that you said it’s one of your favorites — it became one of my favorites, too, but because we doubled up the slowness of it… Like, we really took it apart and just broke it down to its basics and stretched it until we couldn’t anymore. It was hard for me to sing it, because I felt, “Is this too much? Am I really trying the listener here? Am I really going to force this thing into something it’s not?”
We did one take and we went back into the studio and listened, and then we realized it was magical — that in some way we had arrived at something that was jazz and country and Brazilian. It was just a combination of everything, and the song was so strong and so powerful that it survived us. It survived the metronome being at like 52 or something.
NPR: You were saying this was one of the hardest ones to do. When the pacing is so stretched out like this, is it hard to keep the momentum of the song in you, to keep it going that way?
Yes, but also to trust that silence is a part of sound. Again, I go back to that idea of emptiness — what sustains when there’s nothing there? Well, we’re intelligent, so we can hold that thought through. The listener doesn’t need to be manipulated and told. The listener, once you enter a song, there’s enormous trust; it’s almost like a leap of faith that you’re doing a song this slow. You just have to trust that the listener will continue and hold that thought and carry it through with you, and that the story is so strong and the composer has done his or her job so well that it will sustain.
But for me, as a singer, it’s like I’m not doing anything, so what’s going to happen here? Of course, I trust that the musicians will carry it forward, but it’s more of a spiritual thing. You really have to deliver it and turn yourself and surrender into the song and take that journey of the words. In this song, particularly, I think it’s the irony of, ‘Of course I don’t get along without you. I’m aching, I’m aching, I’m broken. I’m in pieces here, but I can’t even confess to this.’
NPR: What’s it like for you to hear this now?
It’s interesting: As with many artists, you have to do something and just create some distance between you and the work; otherwise, you suffer too much because you become so attached. Especially music, you send it out into the world and it’s abstract. It’s traveling on air, and it will get to somebody’s ear and it will either reach them or not — so I try to make a record, and after it’s mastered, I try not to listen to it anymore. Until I get to a place like today, this interview, where I’m forced into thinking about it and remembering. It’s interesting.
I have to say, though, I love singing and I love what I do and I love the honesty with which I try to infuse everything I do, so I’m hoping that that comes across. I’m listening to myself and I’m going, ‘Yeah, I remember that.’ Especially because it’s live and we’re not hiding anything. We want all of the vulnerability of the sound — the mistakes, really — to come across, because they’re a part of that moment. They’re that photograph that we take.
NPR: If you’re performing now in a concert, would you be doing both of these albums sort of side by side — Brazilian songs and also Chet Baker songs?
Yeah, we’ve designed… I just finished designing a beautiful set. I think it’s a beautiful set — I’m imagining some lighting design and some drapes coming to aid, because the challenge is doing a record of ballads and presenting some of this music live. How do you keep the listener interested in a performance? Not at home when somebody’s maybe reading, or might be cooking, or might be just sitting by the fire or at the beach with headphones. This is a different thing; it’s a live experience, so I’m performing for the audience.
NPR: When you’re singing [and] there are no words to give it meaning — it’s patterns of sound and I guess the shape of your voice — what are you thinking about?
It’s interesting. Each phrase for me has a certain gestalt. I look at the shape of it and the intervals that are being communicated, and then the syllables just sort of match. I think of an instrument or I think of the guitar, and maybe I think sometimes of a flute depending on the range or a different horn, or maybe a soprano or alto. It just sort of comes out, and then I sing it enough — I have to practice, obviously — that it sort of falls into a place and it becomes a word almost to me, so every time I sing the song, I almost always likely go into the same syllables.
At the end of each one of these takes, I’d be like [panting]. I made it. I’m like sweating, literally sweating in a cold studio. Studios are very cold places, but at the end of one of those, we were sweating. It’s tough to do it live, but it’s really the joy for me. It’s that this music, again, doesn’t hide anything. It really carries forward what we have. For me, it’s air. For [Marco Pereira], it’s fingering on the fret of the guitar. So you hear his breath, and in some of the recordings, you hear a lot of grunting from the players — we can’t hide it. We have two mics and that’s it. To me, it really becomes like a photograph. It really is a record of a moment, of an afternoon, of a meeting and of souls trying to communicate something in music, and hopefully doing something beautiful for the world.