One of the biggest Brazilian artists in the ’90s, Marisa Monte sold millions of records and toured the world, playing an imaginative brand of pop that drew upon her homeland’s musical roots in samba, but reached abroad for other sounds as well. Her first five albums were universally hailed, by fans and critics alike, and her career was going along better than she could have ever dreamed. Then, in 2003, she put her public life on hold and embarked on a more private and yet universal journey—she had her first child, a son.
“Having a child made me stay at home for two years to do breast feeding,” Monte explains. “It allowed me to write music, to compose more, to research more. I’d been traveling a lot in these past years, so it was a really good chance to be at home and create. It’s a good reason to slow down and listen to your real velocity. I have a career, but I’m not doing a career, I’m doing a life.”
With offstage life her top priority, it’s been a six-year wait for fans longing for a Marisa Monte record. Now she returns with twins—two new albums. Universo Ao Meu Redor (The Universe Is Around Me) is collection of samba-inspired Monte originals and traditional samba songs, played by samba musicians but re-imagined by the singer, in collaboration with producer Mario Caldato (best known for his early-’90s work with the Beastie Boys). Infinito Particular (Infinite Private) is an album of all new material, played by modern musicians, and featuring contributions from such esteemed arrangers as Eumir Deodato, João Donato and Philip Glass.
The albums were recorded in two three-month sessions done back-to-back in 2005. As befitting one who’s never done the expected, Monte’s traditional album and her modern album actually sound similar, but each has its own path.
When Monte talks about the life she leads and the career she has, she speaks as if each choice is a mix of intense exploration mixed with personal reflection, and the resultant albums are audio postcards from the journey (it’s no accident that her last album was called Memories, Chronicles And Declarations Of Love). She talks continually about exploring ideas, music and even her past—she recently went back and cataloged and digitized dozens of tapes containing songs she’d written, jam sessions with friends and other musical moments.
“It was like reading old diaries,” says Monte of her stroll down memory lane. “I could look at my work from a distance that I wouldn’t have otherwise.” In the process, she also found two songs that made it on to Infinito Particular.
The singer’s roots in samba go back much farther than these home tapes, of course. Her father, Carlos, was one of the directors of the famous Portela Samba School in Rio de Janeiro, and she started taking drum lessons when she was nine. She also studied piano and theory, and eventually took a six-month sojourn to Italy at age 18 to immerse herself in opera singing.
While producing an album by the Velha Guarda Da Portela, a group of samba players from the school, she was inspired by these traditional players to go deeper into the music. She realized that there were countless samba songs remembered amongst older musicians that hadn’t been recorded.
“They had a very pure relationship with the art,” Monte says of the players she tracked down and worked with. “These people who are like 80 years old used to have other professions than that of professional musician. But they had the music as a way of connection within the community, the traditions. It was a way of keeping their values. Expressing their deeper feelings. It was a very pure relation to art.”
Even though she was doing her first album of traditional music, Monte didn’t want to do an ordinary samba record. She’d worked on two others as a producer, but she couldn’t imagine taking her own work in that direction. “If I was going to deal with this reperto