This time the revolution doesn’t resemble an acid trip in the slightest. It’s true, in the ‘70’s everyone was doing it–but Marcos Valle is far too Apollonian for that. These days he’s even managed to avoid taking on the morosity that inspired the regime of Arthur da Costa e Silva. The beach, the human body, pleasure and music are as much modes of resistance for him as they are muses. The record sleeve of Marcos Valle, the album that he recorded in ‘70, catches him seated on his bed, a suggestion of nudity rippling the white sheet that covers him; a lion’s mane of gold hair, a smile ready to bloom on his lips. Valle’s new image is that of an athletic playboy, a physicality that is destined to draw comments comparing him to a sort of Brazilian Björn Borg. On this record, nicknamed the Bed Album (and with good reason), he reveals a disconcerting mastery of his music, which up to this point was nourished only by the sounds of Brazil. From samba, baião, bossa and the swing of big Hollywood orchestras and the new and liberated tones of psychedelic rock, he crafts a music as happy in deep dark soul-searching as in exaltation, mischief and seduction. This Marcos Valle of 1970 is the ideal lovechild of Valle’s bossa aspirations of the previous decade–those of Samba Demais (1963), and Viola Enluarada (1968)–and the marvels of the one that followed: the soulful rhythms and funked-up grooves of Garra recorded in 1971 with the more liberated structures of folk-rock, cosmic and radiant, inspired by a stay in a fisherman’s shanty on the peninsula of of Búzios and from which emanates the sweet, shady softness of Vento Sul (1972). He sometimes has the air of Charlton Heston in a Biblical movie while he prepares to swallow the pharaoh’s armies with the Red Sea (“Dez Leis”); the triviality of a pop song dedicated to a nice old guy who smiles at you from the other side of the counter every morning (“Quarantão Simpático”); the sophistication of a Mancini lost in a Blake Edwards Comedy (“Pigmalião 70”); the fantasy and the laid back groove of a David Axelrod with psychonalytical accents (“Suite Imaginária”), the spirited and playful hedonism of a summer romance (“Ele E Ela”), or the intimacy of conversation whispered between ears with infinite delicacy (“Que Eu Canse E Descanse”).
The re-release was incontestably a good thing: Light In The Attic–the same studio that exhumed the recordings of Sexto Rodriguez well before Malik Bendjelloul’s questionable film–has given us four albums recorded during this period in a revisitation of this artist whose name is pronounced less often than it should be, especially in comparison to his tropicalist contemporaries. However, it’s not avowed admirers that Marcos Valle’s music lacks: besides what we’ve already evoked, the rediscovery of Valle’s music has been facilitated by the likes of Stereolab, Air, DJ Gilles Peterson, Arrested Development, Kanye West, and even Jay-Z, who sample his work at will. Writing the history of Brazilian music over the last 50 years would be impossible without Marcos Valle: from Caetano Veloso to Elis Regina, from Wilson Simonal to Astrud Gilberto, there isn’t one among them who hasn’t sung a Marcos Valle tune. So last December, when we learned that this master of music was going to answer a few questions for us, we were overwhelmed with joy.
In the long interview with Marcos Valle that you are about to read, we hope our initial enthusiasm is more than evident, and that by the end you share our passion for this iconic figure in Brazilian music.
Interview : Alexandre François/ Illustration : Laurindo Feliciano/ Translation : Dex Blumenthal.
Brazil – U.S.A – Brazil.
You met with success early on in your career–you recorded a track in 1965 that almost immediately set a new international standard for jazz and bossa nova, something about “Samba de Verão”. You’re incredibly prolific. It seems you entered the game already possessed of an extraordinary fluency in your art and beyond. Did it ever go to your head?
That all depends on how you choose to look at things. Considering that since the age of five I’ve been crazy about all forms of music–whether it was classical or pop–and that I took piano lessons and solfège courses , I guess you could say that I had to wait 15 years to record my first song and to become a professional musician–that was in 1963. On the other hand, it’s true that once I was introduced to the masters of bossa nova, they quickly accepted me as one of their own, and very soon my songs were being recorded by the Trio Tamba or Os Cariocas and other Brazilian artists that were big at the time. A year later, Emi offered to record my first album. And that first album was Samba Demais.
Honestly, music always came easily to me; it’s usually born of precise circumstances: an encounter with a woman, the love she awakens, a sentiment of sadness, or awareness of a social problem, but I think the first impulse always came from just being near a piano or my guitar.
Other than that, I had a life typical of a young guy: I partied with my friends, went out with girls. It was as an artist that I fell victim to a certain timidity, which I had to learn to surmount by really exposing myself whenever I composed.
You wrote most of your songs with your brother Paulo Sergio. How does one go about cultivating and developing a collaboration like that? If I’m not mistaken we hear the laughter of one of your sisters in “Ele e Ela” on the album Marcos Valle from 1970. Was music a family affair?
We’ve always basically bathed in music. Our grandmother was a classical pianist. Our mother also played piano. As for our father, he adored Brazilian pop music (MPB). He was a lawyer with an impressive record collection.
In the mid-60’s, after recording two albums in Brazil, you left for the United States. That was before the success of “Samba de Verão/Summer Samba (So nice)”, right? How much time did you spend in the States and what were you hoping to find there?
In 1965, I was 20 when I joined Sérgio Mendes’ group Brasil 1965.
I spent a year in the U.S. playing with or frequenting performances of artists like Dizzy Gillespie, George Shearing, and lots more, and to do a kind of tour of American jazz clubs. In 1967, when my song “Summer Samba (So nice)” became a hit in the U.S. I decided to stay a year longer. I recorded two albums there, and was invited to make guest appearances on a number of television shows throughout the country–I met Henry Mancini, Quincy Jones.
Musically, the experience I had was very rich. But the inspiration I felt wasn’t at all new, in fact it dates back to when I was five. It was around then that I started listening to music from all genres: MPB; classical composers like Ravel, Debussy and Stravinsky; big band jazz and the jazz greats. I was passionate about the generation of artists preceding the invention of bossa nova, people like Dorival Caymmi, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Carlos Lyra, Menescal. I also listened to the voices of Billie Holiday, Nat King Cole, and Frank Sinatra. Added to these discoveries were the voices of Little Richard, Ray Charles, Jimmy Webb, Stevie Wonder and Burt Bacharach, the voices of Black American music in general, I think, and you could compile a whole chain of moments in my life that were very important for me.
Later, while artists like Sarah Vaughan, Dizzy Gillespie, Ramses Lewis, Della Reese, Leon Ware, Oscar Peterson, Johnny Mathis and others were recording versions of my songs, I kept telling myself that life drops the most incredible gifts at your feet.
During your time in America, did you ever have the feeling of being restrained by a musical straightjacket? Did you, for instance, feel that aside from being a Brazilian musician, the people were waiting for you to leave your mark on the jazz-bossa mélange that João Gilberto and Antonio Carlos Jobim had developed and that had been an enormous success half a decade earlier? I’m thinking of that because your music changes noticeably in tone and sonority on your return to Brazil. And when I’m listening to Braziliance, the instrumental album you recorded in the U.S. for Warner, it’s easy to perceive you as being in retreat from your intense presence on various music scenes, like if under it all you were already elsewhere, or you were honoring a contract of sorts and marking the end of a first cycle in your career.
I never had that feeling. Ray Gilbert, who was the editor and also the lyricist and manager for Antonio Carlos Jobim became interested in working with me after the success of “Samba de Verão”. I was introduced to him by Jobim himself, who acted as our intermediary. He made me sign a five-year contract in which it was obligatory that I record an album of instrumental versions of my songs for Warner. I was free to play guitar or piano based on what I felt like doing. Eumir Deodato was in charge of the arrangements. You’re probably familiar with Deodato’s arrangements, as he worked with artists like Björk (Post, Homogenic), Aretha Franklin and Christophe (Aimer ce que nous sommes). So, even if it’s true that the album was made with the American market in mind, Deodato and I tried to makeit as exciting as it could be with the help of some of the best musicians Brazil had to offer. Overall, I recorded it with sincerity and I never once felt the music was anything other than what I wanted it to be.
In any case, I never really anticipated anything. Everything that happened during my career was, for me, a surprise. And happily, most of the time, the surprises were good of the good variety. To this day I’ve never planned anything: I’m 69 years old, I feel free to change, to explore new ideas, to set new goals, invent new ways of doing. I’m a firm believer that there’s no reason to keep doing things the same way, and that we should always be learning or making an effort to learn. I need to feel like I’m in motion. My influences have always been varied, and haven’t ceased to be so since I’ve grown older. I let them keep coming, I accept them and recognize them. In the same way, every album I’ve recorded has always been very different from the one preceding it, but it’s not because I wish to adopt a different sound every time. I record albums in different situations and at certain moments. For me, there are no clear links between my albums.
1968 corresponds to a period when the military regime in Brazil was growing stricter and more harsh. It’s very intuitive: being a singer, and my brother being a lyricist, we set ourselves to writing songs that explored a social and political dimension. That’s why my album Viola Enluarada (1968), before Marcos Valle, was already headed in a different direction than its predecessors. Bossa nova and samba have always been very important for me, it’s true, but they aren’t everything. And on this album, you find other influences, those of baião and toada, the first styles of music I listened to when I was a kid. Their influence is truly present on that album, and they’re the most interesting part in my opinion.
Chamber Music: Som Imaginário, provocation and harmonies
Let’s talk about the album you recorded in 1970, somberly titled Marcos Valle. The cover is a photo of you lounging in your bed, a glass of something in hand, a few scattered newspapers lying on the ground. That room is almost nude. The eye is drawn to the playful contrast of red and white shades. The album sleeve is, graphically, quite strong, and that’s why it is more often called the Bed Album. It breaks with the graphics of your previous albums. Is there any chance the album art dons a particular significance for you? Was it a way of signaling an isolation, a sort of constraint or lock-in that reflected the political situation of the time? Was it taking a hedonistic position against an emerging form of moral puritanism? Or was it simply a way of representing one of the few domains that remained outside the dictatorship’s control?
It’s difficult for me to give a precise response to that question. I think that [the album art on Marcos Valle] has a little bit to do with everything you just described. Of course, there was the politically difficult period, a time of extreme censure. I was nearing the age of 30, I was full of energy and ideas. The bed, sex, and the family seemed ad hoc tools for provocation. So I used them. Musically, it was also the ideal moment to turn up the rock and pop influences in my music, and to muffle the others.
Your sound on this album is marked by the presence of Som Imaginário at your side. They were a breed of psychedelic super-group that acquired a reputation accompanying Milton Nascimento. Som Imaginário comprised certain personalities like Zé Rodrix or Lô Borges, who would go on to influence Brazilian rock during the ‘70’s, regardless of how well-known the group was elsewhere. How did you come to work with them?
I met Zé Rodrix, Lô Borges, and the members of Som Imaginário before making [Marcos Valle]. I was familiar with what they’d recorded in the past. They seemed to have the perfect combination of sounds typical of Minas Gerais, and elements of Brit rock like the Beatles. Their playing and performances were particularly special and seductive events, which is why I called them up and asked if they’d record this album. I also was close with Zé Rodrix, Wagner Tiso and Robertinho Silva, each of whom I worked with separately at different points in my career.
At the time, our family residence, where I lived with my parents, had become more or less an official meeting place for musicians. Everyone came through, whatever their style, and Zé was a regular guest. He’s an important musician who developed his own style. I like Som Imaginário so much I’ll have trouble remembering one track in particular, nevertheless, “Super-God” is a good example of what I’m talking about. But Zé also wrote some really interesting songs, first for his trio, Sá, Rodrix e Guarabyra, in a style that sounds like Brazilian country-rock, and then for his solo albums which were a lot more piano rock oriented. And then, in addition to being talented, he was a funny guy who spat jokes non-stop, meaning that you were always laughing around him. I can’t imagine better company.
You occupy a rather unclassifiable space in the Brazilian music scene circa 1970. One can hardly group you with Tropicalists like Gilberto Gil, Caetano Veloso, or Tom Zé, though you share an interest in anglo-saxon rock and soul with them, and your lyrics take on an overtly political dimension. It’s just as difficult to throw you in with singers like Edu Lobo or Dori Caymmi, and notwithstanding, it seems to me like you three share a quest for harmony and smoothness that is rather different from the happy din and shouts that characterize Tropicalist productions.
Fundamentally, I was a fan of what the Tropicalists were doing. I was like them, like the musicians of Jovem Guarda. a name that designates musicians whose music was essentially inspired by rock’n’roll or anglophone pop. The movement was considered the Brazilian equivalent of the rock’n’roll movement of the ‘50’s and ‘60’s. Partaking of the Jovem Guarda movement were artists like Erasmo Carlos, roberto Carlos, Ronnie Von, Golden Boys, The Pops. Those singers alternated between covers of Beatles, Rolling Stones, Chuck Berry, Gene Vincent, and Jerry Lee Lewis, and original compositions. For instance, I liked the idea of introducing electric guitar to our music, and I totally understood their desire to try something completely new that shattered convention and shocked its audience. I also really admired their talent.
Edu Lobo and Dori Caymmi, who had begun working together, shared my love of, and yes, search for the harmonic suavity and accord that came to us from Dorival Caymmi Dori’s father who played an important part in the developping of bossa nova, in the early days and wrote some classics. , Jobim, João Gilberto and even Villa-Lobos. What made the Tropicalist movement so important–politically and musically–is that it showed us that harmonies aren’t everything, that we needed to focus on other aspects of the music. Even if, today, Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil or Gal Costa share our preoccupation with harmony, they told us themselves that you can’t let the rest hang in those days. But I took everything into account from the beginning: baião, samba , jazz, classical, soul music, rock and bossa nova. To make them noticeable in my music was a simple question of time, little by little, and making the blend of influences appear natural, effortless. And it feels so good to be able to say that one of my favorite versions of “Samba de Verão” was recorded by Caetano Veloso.
How did your label react to your musical change of direction?
My record label at the time, Odeon, a Brazilian subdivision of Emi, was never opposed to any of my creative decisions or my inclinations towards change. They always approved, accepted everything. Milton Miranda, who was the musical director at Odeon and the producer of this album played a very important role in my career. I’m always really grateful to have had his support, and that when I started recording I was young and inexperienced. Milton always gave me good advice and good ideas. It was his idea, for example, to work with Leonardo Bruno on “Dez Leis”. Leonardo was an extraordinary arranger who knew classical music just as well as pop and that’s what gave his songs their particular color.
What memories from the recording sessions for this album stand out to you? Were the studio sessions particularly joyful affairs, maybe you felt like you were breaking the seal on something really special and unique?
I have some very dear memories from that particular recording session. My brother was with me when we recorded my voice, because occasionally we’d have to change something with the lyrics, so I needed his help. Besides that, his presence was just always reassuring.
That album was recorded at Odeon’s studios, in Rio de Janeiro, studios that had the reputation of being the best studios in Brazil. The studios were huge and comfortable, and the sound engineers were extraordinary. When you listen to an album that was recorded there, you realize even today how different and interesting the character of the sound is. The sound of the grand piano, for example, is totally unique.
It’s true that the piano is mainly responsible for the troubling charm and tenderness that emanates from “Que Eu Canse E Descanse”, which is also the only song on Marcos Valle that takes place in the bedroom. The piano is truly that which establishes the intimacy and plenitude in the scene of confession you’ve set up with your lyrics. It sounds destined for the ivory keys.
We worked with Lyrio Panicalli for “Que Eu Canse E Descanse”. Lyrio Panicalli who was one of the best and most influential arrangers of that period. All the arrangers with whom I worked started with my ideas, and transcribed them based on what I sang to them while playing piano. Most often, I’d give them phrases that they had to use. But Panicalli had a talent for piecing together in the same arrangement pre-Bossa school style with the modern and sophisticated elements brought to the table by bossa nova.
The Anamorphosis of the crickets’ singing.
You have on this album one of your classics, “Os Grilos (Crickets sing for Ana Maria)”, a tune that has the distinction of having been re-recorded many times over the course of your career. In your opinion, what makes “Os Grilos” an emblematic song?
The music for “Os Grilos”, with its mélange of baião and bossa, is in terms of rhythm totally characteristic of my style.
For you, what do the crickets that sing for Ana Maria represent? As Ana Maria is the first name of your first wife, it’s tempting to assign an autobiographical context to the story you tell in the song. The lyrics of the English version add a rather tragic dimension. The singing of a cricket in Brazil is treated like the singing of a nightingale in European poetry––as a symbol of ephemeral and rhythmic nature and of the transgressive joys of loving. Is cricket song evocative of something along those lines for you?
Paulo Sergio and I grew up in Rio de Janeiro and we lived close to the beach. Every weekend, we would spend our time surfing at the beach; we were fascinated by the sun, the beach, and the sport. But when school ended and vacation came, we left for the mountains three hours away. Our grandfather had a house in the Friburgo region, and we loved going there because we could bike, swim in the rivers, watch the horses. Life there was completely different from the lives we led in Rio. The only point in common was the presence of nature that we loved above all else. While we were writing “Os Grilos”, Paulo Sergio and I were trying to transcribe the sentiments of someone who is hoping to seduce a girl. We told her something like: “Ok, if you want the sun, the sea, Copacabana and everything else there is, I can give them to you. If right now you want the mountains, the crickets, the rivers, I can give those to you too. I’ll only give you all these things you love, but only on the condition that you never leave me.”
The English version tells an entirely different story. Ray Gilbert wrote the lyrics–he was also the author of Jobim’s English language adaptations. He kept the idea of crickets, but I imagine that everything else we were saying wasn’t easily adapted for the American market, so he thought up this history with Maria who is waiting for her family to leave so that she can sneak out her window to see her lover, kiss him and make love to him. The family returns and catches her red handed. It’s a completely different song. Ray was the one who decided to change the girl’s name from Maria to Ana Maria, which was my wife’s name. He liked how it sounded. I liked the idea.
Do you think the young woman in the Portuguese version accept being the subject of a song?
That song wasn’t really written for a specific girl. You know, Paulo Sergio and I used to bring lots of girls to the beach with us, and then into the mountains (laughs).
When you re-record a track like that one, are you excited by a quest for perfection similar to those of Antonio Carlos Jobim who spent a good part of his career re-recording and re-arranging the same songs – there are too many versions of “Desafinado”, and “Insensatez” to count. So are you also on a quest for an ideal version, an ultimate rendition?
No, I recorded “Os Grilos” more than once because it had become sort of a hit. I remember the first time I recorded it, I was sufficiently satisfied and thought that there wouldn’t be a need for another version. That’s the one I recorded in Brazil in 1966. When I recorded Braziliance, my first American album, Ray Gilbert who was the producer asked me to record an instrumental version. That’s the one I arranged with Deodato. Later, when I recorded Samba 68, Ray Gilbert introduced his English lyrics for “Crickets for Ana Maria”. I liked them, we made a third version. In the ‘70’s when I was recording the Bed Album, we were curious about how it might sound with a more rock’n’roll approach and electric guitars. And much later, when the song became well-known in europe because it was played by certain DJ’s, people asked me to record another. But you know, it wasn’t that different from what happened with “Summer Samba/Samba de Verão”, and because I always had the freedom to write new arrangements, I never tired of that song. At the same time I always found it kind of exciting to present the same song in different formats.
Does that mean you’re enthusiastic about the way Jay-Z sampled “Ele e Ela” on his track “Thank You” (The Fingerprints 3)?
I was happy that Jay-Z used a sample from “Ele e Ela” in his song “Thank You”, like I was happy when Kanye West used “Bôdas De Sangue” on “New God Flow”. It was Kanye West who produced the Jay-Z song. What brings me joy is the idea that these guys might go looking for instrumental tracks on Brazilian records from the ‘70’s to make their own music. And above all, I like that they add their own messages and artistic intentions. I think that’s fantastic.
Also, to see your music appreciated by different generations and different cultures means a lot. Through Jay-Z or Kanye West, my music touches people who never would have thought of listening to one of my records. Maybe some of them will go listen to the original version, they’ll discover a whole album that they might like. That’s what has kept my music and my career alive.
It’s what’s been happening since the ‘90’s, when european DJs started playing my music in clubs, on the dance floor. Joe Davis, the head of the London record label Far Out where I recorded five albums, told me that the first time he heard one of my songs, he was 15 years old. And, he remembers very well that it was in a club in London where Gilles Peterson was DJing. The song Gilles Peterson played was “Os Grilos”. Gilles was one of the very first to use my music in his sets. Then, other DJs started with “Os Grilos”, and then they became interested in other songs from my repertoire, and what was important was that they sometimes played the original version, and sometimes incorporated it into remixes. In this way they introduced my repertoire to a whole new generation.
I like the idea of combining styles and cultures. For me, there are no rivalries in music, whether between artists or styles. I’ve never thought that bossa nova was the one true style while I was playing it, nor did I think rock or jazz were superior to other genres. I’m a musical omnivore. I’ve always like the thought of collaborating with other artists–competitive feelings towards them is a totally alien concept. The only competitiveness I feel is maybe towards myself, but even then it really has nothing to do with posing one album against the other. I just want to keep trying to grow as a songwriter and arranger. I want to be better. How could you be anything but thrilled to have such different audiences, and to be able to tell yourself that you’ve achieved something universal?
Marcos Valle in four albums
Waiting for the Messiah: religion, politics and telenovelas
There are lots of religious references in most of your lyrics. The tracks “Esperando O Messias” and “Dez Leis”off the Bed Album and “Jesus Meu Rei” off Garra are particularly of interest. However, when you distance yourself from the lyrics of “Esperando O Messias” (“Waiting for the messiah) it seems like you might be more interested in satirizing consumer culture than in exploring the concept of hope or messianism. The title is derived from the phrase “Perdemos tempo na esperança do Messias” which means “we have lost time waiting for a messiah”. The lyrics of “Dez Leis” (Ten Commandments) seems to oppose the principle of a universal law in evoking the concept of justice, just laws, and the laws of the inner city that are often unjust and biased. What is the role of these Christian motifs in your songs? Is there a spiritual and religious dimension, or do you use them as metaphors?
When we were kids, my brother, Paulo Sergio and I were enrolled in Catholic schools. So we have this Catholic sensibility inscribed in us. What’s more, I believe in God, and so does Paulo Sergio I think. That being said, we never had any religious intentions while writing those tracks. That, not at all. Around the time we wrote songs like “Jesus Meu Rei”, “Esperando O Messias”, “Dez Leis”, we were living under a military dictatorship in Brazil, like I said before. We had a profound desire to critique that political situation, but most of the time we didn’t have the option of doing that directly. Censure was very strict and we risked being stripped of the right to record music at all.
So we chose the language of religion as our vehicle for critiquing the dictatorship. For example, the first title we gave to “Jesus Meu Rei” was “Pobre Rei”, which in Portuguese means “Poor King”. There was no doubt that the “poor king” we referenced was the Brazilian president. But the song wouldn’t make it past the censors so we had to rename it in order to keep it. And in saying “Jesus Meu Rei”, we could also speak to many more issues regarding poverty and the problem of repartitioned properties, with the big land owners (Faezendos) and the big companies that were so close with the regime. We said something like: “Hey Jesus, you’re not paying attention to the poor”, but we were talking about the president living alone in what he treated like his kingdom. This game of substitution was our way of criticizing what had happened in our country. For me the enabling factor was this hybrid music, fed by so many influences, and for Paulo Sergio, it was this new way of speaking to two different things at once in his lyrics. I think that with my brother, we found a style that was unique to us, and that allowed us not only to engage in political and social criticism, but also to translate our opposition to a certain way of life to which money had become so central. Money had become a sort of new God.
The beginning of the ‘70’s also marks the beginning of your long and fruitful collaboration with TV Globo, and of your career as a composer for telenovelas. “Pigmalião 70” on on this album is an example.
“Pigmalião 70” is not the first song I wrote and recorded for a telenovela. Bonifacio de Oliveira Sobrinho, who we call Boni and who was the director of TV Globo, claims that Veu de Noiva was the first novela to use Brazilian for its theme and credits. I wrote the song, called “Azymuth”, a song I made with Novelli and which became pretty popular soon after we recorded it. The novela was centered around a race car drive: speed, his races, and his lovelife.
Not so long afterwards I was approached to develop and reuse the theme “Azymuth” and to write the entire soundtrack for a film called O Fabuloso Fittipaldi. It was while we were recording for that novela that I met the future members of Azymuth, Jose Roberto Betrami, Alex Malheiros and Manão. As soon as we finished the recording, these guys, whom I found to be absolutely extraordinary musicians, asked me if they could keep the name Azymuth for their own group. And thus I became a kind of godfather for them.
You have to understand that in Brazil, we didn’t have a film industry comparable to yours in France or the studios in America. Musicians never had the opportunity to write for cinema. In our country, the best directors, the best actors and the best actresses all worked on the novelas. It’s a specifically Brazilian thing. I guess I blazed a trail that has proved itself profitable for other composers who’ve tried writing for television, people like Jobim or Caymmi. Next, I went back to working with my brother, and because our ideas were well-received we wrote “O Cafona” and the soundtracks for Selva de Pedra, Os Ossos do Barão, and even the Brazilian version of Sesame Street.
As for “Pigmalião 70“, it was a piece I wrote with Novelli for a novela about a girl from an impoverished neighborhood who becomes this sophisticated fixture of high society. There was a rather compelling social discourse there that interested me.
It seems like a realistic, Brazilian adaptation of My Fair Lady.
Yes, it’s along the same thematic lines and it was particularly adaptable to Brazil because the social structure there was very overtly stratified at the time. Actually, the original version of “Pigmalião 70” was instrumental. Only later did my brother write the lyrics for the version on Marcos Valle from 1970. The song’s topic is also different from that of the telenovela, which shows how it suffices just to change your outward appearance to successfully climb the social ladder. My brother is more asking the question of whether it’s worth it to take part in such a game where the goal is simply to change places in society. What sense does it make to change who you are just for that?
Were you exposed to that extreme separation of cultural communities and/or social classes? You said earlier that you had frequented Catholic institutions during your eduction. Was it still possible for you to have friends who practiced other religions, belonged to different churches, or who came from a different ethnic background? For me the social status of black Brazilians, the preto, and mulatto Brazilians, the pardo, remains a question for discussion. Or did racial barriers etc. cease to exist for you when you became a musician?
I think my music seeks to bring those barriers down. The differences you’re talking about never existed for me. When I was young, in Rio de Janeiro, I had friends who had differently colored skin than my own, or different religious beliefs. But I don’t think I was the only person in Rio for whom those differences didn’t matter; on the contrary I think that there’s something very Brazilian about not paying attention to those kinds of things.
Was working for TV Globo something alimentary, or did you treat their directive like a laboratory where you experimented with material for your own records?
Effectively, I went about my work for TV Globo like it was a laboratory. On my albums I often re-recorded songs I’d written for television. My interest stemmed from the fact that I was given the entire score to write, and that I was neither required nor expected to produce something commercial at every turn. I could have first developed the ideas I’d kept in mind, try out new sounds like the Fender Rhodes organ, or all sorts of composition formats.
Did your work for the novelas facilitate the writing of “Suite Imaginária”? The eight minutes of that track bring your album to a close with harpsichord, organ and at the very end an ominous, dissonant meltdown. It seems a bit surrealist, guided by the logic of a dreamstate: there’s the clock whose arbitrary clanging seems to signal different levels of reality, or still the memorable juxtaposition of moments that seem to challenge temporal and geographical logic. The first, melancholic theme evokes for me–probably because I’m French–Satie or Ravel; then a pavane, light and airy from which the harpsichord emerges as in a baroque piece, a wind section that is strictly staccato; and after, more drawn-out developments reminiscent of the whimsical pieces of American producer David Axelrod, to whom you are often compared. In any case, you have a method of composition evocative of a collage .
I don’t think there’s any connection between “Suite Imaginária” and my work for the telenovelas. This piece comes foremost from my interest in classical instrumentals like Ravel–like you observed–or Debussy, but also Bach because of the harpsichord, and baião because of the somber choral aspect (he demonstrates by singing). Even if each of the aforementioned elements of the suite had lives of their own before being assembled in the same piece, I had, when I was composing, an idea for a piece in four movements that would reflect different emotional states, moments of my existence, throughout which I would weave connectivity.
In one of those movements you hear the tick-tock of a small clock. In my parents’ house, that clock was situated right behind me when I would play the piano. And that piano is the same one I’ve always had–at one point my mother gave it to me. The first movement was born one day when I was totally captivated by the tick-tock, and I wrote the melody for “Canção” starting from the rhythm of the clock. As a result, when I got to the studio, I brought the clock with me because it was clear that it had become such a central element of the song.
The title is an homage to Som Imaginário because I knew that in recording that track with them I had almost managed to realize my original idea; the finished product was so close to what I had imagined while writing.
“Suite Imaginária” is a piece that also feels inspired by more european influences. What was your rapport with Europe and European music?
Professionally, I had none. My associations [with Europe] began later, in the late ‘80’s. In terms of my personal vision, it’s totally different. There are composers like Ravel, Debussy and Chopin that I’ve listened to since I was a kid. There is also a Germanic influence that may or may not be associated with my maternal grandfather, who came from Stuttgart while the rest of my family is from Pará in northern Brazil. If it’s hereditary, European cinema, literature and music are very important to me.
Were you ever interested in psychoanalysis while you were writing “Suite Imaginária”?
No, not really. To tell you the truth, I tried a few times to before renouncing the idea after one of my doctors reminded me that music is my psychoanalysis. He thought it was necessary to be a little crazy to write music, and as a musician, I couldn’t ever expect stability in my life. He told me if I finished by finding a stable place, I would probably stop being a songwriter or a musician. So I’ve tried to stay insane (laughs).
Your music leaves very little room for a sentiment like nostalgia, and in listening to you, I get the impression that nostalgia is, for you, a foreign feeling. How do you feel about this period in your life?
It’s true that I don’t reflect on the ‘70’s with a lot of nostalgia. It was more a time when we were hoping to comfort ourselves while we hoped for better days and the return of democracy to Brazil, which finally came a few years later. It’s true that the Bed Album is probably one of my favorite records in my discography, and that I remain relatively attached to Samba Demais because it launched my career. But 2013 is here and it looks like it’s going to be a great year for me. I’m going to celebrate the 50 year mark in my career, and for the occasion Sony is releasing a record I recorded during a concert in Rio de Janeiro and that I made in the company of Stacey Kent. Stacey Kent is not only the jazz singer she’s known as, but also a great lover of Brazilian music. It was a concert devoted to my songs and music, but for the most part it wasn’t me singing, it was Stacey. I play piano with a group that includes a horn section. It should be out in April. And a tour should follow–it will be interesting to see if I play the new songs as well as I do those off of the Bed Album, Garra, Vento Sul, or Previsão do Tempo, which Light in the Attic is remastering right now. No, this year promises to be a good one for me. (laughs)
Laurindo Feliciano. “Canse e Descanse”. Numerical collage. Technical: Mixed media, Photoshop
Many, many thanks to Marcos Valle, who welcomed these questions with warmth and generosity, as did Ever (Tinyhuman) and Cassie (Light in the Attic). Finally, this conversation probably would not have yielded the insights it did without Bruno (C’est Jamais Pareil), Mathieu or Alessandra. Thank you for everything.
We concocted a Spotify playlist of 20 tracks from Samba Demais (1963) and Previsão do Tempo (1970), to immerse you in the sounds and discography of Marcos Valle. There you will find a good number of tracks that he talks about in the above interview. It’s the best antidote for this persistent winter.