An exorcism every time I sing it – Sofia Rei talks Violeta Parra and recording her tribute album, El Gavilan

 

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Photo credit: Pablo Astudillo

On March 30 of this year, I had an hour-long Skype conversation with my absolute favorite vocalist, Sofia Rei, prior to posting my advance review of her latest record. We talked about El Gavilan and how the idea of a tribute record originated in her mind, the influence of Violeta Parra on her life and career as well as recording an album with Marc Ribot, one of the greatest guitarists of any generation. The articles’ title is Sofia describing to me the sensation of performing the monumental title track, one of Violeta’s most haunting and anxiety-inducing works.

The idea was for me to work the conversation into a follow-up interview to our in-depth discussion from a couple of years ago.

As is often the case, life got in the way.

I had to dedicate all of my time and energy to my writing and publishing career and The Music and Myth was put on an indefinite hiatus.

Lots of things have happened since then, most notably the fact that I’m getting ready to publish my fourth novel, I’ve launched all of my books in paperback format and updated my author website, which you can check out at andreicherascu.com.

It’s been a difficult year with a lot of work but, as the year is coming to a close and work is winding down I can finally get to my last entry in my 2017 to-do list: relaunch The Music and Myth.

Fortunately, this interview is even more relevant today than when I’d initially wanted to publish it, especially with the 2017 Music and Myth Awards just around the corner El Gavilan a prime candidate for Best Vocal Record.

Received with universal acclaim, Sofia’s latest release seems to have surpassed in its cultural impact even her brilliant De Tierra y Oro and the charismatic songwriter seems busier than ever.

So, without further ado, here is The Music and Myth’s latest interview with Sofia Rei:

 

Sofia, when was the first time you heard Violeta Parra?

You know, it’s a really good question. Basically, I knew her work through Mercedes Sosa first. In 1971 Mercedes Sosa recorded an album that is essential to Latin American music, which was a tribute to Violeta Parra. That album I listened to endlessly. I remember listening to it when I was seven or eight years old –that’s how I initially discovered her songs. I can’t tell you the exact moment I actually heard Violeta’s voice. It was interesting because I already knew all of her music, yet I’d never heard her voice. And it’s so drastically different from Mercedes Sosa’s powerful sound. It’s kind of the opposite – it’s very raw, it’s very pure and direct and, at the same time, very fragile.

 

When did you first decide you wanted to make this record?

The starting point for this was a concert that happened last year in May in Bogota, Colombia. Marc [Ribot] and I shared a tribute to Violeta with Susana Baca, Dora Juarez, who’s a Mexican artist, Marta Gomez from Colombia and the granddaughter of Violeta herself, Tita Parra. This concert had a lot to do with it, because the producer asked me to do a version of “El Gavilan” with Marc. This was the seed for what happened later on. We put it together and did not end up performing it, for different reasons. But that’s when we had the idea of recording “El Gavilan” – just that one piece.

Then, I put together a tribute for my Stone residency last year. I did “El Gavilan” and several vocal arrangements of other pieces, adding to the ones that I had already put together for the concert in May. I felt that, because of the way her compositions are, it really fits this minimalist approach.

Violeta’s songs are very repetitive. They have a small structure that repeats six, seven times in each song, which fits perfectly with the idea of looping. I would sit down and the songs would just come out so easily and I gathered this little collection of arrangements. Then I thought that maybe I should do a full album of this because it would be great to work with Marc. Marc is a big fan of Violeta’s and he’s somebody who has a political and social commitment. He was very interested in the socially charged lyrics and the political content of her work. He asked me for the translations of some of the songs and we talked about it.

When I presented to him the idea of making this album, I had in mind having an A side and a B side – an A side that would be acoustic with “El Gavilan” and some other songs performed as a duo in the original voice-guitar format that she would use a lot and then this other “electric” format where we both would be providing the effects, him with his guitar and me with my vocals and the structures from my looper.

It ended up being more geared towards this experimental format. “El Gavilan” ended up being something really interesting, because he recorded both the acoustic and electric guitar and created a very specific ambiance for it.

 

I think this album is as much a departure for him as it is for you, because his playing is very subtle and understated here.

I think he is really brilliant in finding the perfect sound for every situation. That’s something very special and very unique of Marc. He really understands very deeply what sound is required for each given circumstance. I think he really did an amazing job and I’m happy and grateful that he was able to do it.

Sofia 1

Photo credit: Pablo Astudillo

How did you select the songs?

I did quite a lot of research. I have many, many albums of Violeta’s at home and I had some collections of unknown recordings and songs. She was a composer but she was also an ethno-musicologist. She was very important in recovering forgotten and lost Chilean traditional music, which she kind of reshaped. So there are also these songs that she rescued and recorded in her own way.

I listened to a lot of these songs and some of them are really like the soundtrack of my childhood. I recognized the songs I grew up listening to, which is very special. And some of them just made a new impact now.

I thought it would be important to record “El Gavilan” because, to me, it’s Violeta’s masterpiece, where she can show her versatility and her musical genius in a way that’s very different from what you would normally expect from a folk artist. She’s exploring dissonance and sonorities that are very uncommon and more linked to contemporary classical music than the traditional music of Chile. I found that, in the way she uses the text and in the way the guitar and vocals interact, it’s a very unique and special piece. It hasn’t been recorded that much, for many reason. First, because it’s very long. Second, because it’s very challenging for a guitarist and vocalist to play and third, because it’s very deep and very heavy.

I think it’s a piece that people are increasingly recognizing as relevant, not only to her body of work, but in general. So I thought that it would be very important to record it because of that. And I thought Marc would be great on “El Gavilan” as well.

Then, “Casamiento de Negros”, “Maldigo del Alto Cielo” – these are songs that I heard since I was a child and they have a very relevant meaning today. Violeta’s songs talked about the people that were forgotten, invisible – the socially irrelevant.

 

I’ve noticed a dichotomy between the lively quality of the music and the heavy content of the lyrics.

She did that in many songs, where she is being super ironic and light in the presentation of the music, yet the lyrics are super hardcore. In this song that I was arranging yesterday – it’s called Mazúrquica Modérnica – she talks about very intense things and the music is almost like a children’s song. She had the mission of creating awareness and introducing the tradition of Chile to a broad audience. She had her own radio show, she tried to spread the awareness of all these situations. So I think it was a conscious choice sometimes to present the music in a lighter way or in a non-complex way, like “El Gavilan.”

The more I read about her and saw documentaries about her life, I discovered that she was a very complex woman. And she was a fighter, you know, she was a very special woman. She had to struggle so much and she was really brave. And I think she was really alone. I felt her pain and her struggle and it made me feel really sad that she ended up committing suicide as an act of despair for the indifference that most people had towards every effort she made.

It was also related to the pain of love and this guy who left her. “Run Run”, for instance, is one of the last songs she wrote and it talks about her lover, this guy who abandoned her and went North, to Bolivia, to remake his life and found another woman. He was a much younger guy. She was almost turning fifty when she committed suicide.

She created this kind of cultural center in the middle of nowhere in Santiago. She had a peña where people would gather and play music and she would always have artistic events and food and dance. This enterprise was really difficult because it was in a difficult place to access and all of that. I think the fact that this disintegrated in time and didn’t succeed and the fact that this guy left her and she was disappointed in the younger generation and the political shifting that was already palpable in Chile, I think all of that had to do with her suicide, it wasn’t just one thing.

 

How did you decide on the placement of the tracks? Is there any sort of narrative continuance from the point of view of their topic? As a writer, this is something I always ask musicians and the answer is almost always, “No.”  

(Laughs) It’s a good question. I spend a lot of time trying to make sense of the order of an album, even though these days probably most people don’t listen to it as an album, which is interesting. But I still find that it’s important.

I take a lot of things into consideration. Not necessarily a narrative in a literary way, but sometimes I consider the styles of the songs and what makes sense as a cohesive portion of the album. You don’t want this schizophrenic skipping from one song to another, so it’s a lot of different things, even the keys of the songs. There is a musical part to consider. The different keys and the interventions of Marc and the types of arrangements. There is a lot of thought behind it but, in this case, not necessarily in the theme of each song, but rather in the music and intensity.

Some songs need to be where they are. “Run Run” was definitely a very conscious choice to finish the album. This song is actually very long, it has four verses and I only took the first verse, because the first verse finishes with the line, “and tell an adventure that’s starting like this.”

I felt that was a very beautiful line to close the album, to summarize the idea that this is Violeta’s legacy. She left us 50 years ago, yet that’s exactly when her legend starts, when she becomes an iconic figure.

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Emily’s D+Evolution by Esperanza Spalding – intense, intelligent and intrepid

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One record I was really looking forward to this year was Esperanza Spalding’s fifth studio album, Emily’s D+Evolution released on Concord ten years after her debut, Junjo.

Esperanza is one of those musicians that just seem too good to be true. Basically, her entire career has been one long, continuous hype. It should really be impossible for the young songwriter, bass player and vocalist to rise to these almost ridiculous expectations and yet she does it every single time, with each new record.

“Notorious” for snatching away the Best New Artist Grammy from Justin fucking Bieber in 2011 (thus salvaging what little credibility NARAS has left), Esperanza is a rare phenomenon in a genre that generally doesn’t receive the recognition it deserves: a superstar.

To steal a lyric from her new record, she is “exceptionally pretty” but also exceptionally talented. She has the confidence of a seasoned veteran but the energy of a hungry young artist. She is intelligent without being condescending and daring without being reckless. She’s had a unique career trajectory, unceasingly rising to new heights and everything she’s put out has been a gem. It was bound to stop somewhere.

Bullshit – no, it wasn’t!

After a four-year break, Esperanza put forth her most ambitious work yet. Emily’s D+Evolution is essentially a concept record, a collection of compositions that perfectly reflects the vision and boundless energy of an artist at the peak of her creative force. It’s a record that bridges so-called genres, joyfully experimenting with the possibilities of the composer’s talent and managing the rare feat of sounding at the same time enlightened and naïve in its lyricism. In other words, it’s exactly what it should be at this stage in her career.

When I reviewed her previous record for BlindedBySound, I called it “another impressive offering from Esperanza and, no-doubt, an important step forward on the road to leaving a very serious musical legacy.” If Radio Music Society was a step forward, Emily is a giant leap of moon-landing proportions. Everything is on point, there is not a single misstep. In her previous work, I pointed out her excessively straightforward lyrics as somewhat lacking in finesse. Here, this candidness no longer feels juvenile, but ripe, clever, playful and sexy.

The record starts with the words “see this pretty girl, watch this pretty girl flow” and I couldn’t help but burst out laughing (in the good way, not the way I do whenever I accidentally hear a tune by Sean Paul).

“Good Lava” is the perfect opening song – provocative, loud and unhinged. As a listener, you instantly realize that this is an entirely new creative direction as Matthew Stevens’ Marc Ribot-influenced guitar, Esperanza’s own Pastorius-tinged bass and Justin Tyson’s drums heavily tilt the sound towards funk and even rock, where it basically remains throughout the whole album.

Still, although the sound is different, Esperanza’s charismatic delivery is the same in her portrayal of her alter-ego, Emily. On “Good Lava”, she teases:

 

lone ranger,

I see you like the view

wond’ring from a distance

what my pretty peak can do

come brave me

[…]

you stranger

one day are gonna be

planting your own flag of

conquered fear and fantasy

right on me

 

For “Unconditional Love”, Emily reverts to her Esperanza-persona, with vocals that call to mind the sound of Radio Music Society in spite of the pronounced presence of guitarist Stevens (a constant throughout the record, which turns out to be almost as much a showcase of his talent as Spalding’s). Undoubtedly a beautiful song making good use of the singer’s splendid voice, it might have benefited from a different position on the record. This way, it slightly takes away from absorbing the full impact of the new creative direction.

The narrative balance is quickly restored with “Judas”, one of the highlights, both in its heavy, impactful sound and conscious, ruminative lyrics, that demonstrate the songwriter’s evident improvement in an area that used to be a noticeable shortcoming.

 

judas, you know the

lonesome road

don’t ya collectin’ bottle caps

of rum

honest sinning to chase the

blues

blur ya ‘til kingdom come

take a little girl who gets to see her

mama broke down

now she’s a lady made for

the modern world

my life

but if you ask my advice us

raging girls

are china dolls fed up with bull that follows

all the way down

digging up holy scriptures to

shame her while she drowns

but if you ask my advice that

shallow grave is a bargain

 next to judgment day

it’s only a matter of time

honey

good money

sinks through her teeth

she’s not evil

forgive this innocent wrecking

ball (man-made)

 

In “Earth to Heaven” the vocalist’s rich, clean delivery contrasts with the band’s rough, prog-rock energy and the poignant, determined poetry.

 

there are no perfect

amends here

you get to just keep on

getting there getting there

there’s no promise or test

here

you get to just keep on

getting there getting there (soldier)

no virgins or saints here

you get to just keep on

getting there getting there

all good children and evil

are even here

 just getting there

war man’s cross on

their shoulders

kings die ringed in gold

slaves die consoled

on the other side

a meek’s reward

is better

like a pearly resort

except without a report

from hell

how on Earth can you tell?

Equally forceful and another one of the record’s highlights, “One” sees the vocalist at her dynamic best, masterfully playing off of Karriem Riggins’ drums and a short but biting guitar solo to again create a powerfully contrasted track. And since every reviewer and their pet iguana mentioned Joni Mitchell, I’ll take this opportunity to confirm that yes, the artist does draw from Mitchell in her storytelling and delivery and she does so elegantly, giving a nod to a creative influence while still decidedly retaining her individuality.

“Rest in Pleasure”, a soft, sexy counterpoint to the previous two tracks – and once again notable for Matthew Stevens’ excellent contribution – allows Spalding to step back from the heavier narrative of the song’s predecessors and let her hair down, before returning to a more confrontational tone with “Ebony and Ivy” and “Noble Nobles”, where her improved poetry is placed front and center, from the sarcastic recital at the start of the former to the cynicism prevalent in the latter (talking founding fathers with a free philosophy/ that don’t mention me/ or the stain of red blood on their hands/ at all).

With her characteristic charm and wit, the songwriter tackles issues of history, racial heritage, white privilege and education, as is evident in the following example from “Ebony and Ivy”.

sage grows on the mountain

you can dig it with a silver

spoon

float it off to market hawk

and talk it

from hot-air balloons

get your good

old-fashioned learnin’

hear the bell and summer’s

endin’

underneath the apple tree

time to choose a branch

and build your nest of

animosity

now we’re really

really learnin’

it’s been hard to grow outside

growin’ good at act happy

and pretend that the ivy vines

didn’t weigh our branch down

The deceptively soft and harmonious “Farewell Dolly” brings forth pressing issues of gender roles while “Elevate or Operate” with its carnival-ride intro and shades of The Jimi Hendrix Experience comments on glass ceilings and unfulfilled ambitions (so honey stop your whining, wishing, scheming/ press a floor to waste your dreams in) while “Funk the Fear” extends on the topic, berating the very thought process exposed in the former.

The record closes with a dark, almost macabre rendition of “I want it now” (Veruca Salt’s piece in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – itself a rather dark and macabre moment), which the vocalist delivers with a gleeful voracity, refusing to withhold for even a second the fact that this album is meant as an adamant creative statement.

With this brilliant, experimental album, Esperanza Spalding has created not only the best work of her career, but also the best vocal record of 2016 and a surefire contender for The Music and Myth Awards.