Questions for Caetano Veloso about his latest album, A Foreign Sound

On Fina Estampa, you offered a unique
Brazilian treatment of classic Latin American songs. Your approach in recording A Foreign Sound is similar to what you did on that record. While
the songs have become standards, your renditions not only revitalize them but
also make them universal. What motivated you to record a full album of American

CV: The dream of doing an album of American songs is
a lot older than the Fina Estampa project. In 1970 I was talking about it with
friends. As I was exiled in London then, I decided I’d only try it when I was
back in Brazil. I returned in 1972 and immediately put aside the plan. It has
been on and off my mind since then. Now that I finally did it, and even as I was
doing it, I only found real motivation in the intense pleasure it was for the
musicians and arrangers to work on such splendorous material, for the old ideas
of putting American songs in a different perspective seemed irrelevant to me

The Carioca.” This song was one of Fred Astaire’s
numbers in the musical Flying Down to Rio. Your arrangement is a sort of Bahian
reggae. What attracted you to this song?

CV: It was from the first Fred Astaire and Ginger
Rogers movie. We used to dance to it at high school balls. We called the little
brass bands that played it alongside with Mexican and Cuban boleros, Brazilian
sambas and Argentine tango, “jazz” (pronounced zha’zee). I just found it
touching to revisit it now, remembering those balls, and thinking of the word
“Carioca” used as if it were the name of a new rhythm by people who were making
a movie about Rio without even coming here to see how it really is. Somehow such
naiveté and sheer ignorance reveals something about the spirit of the city. So
the silly lyric becomes sublime when you hear (and take it out of context)
“You’ll dream of a new Carioca…” Imagine a song talking about dreaming of a
new Roman, a new Londoner…

We invited Bahian percussionists and a Bahian-style
guitarist (Davi Moraes) because in Bahia people create lots of funny blends of
tropical rhythms, some of them very elegant, that serve the amorous humor I
needed to treat the song with. In fact the guys did it so well that I, to my own
surprise (and in spite of the misleadingly obvious irony of the subject matter),
decided to open the album with it.

So in Love” and “Love for Sale.” You have been a big fan
of Cole Porter for quite a while. In your concerts, you’ve included some of his
songs while on tour in the past few years. He has such a large songbook from
which to choose. How did you decide to do an a capella version of “Love for
Sale?” And your version of “So in Love” reminded me of the album recorded by
Amoroso arranged by Claus Ogerman, where he recorded
a couple American standards along with “Bésame Mucho” and several Brazilian
songs. What moved you to record these two songs?

CV: I think Joao only did “It’s Wonderful” in

. But that was more than enough. Yes, contrasting with the carnival-like
treatment of “The Carioca,” “So in Love” sounds amoroso.

Jaques Morelenbaum really achieved a big Ogerman
sound and a deep Gilberto feeling. But I stuck to a 1950’s “samba-cançao” beat
by asking guitarist Lula Galvao not to play bossa nova. The irresistible
adequacy of that song to that kind of rhythm helped me choose it from among so
many adored Porter songs I know. Jobim is closer to Gershwin’s greater musical
refinement; nevertheless Cole Porter is the most Brazilian of the American song

And as for “Love for Sale,” I wanted to explore the
street-vendors-cry-aspect of the composition. Sometimes I’d cry while singing it
alone at home. I felt shy at the studio though. Still, I didn’t want to give up
the idea.

“Always” and “Blue Skies.” In the pantheon of American
songwriters, Irving Berlin stands tall. How did you come upon his songs? The
arrangement of “Always” has a dreamy quality, like a lullaby, in contrast to the
electronic feel of “Blue Skies.”

CV: I had recorded “Let’s Face the Music and Dance”
in a tribute to Fellini’s cinema (a critic in a London music magazine described
my rendition of it as “marshmallow soup”: He also thought it had nothing to do
with Fellini…), and was planning to do “The Moon and You.” But “Always” is
like Lecuona’s “Maria La 0”-something you feel belongs to eternity and can just
unravel from the back of your mind from time to time. It is also the purest
example of American sentiment, while “Blue Skies” is a prayer and a war chant.
Like life against decay. Berlin is always talking about the beginnings. He is
the Founding Father.

“The Man I Love.” Perhaps the most unusual aspect of
this song is that you chose to leave the gender untouched. Was this a conscious
decision, or is it just how the song came out?

CV: Why should I touch the gender? I’d rather not
touch the song if I had to do so. For years I’ve been hearing stories of male
American singers who regret the impossibility of doing such a marvelous song. I
never thought that the fact of my being a man would mean a prohibition to sing
it. Well, I heard Feinstein’s recording of Ira’s attempt at some “The Girl I
Love…” And I’d heard of the San Francisco Gay Choir version. I just thought a
bossa nova “marchinha” would fit it if I wanted to take it in my voice.

“Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” is the only song arranged with
just horns. It’s a very 1950s type of arrangement. A few years ago, you said
that your album

was inspired by the work of Gil Evans and Miles
Davis. Were you thinking about Evans and Davis when you selected this song?

CV: No. I asked Jaques to write an arrangement just
for saxophones. He still wanted to add just a bass and high hat. I said “No.” So
we had eleven saxophone players together in the studio. It was beautiful. I
wanted it to be very 50s, early 50s. And big-bandy. But with just saxophones and
their smoky sound.

What was your motivation for recording “Cry me a River”?

CV: Julie London’s recording of it with just Barney
Kessell and bass was an inspiration for the bossa nova inventors. I used to
listen to it several times when I was eighteen. I love the song and London’s
delivery of it. Plus, tune and lyric, it has a deep relation with old carnival
torch sambas. We treated it so: halfway between bossa nova and Monsueto
Menezes’s carnival sambas.

Your selection of American songwriters is quite varied.
Besides covering classic American composers, like Porter, Gershwin, Berlin, etc,
you’ve included several contrasting figures in American music: Bob Dylan, Kurt
Cobain, David Byrne, Elvis Presley, Morris Albert, Stevie Wonder, and Paul Anka.
In a sense, you are creating new standards in the American songbook. I’d like
you to talk about each of these figures and what they mean to you, and why you
chose those specific songs.

CV: It may sound too varied. From the beginning I had
thought of singing American songs of all times. A decision made decades ago. Now
a bunch of American and British singers who belong to my generation and beyond
are recording American standards. Rod Stewart’s albums are charm-ing. George
Michael’s is pretty polished. And I heard of somebody who mixed old standards
with post-rock *n roll material. So what I did could be new ten, fifteen years

Now it’s irrelevant. The liberties I took are due to
my distance from the whole repertoire. I mean, those songs are as near to me as
can be: they made me. But still I am Brazilian, and grew up in a small town of
poor Bahia, listening to those songs without understanding English. So I present
a foreign view of the American musical landscape. The choices were made
according to the importance each song had in the increasing presence American
music had in Brazil from the 1920s on. The way I see it.

For example: I always wanted to record Dylan’s “It’s
All Right Ma.” Because Dylan is the man; because the song sounded like Brazilian
Northeastern narrative ballads as used in Glauber Rocha’s Black God, White
Devil; because I used to love it best in Bringing It All Back Home, my favorite
Dylan album ever (which I only got to know in 1967). I had planned to do it with
just Jaques on cello, the way I did “Mano a Mano.” But it was hard to sing so
many words in a fast tempo. So I changed. Then I gave up recording it. But I had
taken the album title (A Foreign Sound) from it and thought I was obliged to
have it recorded. I love all the players involved but never was satisfied with
my own performance. Still, I knew the record couldn’t be without it.

Morris Albert is the opposite of Dylan. What
fascinated me was the story of “Feelings”: it’s a fake American song, written
and recorded by a Brazilian Guy from Sao Paulo, apparently copied from a French
song, that became internationally famous and famously boring. Of course I know
Offspring’s punk version of it (“feelings of hate.”..). So it was like recording
“Recuerdos de Ypacaraí,” the Paraguayan sentimental, quasi-silly
song, that becomes a cry from the depths of underdevelopment. I dedicated it to
David Byrne because irony here was the absolute absence of irony and that
reminded me of David’s naming one of his albums, Feelings, and this being the
supreme irony of not being an irony. Considering his connections with Brazilian
music and the fact that “Feelings” is a false American ballad written in

It just wasn’t enough to have “Feelings” and “Nothing
but Flowers” in the same album: I had to explicitly refer to so many layers of
hidden ironies. Nirvana’s Nevermind is one of the best albums ever made. It
reaffirmed rock *n’ roll as a strong means of expression. And I think “Come as
You Are” is an irresistible piece for anyone who loves to sing songs.

Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life is also one
of the best albums ever made. He was my favorite man of the 70s. Other greater
songs are more obviously present in everybody’s memory than “If It’s Magic,” but
this is the one I always knew by

As for Paul Anka, “Diana” would be in my American
song record no matter how different it might have been from this A Foreign
Sound. Because it was such a big hit in Brazil when I was very young (and the
vitality of its naiveté was so charming) that I quoted it in one of my favorite
Tropicalista songs, “Baby.” Now I made it swing like “Baby,” in a three-tempo
bossa nova beat, and asked Jaques to quote Duprat’s arrangement for that old
song of mine.

“Jamaica Farewell” was in Harry Belafonte’s

album in the 1950s, which helped to launch his career. This album also
contributed to the folk music movement in the 1960s and its initial opening to
foreign sounds. How was a figure like Belafonte perceived in Brazil? Was his

album also as popular as it was in the U.S. where it sold millions? Was
“Jamaica Farewell” on the radio in Bahia? I hear a distinctly Bahian sound in
the song.

CV: Belafonte’s
was a great hit in Brazil. I
used to sing “Jamaica Far-well” when I was in high school. The Bahian sound in
the arrangement here is due to the presence of Jamaica in Bahian carnival.
Jamaica is a myth; Bob Marley is a god in Bahia. Percussionists invented what
they call “samba-reggae”: that’s what I refer to here. I find it touching to
make these far ends meet.

“Manhattan.” You have a particular fondness for New
York. What was your approach in covering such an iconic image by Rodgers and

CV: Yeah, New York. I wanted to sing it. And make a
clear statement together with Jaques Morelenbaum. Lyrics are charmingly funny
and old fashioned. I find it tender.

Your version of Elvis Presley’s song “Love Me Tender” is
quite special. It’s almost like a lullaby. Was this the effect you wanted?

CV: I recorded it because of my son Zeca. He is
eleven going on twelve now, and listens to hip-hop and nu-metal and neo-punk and
White Stripes. But when he was eight to nine, he learned to play “Love me
Tender” on the piano and I adored to hear it that way. So I started singing it
to make him sleep-always in that high pitch. I recorded it for him. And found
pleasure in contrasting my frail falsetto with Elvis’s deep baritone. I know
it’s an old theme from the Civil War times. It’s very Southern. I find it
interesting that it became linked with the birth of rock ‘n’ roll and Zeca, who
loves the latest developments of rock ‘n’ roll, doesn’t know it.

Can you say a few words about “Detached” and how you
first heard this song? It’s a piece that stands out from the rest of the
selections; it’s more like a work of classical music.

CV: “Detached” is a great cut from DNA. Arto Lindsay
is a friend and a very inventive American musician who lived in Brazil in his
teens or just before his teens. I love the albums he made with Peter Scher,
especially Greed. But things he did with DNA in the early 80s are wonderful and
historically important. I just asked Morelenbaum to take the orchestra and stick
to the original done with just guitar, drums, and bass. The drumming is amazing:
Jaques had a hard time rewriting it and for the drummer who had to read it
things weren’t easier. The strings reproduce what the atonal guitar did. And I
sing pretty much the way Arto did when they recorded it. It’s an homage and a
reference. And I think it sounds great.

“Body and Soul” is the quintessential American standard.
Your approach to it is like a classic bossa nova. You are accompanied by the
violao and a lead guitar with steel strings, a perfect contrast of bossa nova
and jazz.

CV: Really? I never thought of bossa nova as I worked
on that song. I just wanted to be very careful and relaxed so I could leave the
song’s quality of quintessential American standard untouched. Perhaps what
reminds you of bossa nova is the fact that I myself played the acoustic guitar.
And my guitar playing comes entirely from the bossa nova school. But I didn’t
use any of the bossa nova beats or anything. I tried to stick to the traditional
4/4 of old jazz recordings.

For a long time, music that came to the U.S. from other
places was considered exotic and foreign; today, that notion is changing thanks
to the popularity of Latin, African and other so-called “world music” How did
you come up with the title A Foreign Sound?


A Foreign Sound
was picked up in Dylan’s “It’s
All Right, Ma.” I would never think of such a title if I were releasing an album
of Latin, African, Polish or Brazilian songs. It only has meaning because it’s
an album of American songs. From within the universe of American music, I took
this idea of foreign sounds interfering with non-foreign songs. American songs
are foreign to me; my accent is foreign to American listeners. My choices may be
hard to interpret. “So don’t fear/If you hear/A foreign sound/To your ear”: I
find it enriching to think of those lines while you go through the long list of
songs sung in English by a crazy Brazilian.

For more information about the artist, click on

Caetano Veloso

A Foreign Sound

[This interview appears courtesy of Nonesuch Records and