Singer-songwriter Luciana Souza

The acclaimed Brazilian singer and composer discusses her two new projects: “The Book of Chet” and “Duos III.”

Grammy winner Luciana Souza has been releasing acclaimed recordings and attracting fans worldwide since 2002. She's also worked with some of the greats, including Herbie Hancock, James Taylor, Bobby McFerrin and others. Described as a leading interpreter of jazz, the São Paulo, Brazil-born singer-songwriter began her recording career at age 3, with radio jingles, and became a first-call studio vet at age 16. She earned degrees from Boston's Berklee College of Music and the New England Conservatory of Music and taught at the Manhattan School of Music. "The Book of Chet" and "Duos III" are Souza's two latest CDs.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: Luciana Souza is a Grammy-winning jazz singer who has collaborated with so many notable artists over the years including Herbie Hancock, James Taylor, Paul Simon, so many more, out now with not one, but two new projects. The first is called “The Book of Chet.” As you might have guessed, it is inspired by the jazz great, Chet Baker. The other is called “Duos III.” Here is some of the making of the first disc, “The Book of Chet.”

[Clip]

Tavis: So why your particular and peculiar love for Chet Baker?

Luciana Souza: A lot about his voice interests me, the way he sings. There’s something about his voice that’s not masculine or feminine. It’s some kind of androgynous sound, you know. And the fact that he sings so quietly, so understated. It’s got no ornament, nothing to it really, but it really reveals a melody and a lyric, the poetry behind it so much more than some belty, loud voice, a lot of vibrato. It’s really, really just a simple sound and, in that sound, I find that I can hear a lot of his humanity, maybe mine, maybe yours. It’s pure beauty to me, so it’s a great voice to go to for inspiration.

Tavis: I like how you defined and described that. When you referenced the humanity of Chet Baker, what are you hearing?

Souza: Vulnerability, the fact that it’s not refined in a way that you and I would expect maybe from a singer. In order to get that sound out, we all know that he had a tragic life involved with drugs and was a junkie really. But in order to get a sound out, just to take a breath and make a sound, I think he has to dig so deeply. Maybe in that way, he reveals something, you know, that some of us are really thinking or covering our sound in a way. He can’t do that because there’s a lack of self-consciousness. There’s nothing there really to hold him.

Tavis: I’ve had more than one person over the years of hosting this program and my radio show, for that matter, who suggests to me – I’m talking about artists now, certainly writers, persons, that is to say, chronicling the lives of artists – who’ve suggested to me that there is something uniquely different about artists who have endured very, very difficult times and how that comes out in their artistry, how it comes out in Richard Pryor’s standup, how it comes out in Chet Baker’s music, how it might come out in etc., etc. So you think there’s something to that for a guy who lived, as you say, as troubled a life as Chet Baker did?

Souza: Oh, absolutely. I think all of us. Everybody has a certain brokenness inside, you know, and I think that, if you’ve had to put yourself together again or just to get up in the morning and stand up and put a horn to your mouth and try to blow or sing, to get that to happen. To have been so broken like he has or Richard Pryor or somebody having had an illness or a death in the family, a tragedy at a young age, it helps form who you are and it always leaves a crack. So it’s easier to get to that place that’s human, that all of us carry and a lot of us mask all the time.

Tavis: How would you define “The Book of Chet”? I don’t want to call it a tribute album. How would you define what it is, what you’re attempting to do?

Souza: It really isn’t. I’m glad that you said that. It’s not a tribute album. It’s really an inspiration. I mean, I can’t copy him. I’m not a man singing. You know, I’m a woman so many years later singing. But really being inspired by his voice, by the choice of songs. When I listen to him, I go, “What’s he doing here that makes me feel this way that I feel?” You know, that’s things that you like in music, and music takes you to the place. So with him, for me, Tavis, is like I go into a room, I close the door and I’m alone and it’s okay to be alone. Maybe I even have a companion and it’s okay to have that.

You know, things can be added, but I can also just be by myself and I find that voice to be such a friendly, soothing thing that also opens up that crack that I talked about. I can go into that sort of darkness and sadness, but without being depressed or suicidal or anything deep that way. It’s important to me to visit that. So in listening to him and being inspired by him, I’m, of course, paying tribute to him, but it’s not a tribute like let me copy what he did. It’s just an inspiration.

Tavis: So what’s the challenge and what is the joy, to your earlier point, of being a woman recording music made by a man? I ask that because, again, I believe music is music and it’s all beautiful. But you talked earlier in this conversation about his voice, so there’s obviously something that you thought you could approach. At least you weren’t scared off by his treatment of it, but you thought you could give it some sort of treatment that might work. So what was the challenge of doing that and what’s the joy of doing that?

Souza: I think I’ll start with the joy. The joy is that it’s quite similar. You know, I grew up in Brazil, so the music that I grew up doing and was inspired by is bossa nova which was heavily influenced by Chet Baker and Miles and the cool movement that was happening here in the West Coast. So that sound is very familiar to me, so there’s a joy in going into a sound that’s comfortable, that’s familiar, that’s understated, not ornamented, that’s subtle, that has a lot of nuance.

And the challenge is doing exactly that. It’s unzipping myself, being completely naked in the sound without anything to hold me. I think Chet had no choice. He couldn’t go and fix anything. You know, a lot of what he recorded was done live. A lot of it was done as an overdub as well, but he wanted to do everything in one take ’cause they didn’t know if they could get a second take out of him.

Tavis: Given his condition.

Souza: Yeah, exactly.

Tavis: Let me switch. I mentioned you have two projects out, not one. Let me switch to “Duos III.” Tell me about this project.

Souza: It’s the end of a trilogy I started 10 years doing Brazilian duos. You know, coming from Brazil and growing up with a father who is a guitar player and sang, so this is the sound that I grew up with.

Tavis: Your father was a legend. You’re being way too modest.

Souza: Well, for some, he was a legend. For me, definitely he was a legend [laugh]. So growing up with that sound, it really was what I knew how to do and I wanted to do and it’s very traditional. Every one of these three records has been just picking up these songs that are, you know, standards of the Brazilian repertoire and bringing them to this moment and doing them absolutely live with no fixing, no nothing. So there’s a lot of mistakes that are beautiful and we accept them, but there’s something about taking a photograph of that moment, that one take that you do. You go, okay, this is the best take. We’re gonna live with this, then finding the beauty in it and choosing to show it to people.

Tavis: We all know as your fans that you obviously grew up in Brazil. You referenced that a couple of times in this conversation. What, for you, has been – here comes that word, joy – the greatest joy of having grown up when and where you did?

Souza: In Sao Paulo, I was born in 1966, so I grew up within the dictatorship and I grew through it and it ended just as I turned 18. So the challenge was to grow up with parents who were quite political, but who couldn’t be political. My mother was a brilliant woman and my dad was a self-taught guitar player, but a really sensitive guy. So I think the challenge was for them to raise five kids to grow up in a country which we knew could do so much more and could be so much better than it was, but to grow up with the military down the street from us and not allowing us to speak, to be, to think, to dream, to write music. Incredible censorship as I grew up.

Tavis: And now you’re hosting the Olympics.

Souza: Exactly, yeah.

Tavis: I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to cut you off.

Souza: But to really grow up in a place like that, that was a challenge, I think, for all us in my generation. And also to see the joy of that opening up. I left just as Brazil was opened up. We went back into democracy. But the joy is to see that, even though there was so much hardship and so much censorship, people could be creative, they could be so inventive and they could write lyrics that would be critical of government and of things, but without being explicit. You know, it’s a fascinating place. I don’t know if you’ve been to Brazil, but it’s just…

Tavis: Oh, Lord, many times. I can’t get back often enough. I’m just laughing. I’m thinking to your point about the era that you grew up in, the era that your parents had to traverse and the fact that now this country’s hosting the Olympics with a woman president.

Souza: I know. I was just talking with the driver who drove me here. It was a lovely guy. We were talking about that. But it was a lot of preparation that took place for a woman to be able to be president and who she is and who she’s associated with. You know, the last two presidents we’ve had, although very different…

Tavis: Lula.

Souza: Lula and Fernando Henrique preceding him. Just prepared the country for this, and I think we’re on for something really special with Brazil. I don’t just mean economically. I think really Brazil is gonna show a lot of joy to the world and a lot of different things. Hopefully, we’ll win the World Cup that’s coming up soon.

Tavis: Speaking of Brazil and its future, let me close by asking what say you about the music of Brazil today and whether or not it is as vibrant and whether or not you’re hearing the kinds of nuances and innovations that you think are necessary to keep it alive in Brazil?

Souza: Oh, absolutely. I think Brazil is a fantastic country in the sense that it eats the world. It takes everything in and transforms it and then sends it out just like it did with bossa nova, you know. And it keeps doing that. It has this ability to sort of really look out and be very present everywhere and then be present with itself. It’s young still, although it’s a 500-year-old country, it’s still going and people fail there. They fail miserably and they’re so resilient. They pick up the pieces. They get up and they keep going. You know, we’ve endured a lot of hardship there. You know about this.

Tavis: It’s a great nation, though.

Souza: Get up and go. So I hear a lot of great music in Brazil. I think it’s the African tradition that we have that really gives a lot of rhythm to our music and then the fact that we’re looking out to the world for everything.

Tavis: Luciana has not one, as I said, but two projects out now. The first is called “Duos III” and the other is called “The Book of Chet.” I think you’ll like both. I do and I think you will as well. Luciana, good to have you here. Thank you for your time, and congratulations.

Souza: Thank you.

Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. You can download our app in the iTunes App Store. See you back here next time on PBS. Until then, goodnight from L.A., thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.

Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.

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Last modified: November 5, 2012 at 12:35 pm