Rodrigo Amarante is full of bird facts.
When we meet him at his home, sitting out on his wooden deck that overlooks northeast LA, his doors and windows are all open, sunshine cascading through them. Amarante sits cross-legged underneath a patio umbrella that he's fashioned wheels on so that it can move easily with the sun. Despite making shade, he wears round, turtle-shell sunglasses as he fiddles with a bottle-top, pondering what inspired the genesis of his second solo album.
"On the foreground, you see the bird feeder and the bird bath," he says, pointing, "which are major elements here of my environment."
Amarante has lived in LA for 13 years, and this house for nine of them. The property is teeming with birds: fantail pigeons — "which is a giant dove, really," he says, "beautiful, iridescent" — finches, mourning doves, woodpeckers, Bushtits, scrub jays.
There's a scrub jay that visits him every morning. Over time, Amarante learned that it enjoys peanuts with their shells on; now, he feeds it out of the palm of his hand. "One very beautiful thing I notice is that he can actually emulate other birds," he says. "It feels like he's still in the stages of development ... He's not he's not up to the mockingbird stage. And so he comes very close to me and shows me what he can do."
Amarante's latest album, Drama, is its own searching opus, an examination of how we perform the self, for ourselves and for others. In string-laden sweeps of thought and memory, he sings about how our own self image shimmers through the sands of time, how it warps in the funhouse mirrors of society's expectations — especially in our dangerously susceptible stages of youth.
In writing Drama, Amarante unexpectedly dredged up an incident from his own pre-mockingbird stage, when he was about seven or eight years old.
"My dad, who's a wonderful father, brought me outside and said there was something that I [needed]," he recalls. "It was the moment of ritual, of turning from boy to man. So he shaved my head."
He says that the haircut made him feel ugly, and he was ashamed that he even felt that way. "I understood that I wasn't supposed to [care]," he says. "You're not supposed to be thinking about being pretty."
"I was sent to that moment" when writing the abum, he continues, "and understood that 'drama' was what I was supposed to get rid of to become a man, in this fallacy that is repeated and that my father was passing on to me."
Amarante says he learned that "a man is efficient because it controls its emotions, and so this fallacy spills over the idea that women are inefficient because they are susceptible to the imbalances of emotion, to the cycles of the moon.
"And there it is," he concludes. "The seed of the patriarchy."
Amarante didn't exactly intend to find himself mid-epiphany about misogyny when writing these songs, but he couldn't deny the way the idea had shaped him as a person without his knowledge.
"My original intention in making this record is still an echo of that, because it's easy for me to say, 'Oh, I'm not a misogynist, I'm not [a] macho man, I'm not racist, I'm not any of that,' because I understand myself very far from these things," he says. But he realized that stance was its own "sort of podium that I invented," a position set up beyond scrutiny where he'd feel comfortable about what he'd always understood. In creating a separate space to investigate those ideas about gender, songs flourished.
"I thought, 'You know what? I am going to throw a musical tantrum. I'm going to be the drama I wasn't supposed to be.' "
On Drama, Amarante shows his growth into a new man, one susceptible to those imbalances of emotion. From his reluctant attitude on "Sky Beneath," feeling its pull against his will, he evolves, echoing the moon again on "Maré": "Lua puxa o véu, mexe o mar em mim / De Pierrot a Arlequim."
Led by meandering melodies with only the occasional turn into full-band sound, the songs on his first solo record, Cavalo, were grounded in lyrical storytelling, its central instruments a stately, sonorous piano, his trusty '30s-era acoustic with an electric pickup and his sleepy voice. But on Amarante's latest, the voice is almost an afterthought, the thrust of the album lying in its surround-sound arrangements.
"I started writing arrangements for 16 violins, and horns, and playing harpsichord and writing these songs that bring out all this, you know," he says, "my desperation at times, my doubt and [desire] not to worship those things."
Like the tide he sings about on "Mare," Drama is insistent and ever-changing, going from the playful, swirling guitar lines of "Tanto" to the breezy, wayward love ballad "Tara," with brass accompaniment out of an old jazz standard. Where a prominent bass line was a rarity on Cavalo, the rhythm section — with its congas, sapo, bamboo block and celeste — steers the sonic waters to greater degree on Drama.
"I don't force myself to be more or less Brazilian than I am," he says of the album's distinct sonic influence.
Two decades ago, the 44-year-old was one of the most successful musicians in his home country. Alongside Marcelo Camelo and Rodrigo Barba, his band Los Hermanos released four albums from 1999 through 2005, making mid-tempo rock with searching, grainy vocals that would have sat nicely alongside Lighthouse and Daughtry on American alt rock radio.
"[Los Hermanos] became, really, a big deal, like stadium-big deal," he says.
In 2002, Amarante joined Orquestra Imperial — a big, 20-plus-piece samba band in the fashion of the late '40s and '50s — as a guitarist and vocalist. His profile in Brazil's alt-rock scene introduced the band to a broader audience, and Amarante's membership in Orquestra Imperial unwittingly set him on the path to the U.S.
"I got asked to come to LA to record with Devendra Banhart, who I met in London at a festival with members of the big band," he says. Banhart was working on his 2007 album Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon; Amarante played in his backing band and appears on the song "Rosa."
"At the time," he says, "another friend, Fabrizio Moretti from The Strokes, who I met in Lisbon playing with [Los Hermanos], heard I was in LA and said, 'Oh, you're in LA, let's write music together.' " That project turned into the band Little Joy, which put out a self-titled album in 2008 and signed a record deal with Rough Trade.
"I'm going to spend a couple of years here touring and then I'll go back" to Brazil, Amarante told himself at the time. But 13 years later, he's still in LA, a city he describes as "the place where people come to run away from ghosts, to realize an impossible dream."
Drama's 10 songs are approximately an even split between English and Portuguese, but he's less conscious of an intentionality to it — other than "Tara," a breakup song he confesses he didn't want his former partner to understand the lyrics to. But listeners bring their own subconscious associations to languages, too; different cultures place their own values on ideas and emotions. "In Latin cultures and in Brazil," he says, "we understand sorrow, melancholy, as something actually nourishing, something fulfilling. In Portuguese, we famously have the word saudade, which means longing."
He explains that, unlike the American idea of longing for something as an action, saudade is a noun, almost a physical thing.
"So it's something you have to carry, and you can put it away and you can open that box and visit it. When you miss someone, you go and pick up that picture and look at the person; you're savoring that feeling," he says. "And in contrast, it seems to me that Americans have a little bit more of a hard time dealing with melancholy and sorrow."
Amarante is well acquainted with saudade, as both someone who moved around often as a child, and now as an expat. "We become blind to so many things where we're from, they just get erased," he says. "When you move around, then everything is present again." Amarante used that perspective to issue himself a challenge as a songwriter when he moved to the U.S. and began writing in English. He says the experience of relearning how to express himself was "painful."
"But I feel [how] very rich and important it was to me," he says. "It felt like this: There's value in this. I have to know what I'm saying. I don't have the subterfuge of vocabulary."
Even through the pain of learning a new language and culture, there was joy in the struggle. But there are some ideas that remain untranslatable. By writing "Tara" in Portuguese, for example, Amarante says he's "savoring the sorrow" in a way English wouldn't manage to convey.
"Because I'm crystallizing it, I'm gaining distance from it and looking at it as a gift," he says. "That pain is a measure of the happiness that's on the other side, and so it feels good to write that in Portuguese."
Amarante isn't worried that listeners, whether English or Portuguese-speaking, won't understand his words. His lyrics lean towards impressionistic flashes of emotion over narrative storytelling, regardless of language.
"There's something beautiful about it, too, if you don't understand the words," he says. "You have more space in that mirror to project; you can invent something that's there and you can occupy that space and make your own [understanding]." In some ways, all expressions of the self are an act of translation, an attempt to bridge two worlds.
"The point of calling it Drama is about the theater we all are," he muses. The unreliability of our memories, a lifetime's accumulation of societal expectations, the birth of the self through performance.
"I was somewhat known in Brazil for my music," he says; an understatement. But when he moved to LA, he says, "no one knew who I was ... Still, a lot of people don't know who I am."
Amarante likes the anonymity, he says, "in terms of the challenge of writing. I'm not playing for my fans; all of a sudden I have to conquer a room of strangers with my music, right? And that's [a] treasure. That's punk ... because it puts the music to test."
A dream is something between faith and reason, he sings on "Maré." We create luck ourselves, by not allowing aspirations to supersede the act of living.
"The whole challenge, it's perfect," he says. "Performance," like drama, "is danger." Amarante is ready for it.
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
And last week I was standing on a balcony overlooking this gorgeous vista of the east side of LA.
Wait, so first of all, how many stone steps did I just climb up to get to you right now? (Laughter).
RODRIGO AMARANTE: A hundred and eight.
CHANG: Are you serious, 108?
AMARANTE: Yes. Yeah.
CHANG: I got my workout in already then.
CHANG: We were at the home of musician Rodrigo Amarante. It's a bungalow perched on a lush green hillside.
Wait, so what happens when you forget something in your house and you have to go back up?
AMARANTE: I work on my Brazilian butt.
Amarante, who's originally from Brazil, has been known in the U.S. for his work with the band Little Joy. Today, he's out with his second solo album called "Drama," which he finished right here at his home.
(SOUNDBITE OF RODRIGO AMARANTE SONG, "MARE")
CHANG: How long have you lived in LA?
AMARANTE: I think 13 years now - something like that.
CHANG: Thirteen years.
AMARANTE: Yeah, and in this house for nine.
CHANG: I read that you felt LA allowed you to, quote, unquote, "start over." What did you mean by that? What were you starting over from?
AMARANTE: So I didn't really choose to come here. I had a career in Brazil as a musician. I had two bands, very different from each other, and they were both quite successful. So starting over in the sense that I was, you know, somewhat known in Brazil for my music - so when I'm here, no one knew who I was, you know?
CHANG: What did that feel like?
AMARANTE: Still, a lot of people don't know who I am.
CHANG: What does that feel like as someone...
AMARANTE: It feels wonderful.
CHANG: ...Who feels known in Brazil?
AMARANTE: It felt wonderful because it was...
CHANG: You liked being anonymous.
AMARANTE: Yeah, but not only for the sake of, like, not being recognized or something like that - in terms of the challenge of writing, you know?
AMARANTE: I'm not playing for my fans.
AMARANTE: All of a sudden, I have to conquer a room of strangers with my music, right? And that's treasure. That's punk.
CHANG: That wasn't daunting?
AMARANTE: No, that's - I mean, that's what I wanted. It puts the music to test. And I'm starting to write in this language that I'm learning as I go, you know? And so this is - the whole challenge is perfect, you know? Performance is danger.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MARE")
AMARANTE: (Singing in non-English language).
CHANG: So then when you first moved here - I'm just curious - if someone were to ask you, what does LA represent to you?
AMARANTE: Being a foreigner, in that sense - it's a very valuable experience.
CHANG: To be new to a place.
AMARANTE: Yeah, we all know the feeling, you know? But when you actually move somewhere, it's different than visiting. Visiting, you get this, like, hypersensitivity, right? But when you're actually living there, you go through - especially if language is involved, it can be very hard, you know?
When I first came, my English wasn't very good, and so I felt like I didn't get the sense of humor that was presented to me. I felt like I couldn't transmit my sense of humor. Therefore, I had the feeling that people thought I was dumb or not interesting. And that's a process that a foreigner lives through. And it's painful, but I feel very rich and important. It was to me, you know?
CHANG: Well, I'm curious how perceptions of where you belong have evolved as you moved through life. Like, you've called this latest album "Drama." Tell me why you chose that name.
AMARANTE: It was a name that came - I was writing this string arrangement. And I didn't - at the time, I was like, why am I writing this thing? But it was just feeling right, which ended up being the introduction of the record.
(SOUNDBITE OF RODRIGO AMARANTE'S "DRAMA")
AMARANTE: And I was sent to this memory of me being a kid. It was the moment where my dad - and I must have been 8 or 7 - where my dad, who was a wonderful father, but brought me outside. And it was the moment of ritual, of turning from boy to man. So he shaved my head. But I was sent to that moment and understood that drama was what I was supposed to get rid of to become a man, in this fallacy that is repeated and that my father was passing on to me.
CHANG: When your father says it's time to cut your hair for you to become a man, what were the thoughts that went through your head?
AMARANTE: So I felt ashamed that I felt ugly.
CHANG: You were ashamed that you felt ugly.
AMARANTE: Because I understood that I wasn't supposed to...
CHANG: Have vanity.
AMARANTE: I could have had a certain type of vanity - you know, maybe the vanity of muscles. But the truth is, the next day, I felt ugly. But that feeling - you know, I knew I wasn't supposed to care about being pretty, but I did. And so I think that is what stayed with me.
CHANG: The concept of manliness that your father had as a person who is not concerned with being pretty - do you agree with that concept of masculinity today? Is there...
AMARANTE: No, of course not. That's why I wrote this record and called it "Drama," because I'm responding to that. I'm rejecting that idea.
CHANG: You've told me that when you came here to the United States, that you had to learn this whole new language. And sometimes when you're communicating with people, some aspects of your emotion and your humor don't get transmitted to the people you're talking to. Does that happen when you're performing in front of an English-speaking crowd, that there's a part of you that doesn't get transmitted?
AMARANTE: I can't remember who said that, but someone said learning a new language is like having another personality. And it's an exaggeration, but I can relate because language is - it's so fun to learn a new language, but exposes so many things about the culture, you know, that you can see reflected. So yes, if I'm performing - but in a way, it's not important because music lovers listen to music in all kinds of languages. And there's something beautiful about it, too. If you don't understand the words, you have more space in that mirror to project. You can invent something that's there, you know? And you can occupy that space and make your own.
Sometimes I ask, like - and I will ask you, do you want me to sing in Portuguese or in English? And I don't know if people feel uptight with the question, but they keep saying it doesn't matter. I was like, it must matter. And then I can say, well, my words don't matter?
AMARANTE: But I know what they mean, you know? There's something in each one of them, you know?
CHANG: And with that, Amarante invited us into his living room. He sat us down, picked up a well-worn white guitar named Butter (ph)...
AMARANTE: Butter - you know, it has the marks of my labor. And it's the guitar...
CHANG: ...And treated us to our first live music performance since the beginning of the pandemic. It was his first, too.
AMARANTE: Oh, yeah. So because we talked about it, what language do you want to hear?
CHANG: How about Portuguese?
AMARANTE: All right, more room for imagination.
CHANG: Exactly. Because I don't understand a word.
AMARANTE: You know you understand it, in a non-verbal way. So this song is called "Tara."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TARA")
AMARANTE: (Singing in Portuguese). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.