Ever wonder which artists inspired your favorite bands to pick up their instruments for the first time? Curious about what albums were influential in shaping their sound? The Whistler’s new series, Playing Favorites, allows musicians to pay homage to the music that resonates most with them, be it a collection of songs from a single artist or band, or an entire album.
On Sunday, September 30th, local country singer Angela James will hang up her own songs and try on the debut album by Tropicália legend Gal Costa. I recently spoke with Angela about Playing Favorites, her time living in Brazil, and her connection to Chicago’s improvised jazz community.
Billy: I’m really excited for your show on Sunday. Why did you choose Gal Costa?
Angela James: Jordan [Angela’s lead guitar player and husband] gave me a Tropicalia mixtape that had several of the songs from this album on it about 8 or 9 years ago. I think we had only been dating a couple of weeks, and certainly had not discussed moving to Brazil together, but I guess he was planting the early seeds with that tape. I then got the album and would listen to it all the time. Rogério Duprat’s arrangements blew my mind — he was mixing psychedelia, traditional Brazilian rhythmic forms, and sweeping classical instrumentation — and Gal’s voice has this purity and innocence that I love. When I started learning Portuguese enough to understand the lyrics it was a whole other process of falling in love with these songs.
B: How closely will you be recreating Rogério Duprat’s arrangements?
A: For a couple of songs we’ll be sticking more closely to Caetano Veloso’s arrangements that appeared on his 1969 self-titled album. Duprat’s arrangements are amazing, but difficult to reproduce without full brass and string sections.
B: What stands out most from your time living in Brazil?
A: Jordan and I moved to Brazil and lived in Salvador, Bahia for a few years, which is where the Tropicália movement began. I guess we naively expected there to be some continuity with that scene in modern Salvador, but we found none. The Brazilian independent music scene is mostly coming out of Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, and Salvador is a lot like Nashville in that there is a big commercial pop music industry churning out mostly one genre of music that the general public just devours: Axé music, which is basically bombastic party music for Carnaval. So, I think I listened to this album even more in my disappointment with the music scene in Salvador. I felt we ironically lived in a musical desert, and would just listen to the Brazilian music of the past and sigh. It felt like we were living out the lyrics to the song “Saudosismo”.
B: What is that song about?
A: “Saudosismo” basically refers to nostalgia, or the popular theme of ‘saudade’ in Brazilian traditional and popular music. So, the song is about listening to the music of João Gilberto and thinking about the myth of “good old days” in both relationships and music. At the end of the song, the lyrics “chega de saudade” repeat over and over again, which mean “Enough of this longing/nostalgia,” and it’s also the title of a famous João Gilberto song.
B: After Brazil you moved to Chicago, which has such a vibrant music scene. Did Chicago influence your music in any way?
A: We moved to Chicago after living in Brazil and started playing in various musical projects again. I started writing songs that were clearly influenced by classic country music, but also leaving some space for experimentation.
B: Did you consider a country album or artist for Playing Favorites?
A: When I got the e-mail about the series, I thought doing this album would be a great musical challenge that we could pull off, but it’s also something I have a personal attachment to on several levels. I didn’t want to play an album that had obvious musical continuity with the songs that I’m writing, but that was still deeply personal. Jordan and I also wanted to involve some players from Chicago’s amazing jazz improvising community and knew this album would be great for that.
B: Your husband curates the weekly jazz series here at the Whistler, so he knows some of the most talented musicians in town. Who did you recruit for this show?
A: From the jazz scene, drummer Charles Rumback is a regular member of my band, and Andre Beasley will be playing drums as well. Jeff Greene will be on bass, and then Nick Broste on trombone and Jason Stein on bass clarinet. I’m also super excited to have Dan Schneider play some psyched-out lead guitar, and Jordan will be playing rhythm and lead guitar.
B: What song are you most looking forward to playing on Sunday?
A: Probably my favorite song to sing at this point is “Baby” because the band is really stretching out and there’s a lot of space to improvise. The lyrics are also equal parts ridiculous and referential of both American and Brazilian pop music. Caetano Veloso is an amazing lyricist, especially in that era.