The child of a Brazilian concert promoter and an American mother, Alexia Bomtempo grew up splitting her time between two countries and cultures. Fortunate enough to experience live music at a young age, she spent her childhood immersed in Rio’s heady music scene. Fed a steady diet of performances by some of the world’s best musicians, complete with backstage access, she had no doubt that someday that would be her life.
Still, unlike many jazz musicians who begin their musical development very young, Alexia didn’t start her formal music training until her early twenties, when she studied with Brazilian voice coach Felipe Abreu. He become a mentor, and then a producer of I Just Happen To Be Here, her 2012 English-language tribute to Tropicalia legend Caetano Veloso.
The impact of her multi-cultural upbringing on her style is undeniable; there is no running away from the fact that she is as much an American artist as she is Brazilian. Beginning with her 2010 debut Astrolábio, on to the aforementioned I Just Happen To Be Here, and the indie-pop Chasing Storms and Stars, Alexia has cultivated a unique, confidently feminine sound. And it reaches new heights with her latest album Suspiro (Portuguese for “sigh”), which effortlessly brings divergent cultural nuances together in a gorgeous, and transportive collection of new songs, while returning decisively her to her bossa nova roots.
Suspiro was released April 24th, in the midst of this global pandemic—so we sat down with Alexia for a Zoom chat about the inspirations behind the album, and virtual “touring” while we all wait out the coronavirus crisis.
It’s an interesting time—you just released Suspiro and were planning to tour. I can imagine it’s frustrating knowing that you’re limited to Facebook livestream events.
I was so excited to finally present this new material live with a full band. We have been playing together for quite some time and we had this whole concept for the show. For artists and musicians, there’s nothing that will ever substitute for the feeling of playing music in the same room. I think the music community is heartbroken with what’s going on, because we don’t know when society is going feel comfortable attending a live show. But virtual performances are the only choice we have right now and definitely what we are going to be doing for the time being. I really want to find a way to make them sound and look amazing and keep it interesting for whomever is watching, because people at some point are probably going to feel saturated with all the live content. We are still working out all the details, but I’ve learned that FB is the best platform in terms of sound quality. Whenever we do anything on Instagram, I try to keep it short, a couple of songs. There will be more coming.
This is your 4th album. Your debut, Astrolábio, was released in 2010, and is also a mix of songs in Portuguese and English. What inspired you to return to a similar mixed-language format for Suspiro?
It’s funny you say that, because I hadn’t thought of it in that way. It’s so exciting to see the album out there and how people pick up on certain things that I didn’t think about when I was making it. For Suspiro, I was determined to do something different than my previous record, Chasing Storms and Stars, which was more indie-pop and kind of folk-y, Americana; and I wanted to pay tribute to the bossa nova movement of the ‘60s. I had done a residency in Japan for a few months in 2017 and I was singing a lot of jazz and bossa nova standards. Suspiro really came from being deeply immersed in the world of bossa-jazz again.
It is a very transportive record, even down to the cover art. It made me feel like I was in an early ’60s nightclub in Rio.
You know, it just kind of happened that way. We had a concept, and we wanted to pay tribute to this important era of music and culture in Brazil, but not in a throwback kind of way. This was an amazing movement, the sound of a beautiful, cultural, explosive experience and life that was happening in Rio in the ‘60s. We wanted to go back to those sounds and showcase these new, contemporary songwriters from Rio and bring some of my own songs into this sort of dreamy vibe. Everything was recorded live and we had so much fun with it. Looking back at how it came together…we achieved this goal without really planning it.
It’s an impressive list of people you worked with. How did those collaborations come about?
The Brazilian music community is very diverse and connected—we all know each other. Jake Owen, who is the other producer and also my husband, has a studio with Mauro Refosco, an incredible Brazilian percussionist who has played with David Byrne and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Stéphane San Juan, one of the producers on the record, was in the studio with his trio recording an EP when we were talking about doing this album, and he brought in the pianist and bassist from his trio, Vitor Gonçalves and Eduardo Belo, who were so incredibly crucial for coming up with the arrangements for the songs. Jake played guitar. Michael Leonhart was also Stéphane’s connection. It was so wonderful to see Michael work, it was just beautiful, his playing is just like poetry. Guilherme Monteiro is another Brazilian guitarist who has been in New York for years. He and Jake are former roommates and he is also a friend of Stéphane’s. We wanted Guilherme to play on one of the tracks as a special guest.
Which was “Les Chansons d’Amour”?
Yes, it was beautiful to see him take this song which was written by this phenomenal Brazilian songwriter, Alberto Continentino, and come up with the arrangement in, like, five minutes. So, yes, Stéphane was a big part of putting this together and connecting everyone; but it also would have never happened without Mauro and Jake.
You had this idea for this record, and when you got together with Stéphane, had you already written some of the songs? How did that process work and how long did it take you to make the record?
It was a very quick process in terms of putting it together, which is unusual for me. I took so long to finish all my other records. With Suspiro, we had the idea and we started digging through material for songs. I already had some that were written and I knew I wanted to do some covers, so I started researching songs. Stéphane started doing some research on his end and then we got these original songs from Alberto Continentino and Domenico Lancellotti; they sent us a batch of songs, we picked four and recorded in a week. Everything was recorded live. We were in the studio with the trio for four days, and then we did one day with Michael on trumpet and another day of overdubs. We did some editing here and there, but the recording process was only about a week.
You mentioned covers – there are a few on Suspiro and you’ve done covers in the past. I loved your interpretation of “Roxanne” from Astrolábio, and “I’m In Love Again” and “Grão” from the new record are stunners. What inspires your choices?
It all depends. With my first album I was experimenting with so many things. At some point, I had heard that “Roxanne” was actually written as a bossa nova. I don’t know if it’s true, but I started performing it like that and thought it would be really cool to record it that way. I Just Happen to Be Here, the Caetano Veloso tribute, is all cover songs, and I picked those that I connected with the most. Picking repertoire over the years, I have found that having a personal connection to the song, and a feeling that I can truly relate to the words and the music, is really important to me. It has to feel truthful—I can’t imagine singing something that I can’t connect with. For this particular record, I knew I wanted to revisit a not-so-obvious American standard and give it a Brazilian twist. I love taking a song to a different world, just completely transforming it. “I’m in Love Again” had originally been done as a ballad by Tony Bennett. People deeply connected to the American songbook would know it, but a lot of people don’t really know that song.
During your recent FB livestream event with Cole DeGenova, you mentioned that the track “Mais Devagar” is inspired by the Portuguese word “saudade,” which means a nostalgic feeling of longing, of missing something. What were you feeling when you wrote it?
“Saudade” is nostalgic, it can make you feel good and sad at the same time. It’s very deep. I was alone in Japan when I wrote the song, and even though I was working with other musicians and had friends, I was very far away from everything that I really knew. Jake and I weren’t married at the time, but he was here in New York and I was missing him. I was feeling nostalgic about many things, and the song is all about the feeling of longing, of needing, of missing something. The melody has elements of both sadness and happiness, which is so Brazilian; that’s just how we are. Even when things are sad and tragic, we are always going to find something to keep the positivity up. The song really captures that aspect of Brazilian culture and I really love how it turned out.
What are some of the differences between the Rio and New York music scenes?
I don’t think there is a music scene—especially in jazz—like there is in New York, and that’s why everybody comes here. I love Rio, it’s my town, and I love going back to visit; but the lifestyle is so different, it’s like a constant vacation. Life just has a different pace, which is a beautiful thing, but I wanted more than that. I wanted to be pushed, to feel challenged and inspired every day and have the opportunity to collaborate with incredible musicians from all over the world.
I don’t think I could make this record, which pays tribute to Brazilian music, in Brazil. It’s a very New York record, influenced by jazz artists from all over the place.
Now that you have put out this beautiful record, are you thinking ahead to what you may want your next project to be like?
I want to do something similar to this again. Not the same, maybe different instrumentation; but I want to explore another volume of this. We are already talking about it.