Marisa Monte is a true musician. Her albums routinely go putf8um around the world, and her shows sell out wherever she plays — whether in or out of her native Brazil — but her approach is not at all that of a pop star. Her musical background is rich and combines the samba traditions of her hometown, Rio de Janeiro, European classical opera training, and Brazilian and international popular music. Music for her is not a means to an end but a process, a way of life, as she explained by phone from her home in Rio.
"I don't do a career. I do a life, and sometimes out of my life something happens that can serve the music in my career as well professionally, but you know I do music every day with my friends," Monte said. "It's really part of my house, of my environment. Most of my friends are musicians — we play almost every night at home, and so it's a natural consequence of the style of life."
Out of this atmosphere were born her new twin EMI albums, Universo ao Meu Redor and Infinito Particular. Her seventh and eighth full-lengths were the product of a hiatus of a few years — agonizingly long to her fans — during which she took time off to have a baby. This gave her a chance to comb through her tape archives, both of her own unreleased material and of sambas known only through oral tradition in Rio. Out of these archives came most of the material for the new releases.
Although these records were issued simultaneously, they take distinct approaches to Brazilian music. Universo ao Meu Redor reflects her commitment to and exploration of Rio's rich samba heritage, whereas Infinito Particular focuses on original compositions written over the years by Monte in collaboration with various songwriting partners (Arnaldo Antunes, Carlinhos Brown, Seu Jorge, David Byrne, etc.).
Though Infinito is in the vein of some of the pop music Monte has recorded in the past, it has a conceptual depth and consistency surpassing that of her earlier work.
"Most of the songs were composed on the acoustic guitar, so all the harmonic texture is basically based on the acoustic nylon string guitar," Monte explained. "But we also invited different arrangers to do different songs and had them all write for the same group of instruments, the same quartet, which is bassoon, cello, violin, and trumpet. So even if we have Philip Glass, João Donato, Eumir Deodato — each very different styles — the unity of the record happens through the same group of instruments, and it's the same group of instruments that I have on stage now with me."
For several years Monte has been archiving sambas passed around by veteran Rio sambistas, and her other new recording, Universo, collects her versions of these, combined with more recent sambas written by Monte and other contemporary Brazilian musicians. These are approached not as historical documents but as contemporary recordings of traditional music.
"Even if the repertoire sounds very classical, I didn't want to do a traditional samba record," Monte said. "I wanted to do a record that could dialogue with my other works — dialogue with the other references that I like and that are present in my work. So I wanted to do samba that I could call mine, and that's Universo ao Meu Redor.
"The subjects of the songs are very pure, very naive as traditional samba," she continued. "Most of the songs, they talk about love, about nature, about human common feelings like the values of the community ... and yet it sounds very psychedelic. We deal with a lot of freedom with the sounds."
Both records, as with most of her previous work, rely heavily on collaboration, not as a crutch but as a stimulus for collective creativity. For Monte, music is a social act both in process and in spirit.
"I really love to work together," she said. "It's something that stimulates me. It gives me discipline ... and I like to think together. I'm very open in my work. I'm not very attached to what I do.