“Music is to Brazil what food is to Italy—something they just do better than a lot of other countries,” says Jesse Harris. “At times I’ve been obsessed with it, particularly the recordings of the 60s and 70s.”
Harris waxes rhapsodic about Brazil because it’s the center of his new album, Sub Rosa. Predominantly recorded and mixed in Rio de Janeiro with a cast of local luminaries, it’s Harris’ 11th record of his own material—and it shines the spotlight (and bright tropical sun) on an artist who people are more used to expect to find hiding in the shadows.
While it’s true that Harris’ work with artists like Norah Jones, Conor Oberst, Melody Gardot (guest appearances by all three appear on Sub Rosa) and countless others has been significant, Harris is somewhat amused by the fact that people assume his own music plays a backseat to collaborations.
“It’s more the other way around,” he says. “I’m usually doing my own projects and then on the side sometimes working with other people.” In fact, if Harris’ name has been conspicuously absent from liner notes over the past year and a half it’s because he’s been hard at work on Sub Rosa.
What started as an invitation from friends to spend a month in Rio eventually evolved into a stellar album that deftly weaves Brazilian-influenced arrangements into Harris’ understated folk-pop. After years of trips and tours there, never spending more than a week or two at a time, Harris decamped to Rio for January of 2011, delving into the city’s rich music scene and beginning friendships and collaborations with musicians like Dadi, Maria Gadu and Vinicius Cantuaria. After repeated visits, he was offered a three-night stand at a local club that November.
“Throughout the year I had been working with Dadi (bass) and also Maycon Ananias (keyboards) and thought it would be fun to put a band together with them and my friends Bill Dobrow (co-producer/drummer) and Guilherme Monteiro (guitar), who play with me up in New York,” explains Harris of what happened next.
The chemistry clicked and, following the series, Harris brought everyone together to record at Monoaural, a studio built into an old house in the city’s Baixo-Gavea section. Dadi’s son, Daniel Carvalho, a Grammy Award-winning engineer who works frequently with Caetano Veloso, recorded and mixed, along with Bernard Ceppas, one of the owners of Monoaural and a noted producer and composer.
With the basics done, Harris returned to New York where the album continued to blossom with the addition of gorgeous string and horn arrangements by Maycon Ananias. “One of the elements of Brazilian records to which I aspired is the vital role of the arrangement, and Maycon is a young guy fully versed and skilled in that tradition.”
Then came the avalanche of guest appearances. Before the recording had even begun, Conor Oberst had told Harris he wanted to sing backgrounds on something if there would be a place for him. “The song ‘I Won’t Wait’ called out for his voice,” Harris reflects. “As soon as we recorded it I wanted to hear him shouting the choruses behind me.” Nick Zinner offered up his studio for the session, which led to the addition his tremolo-guitar participation on the track.
Around the same time, Norah Jones heard the rough mixes and offered to sing on it as well, adding lush harmonies to four songs, including “Rocking Chairs,” an abstract tale of longing set to a groove that evokes 1970s Brazilian and American pop/rock; and “Rube And Mandy At Coney Island,” a waltz that tells the story of two lovers from the early 1900s caught in a sort of time-vortex.
A song in french, evocative of 1960s Serge Gainsbourg, “Tant Pis,” inspired Harris to seek out Melody Gardot, a frequent collaborator. “She came to mind immediately, because, well, first of all, she speaks French, and secondly, she has that soft, sexy, understated style of singing that I love and thought would fit seamlessly into the tune.”
“It’s Been Going ‘Round” became a vehicle for the playful guitar accompaniment of jazz great Bill Frisell. “It had been years since I had done anything with Bill, and we’d been talking about working on something together again. Selfishly, I wanted to hear him play over a boogaloo-bossa,” Harris laughs.
Maria Gadu, one of Brazil’s most popular young MPB singers, with whom Harris co-wrote and co-produced two tracks for her latest album Mais Uma Pagina, added backing vocals to the opening track “I Know It Won’t Be Long.”
Two instrumental tracks act as interludes on the album, “Afternoon In Kanda” (a neighborhood in Tokyo) and “You Used To Call Me.” Instrumental music is something that Harris has explored in the past, not only with interlude-type tracks on other albums, but also with the fully instrumental release Cosmo (Tzadik Records) and the film score for The Hottest State.
For Harris, Sub Rosa is the fruition of a remarkable career, as well as the start of a new chapter where the spotlight is firmly on him. “I worked harder on this recording than on any other before,” he states. “In the past, I’ve been a bit diffident about my own albums, almost excusing them for some reason, even though deep down I felt strongly about them. Subsequently, I wasn’t 100% driven to get behind them and tour, but now all I feel like doing is my own thing.”
One listen to Sub Rosa, and you’ll champion Harris’ decision. Smart, wistful, and confident, it’s immediately charming and subtly complex. With the help of Brazil’s sympathetic sunshine and a little help from his friends, there are no more shadows left to hide in.
Also, check out this Grooveable Feast Episode featuring Jesse Harris.