In Songwriting, Carla Hassett Looks Home

Jun 26, 2016

Born in Sao Paolo and now living in Los Angeles, singer Carla Hassett finds musical inspiration in each place she's called home. Hassett, who toured with Sergio Mendes and Billy Idol and lent her voice to the soundtracks of the Rio movies, has a new solo album called +Blue (pronounced "more blue"). It's American and Brazilian with a modern twist, Hassett says: For instance, she sets Carmen Miranda's "South American Way" in a minor key and swaps the original's pep for a sultry summer swing.

The album takes its name from Brazilian singer Caetano Veloso's "A Little More Blue." Hassett, who worked with Veloso in 2012, considers him the "catalyst" for her project. In 1971, Veloso recorded his third self-titled album in London while living in exile, far from his family.

"I began to identify with it — not that I've ever been a political exile, but I understand that longing," says Hassett, who grew up traveling back and forth between Brazil. "Being away from them was hard as it was joyful when I was reunited with them. "It's strange way to grow up, but at the end of the day it's also really enriching."

Hear her full interview with NPR's Linda Wertheimer at the audio link.

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(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE BELONG HERE")

CARLA HASSETT: (Singing in foreign language).

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Now, a 20-feet-from-stardom story with a Brazilian twist. Carla Hassett was born in Sao Paulo. She grew up in Chicago and now lives in Los Angeles where she sung backup and toured with everyone from Sergio Mendes and Billy Idol to Solomon Burke. Her voice is also heard on the soundtracks of the "Rio" movies, but Hassett is also a solo artist. Her fourth album, "More Blue," comes out this Friday.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE BELONG HERE")

HASSETT: (Singing) We belong.

WERTHEIMER: Carla Hassett joins us from our studios at NPR West. Welcome to our program.

HASSETT: Thank you for having me.

WERTHEIMER: I understand that you consider Carmen Miranda your patron saint.

HASSETT: I think Carmen Miranda's everyone's patron saint (laughter). At the end of the day, we all bow down to Carmen. Carmen Miranda, Caetano Veloso said, is the original tropicalista, meaning she was really the first artist to leave Brazil and influence and bring the culture to outside of Brazil. She was really our pioneer of that.

WERTHEIMER: But she did it in a very colorful way. I mean, there she is in a samba costume, would we say?

HASSETT: Yeah.

WERTHEIMER: With piles of fruit on her head (laughter).

HASSETT: Uh-huh (laughter).

WERTHEIMER: And a big, you know - and she was incredibly curvaceous and she danced. It was quite something to see.

HASSETT: She was spectacular. And, you know, of course, it's all very outdated. You won't see me with fruit on my head.

(LAUGHTER)

HASSETT: But in my own way, you know, I've adapted my Americanism with my Brazilianism and with a bit of a modern twist but all with a nod to what she started.

WERTHEIMER: Now, you cover a song, which she made famous. This is Carmen Miranda's version of "South American Way."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOUTH AMERICAN WAY")

CARMEN MIRANDA: (Singing in foreign language).

WERTHEIMER: Now, as I said, you also have recorded it. So let's hear your recording.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOUTH AMERICAN WAY")

HASSETT: (Singing in foreign language).

WERTHEIMER: Your version is more sultry to say the least (laughter).

HASSETT: To say the least. I took any camp out of it. And when I first heard her version, I wasn't familiar with the song, it was suggested to me to record it. And as soon as I heard it, I knew that I wanted to just do a Picasso on it. I wanted to turn it on its head. And I put it in a minor key - that was the first thing I did - and I slowed it down. So that cute little celebration of "South American Way" became a lament and a longing. And then it felt right me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOUTH AMERICAN WAY")

HASSETT: (Singing) Have you ever danced in the tropics with that hazy lazy that makes you crazy like South American way.

WERTHEIMER: Now, you, also, have done a lot of odd jobs, musical jobs, including jingles. Anything we'd recognize?

HASSETT: It depends on how long you've been around (laughter).

WERTHEIMER: Well, (laughter) try me.

WERTHEIMER: I did lots of McDonald's commercials. In Chicago, I was the voice of Illinois Bell for a few years, back in the late '80s, around there.

WERTHEIMER: Well, try me on the Illinois Bell commercial.

HASSETT: (Singing) When you're out, get your messages quick, call home on an Illinois Bell public phone.

(LAUGHTER)

WERTHEIMER: Now we no longer have public phones (laughter).

HASSETT: (Laughter) That's how old it is. I started singing right out of high school. It was just, bam, took off right away (laughter). I was in a hurry (laughter).

WERTHEIMER: Now, the song that inspired the album's title is called "A Little More Blue." Let's listen to that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A LITTLE MORE BLUE")

HASSETT: (Singing) The day Carmen Miranda died, they put a photograph in a magazine. Her dead mouth with red lipstick smile, and people cried. I was about 10. But today, but today, but today I don't know why I feel a little more blue than then. I feel a little more blue than then.

WERTHEIMER: This is a song written by the great Brazilian artist Caetano Veloso.

HASSETT: That's right.

WERTHEIMER: Why is it the centerpiece of your album?

HASSETT: It was really the catalyst for the project, that song and working with him. I had the opportunity to sing with him back in 2012. And it was an extraordinary experience for me, getting to know his music a little bit deeper. And this song, I immediately latched onto it and added it to my repertoire. And as I learned about his experience when he recorded that song in 1971, he was living in exile in London. And he wrote this incredible record, all in English, and all of the songs were his expressions of longing to just want to go home. The most creative heart-wrenching stuff came out of him at that time. And I began to identify with it, not that I've ever been a political exile, but I understand that longing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GUERREIRA VAI")

WERTHEIMER: This album is not your typical collection of gentle sambas that we get from Brazil.

HASSETT: Right.

WERTHEIMER: Now, here's one where you are rocking out on a song that you yourself wrote. It's called "Guerreira Vai."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GUERREIRA VAI")

HASSETT: (Singing in foreign language).

WERTHEIMER: What does it mean, guerreira vai?

WERTHEIMER: Guerreira is a warrior, warrior woman. Guerreira vai is sort of like, you go girl (laughter). That's my you go girl song (laughter). And it's just this sort of weird, magical journey of finding support from those who came before you and pioneered ahead of you and finding your power and strength in that and just going for it.

WERTHEIMER: Carla Hassett - her new album is called "More Blue." blue. She joined us from our studios at NPR West. Thank you very much.

HASSETT: (Speaking foreign language) Linda, thank you so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE BELONG HERE")

HASSETT: (Singing) We belong, we belong, we belong, we belong... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.