Rodrigo Amarante didn’t want anything modular. Deserting the lusher Brazilian chord progressions and layered sounds of 2014 debut Cavalo, the direction of his second album, Drama was stripped back, and more self-evocative. Now seven years following his solo debut, and his years of work with founding band Los Hermanos, his participation in the samba big band Orquestra Imperial, and collaborations with Norah Jones, Gilberto Gil, Devendra Banhart, Gal Costa, the Los Angeles-based Amarante started retrieving songs, many a decade old, in 2018 to set the scenes of second release Drama.
Working through sessions with his band, bassist Todd Dahlhoff, drummer “Lucky” Paul Taylor, and congas player Andres Renteria, all the stages of Drama were already scripted, then later mixed and overdubbed with Noah Georgeson in LA during the pandemic. At first, focused on rhythms and melodies, Amarante abandoned all the modulations for something more bare.
“I wanted to make more of a modal record than a tonal record,” shares Amarante. “Throughout the process, I realized that I was, in a way, replicating behavior that I was told I should have: be cool. For a boy growing up where I grew up, men tend to perpetuate this idea. Transitioning from boy to man, you have to dry up, you have to cool down, you have to control your feelings, you have to be stable, you have to be objective and rational and all these things.”
Shifting ideals of masculinity rooted in childhood, along with the pendulum of love, Amarante explores it all, but more dramatically.
“I decided to throw a fit, and do exactly what I’m not supposed to, and that’s why it’s called Drama,” says Amarante. “That word is the trigger, so I embrace that.”
He adds, “I went back and dressed up songs that were written in the period when I was trying to be dry, and I went back and put wigs on and just really dressed it up. Maybe it’s a reactionary way to work but I don’t mind. I have all these things to work on. It’s not for everybody. I know this is serving me, so the hope is that it will serve others.”
In this state of Drama, everything plays out scene by scene. Switching from Portuguese to English throughout, slower samba and jazzier pockets silhouette the cinematic light of “Drama” slipping into reflective “Mare” and “Tango” and the mismatched sounds of “Tara” and the dance-y “Tanto.” Everything acts out, from the more ambient “I Can’t Wait” and “Sky Beneath” through two Portuguese titles tracks “Eu Com Você” (I’m with You) and “Um Milhão” (A Million) and closing “The End,” originally written 10 years earlier.
“I love film,” says Amarante. “That’s what I wanted to do, make films, but that didn’t happen. So songwriting for me, in a way, is creating the scenes.”
For the Brazilian-born Amarante, his is a career that seems to be on repeat. There’s always a beginning and with debut Cavalo, which Amarante says got a second life when he wrote the theme music for the Netflix series Narcos in 2015, it was a separation from his former life, and band, Los Hermanos, which he addressed throughout the album and all of a sudden he had his name on something.
“I was creating this thing,” he says. “I’m a character so that was the beginning of that line of thought I was just realizing that I was finding myself through that, so that made me look inward and think about my identity or laugh at all the things.”
Everything is open. The scene is set, and Amarante wants something rawer on his next release—just him, a guitar, and more movement.
“I miss dancing, and being in a room with people dancing,” says Amarante. “I realized the political power of dancing together because when you’re dancing in a room, you’re loving everybody in that room. There’s a feeling of oneness, and it’s free. And when we’re dancing, we’re facing each other rather than just facing something else, and so I want to make a dance record, well my kind of dance, but I can’t promise anything.”