THE FULL BRAZILIAN – singer/songwriter ED MOTTA waxes lyrical about fine wine, Steely Dan, and finding perfection

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  • THE FULL BRAZILIAN – singer/songwriter ED MOTTA waxes lyrical about fine wine, Steely Dan, and finding perfection

Ed Motta is a remarkable man on several levels. Firstly, he’s an accomplished singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist who, because of his stylistic versatility and chameleonic eclecticism, has been dubbed Brazil’s answer to Prince. Secondly, he’s renowned globally among fellow crate-diggers as an avid and obsessive record collector, who, at the last count,  had in excess of 30,000 LPs propping up the walls to his house. And thirdly, he’s noted for his passion for the good things in life, which include food and wine (for many years he wrote about viniculture in Brazilian newspapers and magazines). But that’s not all, Motta possesses an encyclopaedic knowledge of many subjects – he’s an avowed cinema buff who loves old movies and is also a fervent devotee of sci-fi novels and comic books. His talents and interests are multifarious and he’s erudite to the extent that he could be declared an “expert” on many topics. He is, then, what many would call a “Renaissance Man.”

Outside of his native Brazil, though, Motta’s best known for his endeavours in the field of popular music. He’s been making albums since the late 1980s (initially as part of a group, Conexão Japeri)  but like the fine wine that he loves so passionately, he’s begun to mature nicely during the last five years, releasing, arguably, what can be regarded as the most accomplished and satisfying albums of his career. His releases had been remarkably varied up until 2013 when he changed direction and released ‘AOR,’ his painstakingly stylish homage to American Adult Oriented Rock, a set that contained palpable traces of Steely Dan in its musical DNA.

Motta continued to follow a similar trajectory with the superb ‘Perpetual Gateways’ in 2015, though it was the first album where he handed over the production reins to someone else. Fast forward to September 2018 and the Rio de Janeiro-born polymath has just unveiled his latest LP, ‘Criterion Of The Senses.’ It is arguably Ed Motta’s masterwork and the culmination of what he set out to do with ‘AOR’ five years ago when he first explored the world of that much-maligned genre, “Yacht Rock.”

‘Criterion Of The Senses’ is to Ed Motta’s catalogue what ‘Aja’ is to Steely Dan’s – sonic perfection. Every facet of it functions at an optimal level – from the vocals, lyrics and song arrangements right down to chords and even the placement of individual notes. Nothing is wasted. Nothing is superfluous. Every piece fits. Though it’s a relatively short album by today’s standards (eight songs with a running time of 34 minutes), as an artistic statement, it’s complete. But that shouldn’t surprise anyone who knows Ed Motta. He obsesses about perfection in everything, as he tells SJF’s Charles Waring…

alt“Perfectionism surrounds my life,” says the softly-spoken singer-songwriter, accompanying this confession with a husky chuckle. He’s talking to SJF from the city of Sao Paulo, where he has a gig later that night. “That’s the biggest influence Steely Dan gave to me – their perfectionism inside the studio.” He’s alluding to the famed fastidiousness of Donald Fagen and the late Walter Becker, the creative hub of Steely Dan, who tested even the most seasoned of session musicians in the 1970s with their relentless quest for the perfect solo or ideal take in the recording studio. Motta says that his zeal for perfection extends into every facet of his life: “I want perfection in everything I love. For example, I’m obsessed by natural, organic wine. I used to write about it in a newspaper in the ’90s here (in Brazil) and the way I look at wines and food – and anything I do in my life – is always related to something obsessed with perfection.”

He admits that perfectionism can be a daunting thing – not just for those on the receiving end of, or affected by, his need for perfection, but also for himself. “It’s never easy-going to want the best of the best or the best possible thing,” he admits. “But the best possible doesn’t always mean it’s something expensive. For example, it could be about me wanting the best apple on the street.”

 Like his heroes, Steely Dan, Motta’s attention to detail in the studio is on a microscopic level as he constantly refines his music in the search of the perfect performance. It might be laborious to some, but Motta loves doing what for him is not a challenge but an unalloyed joy.  “I spend many happy,  happy hours on post-production,” he reveals. “There’s a lot of work regarding the effects and mixing and even finding the right microphone and the right placement for it, and the right chords. Everything is very like a Chinese puzzle.”

                   altThough Motta says he uses a computer for recording and mixing his music, he uses analogue instruments and likes to work in an organic way. He abhors the Frankenstein approach to making music using sampling, describing it as “not honest and intellectually insane.”  His music, and albums like ‘Criterion Of The Senses,’ are more honest, he says: “It’s live music with real instruments, real musicians, real compositions, made by a songwriter that is a musician and a guitar player that is a guitar player, and drummer that is a drummer, and a piano player that is a piano player. It’s pop music like music was, not only before hip-hop but also before (the Sex Pistol’s) ‘Never Mind the Bollocks.'” 

                                  altThe new album, then, like ‘Perpetual Gateways’ and ‘AOR’ before it, is a throwback to a bygone age – before the punk and hip-hop revolutions sent seismic shockwaves through the music industry – when pop music, in general, was more polished and sophisticated. It was when the smooth sounds of Steely Dan, the Doobie Brothers, Fleetwood Mac, Toto, Boston, and REO Speedwagon ruled the airwaves. But the ground zero of punk rock and the New Wave movement changed perceptions. “People were thinking this is cheesy, this is uncool,” says Motta, but he stayed faithful to the music that was the soundtrack to his teenage years. “I remember it was strong on the radio in Brazil and all over the planet. I started to pay attention to it and listen to Steely Dan a lot, and also Todd Rundgren, who I had liked since I was a teenager. He sounded pretty much like an AOR act.”  For his  2013 LP, ‘AOR,’ Motta immersed himself in the music. “Before I recorded that album, I became very obsessed with the AOR aesthetic and started collecting albums with a huge obsessive angle on this music.”

On ‘Criterion Of The Senses,’ Ed Motta’s AOR aesthetic reaches its apotheosis. In terms of their themes, the eight songs, all with English lyrics, range from alienation (‘Lost Connection To Prague’) and romance (‘Sweetest Berry’) to mystery (‘The Tiki’s Broken There’), science fiction adventures (‘X1 In Test’) and tongue-in-cheek homages to the 1980s (‘Shoulder Pads’). “There are some weird stories about conspiracy, drug dealers, and spaceships,” explains Motta. “My songs are not exactly about relationships and personal experiences and usually have a narrator.” Having said that, the song ‘Sweetest Berry,’ a soulful and intimate love ballad with shades of Donny Hathaway in Motta’s smoky vocals, comes across as a deeply personal reflection on a romantic relationship. “It was Marvin Gaye-inspired with simple lyrics. It’s very direct and sexy,” says its songwriter.

altMotta says he gets some of his inspiration for his songs from watching films. “The paranoiac stories about conspiracies in my songs come absolutely from cinema,” he reveals. “When I have time, I can watch two movies per day, but usually I watch one.” He says that ‘The Tiki Is Broken There’ – where he’s joined by female singer Cidalia Castro on a song about a couple sharing a hidden secret – takes it inspiration from the film noir genre. “It’s like a Carol Reed-inspired movie or like the Maltese Falcon by John Houston,” he says. “There’s a lady and she has a relationship with the lieutenant, and but they have to keep a secret, not only about the Tiki but about something strange they have done in the city, so it’s pretty much a film noir approach to this one.”

Intriguing too and a draped in a pall of mystery is  ‘X1 in Test.’ “It’s a psychological, sci-fi adventure,” explains Motta, “and for me is pretty much inspired by the sci-fi literature of people like (Czech writer) Stanislaw Lem and (American novelist) Kurt Vonnegut.”

 Rooted more in Motta’s personal experience is the opener, ‘Lost Connection To Prague.’  That one is pretty much from a biographical situation because most of the times when I’m in Europe, 95% of the time, there are problems with my luggage in the middle of the tour. It happens all the time. It’s a Kafka-esque experience.” Motta reveals that he actually wrote the song in the capital of the Czech Republic during an enforced stay-over in the city after arriving there by mistake. “I really wrote this one in Prague,” he explains.  “I was playing in Montenegro, and I was supposed to fly to Amsterdam and to have two days off and then back to France to do some concerts. But then the airline company had a mistake and sent me and the drummer to Prague.”  It was while stuck in a hotel by the airport that he came up with ‘Lost Connection To Prague.’ “I wrote that there on the hotel piano. I remember I woke up very early. I usually wake up early. And even on tour, I woke up early. Six in the morning always. So I was there playing this thing and then I finished it in Berlin, three years ago.”

Motta confesses that the experience of being “lost” in transit unsettled him. “It scared me a lot,” he says. “I am anxious about real life. It makes me really sick.” He laughs after saying this but you feel that his need for perfection and desire for order is his reaction to the chaos and erratic nature of the outside world. The music he makes he can control, but life…that’s a different matter altogether.

altFrom his love of film noir and old movies, Ed Motta gravitates to mystery and on the song, ‘Required Dress Code,’ he even throws in a line for Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Shedding light on it, he says: “There’s a party and some people are going to distribute a substance that nobody knows about. It goes, ‘there’s something rotten in the state of Denmark’ and I see the face of Laurence Olivier in it.”

The album’s closing track, ‘Shoulder Pads,’  is a tongue in cheek homage to the 1980s.  “I am missing the ’80s,” he laments in the opening line of the song, and then goes on to list some of the things he mourns the passing of – from the mullet hairstyle to the Sony Walkman and shoulder pads. “There’s a strong, dark, humour on this one,” he laughs, “because I don’t exactly miss the ’80s at all. I’m more into the ’60s and ’70s but the ’80s somehow became something more historical to me. I miss some things from that period, like Walkmans and VCR head cleaners…but I don’t miss the shoulder pads!”

The biggest revelation about his songwriting comes when he tells me that he writes all his lyrics in English rather than his native Portuguese tongue.  “Even though English is not my language, I write straight in English,” he says.  “To be honest, I’ve never written a lyric in Portuguese in my life during my 30-year career. I used to have several different partners to do the lyrics but I can’t write in Portuguese, because I don’t feel it. I don’t feel it because of the music I grew up listening to. It was pretty much music from the US and UK.” Motta says that he learned English not only via UK rock and pop songs but also from films. “I watch them in English with English subtitles, and most of the scenes I read… and 90% of what I read is in English. It’s not difficult for me to speak English though when I speak I make lots of mistakes with the grammar and everything.”

When it comes to writing English, though, Motta shows plenty of skill, often employing witty wordplay and humour in his songs. There’s humour, too, in the album’s arresting, insectile-themed cover art, which his wife Edna Lopez drew. “She’s a graphic novel artist and also a painter,” he says. “It’s inspired by a series of paintings. I went to see this expo and I saw something and said I’d really like to ask you to do that but the artwork is also very much related to comic books from France and Belgium from the ’60s and ’70s.”

                         altMost would imagine that Motta, who’s the nephew of noted Brazilian singer, Tim Maia, was raised on a diet of his nation’s indigenous music, but that’s not the case. From an early age, he was drawn to blues, rock and soul music. It was his uncle that awakened his interest in black music. “Tim Maia was huge here in Brazil,” he says. “He was the first guy to blend Brazilian music with soul. He was a Brazilian James Brown. He influenced my first contact with black soul music. The albums he used to give to my mother as a gift were by Curtis Mayfield, Al Green, the Isley Brothers, and Donny Hathaway. I grew up with this music in my house.”

His uncle also bought young Eduardo Motta his first musical instrument. “He gave me a drum set when I was seven years old,” remembers Motta. “I started to play the drums when I was 11 years old and I had a hard rock band, called Kaballah. We used to play covers from that Zeppelin and Humble Pie and Deep Purple. We never recorded, it was a school thing pretty much.”

Motta became obsessed with British blues-rock at this time. “I was listening pretty much more to Humble Pie, Free, Rory Gallagher and Van Morrison more than the Brazilian music,” he says, explaining that he was different from the other people of his generation in Brazil. “People from my age were listening to post-punk, like Joy Division and all that kind of stuff, which was big in Brazil. But I was more into the music of the past, the music that older people liked and listening to Climax Blues Band, Chicken Shack, Dr Feelgood, and bands like Groundhog.” When his contemporaries were getting into club music in the late ’80s and early ’90s, Motta was exploring English blues-rock. “Club culture is definitely not my thing,” he states emphatically. He vividly recalls his first trip to the UK, which he saw as an opportunity to track down some of his musical heroes. “I remember when I played in the UK for the first time in 1992 at Dingwall’s. My obsession was to track down and to reach Wilko Johnson, Tony McPhee, and those kinds of people.”

It was around the same time period when Motta became in his country’s own music. “I started to pay attention to Brazilian music in the early ’90s. I had already recorded three albums and then because of my interest in  jazz, I went to Brazilian music, but the Brazil that interested me was from bossa nova and (Antonio Carlos) ‘Tom’ Jobim, which was more sophisticated with intricate harmonies.”

altThough a late convert to boss nova, its language began to fascinate him, and impact his own developing musical sensibility though he says that other crucial influences range from Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim to Michel Legrand, Ben Sidran, and the late Mose Allison. Motta is also a disciple of soul music and cites people like Leon Ware, Stevie Wonder, and Marvin Gaye as key musicians who helped to shape his own style. Some observers have noted the influence of 70s soul man, Donny Hathaway (above). “Donny Hathaway is my favourite singer ever,” enthuses the Brazilian maestro. “For me, his is the best voice on this planet.”

alt Without a doubt, the most notable influence on Motta’s past three albums has been Steely Dan (above).“They changed my life,” states the singer/songwriter. “They were like a water division in the way they started producing music and I studied them in the way I wanted to produce my albums, to care about each word, each sound, each effect. This obsession came through Steely Dan.” Though the subtle jazz-inflected chords that Motta employs on the albums ‘AOR,’ ‘Perpetual Gateways,’ and ‘Criterion Of The Senses’ are redolent of Walter Becker and Donald Fagen’s harmonic sophistication, the Brazilian tunesmith also says they influenced his lyric writing: “They inspired me looking for unusual situations regarding the lyrics. They didn’t have lyrics that were commonplace, and musically, had something that always gives us an idea of surprise – a chord that goes to another place that you were not expecting.”

                          altMotta also extols the virtues of largely unsung US jazz musician, composer/pianist Carla Bley – “she mixed the jazz influence with a classical background and then in the middle of everything, she invites Jack Bruce to play the bass,” he enthuses – and then feels compelled to mention one of his favourite British songwriters. It’s a name that doesn’t crop up very often these days.  “There’s someone I think who’s so underrated from the United Kingdom… Pete Wingfield. He was a songwriter and played piano. He recorded just one solo album (‘Breakfast Special,’ pictured above), and during the second album was fired from Island Records. They released it years after on CD together with his first album that has that huge hit, ‘Eighteen With A Bullet.’ Pete Wingfield is such a great songwriter. I never hear people talking about him and he’s such a vast composer from the UK. The top pop-soul composer from the UK for me is Pete Wingfield. He’s such a brilliant genius.”

Given his enthusiasm for British music and musicians, Motta, in fact, could be described as an Anglophile. Some of the most treasured LPs amongst his alphabetically-arranged 30,000-strong vinyl collection are by British musicians. “I have lots of British soul, blues, pop and some expensive British jazz records too. Lots of Tubby Hayes, Don Rendell, Ian Carr, Michael Garrick, Michael Gibbs, Mike Westbrook, Norma Winstone, all of those people from the UK. Everything you produced before ‘Never Mind The Bollocks.'”

             altIt just so happens, though, that the album that Ed Motta couldn’t live without is by an American act. “If I have to choose just one album from my collection and burn everything else, I would choose Steely Dan’s ‘Aja’,” he laughs. “It’s the most perfect album. I find there everything I love. There’s jazz, there’s soul, there’s funk, pop, subversive lyrics. That album impresses me every time I listen to it. That thing is like the Citizen Kane of music.”

Motta’s need for control means that although he’s a fan of many bands, he’s averse to being a member of one because of its inherently democratic nature. “I’m a dictator of my art,” he chortles. “That’s why I left my band right (Conexão Japeri) after the first album. Thank God I’m not part of a band. I said oh my gosh, if this band records a second album I’m going to be like Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey (of The Who), where you must live together forever, even hating each other. So, let’s keep away from this.”

                          altEven so, and despite his need for full artistic control,  in an unusual move, Motta relinquished the production reins to Gregory Porter’s US producer, Kamau Kenyatta, for 2015’s ‘Perpetual Gateways.’ “It was the very first time in my career that I had a producer,” explains Motta, who adds, “I was afraid because I’m not a personality that likes to share my creative thinking.” Even so, for a perfectionist with pronounced OCD characteristics, Motta didn’t find the experience too trying: “It was very nice and he’s such a nice guy.”

Motta also got to work with the cream of the US session scene on that album,  including keyboardists Greg Phillinganes and Patrice Rushen, plus flautist Hubert Laws. “It was great working with Patrice Rushen. I used to listen to her albums since I was a teenager. And Greg Phillinganes played on Stevie Wonder’s ‘Songs In The Key Of Life,’ and Donald Fagen’s ‘The Nightfly.’  And for me, Hubert Laws is the most important flute player and has the best flute sound ever in popular music, so it was magic and wonderful to me.”

Compared with the Brazilian’s other albums, ‘Perpetual Gateways’ came together relatively quickly.  “I recorded it in 15 days and then mixed it in 15 days,” says Motta.  “For me, it was more like a  Blue Note or a live session. This new one, ‘Criterion Of the senses,’ took almost a year to make, like my album ‘AOR.'”

altThough his albums often have a long gestation period, Motta is constantly writing songs. “I write a lot,” he says. “When I was younger, 20-something, I used to write more, maybe one song per week but I’m still writing regularly. I keep songs for different projects. For example, I made a musical in Brazil, a very dark musical, almost kind of Edgar Allan Poe-inspired. So if something comes in that similar vein, I keep it for the musical, or for a soundtrack, or something. Or I can use part of it,  some chords, in the middle of something else. I steal from myself all the time.”

 Ed Motta’s autumn tour itinerary in support of his new album brings him to Europe – he’s especially popular in Germany and Paris – for nineteen concerts but sadly, not the UK. “My UK dates have been postponed to April,” he explains, adding how appreciative he is of the enthusiasm shown him by leading London-based DJ, broadcaster and tastemaker, Gilles Peterson. “Gilles has helped me since the early ’90s. He was the first guy to talk about me in Europe.”

Though Motta’s growing legion of UK devotees will have to wait until next spring to see their main man take to the stage in London again, the release of ‘Criterion Of The Senses’  should appease their disappointment. It is, without doubt, Ed Motta’s most perfect album yet. A seamless and stylish amalgam of soul, jazz, pop and rock flavours expertly blended by a master chef, Ed Motta.  It’s an album that affirms Ed Motta’s genius. But after all, he is, as I stated earlier, a remarkable man.

 ‘Criterion Of The Senses’ is out now to buy on CD, LP, and download or stream via Membran/Must Have Records