The first thing that usually springs to mind when we think of Brazilian music is the hedonistic party vibe of the Samba tunes which soundtrack Rio’s Carnival. But evincing an altogether gentler, sweeter, more introspective side of the country’s musical psyche is a new generation of songwriters, the latest of whom to hit these shores is the truly lovely Dom La Nena.
La Nena spent the initial part of her musical career playing session cello, touring with such luminary chanteuses as Jane Birkin and Jeanne Moreau. Eventually she found her own voice, both with her breathy singing and writing styles. Most of her songs clock in at comfortably under three minutes, and while they are written on piano, they are performed principally on the cello. This transfer from harmonic to melodic instrument creates a tension between retaining simplicity and maintaining the listeners’ interest, which La Nena credits with lending her music much of its understated power.
It was through her session work that La Nena first encountered Piers Faccini, the co-producer of her debut album Ela. Their musical chemistry is very much in evidence throughout the record, La Nena’s tender songs and multi-tracked cello offset by gently layered piano, guitars, harmonium, xylophones and vocals. To return the favour, La Nena played on much of Faccini’s latest album, Between Dogs and Wolves, and the pair of them recently toured the USA together, helping each other perform their songs.
La Nena’s itinerant lifestyle has exposed her to a pot pourri of global influences, including the music of France, Argentina and Portugal, as well as her homeland. On ‘No Meu Pais’, an airy shuffle built around an insistent pizzicato cello riff, La Nenasings of the dislocation she experiences. When not on the road, she lives in Paris with her husband, but as she says, ‘If I am in Brazil, I am far from France. If I am in France, I am far from Argentina…’
This unresolvable sense of longing underpins much of her music, and is encapsulated in the almost unbearably romantic Brazilian concept of Saudade. Exacerbated by the touring lifestyle, there are not only places to miss, but people also, whether it be her family, her husband, or the many friends she has made around the world. La Nena calls this sweet sadness a mixture of ‘nostalgia, restlessness and curiosity’, and it fairly bleeds through her music to the point that the luxury of actually understanding her lyrics is one that the Anglophone listener can easily do without.
Writing for La Nena is not a conscious process. She rarely sets out to explore a certain lyrical or melodic idea, or even to approach it in a certain language (she switches between Portuguese and Spanish on the album) – ‘the words and music just come’. The mystery of this process led to a fascination with the subconscious, which she perceives as ‘the source of dreams and thoughts that appear without any apparent cause, [and] also the repository of forgotten memories.’ While making the album, La Nena underwent a course of psychoanalysis to further investigate these hidden vistas, and this resulted in the album’s opener – and this correspondent’s favourite track – the perfect two-minute nugget that is ‘Anjo Gabriel’. In this case, however, the Gabriel in question is not the Biblical angel, but the psychoanalyst who shares his name.
2013 has been a busy year for La Nena, and her relentless touring finally brought her to the UK for her debut show, at the Old St Pancras Church in London on October 16th. A beautiful venue to showcase a beautiful sound, it was a a special occasion resulting in many new followers discovering an exotic melancholia in which to fall in love.
words: Philip Makatrewicz