I Was Born To Sing: An Interview with Gal Costa

By 03 March, 2020

I distinctly remember when I was first properly introduced to Gal Costa. Growing up in the 80s I had listened to her many hit singles on the radio and on TV: “Festa do Interior”, “Chuva de Prata”, “Brasil”, “Cabelo”… honestly, the list could fill a whole paragraph. But I only came to know who she was when her recording of “Baby” was included on a miniseries called Anos Rebeldes (Rebel Years, 1992), about the youth during the hard years of the military dictatorship in Brazil, which lasted from 1964 to 1985. Because of that song and of “Alegria Alegria”, both composed by Costa’s long-term friend and collaborator Caetano Veloso, who sang backing vocals on the first and performed the latter, I asked my dad to get me that soundtrack. This would be a lifelong bonding experience between father and son when he said that it wouldn’t be necessary as he had those records and told me all about Costa, Veloso and tropicália. I was eight years-old and this was the first of many stories about music that he would go on to tell me and that we’ve continued to share with each other through our lives – thanks dad!

Tropicália or tropicalismo was a multimedia artistic movement which fused the high and the low, the local and the foreign, resulting in a challenging aesthetics that hadn’t yet been seen or heard before – and it bothered a lot of people because it incorporated electric guitars into Brazilian music, which was still riding high on bossa nova. The aforementioned recording of “Baby” first came out on the ground-breaking manifesto album Tropicália: ou Panis et Circencis from 1968, released jointly by Gal Costa, Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Os Mutantes, Tom Zé and Nara Leão. It featured again in Costa’s debut solo album which came out the following year, once Veloso and Gil, the masterminds behind the movement, had been exiled to London until 1971. Gal Costa was left as the one carrying the tropicalismo torch, and would go on to release another two albums heavily inspired by its postmodern approach to music: yet another record with her name in 1969 and Legal in 1970. The defiance of her music, looks and behaviour at the time would grant her fans and detractors, as well as a distinctive flair reserved only to true icons.

Plural, as the name of one of her albums, Gal Costa would go on to explore many other musical genres throughout her prolific career, becoming known for her versatile singing that could range from smooth to highly energetic vocal deliveries. She released landmark albums like the live -Fa-Tal- Gal a Todo Vapor (1971) and the conceptual Índia (1973), finding great commercial success with the MPB of Gal Tropical (1979), the radio-oriented Profana (1984) and the revisionist Acústico (1997), originated from her MTV Unplugged special. The last ten years have been particularly interesting for Costa, who had released albums like the more traditional-sounding Todas as Coisas e Eu (2003) and Hoje (2006) the decade before, as she went on to put out more contemporary sounding albums that resonated greatly with younger audiences yet again. This began with the avant-garde minimalism of Recanto in 2011 and continued with the freshness of Gal Estratosférica (2016) and A Pele do Futuro (2018) – a luminous creative moment of one of the most remarkable and influential voices of Brazil for the past six decades.

Gal Costa is presenting the tour A Pele do Futuro at London’s Barbican Hall on Monday 30th March and Dublin’s Vicar Street on Thursday 2nd April, and kindly agreed to speak about her life and career by phone from her home in São Paulo, Brazil.

Let’s go back to the very beginning with two questions: what desire(s) led you to sing and later to be a professional singer?

Singing – exactly singing. I was born wanting to sing, wanting to be a singer. I always thought I would be one – I had this intuition and I wanted it. [I knew it from] when I was born. When I started to understand myself as an individual I already wanted to be [a professional singer].

There are three songs in the concert and live recording generated from your most recent studio album A Pele do Futuro (2018) which are about the figure of the mother. One of them, ‘Mãe de Todas Vozes’ (‘Mother of All Voices’), says: “I am the daughter of all the voices that came before / I am the mother of all the voices that will come after” (“Sou filha de todas as vozes que vieram antes / Sou mãe de todas as vozes que virão depois”). You are the reference to many important Brazilian singers like Marisa Monte and Vanessa da Mata. How does it make you feel? How is it to possibly be as important to these singers as João Gilberto was to you?

I feel gratified because I came around with a style that was very mine, but now I can see that my work influenced a generation, that I influenced a lot of people. It makes me realise that my work has been fruitful. Working with music is amazing not only because we give people a lot of great things – the energy of music touches their souls, which is very important – but also because it engenders fruits, since people look at your story and get somehow inspired by it. This is very gratifying.

What is it about João Gilberto’s music that got you?

His style of singing.

Of the new generation of Brazilian musicians, is there anyone that speaks to you as greatly? 

No, there isn’t. Not a new one.

A conversation with your son ended up inspiring the sonority of A Pele do Futuro. Can you tell us how this happened?

He did indeed inspire me when he played a recording of “I Will Survive” by Gloria Gaynor, asking if I knew her. It surprised him when I said I did and that we were from the same generation. [laughs] The album is not entirely of dance music though, it has two songs [with that style]. It is a very eclectic record, with songs from Djavan and with different styles, which is my signature. It’s always been like this for me, I’ve recorded many different things in my albums. This eclectic and diversified thing is my signature.

One of the songs that you play in the show is “London, London”, and you are coming to perform in London, the city where Caetano and Gil were exiled to for two years. How was it when you first heard the song? When was it shown to you?

It was shown to me during one of my visits to London, when I went to see them during the exile. Caetano composed it and showed it to me there. The first recording was mine in the 60s [the song was released on Gal Costa’s third solo album Legal]. It was a great success at the time and later other people recorded it.

What were the emotions you remember having when you first heard the song?

I always feel moved with Caetano’s songs. I really like him as a composer, and he composed many beautiful songs for me. So I was moved as I always am when I listen to his songs.

How does it resonate with you when you listen to that recording nowadays?

It resonates pleasantly. [laughs] It feels good, it’s nice to hear it.

Does performing in London somehow make you think of that period in time?

No. Well, it always does, when you arrive you remember it. Actually, the first time I went to London was during that period, so there’s no way of not remembering it. But what I remember vividly [was] from when I went to London years ago with the show Mina d’Água do Meu Canto [to promote the album of the same name, released in 1995], where I sang with Chico Buarque and Caetano, is that when I left rehearsals at the theatre a British man who worked there was crying. He came to speak to me saying that he was moved with the rehearsal in which I sang a song called “As Vitrines” from Chico. The guy was crying and I was so moved by it: a British man who doesn’t speak Portuguese, who doesn’t understand anything of my language, and yet felt so emotive about the song. I thought that was amazing, I was very touched by it. It makes you see the power of music, how it touches people.

Now moving from the tropicália period, which broke many aesthetic boundaries, to the record A Pele do Futuro, you bring back this amalgamation of genres by doing a wonderful duet with Marília Mendonça [one of the stars of the popular musical genre sertanejo universitário]. How did this duet on the song “Cuidando de Longe” come about?

The idea of recording a song by Marília Mendonça came from me during a trip to Rio de Janeiro. I suddenly had a flash to call her and ask for a song.

You’ve also released a duet with your collaborator from old times Maria Bethânia on the album. The recording process seemed quite interesting with the two of you recording separately. Can you tell us about how this was done?

Yes, it was done separately. Bethânia is from [the label] Biscoito Fino for many years and I was going to record my first album with them, so the idea came up to record with her, which she accepted. We did the recordings separately because I was travelling with my last tour and we couldn’t get together in the studio, but it’s beautiful. I really like the result.

Were you the one to record the guide vocal track?

I sent [the song] with the guide vocal track in my key, then she recorded the guide vocal track in her key. We recorded [the finished song] in hers. She recorded in her key, and I adapted mine. My vocalising was done in her tone. That’s how it happened.

How did it feel to duet with her now in comparison to your first recordings together or of the times of Os Doces Bárbaros [the group the two formed with Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil in 1976 to celebrate the ten years of their careers]?

It felt familiar because we’ve done so much together. It feels good because it had been so long, and we used to sing so much together, that it’s great we were able to record something together after such a long time. It’s familiar and it’s always a joy. It’s always good.

What do you believe has changed in both of your vocal deliveries with time?

It has changed. Time passes and we change – thank God. I can’t really specify how but it has changed for the better, I think. So, you with your heightened sensitivity, can write a critique and say what you think about these changes [laughs].

I am guilty to speak about it because [I think] all of the phases [of the two of you singing together] are wonderful [both laugh].

Clearly you’ve had a long and very prolific career. What inspired you to shift from more traditional to contemporary sounding albums since Recanto in 2011?

What inspired me was the desire for a change. I’ve always been a very adventurous person in that sense – I like changes. For instance, the first time I heard João Gilberto I was simply absolutely fascinated. This shows how much I appreciate the unusual, and things that may even be strange and that, in my opinion, have an incredible beauty. When Caetano invited me to make Recanto I accepted because I have a partnership of many years with him, of singing his songs and of him composing for me. And it’s always a privilege, a joy, and enriching working with him. This record happened for the pleasure of working, and it came as a radical and distinguished album, which actually has a lot to do with my story. I think it is wonderful, and I really appreciate this [moment].

What inspires you to keep recording and performing?

The passion for music and for singing. The work does me good, so I will do it until I can – [until] when God wishes.

Do you prefer making a record in the studio or the process of maturation that performing live gives it? What interests you the most?

I think performing live is more interesting because it’s always more creative. It’s a more democratic creation. I like working with everyone giving opinions: the musicians, the director, everyone directly involved. And that’s the type of work I believe in – always done in a democratic way. Maybe concerts are more interesting because a lot is subject to change all the time, which gives them a new colour – so I think maybe [I prefer] the stage.

Seeing your interviews over the years you are always very generous, mentioning the names of your producers and of the directors of your shows. I think this shows how much you appreciate the collaborative creative endeavour.

That’s true, you are very right. Lots of people don’t mention them.

When it comes to the shift in the way that music is consumed, from physical copies to digital platforms like Spotify, in your perspective as an artist has something changed in the way that you produce your albums?

Not when it comes to producing records, but it has in the way of commercializing and divulging them. I don’t know anymore, the people who work with me and take care of me, the recording company put the records on Spotify, Deezer and all the digital platforms. I understand it up to a certain point, so the recording company takes care of all this. But nowadays I don’t understand who is and isn’t successful anymore because everyone seems to be successful… so I don’t get how this works any more [laughs].

Has this shift changed the access and relationship of the audience with your work?

No, the audience that goes to my concerts is made of people who appreciate my work, who listened to it either digitally or through a physical copy. I have a very eclectic audience of all ages. But it’s incredible, it’s populated with young people, which is great. It makes me very happy to be able to, at this stage of my career, sing to such a young audience.

Gal Costa will be performing her A Pele do Futuro show at London’s Barbican Hall on Monday 30th March and Dublin’s Vicar Street on Thursday 2nd April.

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