Photo: Marcos Costa for the cover of APKÁ! during the shooting of the "Coreto" videoclip

Céu Through the Looking Glass: A Musical Biography in Ten Songs

By | 14 August, 2020

Seeing Céu perform is a delight. There’s something deeply captivating in how her whole body works in favour of her music, in pursuit of emitting the sounds and words which express herself best. Despite the extraordinary circumstances around the world in 2020, talking to her feels remarkably familiar. Maybe because she speaks as she performs. She is present. She is real. It feels like talking to a close friend. It’s not unusual to feel that way towards an artist you admire and, truth be told, I think Céu is incredibly talented. She has been one of the main voices of the last 15 years in Brazil, ever since she released her debut CéU in 2005.

The album came out internationally a year later, earning her a Grammy Award nomination for Best Contemporary World Music Album, and rising to #57 on the US’s Billboard Hot 100 chart, which is a massive feat for a record sung mostly in Portuguese. Prior to that, the only other female recording artist who had fared that high on the chart singing in Portuguese was Astrud Gilberto, back in 1965 with The Astrud Gilberto Album. Since then, all of Céu’s studio albums have done well in the World Albums chart of the same publication, CéU peaking at #1, Vagarosa at #3, Caravana Sereia Bloom at #11, and Tropix at #9. Not that these things matter over quality, but they are very representative when the artist in question comes from a country that mainly consumes its own music, rather than exports it. APKÁ! (2019/20) is Céu’s most recent album and it’s out now in the UK on Six Degrees Records. As with its predecessor Tropix, she works once more with Hervé Salters and Pupillo, a team that brought the dance floor friendly refrains of afrobeat and synthpop to that album. APKÁ! marks a progression rather than variation on Tropix, showing a fine tuned contemporaneity.

For this interview we talked to Céu about her life and work through stories related to ten songs from across her career. We ended the conversation discussing lockdown, and the strict isolation measures that were in place in Brazil. “It’s hard”, she said about the situation, “it makes me think a lot about APKÁ!, where [in the opening song, ‘Off (Sad Siri)’] I talk about artificial intelligence. About how we’re becoming each time more robotised and lonely in a universe of small screens. I joke [in the song] that the guy paid to go offline because the sun was out. It ends with a digital lament ‘(…) oh no / Ele está off’ [‘(…) oh no / He is offline’]. I don’t know, I hope the young ones are more prepared for the ‘new normal’ because for those who’ve experienced the ‘old normal’ it’s [currently] very hard. But we must believe something new will be born [of this], in our empathy, in our gaze – maybe it will become even more powerful. I think we must trust this – the word trust has never been so important.” And so we said our goodbyes. I hope you and your loved ones are keeping well, dear Céu.

Artwork by Marcela Gil over Céu’s APKÁ! album cover

Have fun listening to the tracks below as you learn more about the Brazilian singer, composer and producer:

Palhaço

Composers: Nelson Cavaquinho/Oswaldo Martins
Album: Caravana Sereia Bloom (2012)

[Recording with her dad, Edgard Poças, who is a musician, composer and arranger, and played acoustic guitar on “Palhaço”:]

My father is a self-taught musician. The acoustic guitar has always been his favourite instrument. I was brought up listening to the traditional music of Brazil, including [music from] erudite artists like Ernesto Nazareth and great acoustic guitar players like Baden Powell. Then my dad realised that I really liked samba from an early age — I liked Cartola and Nelson Cavaquinho. At the time he would make CD compilations with Nelson’s music, which is not so easy to find [as] they’re a bit sparse. So Nelson’s music is very meaningful in my relationship with my dad. Nelson Cavaquinho has something drastic and a bit tragic that makes it hard to record his music. Choosing “Palhaço” (“clown” in English) for Caravana [Sereia Bloom] made me very happy because it perfectly embraced its aesthetics, which was about going on the road. The record had references of northern and north-eastern Brazil. It also brought the reference of Brazilian cinema — Bye Bye Brasil [1980] and Eu Te Amo [1981] were very important for this record with their iconic imagery and figures like [actors] Sônia Braga and Betty Faria. All these influences represented getting into costume and putting the make up on. This has everything to do with Nelson’s song, [which is] about a clown who gets painted to hide the sadness and tiredness of being on the road — yet, having to look pristine and make people laugh. This is what made me choose this song, as well as my love for Nelson. I asked my dad to play on it because it sewed the story, since he was the one who taught me to listen to Nelson Cavaquinho.

[About Balão Mágico, the enormously popular Brazilian children’s group from the first half of the 80s that Edgard Poças, Céu’s father, composed and arranged songs for:]

There was something magical about my father being behind that great success. There was something truly fantastic about having your friends at school saying “wow, your dad composed [with Difelisatti and Ignacio Ballesteros, the group’s signature track] ‘Superfantástico’”. He arranged the music of Balão [Mágico] and was behind this phonographic boom, but there was a very sad side to it because my father was never home. He was always at work, so there was an ambivalence in my feelings. My dad always got home really late because there were long hours in the studio and he recorded [the leader and only girl of the group] Simony. Imagine, she was a child, so [as a father of young children] he struggled too. There was all of this 1980s show business ambivalence going on, which was the beginning of this big money industry of massive hits in Brazil. It was very cool though. My sister and I used to do choreographies to the songs… we had lots of fun.

[How the experience of being the daughter of a music professional informs her life as a parent of two, working within the same industry:]

We can’t get rid of what we experienced [in life] when we become parents. The pains and the joys come with us. I try to bring these with me in a way that I think represents who I am, so that I can fully love all of my duties. As a mother it is very important that my children know they’re with their mom when I’m around. And also that their mom loves working, that she loves what she does. There’s a very fine balance between those things. It took me a while to figure it out with my first daughter. I was younger and I suffered a lot. I got pregnant right after my first album [CéU, 2005], when things were big. I didn’t want to leave her. But we learn with life and I’ve learned a lot.

Fênix do Amor

Composers: Céu/Hervé Salters/Pupillo
Album: APKÁ! (2019/2020)

Virou matéria prima pro ofício
Que tão firme cedo escolheria
Tão incansavelmente decidida
Afinal, era só uma menina

It became raw material for the trade
Which so firmly she would early on choose
So tirelessly decided
After all, she was only a girl

Excerpt from “Fênix do Amor” [“Fenix of Love” in English]

[How her experiences as a child inspired her creativity:]

I’m talking about myself in this song. I love it when people ask me about the meaning [of the songs]. Even if they go in a different direction, I think it is wonderful because that’s what music is. Music is the poetry that I allow myself to make. It’s taking my reference to you, who will interpret it according to your reference – I really like this. This song is about myself and the processes I went through with my family. I didn’t have an exactly easy childhood, we had lots of problems. My parents had lots of issues. And we were there, lots of children with parents with lots of issues. Within their world was something very good, which was a ludic universe – the place of creativity. They gave us great things in the respect of knowing how to listen [to music], of knowing Brazilian music, of valuing Brazilian culture. But they also had lots of slips. This song is about this, about using these things… There’s even a verse in which I say “O mundo do mistério lhe foi dado” (“The world of mystery was given to her”) because there was always a very mysterious explanation about things when I was little. A lot to do with the stars and esotericisms. I think my mum is a big witch, in fact, it’s a family of many women who are very witchy – I include myself in this. But there’s a moment where there’s something that is real and another that isn’t. [A moment where] there’s something more pragmatic. And this seemed to never come to us. Things were always within a [mystic] realm. So what I could take from this experience is that I ended up becoming a very creative person, [someone] very capable of using this rich raw material that they gave us of creativity, of creative repertoire and used this to create, to write, to do what I do today – and to make my music my way. [This] was my way to renew myself within the difficulties and also happy times that they gave me.

[The choice of becoming a singer:]

It was at an early age. I was 14 years old. Yet, I fought it a lot as I didn’t want to do this rationally. I wanted to something else, something other than what my parents did. Both of them are artists. My mum is not a professional singer, but it was always her dream and she didn’t realise it, so she is very frustrated [with this]. And my dad also had many issues, he had an accident with his hand, etc… So I didn’t want to do this, you know? But when I turned 14 years old, it was something that got me and I could never get out of my head. In a phase in which we know nothing of anything, that cruel phase from 14 to 18 – to this day we know nothing of anything, really. But that phase is cruel. Life is asking you to give answers about what you want to do, who you want to study with, who you like, what you are… Music was the only thing I knew. I knew I wanted to make music.

Malemolência

Composers: Alec Haiat/Céu
Album: CéU (2005/2006)

[What this song, her greatest hit so far, represents to her:]

I think this is a very beautiful song because it is simple. It’s a song of seduction, about this ease of Brazilian people, this swing, this thing there is in our culture that we know so well. There’s also [in it] this [seduction] game of staring [at someone]. There’s also the “roda” of capoeira [the circular formation within which participants perform this Afro-Brazilian combination of martial art, dance, acrobatics, and music]. “Malemolência” [a mix of ease and swing, with no specific translation to English] is something ours. It’s about surfing whatever wave comes your way – no matter its size, Brazilians always figure out a way. It’s interesting to think of the reason why the song became a hit – I haven’t grasped it to this day. Maybe it’s the fact that it has a very simple chorus that says “Menino bonito / Menino bonito, ai!” [“Beautiful boy / Beautiful boy, ah!”], ending with an onomatopoeia. I think all of these things make the song popular, and I think it is a very important song [in my career]. When I made it, I wanted to bring the reference of our folklore music of call and response, which we have a lot in the north and north-east of Brazil in religious cultures, like in pontos [songs used in rituals] of [Afro-Brazilian religion] Candomblé. I have a passion for coros [choirs] and I never left them, I only changed the perspective: the first album proposes a choir rooted in Brazil; [the second album] Vagarosa proposes a more Jamaican choir. Brazil is super mixed but it’s very important in this moment in time that things are put where they belong so that history changes and improves for people who suffer racial prejudice. So, as a matter of respect, I went towards a place where in fact I belong [aesthetically]. Without any doubt black culture is my main influence and I could make a whole record using it, but I want to be an ally and not take anything from anyone.

[The international reception of the first album:]

I had released [the album] in Brazil and there was a great interest [in it] from Europe. Especially France gave it a very warm reception. I was invited very quickly to do really interesting concerts there. I was still very immature, still learning to do concerts within myself and I was already on grandiose stages in France. It took a little while for the album to get to North America, Canada and to some places in Europe.

Bubuia

Composers: Céu/Anelis Assumpção/Thalma de Freitas
Album: Vagarosa (2009/2010)

[About collaborating musically with singers and composers Anelis Assumpção and Thalma de Freitas in the vocal group Negresko Sis who sing on “Bubuia”:]

Negresko Sis is a backing vocal group that the three of us made up. We’ve always been friends and still are to this day – we even have a WhatsApp group with that name. I have a lot of respect for these two wonderful women, each with their own style and life. We’ve grown up and gone through a lot of things together. Thalma [now] lives outside of Brazil. Anelis is my neighbour and we’re always together. I constantly want to know what it is they’re getting inspired by, so we’re always in touch. We really liked to sing [backing vocals] as a service for other singers, being on the background – backing is really cool. So that’s what we started tripping on. It gives you a great sense of collaboration. I did it a lot, with and without Negresko – lots of things with many people. I think this is called loving music, beyond being at the front as a lead artist. It’s about working for music and doing what it requires. I like this. I think it’s great.

Concrete Jungle

Composers: Bob Marley
Album: Ao Vivo (2014)

[On her singing style:]

I’m a workwoman of singing. I was born [with my voice] in tune, which is a great help for whomever wants to make music, but I [had] never considered myself a singer. When I decided to make music I made the choice of being a singer, but I had a great crossing to make before I realised I was a composer, actually. So singing for me means everything: discipline, finding out what was my voice, figuring out what was the sound I wanted to emit, what were my possibilities… so I studied a lot. I studied erudite, lyrical and popular singing, but I studied mainly on the streets: I sang in every single place you can imagine that had bands and jam sessions, which were in vogue for a while in São Paulo. Friends would always ask me to sing. I sang in the circuit of university bands. I did advertising jingles, on which you have to make voices different to yours at times – also a great school. So I studied and learned each time more about my vocal tessitura. I think I’m still at a very specific place [vocally] on Caravana [Sereira Bloom, the studio album which generated this live album and DVD]. Something really interesting happened when I did the concert of [Bob Marley’s 1973 album] Catch a Fire. I was invited to do it because people knew I had this influence of reggae – besides recording [Marley’s] ‘Concrete Jungle’ on my first album, the second one [Vagarosa] was immersed in Jamaica: in dub, dancehall and rocksteady. I first wasn’t sure when I was invited because this is a very intense concert, a record that is part of music history. I wanted to bring it to my universe with legitimacy, telling the story with respect. I took it on mainly for the love I have for Jamaican music and the deep respect I nurture for it. For how much this music affected me. It was very interesting to me as a vocal experience because I explored a more aggressive, externalised and direct voice. I always sang in a smaller and huskier way, which is my voice’s normal texture. But this had an impact that made me understand my instrument better, I learned more of myself and, ever since, I keep learning about my singing. In APKÁ! I’ve taken another step, I’ve brought a bit more than what I’ve been doing, singing things in a more torn way and then returning to a lower key. Singing remains something that requires labour, discipline and studying.

Varanda Suspensa

Composers: Céu/Hervé Salters
Album: Tropix (2016)

[The Atlantic Forest seaside of Brazil and being Latin American:]

This song is about the fact that, even though I was born and raised in São Paulo, I was always on the seaside of the state of São Paulo. As I have this ID of being from São Paulo, a concrete jungle which is also part of who I am, I wanted to tell a little about this other side of my story that is not much talked about, which I’m in love with. The seaside from São Paulo to Rio is one of the most beautiful in Brazil, with the Atlantic Forest next to it. It’s not the seaside that was destroyed by the colonisers who burned everything and planted coconut trees, which made it dryer even though it is beautiful today. That seaside is the Brazil I was born in, that is who I am… “Varanda Suspensa” [suspended balcony, in English] talks about a little house that my grandparents had on the top of a hill in São Sebas [short form for São Sebastião]. We had to go up this hill and on the way there were lots of mangos, which we would eat all day long. We’d compete to see who ate more and would then throw the seeds out from the balcony. There was even a scent of mango on the land around where the house was built. In the video of the song I eat a mango because of this reference. There was also a smell of [the fruit] jambo and of wet land around as it’s a very humid place. People even call it São Sebas-trovão [São Sebas-lightning] because of this. But when the sun comes out it’s one of the most beautiful things in the world. So there was this humidity smell mixed with the scent of fruits, even rotting ones – it’s Brazil alive. We are part of South and Latin America – it’s one thing. [This understanding] is a way for us to look less at other references, since this is so rich. I’m intrigued by it. The moment in the song where I say “latino americano” (Latin-American), which I emphasise during concerts, the audience goes crazy because people recognise themselves in this term, they know the dramas and the glories of us being what we are.

[On releasing a single with versions in Spanish of three songs from the album Tropix:]

It’s a big frustration that I have so much difficulty to get into the [other] Latin American countries. I feel embarrassed to say that I count in one hand the times I played in them. I went to Argentina, Peru, Colombia, which was fantastic. But that’s so little, I think I played more times in Canada! This is a frustration and a knot that I don’t know [how to undo]. There are people who managed to do it through partnerships, with the friendship of great musicians from those countries. I’m still looking for it. Maybe I’ll still get to perform more in them.

Ocitocina (Charged)

Composers: Céu/Hervé Salters/Pupillo
Album: APKÁ! (2019/2020)

[Gestating her youngest child and the new album:]

This song is about the gestation and birth of my youngest child, Antonino, who was born through normal delivery. It also represents the gestation of the album, as it was the first song to be made of APKÁ!. It was this song that pushed me to make a new album – there is this charade there. Music never stops [for me]. Even when I’m not working I’m doing things, I write… The place where I rest and breath lies in creating music, so I never really stop. When I stopped [working], waiting for his arrival, and afterwards while breastfeeding, I was already creating. What happened was that I was able to go through this experience, even though Brazil has the second highest rate of Caesarean births in the world after the USA, and this is like a steamroller over women. If you want to go through delivering in a way that’s more connected to your body, you have to pick a fight with everyone. What is supposed to be natural becomes a big struggle. This really touched me as we’ve been talking about feminism and the empowerment of women. In the 80s, the surgeon became the protagonist of labour. They lied women in a position that no woman is capable of naturally giving birth – when the baby is being born, it needs the help of gravity. So they lied women down and cut them, all because of a financial matter, to have control, to earn more, to be faster, for the health insurances to pay, for the medical doctors to get paid more… and they went over this experience with a steamroller. And this experience, when I was able to go through it after many difficulties, that’s the moment I describe in this song, “Ocitocina” [oxytocin, popularly known as the “love hormone”]. [In it] I describe where I found myself, inundated with hormones, getting ready for the [baby’s] arrival. I was searching for my baby and he was also [searching for me], it’s a work that we were doing together and through the force of nature. The sensation was as if I’d taken LSD, it was like a lightning strike. This song is about the sensation of me having this strength in my body, and of him also doing [this effort], of us being together in search of, as I say in the song, “a walk in the free dimension” [“um passeio na livre dimenção”], where we were both there trying to see if this would work out. I tried to describe this search and this encounter of love, wishing women have a true interest in taking control over what happens to their bodies. The industry won’t stop, they will have to fight for it. Everyone talks about the bad things and of how painful natural birth is, but for me there were only good things, so I wanted to do this description.

Coreto

Composers: Céu
Album: APKÁ! (2019/2020)

[Leaving the maternity to go on the dancefloor:]

There is a strength [in giving birth], like “I’m capable of this and I’m here! This is my life as well! No one’s gonna tell me I have to lie low. I dance and I like life. And here I am!” This is what I say in “Coreto”: “You better resolve yourself because now I’m singing more than ever” [“Trate de se resolver, pois agora / Tô cantando mais que nunca”]. There’s somewhat of a hardcore femininity in it. Above all, [the song] is actually about the human being, but this link between “Ocitocina” and “Coreto” make a lot of sense.

“Corpocontinente”

Composers: Céu/Hervé Salters
Album: APKÁ! (2019/2020)

[On the two first videos from APKÁ and the meaning of the song “Corpocontinente”:]

These two wonderful directors fell from heaven to Céu [which means “sky”, in English]. They’re from [the production company] Landia, Aline Lata and Rodrigo Saavedra – two amazing [directors] who gave me this present. As there was the structure of the company [that could be used], they said “we like you, we like your music and we’d like to make two videoclips”. And these two pearls came along, each in their own way. Aline’s has an Almodóvar feel to it at times, which I think it’s fantastic – another [type of] cinema. Rodrigo’s is something that brings grandiose references, a sort of tupiniquim [the term originally referred to an indigenous people, but that has also come to mean “Brazilian”] Blade Runner. It was very interesting. When Rodrigo showed me the script and his argument, I was scared as it had very high[brow] references which I have a lot of respect for. And I think we don’t make grandiose things like this from one day to the next, they take time. But he managed to express his idea within this continent image. Corpo [body] is a word, continente [continent] is another, I made up a single word with the two [to name the song]. It’s about an encounter and then a rupture, a song about love and its multiple paths: when two people, who are two bodies that are two continents apart from one other, when they get together and love each other they turn into a single continent and within it there is the word saudade [Portuguese and Galician word with no direct translation to English, which refers to a melancholic feeling of incompleteness]. This song is about the difficulty to get separated, about the pain and the anger [it involves]. Love is not only cute, love hurts. It’s a poetic way to talk about a relationship, and Rodrigo has brought it within this hallucinogenic image of a guy searching for a sort of goddess that turns into nature itself. It’s gorgeous, man.

Forçar o Verão

Composers: Céu
Album: APKÁ! (2019/2020)

[Corruption in Brazil and holding oneself accountable:]

This is a song that talks about corruption in Brazil. The whole problem is corruption, actually. And the promise of the current ruler to end corruption is like a joke. The guest [I talk about in the song] that doesn’t want to leave, who puts the cloud on the postcard is corruption [“Uma nuvem se aproxima do cartão postal / Feito um convidado que ninguém quer receber” / “A cloud gets close to the postcard / Like a guest no one wants to receive”]. “No sorriso debochado” [“With a mocking smile”] because corruption is a big mocking of us, it takes the piss out of us. And, at the same time, I really wanted to talk about [in reference to the Brazilian national anthem] “Ouviram do Ipiranga” [“They heard from Ipiranga”, adding] “quem foi que ouviu? Eu não vi” [“who listened to it? I haven’t seen it”] – this is a very Brazilian behaviour of not holding ourselves accountable. Our national anthem says someone else heard it, not “I heard it”. So there is this thing about pointing our finger at others when we look very little at our own corruptions. This is a song about corruption, but then it does a 180, it turns and points the camera back at us, you know? “Ouviram do Ipiranga, quem foi que ouviu? Eu não vi / Estava à sombra de um coqueiro / Num céu azul anil” [“They heard from Ipiranga, who listened to it? I haven’t seen it / I was in the shade of a coconut tree / In an indigo blue sky”]. Because that’s what it is, in Brazil we have this wonderful weather and nature, then everyone forgets things and everything’s fine, we’re chill. [This song] puts the finger in the wound of our own behaviour. It’s no use if we just say others are corrupt if we don’t pay the people who work for us their rights, if we don’t recycle the garbage, if we don’t think of our children’s schools that we pay so much for and there isn’t a single black student next in them. So there are many issues that should be part of a citizen’s conscience as an individual. We must point the finger at our own wound.

APKA! is released by Six Degrees Records and available from various platforms


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