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The most acclaimed female vocalist to arise in Brazil during the 1990s, Marisa Monte is known best for her exquisite voice as well as her international popularity, yet she's also accomplished in other realms such as songwriting, production, and collaboration. Monte first rose to acclaim in 1989, when her debut album -- a live theatrical performance incorporating an eclectic array of songs, past and present -- became a sensation in Brazil. It was her subsequent studio albums, however, Mais (1991) and Verde, Anil, Amarelo, Cor de Rosa e Carvão (1994), that truly established her as a talented artist. For these albums, Monte formed creative partnerships with Arto Lindsay, Arnaldo Antunes, Nando Reis, and Carlinhos Brown, each of whom would work with her for years to come. Moreover, a 1997 double album, Barulhinho Bom, showcased her charismatic command of a concert stage. In 2000 she released Memórias, Crônicas, e Declaracões de Amor on her own Phonomotor Records label and enjoyed her highest level of success to date, notably winning her first Latin Grammy. Two years later she released Tribalistas (2002), a trio effort also featuring Antunes and Brown, on Phonomotor, and enjoyed yet more success. The supergroup recording sold well over a million copies, spun off chart-topping singles, found success in Europe, and was critically beloved all the same. Following such dizzy heights of success, Monte receded from the limelight, becoming a mother and focusing on more challenging music. Even if her popularity waned a bit with age, her credentials among critics only grew, especially internationally. While Monte generally is classified as an MPB artist, her music is fluid and ever-changing, to the point where such labels seem futile. Rather, it's her voice that is her calling card. "One of the most perfect in the world" is how Carlinhos Brown once described it to Larry Rohter of The New York Times. "It's like the wind: soft, gentle, and caressing, but it messes with everything in its path."
Born Marisa de Azevedo Monte on July 1, 1967, in Rio de Janeiro, she grew up in a nurturing musical environment, for her father, Carlos Monte, an economist, was a cultural director at the Portela samba school and immersed her in Rio's time-honored samba tradition. At age 14, Marisa took the entrance exam for the National Music School; she wanted to become an opera singer. She studied lyric singing, and at age 19, she moved to Rome, where she hoped to further her studies and make contacts in the opera world. It wasn't long, however, before Monte returned to Brazil, now harboring hopes of becoming a pop singer. While living in Italy, she'd befriended Nelson Motta, a journalist of some renown, among other capacities, whose sister was a friend of Marisa's mother; associated with the likes of Elis Regina and Joyce, he had played a role in Brazil's popular music scene of the late '60s and early '70s, as both a writer and producer. Back in Brazil, Monte reunited with Motta, who returned in March 1987, not long after she did. Monte had lined up a producer, Lula Buarque de Hollanda, and looked to Motta for help with compiling a repertoire, since he was so knowledgeable about popular music. Motta gladly complied. The performance was titled Veludo Azul (presumably named after David Lynch's film Blue Velvet ) and debuted at Rio's Jazzmania. These performances, which showcased her singing an eclectic array of songs, past and present, were well received critically, and a buzz began to grow, to the point where Monte was selling out shows regularly.
These early theater performances were captured for a TV special and album, MM (aka Ao Vivo), 1989. The TV special was directed by Walter Salles, who himself would go on to much success, directing films including Central Station (1998) and The Motorcycle Diaries (2003) and co-producing others including City of God (2002) and The House of Sand (2005). Motta produced the accompanying album, released in January 1989 by EMI; it showcases Monte performing the same range of songs that had made her show such a crossover hit in the first place: "Comida," originally performed by Titãs, a popular Brazilian rock band of the 1980s featuring Arnaldo Antunes and Nando Reis, the co-writers of the song and, more importantly, key songwriters with whom Monte subsequently would develop fruitful creative partnerships; "Bem Que Se Quis," a song originally written and performed by Italian pop/rock artist Pino Daniele in 1982 as "E Po' Che Fà," in turn adapted to Portuguese by Motta; "Chocolate," by Brazilian soul renegade Tim Maia; "Ando Meio Desligado," by tropicalia favorites Os Mutantes; "Preciso Me Encontrar," a decades-old samba song by singer/composer Candeia (born Antônio Candeia Filho, died 1978); "O Xote das Meninas," a Brazilian standard from the 1950s; "Negro Gato," another old Brazilian song, this one written in the 1960s by Getúlio Côrtes and recorded by various performers, including Renato & Seus Blue Caps and Luís Melodia; "Lenda das Sereias, Rainha do Mar," an old samba song; "South American Way," a song originally written by Al Dubin and Jimmy McHugh for the 1939 musical The Streets of Paris that was shortly thereafter recorded by, and henceforth associated with, Carmen Miranda; "I Heard It Through the Grapevine," a Motown classic written by Barrett Strong and Norman Whitfield and performed most famously by Marvin Gaye; "Bess, You Is My Woman Now," a Gershwin standard; and "Speak Low," a Kurt Weill standard.
MM became a sensation in Brazil, with "Bem Que Se Quis" emerging as a big hit, and the album went on to sell half a million copies. Then her follow-up album, Mais (1991), sold even more. Recorded in New York City with Arto Lindsay in the producer's seat, Mais reflected Monte's own personal style. She co-wrote many of the songs herself and recruited the aforementioned Titãs bandmembers Antunes and Reis to contribute their own writing. Plus, Monte added a few covers, including songs by Caetano Veloso ("De Noite Na Cama") and Pixinguinha ("Rosa"). Thanks to the involvement of Lindsay, Antunes, and Reis, not to mention musical contributions from Ryuichi Sakamoto, Bernie Worrell, Naná Vasconcelos, and John Zorn, Mais is a thoroughly contemporary MPB album, and indeed it registered with the Brazilian public. "Beija Eu," a songwriting collaboration between Antunes and Monte, became a significant hit, as did "Ainda Lembro," one of the Reis collaborations, and a promotional tour of Brazil commenced. In the wake of the album's success, as well as that of the national tour, Monte traveled to the United States and Europe to drum up the attention of critics. She debuted internationally in New York City at the Knitting Factory, where she was greeted warmly, a bellwether of the critical adoration that would accompany her efforts in the years that followed.
For her second studio album, Verde, Anil, Amarelo, Cor de Rosa e Carvão (1994), Monte returned to New York to work with Lindsay. Part of the album was recorded in Rio, however, as Monte assumed a co-production role and continued to assert more control over her music. Antunes and Reis also returned, contributing a few songs ("Alta Noite" was written by the former, "Au Meu Redor" and "O Céu" by the latter), while Monte wrote a few of her own ("Na Estrada," "De Mais Ninguém," "Bem Leve," and "Enquanto Isso") and chose a few covers (Lou Reed's "Pale Blue Eyes," Paulinho da Viola's "Dança da Solidão," and Jorge Ben's "Balança Pema," as well as a traditional samba, "Esta Melodia"). Most notable, however, was a new partnership fostered by Monte, one with Carlinhos Brown, who was at that time the leader of the group Timbalada. Brown contributed a pair of songs, "Maria de Verdade" and "Segue o Seco," that became album standouts; a promotional video was filmed for the latter. Numerous musicians contributed to the album, among them Gilberto Gil, Laurie Anderson, and Celso Fonseca. Moreover, Brown sang and performed on his songs. Like Mais before it, Verde, Anil, Amarelo, Cor de Rosa e Carvão was commercially successful, and it was repackaged for English-language release as Green, Blue, Yellow, Rose and Charcoal (aka Rose and Charcoal). Monte toured in support, more extensively than before, and some live recordings from the tour were released as part of a double album, Barulhinho Bom (1996). The other part of the album is comprised of studio recordings, three of which are songs written by Brown. Barulhinho Bom was repackaged for stateside release as A Great Noise (1997), for there was some controversy over the album's "porno" artwork. A full-length video was issued as well, later reissued on DVD.
Before Monte recorded her next album, Memórias, Crônicas, e Declaracões de Amor (2000), she spread the wealth of her success. Among the contributions she made to the work of others, she performed alongside Antunes on some of his songs, as compiled on Focus: O Essencial de Arnaldo Antunes (1999), and produced Brown's second solo album, Omelete Man (1999). Monte also negotiated her own vanity label, Phonomotor Records, on which she would release albums by Argemiro Patrocínio and Jair do Cavaquinho, in addition to Memórias, Crônicas e Declaracões de Amor, repackaged for English-language markets as Memories, Chronicles and Declarations of Love. The album features many of the same collaborators as before, namely Lindsay, Brown, and Antunes, with a few covers thrown in. Far and away her most commercially successful album to date, if not her most revered, Memórias, Crônicas e Declaracões de Amor won a Latin Grammy for Best Pop Album. Monte's supporting tour was sweeping, accounting for 150 shows; a three-night stand in Rio at the ATL Hall in June 2001 was summarized on DVD later that year. The following year, Monte released Tribalistas (2002) on Phonomotor; the album's success would top even that of Memórias, Crônicas e Declaracões de Amor. Comprised of songs written by Monte, Antunes, and Brown in tandem off and on over the previous couple years, Tribalistas was billed as a group effort, that is, Os Tribalistas, and its supergroup qualities made its release an event. The album was a chart-topper in Brazil and sold well in Europe as well, particularly Portugal, Italy, and France. "Já Sei Namorar" and "Velha Infância" were number one hits, and there were other singles released as well. In addition, a making-of DVD was issued in 2003. Tribalistas earned five Latin Grammy nominations, including Record of the Year ("Jé Sei Namorar") and Album of the Year; an award for Best Brazilian Contemporary Pop Album was brought home.
Monte spent the next few years away from the public eye, as she'd become a mother, and when she returned in 2006, she did so with a pair of albums. Universo ao Meu Redor (2006) is a samba album comprised of songs by classic and contemporary composers, whereas Infinito Particular (2006) is a more personal affair, featuring songs written in collaboration with her many creative partners, a stable whose ranks now included Seu Jorge and Adriana Calcanhotto. Both albums are subdued in their tone and feature a laundry list of instrumentation: Monte alone plays acoustic guitar, bass guitar, autoharp, ukulele, viola, xylophone, melodica, kalimba, metaphone, cajon, vocoder, and baixo, not to mention cymbals, bells, shakers, and various sound effects. Some listeners complained that the albums were too understated; however, critics responded well, as did most existing fans, in addition to a legion of new ones who learned about the albums via their myriad write-ups and Monte's international touring, which stretched on into 2007. The albums spun off a few singles -- "O Bonde do Dom," "Vilarejo," and "Pra Ser Sincero," all Top Ten hits in Brazil -- and earned three Latin Grammy nominations, winning one for Best Samba/Pagode Album. ~ Jason Birchmeier