Caetano Veloso Tells the Story of How His New ‘Meu Coco’ Album ‘Just Happened’

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Over 50 studio and live albums and multiple soundtrack contributions, Brazilian artist Caetano Veloso finally makes the leap from habitual musical partnerships to composing and producing an album entirely on his own.

Meu Coco (My Head) is his first solo album of new songs in almost a decade. His last major world tour with longtime friend Gilberto Gil, in support of Dois Amigos: Um Século de Música, brought the multifaceted pair to the Solar amphitheater at Miami’s Bayfront Park. This time, we get to see Mr. Veloso across the screen.

“I just came back from a farm in Minas Gerais,” he says with a smile during a video conversation with Billboard. “We spent five days. It was kind of cold there. It was raining, but it was beautiful.” It’s 8 o’clock at night and his lightweight buttoned-up long-sleeve blue shirt hints that winter is coming to an end.

The musician’s latest project is an engaging experience on his artistic and personal perspective from the past few years — an experimentation that has more than delivered. Meu Coco is as appealing as it is unafraid to address topics such as politics, social and personal relations with the tenderness that characterizes him.  

Veloso’s last studio album, Abraçaço (2012), earned him a Latin Grammy for best singer-songwriter album, and Dois Amigos secured him and Gil a top 10 on Billboard’s World Albums chart in 2016. The latter was succeeded by two other live sets. The last one with Ivan Sacerdote, a clarinetist from Salvador, Bahia, is a compendium of old songs with minimalistic instrumentation that would’ve taken them across Brazil. “It was nice to have him playing by my side,” Veloso remembers. “We had two beautiful live evenings in Bahia alongside Felipe Geides, a young guitarist who is a genius. That was the beginning of something that was going to happen all around Brazil, but we had to stop because of the pandemic, and two years passed.”

Since then, the singer-songwriter, poet, activist, filmmaker and author immersed himself into little projects at home. “In February 2020, I came back to Rio from a summer in Bahia and was planning to record and meet with the dancers from the Folkloric Ballet of Bahia for my new album, but then everything halted, so I had to wait,” he laments. “I thought I had to wait for three months, and it turned out to be more than a year, so I decided to record whatever I had.”

After decades of manifold collaborative projects, Veloso dared to compose and produce an album entirely on his own in the confinement of his small studio in Rio. This time, however, he embraced current sounds through the musicianship of 25-year-old Lucas Nuñes, a friend and bandmate (Dônica) of his youngest son Tom. “It just happened so…,” Veloso chuckles. “I had songs I wanted to record. I had been homebound for a year already, and I couldn’t go back to Bahia to tour so I started to record with Lucas, who is a very talented musician, a great guy and can deal with studio techniques; just the two of us in my little studio here in Rio, and those sessions ended up becoming a complete album. Some people recorded at a distance, in different studios, like orchestras and arrangements, and some percussionists came one by one here to play with their negative COVID tests. That’s basically the story of how the album came to be.”

Meu Coco requires no Portuguese knowledge to understand its emotion. An album lyrically influenced by the avalanche of thoughts on his “coco,” an unlocked storage of memories and ideas that have influenced him throughout the years, and with a frank amazement at the consequences of his experiences. “This is my first album entirely of songs of my own, music and lyrics, throughout my whole career,” Veloso says proudly. “I have always recorded albums with songs written by me but always through a partnership and/or collaborations. I was here alone, and that granted me the space to compose everything from top to bottom by myself.”

It all started with a beat on Veloso’s guitar that outlined a central idea for the album. “I only had a beat,” he says as he holds an invisible guitar on his hands and chakum, chakum, chakum comes out of his mouth. “Then women names were the very first thing that popped in my head and I found that interesting because it led me to a whole road of conversations that I had had with Joao Gilberto, who after questioning our existence, once said, ‘We are Chinese.’ Then I tried to put melody and lyrics as I played that beat on the acoustic guitar in Bahia.”

To the rhythm of Márcio Vitor’s percussion and the arrangements by Thiago Amud, names like Luana and Janaína inspired the album’s title track. “It starts with Simone Raimunda from Bahia, a very young and beautiful model I met in the ’60s who now lives in Paris and whose artistic name Luana became very common for baby girls. The other one is Janaína, the daughter of a very famous actress whose name belongs to a goddess of African religion, the goddess of the seas, in Brazil. The curious thing is that the parents never knew the African origin of the names.”

On Meu Coco’s first single, “Anjos Tronchos,” Veloso brings out his most risky vein, a tune with rock nuances that provokingly tackles the technological wave and its negative effects, a subject he was somewhat oblivious of. “It’s a theme that I thought I wasn’t able to deal with because I don’t use it much, I don’t have a smartphone or use social media, but then all these thoughts arose, and I ended up writing a whole song.  It’s crazy, it makes sense and taught me a lot.”

Each song has its own life, each an honest recording covering a range of moods with songwriting that remains fascinatingly intuitive and an ability to regard moments as fresh through storytelling. Meu Coco overflows in colors and textures, with twists and turns that follow no order.  There’s Middle Eastern phrasing in “Cyclamen of Lebanon,” orchestrated by Jacques Morelenbaum, “an incurable romantic.” The peppered-funk carioca “Não Vou Deixar” (I won’t let it) references political oppression. “It could be about a love relationship but was inspired by the election of Brazilian president Bolsonaro,” Veloso continues. “The day he was elected, I said that the things he had planned wouldn’t happen because I would not allow them. I would repeat that in my head emphatically: ‘não vou deixar,’ ‘eu não vou deixar!’ Then, the son of a friend of mine, who was 5 at the time, was visiting with his mom and dad and heard me yelling those words and said, ‘Granddad is nervous,’ so I added that to the lyrics (O menino me ouviu e já comentou, O vovô tá nervoso”, o vovô…).”

“Autoacalanto” is much like a lullaby, a portrait of Veloso’s grandson on which his father Tom plays the guitar. Other names such as “Enzo Gabriel” also appear. “I never met anybody with that name but read in the newspaper that most Brazilian baby boys born between 2018 and 2019 were named ‘Enzo Gabriel.’ I remember that Enzo was fashionable because of a famous TV actress in Brazil who chose the name for her first son, so people copied that name, but I am not aware of where the combination of Enzo Gabriel came from. It was a something that just sprouted, and I found that fascinating.”

There’s also candomblé in “Giglia,” which summons Wilson Batista and Jorge Veiga, both renowned Brazilian sambistas, as well as bossa nova singer and composer Carlos Lyra and the great Milton Nascimento. “I had a sketch of a song, lyrics and melody, but the melody wasn’t defined so I asked my son Moreno to play the candomé percussion, which he did beautifully, and on top of it I created melody and rearranged the words.”

“Sem Samba Não Dá,” a samba bass and sertanejo-infused tune, takes him back to his origins. “I was pretty much done with the record, and then my friend Pretinho da Serrinha, a great musician of samba percussion, asked me, ‘You are not going to write or include a samba in your album?’” he recalls. “So, I wrote a samba for him that basically says, ‘Without samba, it doesn’t flow,’ and invited him to play; he’s a master.” The song also features Mestrinho on the accordion, whose style is influenced by forró tradition. “He understands what happens with sertanejo, which comes from central Brazil, the region of Sao Paulo and Mato Grosso,” he says. “The samba from Rio nowadays is mixed with these genres. The accordion is a trademark of that genre, and so I tried to cross it and land on a basic traditional samba refrain.”

Other sertanejo musicians, those who fuse it with samba and funk-carioca and Brazilian trap, are also featured on the lyrics. “There are those doing very interesting things in the favelas in Rio,” Veloso says. “It’s very inventive. I just find it incredible. There’s a guy whom I mention who is only 19 and very well-respected in the scene. My son Zac, who knows who’s who and what happens in the underground scene, introduced me to his music. He loves to study all those fusions, it’s a visceral feeling for him.”

I ask for one or two words to describe the album, and he immediately replies, “meu coco!” and laughs. “My nagging.” Seems Mr. Veloso has a genuine need to challenge himself since the upheaval of pop culture in Brazil gave way to the Tropicalia movement in the late 1960s, challenges that test his vocal ability, lyrically and stylistically.

We look back, 53 years ago to be exact, when Veloso was jailed with Gilberto Gil for voicing their political views through music. Much has changed since, and reflecting on when he was 26 years old, we ask what color and melody he gives those memories. “That’s a hard question to answer,” he muses. “I lived in London for two and a half years exiled, just after being detained for two months in Rio and four months in confinement in Bahia with Gilberto. It was a nightmare; I didn’t expect so much strangeness and suffering. Gilberto was more prepared to deal with it. It was depressing, and London became part of the present. I remember when I came back to Brazil, when an English-language song played on the radio in my car, I would change the station immediately. It became a little difficult for me to understand English.”

There is somewhat of a departure in sound from Veloso’s previous projects, yet the “nagging” in Meu Coco, a persuasive melancholic-yet-optimistic journey, is a portrait of different characters all weaved into his usual common denominator: sensibility. If you give it time, it’s an audio adventure.

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