Brazilian’s road album draws from touring, tradition

Boston Globe, June 25, 2012

The Brazilian singer Céu calls “Caravana Sereia Bloom” — her third CD, which came out earlier this year — a road album. It is meant to capture, she says, “many aspects of the road,” a topic she’s had ample time to reflect on as a touring artist.

“Since my first album in 2005, I started to travel a lot,” says Céu, who plays Brighton Music Hall on Thursday. Appropriately enough, she’s speaking from a tour bus.

“I felt I had to talk about this. Not about a specific trip: Everyone has movement in their lives, and when you have to travel it’s like a parallel reality. You meet cultures, people, food, images, smells.”

And emotions, of course. As countless filmmakers have intuited, the road is about feelings — rupture, nostalgia, anticipation, realization.

For Céu, who first came to US attention when her debut turned up for sale at Starbucks outlets, “Caravana” confirms what her second album, “Vagarosa,” presaged: This is no central-casting Brazilian lounge diva, but a complex poet with raw force and an explorer’s sensibility.

The exploration here is regional, first off. Céu spent time in, and listened to music from, Brazil’s northeast and far north in preparing the record.

“It’s the frontier of Brazil with Latin America,” she says, referring to her country’s Spanish-speaking neighbors. “I started to research what happens when Latin and Caribbean rhythms mix with Brazilian ones. I started to write lyrics thinking about these old-school lambadas, cumbias . . .”

She also gave the record a more aggressive rock flavor than she had done in the past. Céu’s brand of MPB (Brazilian popular music, in the established acronym and genre designation) has long been streaked with reggae, rocksteady, even Afrobeat.

Now she is working with a new producer (her husband, Gui Amabis) and a new guitarist, Dustan Gallas, in her five-member band, which also includes a DJ who samples and scratches. She’s made her sound even bolder, grittier, and at times more majestic than it’s ever been.

All these elements come together, for instance, on “Retrovisor,” a lament of departure and loss (the title means “rear-view mirror”) with a magnificent down-tempo shift after the first verse, and a long, psychedelic instrumental section at the close.

It comes with a video, filmed in a remote rural zone of Brazil’s northeast, that’s in itself an homage to grainy 1970s cinematography.

Other highlights include “Palhaço,” a piece by Brazilian 20th-century poet Nelson Cavaquinho about the pathos of a clown; the horn-laden “Contravento,” which hints back at Céu’s earlier experiments with Afrobeat; and “Streets Bloom,” which she wrote and sings in English, another of this album’s innovations.

Céu’s stage name means “sky” or “heaven,” but she comes by it honestly — it’s a part of her full name, Maria do Céu Whitaker Poças. Raised in São Paulo, the daughter of a composer and a sculptor, she grew up steeped in the Brazilian canon of Tom Jobim, Jorge Ben, Gilberto Gil, Caetano Veloso, and so many others.

For all its moments of high sensuality, her sound has more in common with the wild eclecticism of the Tropicalia movement than it does with bossa nova’s suave feel or samba’s percussive intensive.

As her career has progressed, she’s had the chance to meet and even perform with some of these icons. She credits Erasmo Carlos, an important songwriter of the 1970s, for inspiring her to embolden and rough up her sound.

“He helped me to put in this rock attitude,” Céu says. “Though it’s not like I am all rock now. In Tropicalia, all the groups were eclectic, organic. This freedom is necessary to tell new stories.”

In looking back to the canon yet also forward with fresh sounds and themes, Céu displays a classic trait of Brazilian pop music: its appreciation of history, and its ability to feel rooted and unfettered at the same time.

“My father always used to say, if you want to look at the whole world, first take care of your own garden,” she says. “Nothing is new. We are recycling, and trying to put our identity on it.”