Garota do São Paulo

The only thing worse than a corny Italian singing in Spanish is two corny Italians singing in Spanish.

 That’s what Laura Pausini and Andrea Bocelli did at the 8th Latin Grammy Awards last November in Las Vegas, performing a duet before and after a bunch of colleagues with varying dollops of syrup.

 Don’t blame them: In the age of piracy and digital downloads, the Spanish-language music industry somehow has managed to remain strong sales-wise (even though things appear to be getting worse), and throughout the years several Italian (Nicola Di Bari) and Brazilian (Alexandre Pires) acts have tried to cash in on the huge Spanish market in Latin America and Spain.

 Not Maria Rita.

 The daughter of Elis Regina, arguably Brazil’s greatest female singer (who died of an accidental drug and alcohol overdose in 1982, when Maria Rita was 5), has always found ways to tastefully interpret and give new life to Spanish songs, two of which she included in her first two albums. She did it first with the bolero classic “Dos gardenias” (Maria Rita, 2003) and then with “Mal intento” (Segundo, 2005), a song written by Oscar-winner Jorge Drexler, who also sang with her (they have another magic duet on Drexler’s latest album, 12 segundos de oscuridad).

 “Aesthetically, everything starts with the song,” said Maria Rita, who sat with me in New York in 2006, before a more recent phone conversation from her home in São Paulo. “In Brazil, interpreters say ‘Just give me anything and I’ll sing it, but that wouldn’t be real, it wouldn’t be truthful to the listeners and to myself. I only sing what I believe in.”

 With Maria Rita, the heiress to the long tradition of female Brazilian singers came out swinging.  She and producer Tom Capone (two unknowns at the time) had the most nominations at the 2004 Latin Grammy awards , and ended up winning three, including Best New Artist and Best MPB Album (MPB stands for Musica Popular Brasileira). But that same night, right after the awards, Capone died in a motorcycle accident in Los Angeles. Maria Rita is still devastated.

 “Yeah, that’s just that … ,” she said, switching back and forth between English, Spanish, and Portuguese (she majored in Latin American studies and communications  at NYU before moving back to Brazil). “There’s no way of … It was very strange. It was all very weird, and to this day I just don’t… “ She fell silent, teary-eyed,  and I moved on.

 After the critical and commercial success of her debut, there were great expectations for her follow-up.

 “I thought, ‘If I do something completely different they’ll claim that I don’t have a personality, that I don’t know what I’m doing,’” she said. “And if I do the same thing they’ll say that I’m working on a formula and that the album is not as good as the first one. To start things off, I was already losing. So I just did whatever I felt I wanted to do at that time.”

 Segundo won two more Latin Grammys in 2006 and she decided to take a break, but the suits wouldn’t let her.

 “Artistically speaking, I don’t have anything to say, I told them, and `Warner` said ‘Well, you’ve been doing this samba thing. How about diving more into it?’ And I thought it was a good idea.”

 The execs at Warner were referring to the fact that several samba composers were inviting her to collaborate, so maybe it would be a good time to change her jazzy, minimalist sound to a more festive one, in order to reach an even wider audience. But she did it her way: Except for two tracks, Samba meu has no hits or previously recorded songs.

 “It’s common in Brazil to do a samba recording with a bunch of hits, but I didn’t feel like doing that,” she said. “That’s why I opened the album with a soft prayer basically asking for the blessings of the sambistas, very quiet. Me kind of bowing down to the big sambistas. But the second song is like a kick, very loud, and from then on the album doesn’t stop.”

 With the unpredictable Maria Rita, it’s hard to tell what will happen next. Will she continue doing samba (Samba meu was well received), return to her jazz/pop/rock roots, or try something new?

 “I get bored easily and am constantly changing,” she explains. “All I know right now is that I don’t intend to be a samba singer, I don’t have the pretension to be a samba singer because to be a samba singer requires a lot more than to just record an album. It’s a whole subculture and way of life to a sambista, and I don’t intend to offend anyone.

“It’s just a great opportunity for me to show a side of me. But whatever the style, I insist, everything starts with the song, and you don’t need to yell and scream and have lots of instruments for it to be a good song or for you to be a great singer. Sometimes, less is more.”