Interviews January 27, 2017
A Conversation With Philippe Baden Powell and Cecilia Zabala

As a patriarch of a musical family, the Brazilian guitarist Baden Powell may not be as well known as the Marleys or the Kutis of the world, but his sons are working on it. Philippe Baden Powell is in America with his friend Cecilia Zabala, who studied with the senior Powell, touring their collaborative album, Fronteras.


Released in 2015, the album is 12 songs in Portuguese and Spanish with a cameo from Powell's sister speaking in French. It splits the difference between Philippe Baden Powell's more improvisational piano work and Cecilia Zabala's folk-inflected guitar work.

The day before they made their debut at the Americas Society in New York, the very day they both arrived from two separate continents, they sat down with Afropop's Ben Richmond. They discussed the best methods for writing an album over Skype, how they choose what language a song will be in, and how much easier it is to describe this album in Europe.

Ben Richmond: So where are you both living? Where did you fly in from?

Cecilia Zabala: I flew from Buenos Aires, I live there.

Philippe Baden Powell: And I just flew in from Paris. I live there too.

Did you grow up in Paris?

Philippe: Yeah, I was born in Paris and I stayed there for my first four years. Then we went to live in Baden Baden, a German city in south of Germany, and then I went to Brazil for a time. So I spent a few years going, coming.

You two met in Paris?

Cecilia: No, in Brazil, in Curitiba, a city in the south.

Were you just both playing there separately and came across each other?

Cecilia: No, I went there to make music at a workshop and the first concert of the workshop was Baden playing with his two sons, Philippe and Marcel. And then, well, Baden gave some master classes and in those classes we met.

Very cool. I guess you can hear that Baden Powell influence on the guitar playing. "Equinoccio" has that chromatic run that reminds me of Baden Powell's arrangement of "Gente Humilde."

Cecilia: Hah, yeah, that could be.

How did you get together and compose a record when you live a whole ocean apart?

Philippe: Since we met in '95 we kept writing to each other and I was becoming familiar with Cecilia's work as a guitar player, composer and singer. When she started touring, traveling to show her projects, she came to France and she stayed at my place and I was really amazed to realize after all these years, what a brilliant musician and composer that she had become. And somehow I really wanted to be part of it too. [Laughs] So this is how the idea came to us: "Would you like to do something...what about doing something together?" This is why it's called Fronteras. Distance has always been part of our relationship, so thanks to technology—Skype and Internet—we could write things together through Skype and sending emails and sending ideas and sending back.

Cecilia: The first time we performed together in 2012 in Paris. I went there in the fall and we did some concerts just to try new things because at that time we sent some music by Internet. We started writing the music but didn't play it.

Philippe: It was a work in progress.

Cecilia: In March of 2013, I came back and we started the recording.

Philippe: We recorded part in my studio in Paris and Cecilia finished her part in a studio in Buenos Aires. So it took us a while to do it—two? three years?

When you played together in 2012 were you playing original songs already?

Philippe: That first performance? That was new material that we were writing together. We're both composers so we almost don't play songs that were already written.

Cecilia: And the spirit of the recording was the collaborations between: lyrics and music.

How did that work collaborating over Skype? Would you set up a time and then set up your laptop so the other could see, and then play?

Cecilia: We like talking too much, so we imagine things and then send the music and for example the first thing I received from him was a bass and a guitar—and he's a fantastic piano player but he also plays guitar—and he gave me that music and said "Well, you, if you want to write the melody for these chords." So the first challenge was that.

Philippe: We didn't have a real-time working together through Skype. The only time we had that was when Cecilia was in France and we were going to cafes and writing lyrics and discussing. Or when she was staying at my place, during breakfast or dinner, we would have some exchange.

Cecilia: "Equinoccio" was born from that. He was cooking for his child and I was sitting with the guitar, and he was in the kitchen and was like, "Oh, I like that!"

Philippe: And she was saying, "Shut up; keep cooking."

That sounds like a pretty idyllic working circumstance. Very relaxed.

Philippe: Yeah this is the way we worked. At least the way I was taught and raised in that kind of environment: having music no matter the moment. There is no moment to do music; there is only moments to do other things, but music is all the time.

Did you also grow up in a musical household, Cecilia?

Cecilia: No, there aren't musicians in my family, just my father who played the guitar for fun. But I started with music when I was very, very tiny—5 years old.

Were you always drawn to the guitar?

Cecilia: Yeah, I've always loved the guitar, and don't really know why. My mom asked me if I wanted, and I said yes. I don't know if it was studying English or something, but after two or three years later, from that my mom told me, "There's a choir in school," and so I started to sing in the choir.

I guess the guitar recommends itself. Philippe, how did you resist the pull of it and become a pianist, at least in the public eye?

Philippe: Well, first of all my father always made us feel very free about music, about what instrument we wanted to play. I don't know, I think it came naturally. I never thought about it. But I really love the piano. I feel like it can express... I don't know I feel better expressing things on piano, even if I use a guitar to compose. Both instruments are really great, but I really like the piano. I don't know how to express this, but it wasn't a problem. Being a guitar player's son, you might feel like "Oh, I need to play the guitar." I think I wanted to choose something, and somehow I feel like I'm myself on the piano. My brother plays the guitar and maybe he feels more close to my dad or something because they play guitar.

That could be a lot of pressure. I think about poor Bob Dylan's son...

Philippe: Hah, I never think too much about that pressure. It would be hard if would think about this all the time, but my father never made us feel like any pressure regarding it. Because he's the most well-known musician in the family but I'm the fourth generation of musicians. We have a big family, cousins, and it's really natural I think. It's a family affair.

So, the album. You're going along and composing. You're Brazilian, living in France; and you're in Argentina. All of those languages are reflected on the record—there's a girl speaking French—how do you decide on what language you're going to use for lyrics? Most artists only feel comfortable in the one language; it's easy for them.

Cecilia: For me, language is like music. I love the music hidden between the words and its colors and mixture, so as we have both two principle languages, we wanted to use them. For example I wrote a samba—samba with an "s" like in Brazil—and so I wanted to write lyrics in Portuguese for that. Or for example, he wrote some kind of milonga—melody and harmony—and then I wrote the lyrics in Spanish.

Does it start with a phrase you want to put in or does it come from the form?

Cecilia: It can be. The music gives you an idea or a phrase or something and you decide to go with it.

Philippe: I think it different, or more personal than others because for me that was the first time that I would write lyrics and even sing songs on a record and as we were discussing about "O.K., the theme, the mood and the title," I mean, Fronteras—like crossing the borders of cultures and also of the masculine gender, the feminine gender, Spanish and Brazilian because Brazil is the only county in South America that speaks Portuguese—yet we are all like brothers. So it was really natural to mix both languages. I also felt like it would be nice that people who speak Spanish could understand the Brazilian lyrics and the opposite too. And because of those words, like samba—"samba" doesn't mean the same thing in Brazil as it does in Argentina.

Cecilia: We have a samba with a "z" and it's very slow

Philippe: And it's in three.

There's only room for one language per song, but you also have two primary instruments take up a similar range of pitches. Guitar and piano can sometimes step on each other's toes a bit. How did you compose around that?

Cecilia: I think that the challenge here is to play less. To give space for the other. Because you are right, they are very similar in range. So, maybe it's to have clear roles, with who is doing just the melody, who is doing accompaniment, and what kind.

Philippe: As my father used to play guitar and my brother is also a guitar player, I am pretty much used to playing piano with guitar players. And I really enjoy that a lot. I think also I know Cecilia's playing pretty well because I've been admiring and been a big fan of her playing and what she does with voice and guitar, which sometimes can be written and set up. She can sing a melody and then do, like, a counterpoint or rhythmic counterpoint. I felt like, I want to be something in between this, but I have to be careful not to bother that balance, you know?

So I always was looking for the place where she's not playing, so I could put in some chords. And as she plays this marvelous instrument—a very smart instrument, with seven strings that lets her go very high or low—then the challenge is "when she goes high I can stay low," or something. It's about listening all the time and trying, as we are playing songs. And that was a challenge for me because I usually improvise a lot. But as we are playing songs, I was kind of trying to set things and decide what notes I'm going to play. So it's really challenging but very rewarding too.

You mention these as being "songs" in particular. Cecilia, would you describe yourself as a singer-songwriter?

Cecilia: Ah, yeah, one part of me.

What's the rest?

Cecilia: A guitarist, a singer and a composer?

Philippe, would you say you have a background in jazz?

Philippe: I like very much to use the jazz tools: harmonic sophistication and improvising. And I've been doing instrumental music for most of my records, but since we started this project I always felt like lyrics are very important too and can really help out to tell stories, because music is about telling stories: How to make people feel or how to make them...I don't know, go on a journey or something. So I'm getting much closer to songs now than ever before.

What influenced this record? When you go for lyrics, is there something you turn to or inspiration you found? It need not be music but it could be someone you're reading.

Cecilia: I think you can catch colors or feelings from the air. Maybe you want to talk about something or you want to play with the music in the lyrics of the song. It's always different. Maybe you can write about a story, something that happened to someone else, or maybe just talk about something very intimate, or the colors, or how you see the world. So I think there are many mysteries to talk about in music and in lyrics and in colors.

Philippe: For me, I like lyrics and I like to use images. I like images a lot. So poetry is a big source of inspiration. And I also like, in music you don't have as much time as in a book. So, you have to try to say many things in a very short period of time. So that's the challenge and I like to look for the right words. I like rhymes a lot too. Sometimes I can spend a lot of time looking for the right rhyme. It's about music always, and so sometimes the rhyme becomes more important than the sense.

Cecilia: I think we have Skype sessions talking about lyrics for example. After we finished recording I had to finish the vocals and we had to decide the lyrics. And that is pretty challenging for a musician, to share the decision with somebody else. And I remember lyrics that were in Portuguese and at the first moment I thought about it in Spanish and tried to translate, but there was a phrase that worked very well in Spanish but not in Portuguese. In Portuguese it was not nice in music or in meaning.

Philippe: I'm a big fan of Pablo Neruda, and love it. And I feel Spanish is a very poetic language.

Cecilia: I feel the same for Portuguese.

Were there any Portuguese language poets you especially esteem?

Cecilia: I like Clarice Lispector. I'm very fond of her. And I've listened to much of her music since 1995.

You're both coming from these different backgrounds and traditions and are now long time collaborators. When people ask you, "What kind of album is Fronteras," what do you say? Singer-songwriter? Parts of it could even fit in with "new music," which I don't know if you guys have or are familiar with. I realize that it's not a very descriptive name for a genre, but some of what you're doing is just so intricate.

Cecilia: I think it's a song album or a songwriter's album with a lot of different influences—the mixture of language, the mixture of his world and my world makes it different, makes it not easy to put under a label.

Philippe: I always say the same: It's my best friend Cecilia who I wrote a bunch of South American songs album. So I just call it my South American song record.

Cecilia: "South American song"? Because you live in France, the way you explain it to your friends in France.

Philippe: I mean, I feel like French people can really be into explaining and understanding and analyzing everything and sometimes I feel like I don't want to explain. I want people to listen to it and accept it as it is. So what is it about? South American songs. Portuguese lyrics, Spanish lyrics, beautiful melodies and rhythms. That's all.

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