To the uninformed, unfamiliar and climatologically challenged, São Paulo, Brazil may sound like a gloriously warm and sunny place.
It is not, according to Luísa Maita, who has lived there all her life.
“It's raining today, but this is São Paulo: raining, raining, raining,” she said in an interview via Skype on Monday. “We call it a gray city.”
In a way, Maita's debut solo album — the fantastic “Lero-Lero” — could be a soundtrack for both versions of São Paulo: the tropical paradise of the mind and the actual, overcast megalopolis. The album is a rich, vibrant mosaic of musical styles that would sound perfect blasting from every street corner of the former, but it has an unmistakably smooth and somber feel ideal for a gray day spent indoors.
No matter how you hear it, “Lero-Lero” is an impressive piece of work from 29-year-old Maita, whose sultry voice and sublime sense of melody have made her the next big thing out of Brazil. (During her first tour of the United States last fall, The New York Times, The Boston Globe and The Washington Post all wrote glowing reviews.)
Maita was named after a bossa nova song and raised in Bixiga, a cosmopolitan neighborhood near the center of São Paulo that's home to Brazilians, Arabs, Italians and more. With a musician for a father and a concert producer for a mother, she was surrounded by music from a very early age.
“When I was young I used to live with my parents and listen to a lot of Brazilian music in general, and jazz music, too,” Maita said. “(And I went) to a traditional school, and there I used to listen to a lot of American music and radio music and pop music.
“I used to like this. I saw something in this kind of music,” she continued. “I loved, when I was young, Michael Jackson and Prince. I remember I was 5 years old when I go to a store and my uncle bought me the ‘Bad' CD of Michael Jackson. So it's natural to me to listen to this kind of music. But at the same time I listened to a lot of Brazilian music ... like Naná Vasconcelos, Tom Jobim (and) João Gilberto.”
With such a culturally aware background, you'd think Maita was destined to make music from the start. And she was, probably. But that didn't stop her from spreading her wings a bit.
“It was very difficult to me to understand how music was important to me because I've never lived without music,” she said. “I was 17 years old (and) I tried to go to dance and I did some theater. I did journalism. So I understood, OK, (these) places are very strange to me. I have to do music because those different environments (were) ... strange to me.”
She made the right choice. You can hear Maita's diverse upbringing in “Lero-Lero,” where samba and bossa nova rhythms collide with modern jazz, American pop and downtempo electronica, plus that soulful, seductive voice.
It's a sound that is both rooted in tradition and indebted to 21st-century club music, with lyrical themes that revolve around life in urban Brazil.
And it's in that range that Maita finds confidence that her songs can find a home anywhere on Earth, as evidenced by the critical drooling she triggered last time she came to America.
“It's difficult to make your music in the USA. To most of the artists from Brazil, it's difficult. It's not, ‘OK, go to America and there everything will be nice,'” she said. “So it was a nice surprise. But I think that the music that I do (is) a kind of Brazilian music that Americans can understand.”