Gustavo Bertoni is a composer, singer, and guitarist from Brasilia, Brazil.
As frontman for the rock band Scalene, he has played a number of major shows and festivals, including Lollapalooza and SXSW. After releasing three albums with Scalene, all in Portuguese, Bertoni launched a solo career that has produced two albums, both in English.
Banter Magazine recently caught up with Bertoni to talk about this shift, his creative process, and the intersection of music and politics.
Banter: As a musician, you have been incredibly successful in your native Portuguese as well as in English. When writing music, do you ever feel a tension between creating music that will resonate with your Brazilian fans and creating music that may be more accessible for a global audience?
Bertoni: I really don’t think about that when I’m writing. Usually, I just let the idea come to me. I find that hearing melodies is something I’m naturally good at. Lyrics are a bit more challenging; they take a bit longer to complete, but when they come to me, they’re either in English or in Portuguese. I think it’s just based on what the song calls for. When the lyrics come to me in Portuguese, it’s a Scalene song. When they come to me in English, it’s a solo song. It may sound cliche, but I do let the original idea for a song guide me in my creative process. I try to be open and follow where the idea takes me, and I’ve learned to be more passive in the way I’m guided by my musical intuitions. To be honest, the language division and translating lyrics for songs is not a conflict I’ve really dealt with before, the ideas come in either language, and they stay that way.
Banter: Throughout the Anglosphere, Spanish, French, Italian, and Portuguese are all lauded for their delicate, sensual sound. On your most recent solo album, Where the Light Pours In, you explore love, passion, vulnerability, and many other intimate themes. Do you think that producing this album in English provided you with the same expressive opportunities as it would have, had it been in Portuguese?
Bertoni: That’s a great question; it’s something I discuss a lot with my songwriter friends. English has a very natural way of fitting into melodies. In the past, I think I would often feel more comfortable expressing myself in English, especially when I would perform in Brazil, because it created somewhat of a wall between the audience and myself. Nowadays, I don’t really have that problem. After releasing four or five albums, I think I broke through that barrier; a lot of times musicians will look to sentimental archetypes when they write songs, which can be interesting, but if I’m going to be performing something for years in the future, I want it to always have a deep personal meaning to me.
Banter: The frequency and confidence with which prominent musicians weigh in on political issues seems to be increasing in North America. In light of Brazil’s recent election, the result of which has proved to be largely derided in English-speaking nations, how much pressure have you felt to use your platform for political engagement?
Bertoni: I don’t really view it as pressure; I view it as an opportunity. When you’re young, and when you’re first gaining the ability to influence people, it can seem overwhelming and scary. I’ve learned to embrace it though. I don’t want to tell people what the answers are. It would be pretentious of me to pretend like I have all the answers. I do try to encourage my audience to be vigilant and aware of their personal perspectives.
We have an expression in Portuguese that roughly translates to “the shoes you’re wearing when you speak about something”. As a band, we’re fairly privileged. We’re white, blonde, upper-middle class… we don’t look stereotypically Brazilian. We have a lot of empathy and respect for the experience other Brazilians go through. We (the privileged) don’t have to be fearful. We are worried about fans and the people we love who receive threats, often in line with some of the remarks made by the people in power. Bad character, bad preparation, and there he is leading a country; it’s really frustrating. We want to resist with empathy and not fuel fear on the other side. I think we can still reach Bolsonaro’s base if we don’t align ourselves with the radical left. It seems like a lot of artists make this mistake. As soon as you attach yourself firmly to the extreme end of the political spectrum, you lose the ability to communicate with conservatives, so what are you really changing? We have a big influence, and it’s important for us to promote the liberal values we believe in. Personally, I voted for the Worker’s Party, but I feel like we have a lot of potential as artists to influence people on the political right by respectfully exposing them to new perspectives. It’s a really intense period for artists, and for conservative voters too. Even the people who are more conservative might have had a difficult time supporting Bolsonaro, but only did so out of a distrust for the Worker’s Party, a party that has a long history of corruption and political scandal. The result was a backlash, and now we ended up with this absurd President. I don’t think it’s very healthy for artists to separate the country into communists and neo-fascists because it only fuels social division.
Banter: Has becoming a more globally recognized musician increased this pressure?
Bertoni: Becoming more politically engaged has mostly been a result of my personal development. The more I mature as a man, the more I find myself naturally gravitating towards politics because that’s how you can influence the issues that matter to you. I don’t think that the pressure from the media class to be more involved has motivated me nearly as much as my own personal desire to improve the things I care about. Throughout this process, I gain a lot of inspiration to create music, so it’s all part of living authentically and sharing your development with the world.
To keep up with Bertoni, you can follow him on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and Spotify.