February 1, 2017 Interviews
with the Singer in her brooklyn apartment
Charlotte Dos Santos is a singer creating diversity within the scandipop scene while pushing boundaries in the soul/jazz scene. She is an Olso, Norway native now living in New York City where she’s preparing for the release of her debut EP Cleo via the Portland-based label Fresh Selects. She sat down with BGM to tell us about backpacking through Salvador, Bahia to connect and discover herself, how art-making is heavily influenced from her heritage, and the experiences that helped shape her into the woman and artist she is today.
By Ade Oluokun
Photography by Diahann Williams
What are three things you love about yourself?
I love my musicality, my adaptability and my curiosity.
Can you tell me about one of those moments where you were having an identity crisis and how you overcame it?
Honestly I think that has been an ongoing thing throughout my life up until my early twenties. Growing up in Norway as Afro Brazilian but yet feeling so Norwegian was very hard at times. There was always a gap, a void in me that I didn't know how to fill. I wasn’t exposed to proper Brazilian culture until I decided to move to Salvador, Bahia for three months at 22 to learn portuguese. It was always a dream of mine to really connect and to find out about that side of me. That experience was the most important, emotional and absolutely best experience of my life.
I have been very lucky to travel a lot throughout my life and experience so many different cultures but this was a very significant trip for me - and it was important for me to do it on my own. So I packed a backpack and lived with a host family when I didn't speak a word of Portuguese other than the little I knew from having a Brazilian father. It was life changing and a pivotal time as woman, a musician, an artist and a general human being.
Before I went to Brazil, I studied music in Surrey, England straight out of high school, so I am used to doing things by myself and being alone a lot. I have always worked hard for the things I want in life. Nothing is for free and hard work pays off. Even though living in England was one of the toughest and somewhat most painful times of my life leading me to get mentally sick for a year after that stay. Overcoming that era made me realize how much I had grown and it made me so much stronger. It taught me how to deal with things on my own and encouraged me to realize my dream of going back to Brazil. Digging down into my roots encouraged me to go Berklee across the Atlantic Ocean and then do an exchange semester in Valencia, Spain studying flamenco and mediterranean music - where I ended up writing most of my album and self-direct my music video.
Looking back my life has been so incredibly bumpy and I've taken a hundred detours to get in the right direction but it’s been such a rich learning experience. I would never have it any other way.
You have a duet about being Brazilian and Norwegian, how has your heritage shaped your artmaking?
My heritage has given my expression an interesting twist. I grew up in a house with a lot of cultural diversity, both musically and environmentally. Though I started my classical training in a very Western European all-girls choir, I would come home and there would be Gypsy Kings or Pepe De Lucia playing on our stereo. My mother always loved Arabic music. North African Arabic and Brazilian music and would play a lot of that - whilst my father was a huge music fanatic and would play everything from Miles and Coltrane to Bjork, The Fugees, Garbarek and Mari Boine. Definitely a very eclectic mix. Tonally I am very influenced by classical composers, as well as arabic scales and modes. I really do like impressionism and impressionist composers and somehow embed that with the rhythms I grew up with. And being so much exposed to jazz definitely has inspired me and influenced me a lot. I feel super lucky to have been exposed to so much different music that’s affected me and my writing.
How were you able to tie all of those elements of who you are into your music?
It’s been so embedded in me that it’s just how I think and write, but it takes time to be comfortable with your musical expression. Finding out who you are as a musician often is about not caring what other people think, trusting your intuition and letting go of that pressure. I started writing when I was 13 but was not completely comfortable until I was in my 20s. I can never stress enough to people when they ask me- good art takes time, and because my love for music is so intense I never want to stress that process. If it's not something that comes naturally, I won’t do it. I never force myself to write music. I make sure I have other inputs and surroundings that inspires me, different mediums of art, friends, nature. My debut album is inspired by an exchange year in Spain, a trip to the South of France and a visit to the Pyrenees Mountains with good friends. The title of the album ended up being Neve Azul which means blue snow in Portuguese- because quite literally the Pyrenees Mountains are so enchantingly blue-ish and dramatic and absolutely breathtaking- and that album is me paying an homage to my Afro Brazilian heritage as well.
Do you have any significant mentors or role models?
Today I do, but growing up there weren't many female musicians I was exposed to in Norway who I could recognize myself in. The few black female musicians that I remember as a child impacting me was Alicia Keys and Tracy Chapman. I see know how dangerous that potentially could have been because I often thought I never could be a skillful musician. I started playing violin when I was six but then I lost interest and thought how can I do this when nobody I familiarize myself with is doing this? So I stopped and focused more on singing and had role models such as Mariah, Whitney and Lauryn. But there was something in me murring that I wanted to know more about, to get to know the composer in me and not be restricted to only singing. I wanted to be in charge of my own compositions and have the right vocabulary and knowledge to describe what I want to create. This is one of the reasons why I wanted to go to Berklee College of Music where I did my degree in Jazz Performance and Contemporary Writing & Production.
Can you explain your style as an extension of yourself?
Well first off I think self care is super important! But I’ve always been very interested in fashion, always tempted to express myself through various outfits successfully and unsuccessfully (laughter). Goodwill is my all time favorite store. Everything I’m wearing right now is from Goodwill. Maybe a mix of scandinavian minimalism where I like clean one colored items and sleek shirts and geometric patterns. But I've always been very into 80’s and 90’s trends. Recent years I've been inspired by the baroque era and medieval styles. It all depends on my mood, and I never really care what other people think. I like my rings and I always wear them. I got them at different stages. One is from my mother, this one I got it in Paris. That one my sister gave to me from India. I have a favorite I got in Boston. I love this one because the stone looks like the sky. I feel naked without my rings. I always perform with them on. One of my weird rituals before performing.
How do you find or create community within your music?
Music is the one thing that naturally connects us as humans- we can all familiarize with it and recognize it. Whether it is music we like or not, it’s just a medium where we all meet. As for when I write, I try to communicate with honesty; it is so important to me. I love to play with metaphors and words and challenge people to imagine sceneries of my lyrics but I always try to stay honest with my stories. That is where I connect with my audience. When I was living in Boston, I used to busk in the subway stations and a woman came up to me and handed me her card. She told me how she enjoyed my performance and that they needed music at a conference for race and education between students. It felt so rewarding to be able to perform in that space and be involved in the community so organically- especially to contribute in an American community being foreign, knowing I can contribute in a way.
Can you talk a little bit about your learning experience to embody that curiosity and be in different cities and how have certain neighborhoods influenced you? How does that find its way into your art?
I've always been obsessed with history and the cause and effect of things. My mother and my sister are avid readers so we would talk about what we read and sort of analyze which opened my imagination a lot. Also travelling- just experiencing something different, even just once adds fuel to the fire. But today it's funny because usually these are things I can see in retrospect. When in the moment, I like to absorb all the new influences and nuances. When writing, I do it without necessarily knowing what it is, what it means or where it's going. Sometimes it's something as simple as hearing a car driving by with Afro Cuban rhythms and I get a hook in my head, sit down and write something Afro Cuban, like a montuno pattern or certain horn lines. Sometimes I look back and recognize ‘ah man, that has such a flamenco twist to it” or “wow that was very this and that” you know? It's just really also mood-based. Listening to music all the time gives me different inspiration and kicks to what I'd like to write. As for the curiosity it started when I was very little. I remember being obsessed with this one scene from a Christmas Muppet video we had at home on VHS where Julie Andrews was Yodeling and I was like” Oh my GOD, what is that?” I would rewind that scene over and over. Another incident I remember was taking the tram listening to the machinery of the cart trying to find out what interval it sounded like. It was an octave, which is the beginning of “Somewhere Over The Rainbow”.
My first debut project is finally coming up, and I am extremely proud of that body of work. It is self produced and features beats from fellow Oslo’er producer Fredfades. I named the album Cleo because she represents the woman we could all be. I wanted the album to be centered around femininity, power and independence reflecting the woman I would like to be as well as I feel like I am becoming. Cleo is royal and fearless : something I want all girls to be. I hope I can be a role model for women of color, especially the brown girls back home. I want them to know that you can do this, whatever it is that you dream of, you can do it. Study hard, work hard and anything becomes possible.
How do you feel that you channel or communicate truth through your music whether in the writing or the way you perform, how do you embody that truth?
As I mentioned earlier, when something comes from the heart, it is usually recognized. I am really interested in languages and words and being trilingual makes it really fun to write. One of my songs from my upcoming EP Cleo, is in Middle-English - a died out language from the 1000th century. It started out as a school assignment where we had to take one of three songs and make them our own. I liked it so much it ended up as the intro track for my EP. I really like to be lyrical. When it comes to performing, I convinced myself that I had stage fright for so many years, but then I realized I don’t have to be someone else when I perform. I am not the type of person who can plan what to say or how to act when I perform. I just have to act in the moment. I’ve tried the whole rehearsal thing and it just makes me feel uncomfortable and ingenuine. Now I enter the stage only as Charlotte. This took time to understand. I was so overwhelmed and in a mix of a constant identity crisis dealing with becoming a woman. I had to stop and ask myself, “What am I doing and who am I doing this for? I’m just gonna do me, take a breath, and peoples perspective is their own right.”