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Luciana Souza: Revising Pop by Way of Bossa Nova

The challenge I had on this record was, ‘how dare you take songs by Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen and present them this way?’

Brazilian singer and composer Luciana Souza never seems to have known a day without music. She's the daughter of musicians, and Brazil's homegrown music — bossa nova — provided the soundtrack to her childhood. She made her first recording at age 3.

Souza has spent most of her adult life in the U.S., where she received a master's degree in jazz studies from the New England Conservatory. She's written songs inspired by poets Elizabeth Bishop and Pablo Neruda, and others inspired by the music of her homeland.

Souza's latest CD is titled The New Bossa Nova, and it contains a few surprises. She includes songs by venerable pop artists such as Joni Mitchell, James Taylor and The Beach Boys, but instead of singing them straight, she dresses them with the sultry, shifting rhythms of bossa nova.

Souza says she never imagined the Beach Boys classic "God Only Knows" bathed in a bossa nova beat until she sat down alone and played the tune on her guitar.

"It seemed so natural," Souza says. "The poetry, the prayer of the song was lifted by the constant beat of the bossa nova, and the meditative quality of the music brought the poetry out."

In the past, Souza never filtered her favorite pop tunes through a bossa nova lens. But in preparing the new record, she was surprised how well the songs worked.

"In sitting down alone with these songs," Souza says, "I just really felt that they fit. But I don't think Joni Mitchell was thinking bossa nova when she wrote 'Down to You.'"

Mitchell, and many of the other artists whose songs Souza covers on her new CD, has helped to shape her as both a singer and songwriter.

"I tend to think that Joni Mitchell is inevitable for somebody my age," Souza says. "I'm 41 and I grew up listening to the sound of her voice, her utmost artistry."

"Listening to a song by Joni Mitchell means that you are entering that universe, and that's what I would like for people to do when they hear the songs I choose to sing — to be able to travel and be transformed. And that's what all these songwriters provide: a window into something new yet something old and universal."

Souza says she sifted through many songs before she ended up with those on The New Bossa Nova. Some simply didn't work. They didn't lend themselves to the mood inherent in bossa nova.

"A lot of bossa nova has the spirit of what we call saudade," Souza says, "which is a sense of melancholy, of longing. It's a sadness, but it's a hopeful kind of sadness. So in choosing the songs, we looked at them in terms of, 'Can they afford to be called bossa nova?'"

"The challenge I had on this record was, 'How dare you take songs by Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen and present them this way?' It can be really tacky and really dangerous. But if you spend enough time with them, paying respect to these great songwriters, and to feel like you own the songs, then you can present them in public."

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