Helado Negro creates his own world on the cosmic 'Far In'
Roberto Carlos Lange conceives of sound differently than the traditional songwriter.
Working under the moniker Helado Negro, the Ecuadorian-American artist has deftly moved between genre and medium, creating everything from albums steeped in house-tinged electronica and downtempo Spanish folk, to meditative sonic art installations. His category-defying body of work has spanned more than a decade, his kaleidoscopic take on the world garnering critical acclaim along the way.
His seventh full-length album, Far In, is out October 22. It's his first release on indie label 4AD, and to find a spot alongside the label's non-conforming indie giants makes perfect sense for Lange; his work is both ever-expanding yet intimate, gesturing widely to the cosmos while making sure you don't miss the small stuff. The album's "There Must Be A Song Like You" is a hypnotizing declaration of trust over a prominent bassline, and throughout the record Lange muses in Spanish, doing so over wind chimes and Wurlitzer chords on "Aguas Frías" and in lullaby-worthy vocal whispers on "Agosto."
A graduate of the Savannah College of Art and Design, last year Lange and his partner, artist Kristi Sword, staged a multimedia collaboration within the mediums of sound and sculpture titled Kite Symphony in Marfa. While they were there, Lange experienced both nature and art through a different lens, spurred by the confines of lockdown. His new songs draw on this perspective, along with Lange's continued desire to create an entirely new world in his music. Far In is a tour of an unexplored universe and a love letter to openness, both of the soul and the natural world. Across the album's fifteen songs, Helado Negro warmly extends an inviting hand outward, beckoning listeners to come and vibe alongside him. Where 2019's This is How You Smile looked inward, making his voice the sole "protagonist," Far In prioritizes a welcoming, ambient groove.
Speaking to NPR, Lange talks about how the expansive desert of Marfa, Tex. inspired Far In, creating his own sonic vocabularies, and the flimsy boundaries between voice and sound.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Reanna Cruz: You have a new album coming out called Far In. Where did the inspiration for this album come from?
Roberto Carlos Lange: I didn't know I was going to make an album until last year. When I found myself deciding to make a record I realized that I had a lot of work that I had already been working on. The week that I was finishing my last record [2019's This Is How You Smile], I had started recording a bunch of songs. It was cool to have all of these ideas already there, blooming, waiting to be used as something.
I was in Marfa, Tex. last year and it was a good time to be able to take stock [of] what I was up to, working on an album and being in another place, not being at home and being sort of disconnected. It helped navigate and guide everything.
Marfa is specifically an art town, and I know you have roots in the art world. How did that town, and your experiences in Marfa, impact the record?
It was a huge impact because we were there to work on a piece called Kite Symphony, my partner [artist Kristi Sword] and I. We were commissioned by [the arts space] Ballroom Marfa, so we were already there with the mindset of working on this collaborative thing. That was really a fruitful moment because we were with each other the whole time, and we could only be with each other the whole time because of the pandemic. But also it was the first time we were collaborating on something from the ground up, and that's rare.
Marfa itself is exciting because it's in the middle of the desert, and it's this alien landscape that I had never really been exposed to. It's kind of violent, it's scary. If you're driving just an hour outside of town, you're in the middle of nowhere. I could see how it is really inspiring for a lot of visual artists specifically, because it is so expansive and there's so much room for your mind and imagination to fill in those spaces, as opposed to being in the city.
In Brooklyn, every nook and cranny is kind of filled in. Anywhere you walk, the sidewalk is filled with something, or there's something on the side of the street, or there's a building filled with people. There's so much interaction with so much nuance in larger cities that's like the antithesis of a place like the desert. They're both full of this beautiful energy, just in a completely different way.
Something that I am particularly interested in is your relation to the art world, both through your academic background as well as your work within it. How does that impact your music?
Each time, I'm just trying to make something that's its own world. It's not that I'm trying to hyper-conceptualize something where it needs to have this deep concept to exist, you know? But I think in terms of how I make things, I don't have a very traditional music background or, in a sense, a musical vocabulary. I don't really read or write music, but I think the vocabulary that I do have is from a visual arts education. The way I talk about and think about sound and music is to think about things being shapes and colors and textures, and things being bright and soft and delicate. That's, as much as it is musical, kind of like a language.
And do you feel more at home when you're making sonic soundscapes rather than traditional songwriting? Or is it sort of like a balance?
I think it's all the same. Songs are sound art, words are just sound. I don't think there's any separation, honestly.
The record sounds less folk-y than your past records. Was there any change in instrumentation that you were going for?
What I did intentionally was I tried to emphasize the drums and the bass as a protagonist as [much as] my voice has been in the past. In the last record, my voice was the thing that was up front and kind of solo — it was its own world. The drums in the last record, and other aspects of rhythm, were really out of focus. They were kind of more like a hazy feeling. This record, I think the grooves are heavier and they're just more prominent.
I'm really bad with genre tags. So I don't really feel like much has changed, other than the things that I've tried to put [it] into perspective. The last record is very synthesized and very heavy with ambience. There's a lot of acoustic guitar that's in there, but it doesn't really feel like a folk record, you know?
Were you listening to anything specific when creating this album?
I was listening to a lot! I should text you my playlist, actually, I made a playlist just for this question. [At this point, Lange sends a Spotify playlist entitled "FAR IN ~ Music," populated with songs by the likes of everyone from Jerry Paper to Prince to Priscilla Ermel.] One of the records that I really like on there is a María Márquez record called Echoes. She's a Venezuelan artist, and she made it in collaboration with Frank Harris.
What I like about it is the sounds are all of these intersecting sounds from the '80s — digital pianos and synthesizers and drum machines. It's all these familiar sounds you would hear from pop songs of that era, but they assembled it in a way that's just so unique and in its own world. And some of those sounds are kind of associated with things that are kind of like, I don't know what a good word for it is, but stuff that's uncool. I like it because they're not being ironic. They were being creative and using the things that they had with them. It's not one of these really well known records. I like people who always try to find things that are better at their disposal.
You have sort of a cosmic, psychedelic quality to your music, and songs like "Mirror Talk" on the record feel incredibly spectral. Do you draw on anything in the spiritual realm when you create?
I think this whole record is very spiritual. And I think the biggest connection I had spiritually on this record was when we were in Marfa, just having connections with the planet and being in these spaces. I had a new connection and new bond with nature in itself. There was the lockdown, [and] just knowing that all we have is this outside space and it's so fragile, I just appreciated it more. And in terms of "Mirror Talk," that was actually part of the group of songs that I recorded in 2018, the week that I was finishing up This Is How You Smile. So, it was very specific to a feeling of not wanting to make music like that last record and wanting to move into a different world with it. It's my favorite song [on the album.]
I know that your culture is present in all of your music. How specifically did you infuse your culture and your experiences into this record in particular?
When I was little, the first time I went to Ecuador was in 1988. I took a screenshot of my face from one of these home videos from that first trip in '88, and that's the cover of the album. That [trip] was a big moment for me, because it changed my perspective of the world. I didn't know what the world was like until I went there, and I was like, "Whoa, this is such a foreign place for me." It just reprogrammed my head completely. Just seeing the mountains, and the culture, and the people, and learning more about where my family came from. That really did a number on me.
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