Indie

Helado Negro Stared Deep Into Nothingness And Saw Everything For ‘Far In’

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In March of 2020, Helado Negro’s Roberto Carlos-Lange and his wife Kristi Sword drove from Brooklyn to Marfa in West Texas for a two-week stay. Geographically isolated, but creatively charged, Marfa is a popular artistic retreat for those looking to get as far away from the incessant stimuli of life in the city. For Lange and Sword (a visual artist), they were in the high desert town to collaborate on a multimedia audio-sculptural project called Kite Symphony, with the contemporary arts museum Ballroom Marfa. But a week after they arrived, pandemic lockdown orders were being handed down nationwide and before they knew it, a day-by-day approach turned into six months of living in Marfa.

“It’s so isolated by design,” Lange says on a call from his home in Asheville, NC. “You’re just looking at this expanse of the Trans-Pecos, the Chihuahuan Desert, and it’s not that you see nothing, you just see so much.”

While he made music for Sword’s visual scores, he also took to the studio to work on new songs with no new album in sight and things just started clicking.

“You’re kind of enveloped by what you see; it’s the antithesis of the city,” Lange says. “You know, how there’s something stuck in between the crack of every sidewalk? There’s no gap that doesn’t get taken up in the city, everything is filled in There’s just more space to imagine what else could be here [in Marfa.] And as you zoom in and look at things closer, you see how detailed and how alive things are.”

But before Lange hit the road for that fateful trip, he was on the heels of an incredible year in 2019 that saw his sixth album as Helado Negro, This Is How You Smile on RVNG Intl., take his career to new heights. An album that gorgeously presented how universal the emotional wavelengths of his experiences as a Latinx American are for people of all shades, it was a fixture in year-end Best Of lists across the spectrum.

He toured the globe with reckless abandon and ever-present grace, and the trip to Marfa was part of much-needed rest and an unending desire to keep creating new music without any agenda. But while in Texas, he was approached by iconic indie label 4AD, who signed Helado Negro and just last week, put out his latest album, Far In.

While a half dozen of the album’s fifteen tracks were conceived or completed in Marfa — like the celestial “Gemini And Leo,” and the laid back and equally spacey “Agosto” (featuring Puerto Rican duo Buscabulla) — Lange says that he carved out “a distinct idea” for what would become his next album shortly after completing This Is How You Smile, while at the 2018 People Festival in Berlin held at the storied recording utopia, Funkhaus.

Organized by Bon Iver and The National, People Fest brought together 200 artists across Funkhaus’s 30 studios and eight stages in which to enact their creations live. The artists collaborated for a week straight, taking over the building while making music and then performing it. It sparked a vision in Lange.

“That process was really inspirational,” he says. “One of the songs that made it on the album from that time was “Mirror Talk,” the last song on the album. And that’s a very special one to me, because it outlined the aesthetic that I wanted to attract for this record. I had this small blueprint of what I wanted to do.”

“Mirror Talk” opens with an almost jazzy acoustic guitar; its strums are noticeably precise. Followed by a violin breathing stringed textures to the track as a galactic synth begins to orbit alongside a marked electric bassline. Lange sings “‘You’ve changed,’ that’s what they’ll say // Even though they don’t know where ya been.”

He stored that vision away and went off to tour Smile. But kept planting seeds along the way: Early sessions in 2019 at his Brooklyn Studio with singers Kacy Hill, Opal Hoyt, and Xenia Rubinos, that fateful trip to Marfa, and then getting back to Brooklyn in November where he didn’t stop working on putting the finishing touches on Far In until this past April. This past July, he and Sword moved to Asheville.

“For this record, I wanted everything to have an opportunity to have a present moment; to share its identity in the song,” he says. “The drum and the bass and the groove. You feel the drums move you, but you can hear the detail in all of the percussion and bass sounds. I wanted you to feel all these rhythms and sounds.”

The result is a deep reflection of the journey Lange made. How the spirit of collaboration sparked him, how the seemingly infinite earth and evening sky of Marfa took his mind to new worlds and how it all came together in the end in Brooklyn.

“Gemini And Leo” has a funky bass line from Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner, spacey synths that feel like dancing stars, and a hint of the steel drum effect characteristic of many past Helado Negro compositions. “Telescope” is a wavy, planetarium yacht rock joint with tipsy basslines and jazz fusion vocals from NY future-funk producer Benamin. The album’s most pristine moment is on “Hometown Dream,” with a driving drumbeat, hidden woodwind hums, and that electric bass groove that Lange wanted to feel everywhere. “Who could really know you now? Now that you’ve seen these dreams,” he sings.

“Outside The Outside” is an homage to the freestyle, disco, and club sounds Lange heard on late-night radio growing up in Miami. The nostalgic video for it was taken from VHS tapes of parties his parents would throw in their living room in the 80s. He transferred all of his family’s old VHS tapes to digital format this year and the album’s cover photo is actually a screenshot of Lange’s face as a boy, from a tape of when he traveled to Ecuador with his family.

That photo and those tapes speak to who he is and his identity as a Latinx American has always played a crucial role in his music. Songs from 2016’s Private Energy like “Young, Latin And Proud” and “It’s My Brown Skin” rallied young Latinx fans and creatives to further embrace that which makes them unique and beautiful. And his fluidly bilingual lyrics every step of the way, especially on Smile, have rendered Helado Negro nothing short of a crucial artist in Latinx indie music. But for Lange, it’s never been about being a specific type of person or being a voice for the Latinx movement. It’s been about who he is and the thoughts that swirl in his mind while he navigates the waters (and roads) of the world. And Far In, indeed feels like a documentation of the path he’s been on personally. Just like “Young, Latin and Proud” and “It’s My Brown Skin” were, too.

“Those songs are transmissions from an older me to a younger me traveling in the path and that’s what I’ve always tried to hope that people see with what I’m doing,” he says. “That it doesn’t fit into any category of Latinx music or Latinx culture in the optics of a commercial idea. But ultimately, it represents this idea of the multitudes of what’s possible and what does exist. What I hope always is that people know that they can be anything and that the best thing to do is to write for yourself. Because you’ll be the happiest and you’ll see how many more people identify with that.”

Far In is out now via 4AD. Stream/purchase it here.

Helado Negro - Far In
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