“I was never a teenager,” Ed Motta explains via Skype from Rio de Janeiro at the ripe old age of forty-two. “I was born fifty years old,” Ed adds with a laugh that comes easy, involuntarily highlighting his vocal range with a few baritone bursts. This alleged time-space anomaly explains Ed’s predilection for sweater vests, vinyl, and fine wines, all of which he’s been hoarding long before they became en vogue. Ed’s eleventh studio album finds the Dr. Who of Brazilian music embracing his guilty pleasure, his inner truth, his latest, yet oldest musical love: AOR. The acronym means alternately “Album-Oriented Rock” or “Adult-Oriented Rock” and is a style typified by pop-rock acts with strong soul and jazz influences generally from the late ’70s and early ’80s. “This is the music I grew up listening to: Christopher Cross, Steely Dan, Doobie Brothers, Alessi Brothers, all these things. But in the last five years, I’ve become obsessed with AOR, and I started to write many, many, many songs.”
Ed’s career is one of peaks and valleys where the peaks represent his albums chock full of Brazilian radio hits (or songs that should have been): Ed Motta e Conexão Japeri (1988), Manual Prático Para Festas Bailes e Afins, Vol. 1 (1997), As Segundas Intenções (2000), and Poptical (2003), while the valleys represent his more artistic and esoteric releases: Entre e Ouça (1992), Dwitza (2002), and Aystelum (2005). Upon first listen, his new album, AOR, sounds more like the latter, but AOR differs in that, unlike these other artistic releases, this album finds a comfortable balance between Ed’s esoteric ephemera and his proven pop prowess. AOR is built around all of Ed’s favorite ingredients: a large helping of soul, one part jazz, a dash of rock, meticulous lyrical garnishes provided by the finest songwriters in Brazil and beyond, and lots of vintage keyboards and production techniques.
Just like a broken clock is correct twice a day, Ed’s distinctly vintage aesthetic appears to be in style again. While trendy hip-hop producers and youngblood musicians scratch at the surface of this unfathomably deep well of classic analog pop sounds, Ed grew up on this music and has been mining it for his own recordings since the early ’90s, as comfortable and at home in the style as Jimmy Buffet on vacation. “There’s something like an AOR underground movement happening with many artists all over the world,” Ed says, sounding excited that he’s not the only musician pushing this adult-oriented musical agenda as he rattles off musicians in France, Finland, Japan, and New Zealand adopting the aesthetic. “Even Daft Punk called Paul Williams to be on their project,” Ed adds. “So, maybe it’s coming back a little, the idea of technical eloquence in music, nice musicians, nice solos.”
Naturally, AOR is packed with talent from Ed’s go-to guitarist, Tim Maia’s main axeman and Ed’s de facto bandleader, Paulinho Guitarra, to period-specific percussionist Laudir Oliveira (the Brazilian ringer in the legendary ’70s Chicago lineup), as well as guitarist “Bluey” Maunick from Incognito, and Ed’s dream come true, David T. Walker, who plays the most tasteful and soulful guitar parts on the album highlight, “Dondi.” “Just to have him on my album, I feel like I’ve made history,” Ed gushes. The album is “an ode to this culture, and I was very obsessive. This is the record that took the most of my time [in the studio]. It was Steely Dan–inspired in all meanings!” Ed says, referring to the Dan’s reputation for epically long studio sessions. “Each song took more than a week to mix, and [it took] almost one year recording nine tracks.”
It’s convenient to suggest that Ed’s career picked up where his uncle Tim Maia’s left off, but like Franklin Delano to Teddy, the similarities are more superficial than substantive. However, both deserve the heavyweight title for delivering top-notch Brazilian soul music and having passion for singing and recording songs (and at least one album each) in English. “Since my beginning in 1988 with my first album, in my mind all my songs were in English. I mean, I don’t speak perfect English; I understand so-so, but all my references, my standards that I listened to since I was young were mostly music with English lyrics. I might say that the lingua franca of my music is English.” With AOR, Ed tried something new, releasing two versions of the album, one in his native Portuguese and the other with English lyrics by Rob Gallagher with whom Ed collaborated on his previous all-English album, Chapter 9 (2008). Ed says Gallagher creates “very Donald Fagan, Tom Waits kind of situations in the way he writes.” When asked which version of the new album is the definitive, Ed doesn’t hesitate. “When I listen to tracks, I think it sounds better in English, not only the meaning, but the sound of English.”
Like many of the most adventurous Brazilian musicians, Ed appreciates whatever domestic attention he receives, but more often critical and commercial validation comes from overseas. First it was BBC radio DJ Gilles Peterson in the U.K. who gave Ed’s career a boost when he opted for the less-traveled musical road beginning with Dwitza. Ed’s always enjoyed a healthy but niche fan base in Japan, and with AOR, he achieved a career first in any country—topping Sapporo’s JOPV-FM North Wave Top 40 with “1978 (Leave the Radio On),” edging out mainstream stars like Robin Thicke, Katy Perry, and Justin Timberlake. Japan is the only civilization on earth that can go toe-to-toe with Ed in the record-nerd department. For example, the AOR experts there would likely classify Ed’s latest album in the subgenres of “mellow wave” or “city pop.” “I love the terminologies,” Ed says gleefully, “because this relates to my record-collecting side, to the nerd side of my personality of collecting, buying guides, books, et cetera.”