“I cried,” said Helado Negro about the process of working on his latest full-length release, This Is How You Smile. “It was hard… and I never want to make a record like that again. Not because it was hard, but because I felt the way that I needed to feel [to make] that record.”
An amalgamation of unhurried sounds and buried sentiments, the new album by Ecuadorian-American artist Roberto (“Not Ricardo”) Lange was brought to life after weeks of near isolation in two Brooklyn studios. Accentuated by lush, lo-fi textures, his art is deeply introspective, yet relatable; his music is selfishly and unapologetically for him, but also very much for us. Its title came to Lange during a 2018 reading of Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl” at the Museum of Modern Art, in which Kincaid painstakingly outlines each delicate step a young black woman must take to exist respectably in society. Lange told Rolling Stone that he loved how “a piece like that can be so interwoven with its own feeling. I felt that feeling and when I reached into some of the ideas behind it, I knew it was something I identified with and I think the music makes sense with it.”
In the follow-up to his 2016 LP, Private Energy, his sixth album — at least the sixth one he’s shared for public consumption — Lange presents us with what he deems his best work yet. Through a therapeutic 12-track journey, he turns the dial further inward and invites listeners to do the same. The surrealistic “Todo Lo Que Me Falta” urges a loved one to be present (“Stay — there’s light,” he sings in Spanish); while the steel-drum assisted “Imagining What to Do” emanates a winter-long yearning for something that can’t be yet, leaving a palpable tension in its wake. Meanwhile, the ruminative final song “My Name Is for My Friends” samples field recordings from an Abolish ICE march, as well as modulated vocals by Victoria Ruiz of punk group Downtown Boys — splintering the LP and leaving room for listeners to digest it. After setting fire to his typical processes and emotional comfort, Lange allows a newfound self to paint a tapestry with the ashes, frames it with familial memories and balmy melodies, and humbly lays out the remnants before us. What’s left of it all simply glows.
On the brink of 40, and with over a decade in the industry, Lange is an ever-evolving artist whose work eludes definition. We meet at one his favorite spots near Prospect Park to discuss the intricate nuances of his sound and lyrics, his grave decision to protect his own private energy as a creative and more. This is How You Smile is about how you smile to someone you like completely — and hopefully that someone is you.
When you create, do you have a specific audience in mind? Did you feel any pressure from yourself, or your label to make more banner Latinx canticles?
No, never. I’ve had people ask me, “What’s it like being a Latino musician post-Trump? Or, “What’s it like being brown in a post-Trump world?” I mean, we can’t understand what it’s like to not be that. That’s what we do, who we are, every day. I don’t share things I don’t feel sincere about. I seldom put something out in the world where I’m like, Damn that was not the move at all. That’s probably why I’m broke. (laughs)
Strategically, a lot of people would say “OK, you made this ‘Young, Latin and Proud’ song, you should work with that!” It’s a very common industry thing, but it’s not in my DNA. And whoever I work with, it’s people that I love. They don’t have to identify the way that I identify. That gets lost right now I think. The people I’ve always wanted to be around are the people that are 100% down.
So you clearly don’t want to limit yourself. What do you want to be known for as an artist? How would describe what you do?
I’m still searching for a really good way to describe it. I think it changes every day, every album or every new project and I feel like in a way you’re only as good as the last thing you made, or did, or shared I guess. As of right now, I think this is my favorite record I’ve ever made. I’m ok with being 39 minutes of someone’s life [and them saying], “That’s cool, I listened to that, I liked what he did, this is who he is.”
Sonically, it always feels like you’re serving the audience or have them in mind — with Private Energy we grooved, and with This Is How You Smile we relax and reflect — whereas lyrically, they always feel more personal. Almost like a ‘This is for me to know and you to figure out’ kind of thing. Is that accurate?
Definitely, yes. And I don’t really care if people find out. I’m not trying to hide anything, but I’m also not trying to advertise everything. Everybody wants to share so much, and [there’s] an extreme pressure on people who do creative work to be visibly doing something. All the people who do all the nuanced, crazy grind shit — if you were to snap a photo of it, it wouldn’t be that interesting. But that stuff ends up being some of the most important things you’re involved with, and the most gratifying.
I think part of the message of the record is: How do you make that stuff glow a lot more, and show that it’s super dope? And that there’s no need to document it all, or project it all into the world? It’s just important to do your job as a good person, and human. That shit gets boring and frustrating when you feel this constant, oppressive feeling. There’s so much we can focus on that doesn’t have to be so public.
This album feels more introspective than anything. Why did you choose to go that route? It doesn’t feel like something to belt out in a crowd, but is this for us?
It’s for me, mostly. And I think people identify with me because I am who I am, and I think that’s where it becomes a for us moment. It’s always a selfish moment when you’re making art because you’re really trying to find expressivity through the language you created. This is the only language I know how to speak well in a way, in that I know everything I want to say is there. It’s gotta be selfish in the moment that you make it, and selfless when you share it. It goes out into the world and people are gonna poke holes in it, turn it into whatever they want it to be, and I think that’s great too. I understand a lot about myself through other people’s eyes and other people’s thoughts.
In a way, this music is threatening — because music that’s soft or gentle is commodified in a way that’s supposed to be passive, but it’s really a slight. People [say] “Pais Nublado” is like “this bossanova thing,” and yeah… but it’s a slight to folks who try to hold people back. It’s a slight to folks who think they can corner people. It’s also a nod and a wink to me because I’ve been doing this for a long time and I see who comes and goes, and I know that people who take their time to listen and read will get it the most. It isn’t my job to make it this heavy-handed thing. “Young, Latin and Proud” wasn’t that way either, it was just the title. If you listen to the song it’s just this psychedelic trip out moment and there’s [an] ambiguity in that I enjoy.
What’s one word to describe the sentiment you want to leave people with after they listen to This Is How You Smile?
Joy. Joy’s a good word. Finding joy in nuance. I know it’s not the most obvious thing. It’s easy to relate qualities of sounds to qualities of words so there’s a relationship there. But, I think it’s an after-effect. Feeling joyful after you’ve gone through moments of catharsis or relief or being exhausted. I don’t know if you go to the gym, but you work out and your favorite part is the end. There’s joy at the end.
Helado Negro kicks off his U.S. tour this week. This Is How You Smile is out now.