Portuguese singer Rita Braga’s album Illegal Planet flows like a silk dress at a 1940s Hollywood nightclub where starlets are lit up by flashbulbs and deals are done in dark corners. Martinis are desert dry and everything has a lounge vibe with smoke from cigarettes in elegant holders hanging in the neon glow. Despite the use of drum machine and synthesiser the tracks have a nostalgic feel and evoke the feeling of having stayed up all night club hopping between jazz dives and exotic cocktail bars in the Latin quarter. Rita has been kind enough to give Joyzine a track by track account of the album so it’s over the her.
I won’t make an attempt to explain where this Illegal Planet is located or why it’s considered illegal.
I’m a lover of old films – including Sci-Fi, Film Noir, Pre-Code Hollywood and some Eastern European cinema – and that influence is probably more present in my songwriting than specific artists and bands, as I borrow from many different styles. Though both the visual and musical influences are very much coming from the 20th century, I think this record is a really a product of the 2020s, occasionally addressing themes like global warming, smartphone apps and AI…
Illegal Planet is my 4th álbum; it was co-produced with Rodrigo Cardoso in the studios of Sonoscopia in Porto, and it features a number of local and international guest musicians.
01 Illegal Planet
When my collaborator Nik Phelps (who plays saxophone on several tracks) heard this one, referring to the lyrics, he said, ‘they’re going to call you a nihilist!’. I think maybe that could be a good defining genre for this song: nihilist outer space blues. As the opening track, it sets the mood for the album.
I enjoy playing with certain clichés, and I invited Henrique Fernandes to play double bass and Luís Bittencourt to play vibraphone, forming a jazz trio – I always wanted to have a vibraphone in my recordings, and voilà, here it is… The vocal was recorded at home – it’s ‘classy’ and nonchalant in a Peggy Lee sort of way, and it ended up being the definitive take, untouched from the demo.
Another amusing comment came from Portuguese singer Rui Reininho (who wrote the Portuguese liner notes), during a segment of the do-do-do solo part: ‘she drank one cocktail too many!’.
02 Spooky Mambo
Since my previous album Time Warp Blues (2020), I’ve been using vintage drum machines in a lot of my recordings. Here it’s a TR-77, Roland’s first drum machine from 1972, which you hear in many other tracks such as the previous one. They have a great warm analog sound and are non-programmable, though each preset comes with a lot of variations. The TR-77 has a whole Latin section. I love straightforward, ‘limited’ and uncomplicated things like that in my music creations (hence the ukulele, with me since the beginning…). When I was recording some of the demos, I included in their title the name of the rhythm written on the machine. Spooky Samba, which then became Spooky Mambo (its slow tempo didn’t resemble so much a samba anymore), was actually not intended to be the definite title. But Bittencourt, who contributed with the arrangement on this track (playing waterphone, e-bow guitars, roi roi), went off in that direction, giving the song an even eerier quality, as if the strange lyrics weren’t enough. The waterphone is almost like a sci-fi special sound effect, and I wasn’t familiar with the Brazilian instrument Roi Roi, which you hear on the solo. It reminded me of a sound I’ve heard in a 1960 novelty record called Panic: The Son of Shock (by The Creed Taylor Orchestra), in which jazz standards are played in an increasingly distorted way, used as soundtracks for ridiculous dialogues leading to a murder scene.
03 Astro Rumba
This track features sci-fi pop maverick Phil MFU, a London friend and collaborator (former member of Vanishing Twin- check out his new band, The Pigeons!). He recorded most of the synth solos (except the one in the beginning, that’s me on the pocket piano) and the drone sound which fades in towards the ending. Like the name suggests, I guess this song relates to astral travels, out-of-body experiences…
I remember having a hard time finding the right keyboard sound for this song and coming up with so many different versions already during the mixing stages. In the end, I borrowed influence from the French-Belgian synthpop band Antena and their classic single Camino del Sol for the chosen sound. I like so many bands from that period (late 1970s and early 80s), I guess that influence might be visible not only because I’m playing with a few synths and drum machines from that era.
04 Flores Indigestas
Another track featuring multi-instrumentalist Luís Bittencourt, who enhanced it very nicely. Besides the marimba, which I had asked for originally, he also played tamborim and cuíca with effects, infusing the song with extra layers of a Brazilian ‘tropicalia’ style.
The title translates to Undigestable Flowers and the lyrics in Portuguese are built as a free association of ideas, including a reference to Terra em Transe, a film by Glauber Rocha. In the end of the song, there is a car crash in which I break a tooth and I close my mouth, saying it’s a crazy thing to smile like that.
Noel Lawrence, a film director from LA currently based in Porto, directed the video for this one. His style is very colorful and psychedelic which fits really well with this track.
When we first spoke about collaborating, I asked to see some of his previous music videos and one example had Iggy Pop speaking inside a cave with shiny dinosaurs (the intro to Bootsy Collins’ World Wide Funk), so I knew everything would be possible.
In the making of Flores Indigestas, Noel incorporated AI for the first time, so he was learning and experimenting while working on the post-production. I offered some visual clues which AI took very literally – it’s like making a wish that comes true, though not exactly how you had expected it… (Joyzine – you can also see the video to this at the bottom of the post)
05 Rádio Pardal
The first of 4 tracks in which Nik Phelps plays saxophone. He’s such an amazing musician and he’s an old collaborator (he played on my debut album Cherries That Went To The Police from 2011, which included covers of 1920s jazz standards).
The lyrics in Portuguese tell a strange fairytale, in which a sparrow approaches with a mysterious message, unveiling a magic formula induced by a specific melody (which I sing like a solfeggio ‘re sol si re do’). When I ask the sparrow how he found me, he says it was through a smartphone app, but it sounds very shady as if there was a whole conspiracy plot behind it. I didn’t translate the entire lyrics to Nik but suggested he imitates the sound of birds singing with his instrument, and I was really excited with what he came up with.
06 Nothing Came From Nowhere
The first single to emerge from Illegal Planet. It draws inspiration from Julee Cruise, reflecting her ethereal vocal style. I think it differs from my other compositions, in the sense that the whole synth take was an improvisation. That resulted in a different type of structure, and there was plenty of room for a great sax solo by Nik Phelps, who also contributed with the bass line.
There is a tendency nowadays for everything to be moving fast, and the slow tempo of this song is pushing against it – in fact, I like the idea of something that stands outside time itself – something like the Greek concept ‘aion’ which relates to the idea of unmeasurable time.
I was very pleased also with the collaboration with Marija Reikalas, a visual artist and dear friend whom I invited to direct the video. She drew a storyboard with a lot of detailed ideas, built props, and there are some special effects that are ‘handmade’. One example is the scene where I walk through the mirror – an homage to Cocteau’s film Orpheus.
07 O Sorriso do Papagaio
The only instrumental track. I borrowed the title from a verse in Ian Dury’s song Reasons To Be Cheerful, Pt. 3 – ‘The Smile of a Parrot’’. It features Frankão, aka O Gringo Sou Eu, an old collaborator from Porto playing pandeiro. I enjoy the sound of acoustic percussions on top of these vintage drum machines, something that got my attention in Wall of Voodoo’s single Mexican Radio.
08 Ikea Snow
The Apocalyptic march in Illegal Planet. More time travel into the past and future, with the present looking too white and bland due to the prevalence of Ikea’s furniture and all the clowns that became businessmen. One hundred years into the future, the planet is on fire and unlivable, but it has warmer colors again, red and orange like the inside of a 1970s lava lamp… On this track, Gustavo Costa plays the snare drum, and Rodrigo Cardoso, the co-producer, recorded the bass. Nik played the saxophone. A full band of a circus that is falling apart!
09 Chien Mystérieux
I took influence from bands like OMD (their early records) for this one. And then Nik surprised me with his contribution on the sax, which reminded me a bit of The Pink Panther theme. An unexpected mix…
I usually sing in other languages than Portuguese and English and on this album(which has no cover versions) that happens only in the last verses of this song, written in French: mais c’est la vie délirante…
One of the only two tracks with no guest musicians. I think it turned out well, including the little solos with toy sounding instruments. The drum machine beat reminded me of a little trotting horse, which led to the title and the lyrics. I imagined two different singing voices intertwined, in the likes of Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra (Nancy would be the dreamier one, singing ‘I am a pony with long curly hair…’), but who could tell?
An open ending to Illegal Planet: both the music style and the stories it presents are impossible to classify. Here I returned to an old jazz vocal style (like in the opening track) and thank the listeners who stayed until the end, asking them to subscribe to my Youtube channel. Thank you also for reading this feature until the end. Who has time for anything?
Illegal Planet is released via Groovie Records in Lisbon.
Introduction by Paul F Cook