To any visual artist, a palette is a slab of wood from which to pick the colours to project onto an empty canvas. But to the Florida-born indie-pop singer-songwriter Helado Negro, words are the palette, and lively colours are the very canvas on which he tells a story. Helado Negro’s music, which lies at the intriguing crossroad between tender ambient pop demos and worn-out indie electronic 7-inches, drifts between low-key and upbeat but never cuts short on good nature. His latest record, Far In, draws English and Spanish references to vibrant hues like orange, purple, or far-out fluorescent brown and manages to stir black-and-white memories up into chirpy, colourful psych-pop.
The son of Ecuadorian immigrants, 41-year-old Roberto Carlos Lange debuted as Helado Negro in 2009 with Awe Owe, a fringe freak-folk LP released on Sufjan Steven’s Asthmatic Kitty imprint. Even though his subsequent albums and EPs steered towards synth-pop and build-ups of catchy chillwave choruses, the inclination towards low-key folk tracks would become a mainstay in Lange’s career.
For Far In, his seventh LP and his first for dream pop specialists 4AD, Lange once again brought in soft-hearted memories to conjure up captivating songs. Far In’s cover art is a close-up of Lange transformed into a composite image. Colours ooze from it as if Lange were viewing a picture of himself through a rainbow lens. Its songs are just as bright, but not as subtle as the last LP. “Gemini and Leo,” the record’s lead single, is a synth-driven psychedelic request to be carried to someone else’s galaxy. The drum-heavy track is dancefloor-ready, and above all, an “up-tempo song, especially compared to the previous record,” as Lange reckons.
Written partly in the sleepy art town Marfa, Texas and partly in New York City, Far In utilizes colours to state Lange’s identity. Other Helado Negro songs had already spelled out his character with eloquence — namely “Young, Latin and Proud,” a track off his 2016 LP Private Energy. But on Far In, Helado Negro replaces designations with colours, such as in the song “Brown Fluorescence.” “Brown is a colour I identify with,” he explains. “It’s something that I’ve had to learn to talk about in terms of growing up and understanding that I’m not a white person — I’m a Brown person.”
When Lange talks, he’s as gentle and heart-warming as his music. Now based in Asheville, North Carolina, where he lives with his partner, artist Kristi Sword, we caught up with him to discuss growing up in Florida, playing soccer barefoot, and embracing new expressions.
What does Far In mean? “Far in” from where or to what? What is it to you?
Far in — it comes from an expression that’s turned on its head. A few years ago, I was in an airport in Berlin and bumped into [new age musician and Brian Eno collaborator] Laraaji. I’m a big fan. I’d never met him, but I wanted to say hi. We then talked about what we were up to, and when I finished explaining what I was doing in Berlin, he told me that I was “far in” — as opposed to far out. How he turned a simple expression into something new — it stuck in my head. Sometimes, to deal with problems in life, we try to get out of our heads. So I started to meditate on the idea of going outside ourselves by going further in. It was especially interesting last year, with everyone having to be isolated.
The lead single “Gemini and Leo” seems like a new direction compared to your last record. Do you think it’s a danceable track, such as your remixes for Devendra Banhart or Sufjan Stevens?
I would say any song is danceable — whether you’re dancing slowly or you’re dancing fast! Historically speaking, I’ve always made a lot of music that is up-tempo. My music isn’t in only one world, and it’s a product of what I’m feeling. I think you project out into the world the things that you want to live in. When I finished This Is How You Smile, I knew that I didn’t want to make a record like that again. I’m not good at making things part of a brand or aesthetic or whatever people perceive. I’m awful at that.
From the name onwards, Helado Negro (“Black Ice Cream” in Spanish) is all about colours. One of the songs off this new record even refers to the colour orange. Is there synesthesia playing a part in this project?
It’s an excellent question. Colours are something that I love. It has to do with musical vocabulary. I don’t experience synesthesia. I use this vocabulary to build textures and themes I’m thinking about. When I communicate with people I work with, I use texture and colour and shape because I didn’t go to music school to learn notes — I don’t have the proper musical jargon. I describe things with colours and shapes. “I’d like it to be a little bit more round,” I’ll say. Maybe I’m behind a “bluer feeling,” or perhaps I want things to “explode with brightness.” It’s the way I talk about music and sound. I use colours a lot, but in Far In, that’s stronger than before. There’s even a song called “Purple Tones.”
How do you know when a song is going to be in Spanish or in English?
That’s hard to say. Sometimes I’ll sound things out with my voice, carrying the melodies and harmonies, and then sometimes, I hear different words. Like the song “La Naranja.” The first lyrics are “oigo cositas que me dijiste en el mar,” which translates to “I hear things that you told me when we were in the ocean.” I remember shaping that first melody with the word “oigo,” which, in a frantic way, it’s lovely. You can sing it with a melody — it has an attractive shape. [he sings “oigo cositas”] Most of the time, the theme develops, and words find themselves. I wish I knew more languages. I like the idea that languages are, ultimately, just sounds.
Seasons are different in South America than in North America. Is the song “Agosto” about August in Ecuador, in Florida, or North Carolina?
“Agosto” is in Florida, and it’s a return to the theme about the orange in “La Naranja.”
August is the orange blossom season in Florida, and, growing up, that meant the summer and the fruits around me. There wasn’t an environmental thing happening in terms of seasons in Florida: it’s not that there’s sudden cold weather, and trees don’t wither from one day to the other. Instead, trees bloom, and fruits come and go. It’s a poetic song. When we were little, we played soccer outside without any shoes, between rotten fruits on the grass. The song captures the essence of that memory.
This record sounds different because you used new instruments. How did the Rhodes electric piano work its way onto this record?
Last year, I was in Marfa, Texas for about seven months. We were stuck [with his partner Kristi Sword] there because of the lockdown. Since we couldn’t get back home to New York City, I worked in a studio there and they had a Rhodes electric piano. I started writing many songs on it, and it had a really warm, beautiful crystalline sound to it. It shimmers, and it can be magical. We ended up driving back from Texas to New York, a two-day drive, and we stopped in Savannah, Georgia, where I used to live. And there, a friend of mine ended up selling his Rhodes to me, an Arp Odyssey 2800. It was a coincidence. It wasn’t even intentional. And then I brought it home, and I wrote a lot more songs with it for Far In. It ended up being a long record!
By Stephan Boissonneault
With fresh folklore in abundance, the east coast songwriter’s sophomore offering is a classic tribute to his beloved province.