Arto Lindsay: Outside, breaking in

A fixture of the New York underground, Arto Lindsay wants to take his Brazilian beats to the masses, he tells Jane Cornwell
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Arto Lindsay hunches over his baby-blue electric guitar, convulsing with each arrythymic noise squall. Only moments before, the Brazil-bred New Yorker had been singing, seductively, in English and then Portuguese, over a bossa beat. His band - the bassist Melvin Gibbs, keyboardist/sax player Micah Gough, a solitary laptop - keep things tender; Lindsay, meanwhile, flails about in tortoiseshell glasses, jeans and baseball boots, geeky, anarchic, inspired.

As his cult following would insist, 51-year-old Lindsay is many things. Singer, songwriter, composer. Producer, curator, artist. Purveyor of hip. Icon of cool. His bilingual lyrics are opaque, carefully placed. His tunes are brief, hummable, sexy. Not quite jazz, rock, pop or even electronica, Lindsay's music is, arguably, the sound of the global village.

Fittingly, his sixth and latest solo album, Salt, was recorded both in his New York apartment and at his home in Salvador, Brazil. It was inspired by Salvador's carnival, he says, "not that it sounds anything like it," he adds, enigmatically.

Lindsay was three when his parents moved to Brazil to carry out missionary work as teachers. He was duly influenced by the country's eclectic Tropicalismo movement (led by Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso), and left for New York, aged 18, to carve his own expressionist niche. After studying theatre and literature, he played with punk and no-wave outfits such as DNA, The Lounge Lizards and The Golden Palominos, collaborated with cutting-edge thesps The Wooster Group and became a fixture of Manhattan's underground scene. He formed his own group, The Ambitious Lovers, with the keyboardist Peter Scherer, throwing funk, R&B and bossa nova into the mix. "We could have been famous," muses Lindsay in his laid-back drawl. "But when the time came to tour America I was more curious about other places."

Lindsay made frequent visits to Brazil, producing - as he continues to produce - recordings by big name artists including Carlinhos Brown, Marisa Monte and Veloso. In the 1990s, he embarked on a series of solo albums that embraced his Brazilian roots, helped out by techno-friendly collaborators such as Laurie Anderson, Brian Eno and Ryuichi Sakamoto. His releases on Righteous Babe - Prize, Invoke, Salt - have broadened his oeuvre, but his methods are still about contrast. "I like to play things off against each other. Light and dark. Sound and silence. Brazilian and American."

Though ostensibly singing of love, sex and relationships ("She covers herself in honey/ Stretches but won't succumb," he intones on "Habite Em Mim"), Lindsay feels his politics are implicit in the collaborative way he makes music. "I think it's useless preaching to the converted. I take a Brechtian line: either you think that way or you don't. Instead, I consider the value I assign to each part of a song, the kind of roles I assign to the people I work with, as political acts."

Shortly, Lindsay will be back in Brazil for the birth of his first child with his theatre-actress partner, Paula, and, he hopes, working as musical director on a mooted biopic of the legendary samba songwriter Noel Rosa. He never set out to be an outsider, he says. "I just didn't want to be put into a box. I was always uncomfortable with the manipulative aspect of being a rock star." Still, he'd like to be bigger. To this end, Salt is his most commercial album yet.

"Touching people is different from trying to get them to follow you." He eyes the autograph seekers gathering outside. "That was a great gig, wasn't it?" he adds brightly. "I love it when I have to work hard."

'Salt' is out now on Righteous Babe