Badi Assad's Inspired Return

“I’m here, I’m good, I’m doing music, I’m alive,” laughed Badi Assad, as she stopped by the Guitar Player office at the end of last year to talk about an upcoming project with bluesman Roy Rogers.
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“I’m here, I’m good, I’m doing music, I’m alive,” laughed Badi Assad, as she stopped by the Guitar Player office at the end of last year to talk about an upcoming project with bluesman Roy Rogers. “I took a break, and now look at all this competition [laughs]. There are so many good musicians out there. And, you know, when you’re off, sometimes people forget about you.”

It’s hard to believe anyone could forget about Badi Assad, because the woman is a force of nature. Passionate, funny, loud, crazy, body always moving this way and that, and, at the core of all that energy, a supremely talented musician. Happily, the almost seven-year break between albums was not due to anything as tortuous as her 1998- 2001 struggles with focal dystonia. Then, she could barely play at all, and had to rethink certain aspects of her formidable technique before making a significant recovery. Her latest period out of the music-business limelight, however, was an interlude of pure joy—the birth and raising of her daughter Sofia.

And since Assad has been back in the game, she appears to be doing enough work for us all. She undertook her own management (except for in the United States, where she is represented by Gaynell Rogers), started her own record label (Quatro Ventos) and publishing company, released Between Love and Luck, scored the Chinese silent film The Goddess, cocurated the New York Guitar Festival, and recorded her first children’s album, Cantos de Casa. There are likely a few hundred other projects percolating as well, but you get the idea—when Assad commits to something, she works like a benevolent demon and takes no prisoners.

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You took a bit of a break between 2006’s Wonderland, and 2013’s Between Love and Luck.

Yes. I wanted to become a mom. Actually, my daughter Sofia was born in 2007, and I traveled a lot that year. When she was three months old, I started touring again—America and Australia. My husband was doing the sound engineering for me, and I was breastfeeding Sofia, so it was very easy for the three of us on the road. When I stopped breastfeeding, it became difficult to travel, so I put on the brakes for a while. Finding food for her was tough, and I was very conscious that she would never eat food out of a can. I cooked for her. And we moved three hours outside of Sao Paulo, Brazil, to a small town—the town where I was born. I wanted a countryside kind of vibe to be relaxed, and, there, the phones stopped ringing, so I started having the space to experiment creatively with this amazing and inspirational state of mind that her birth took me to. I would go into a routine: Take care of her in the morning, put her down to sleep in the afternoon, and go to the home studio and compose. I did that for two years.

Were you putting a structure on your compositions, or just letting the moment inspire you—like automatic writing almost?

I was putting it out—putting it out. When you open that window, you get into that mode, and it was feeding me back. But I also had piles of things I had been writing throughout my life and keeping in the drawer. I didn’t have many lyrics, but I started digging out all of these melodies. So although the songs for Between Love and Luck came from this period, I found that the lyrics—when I wrote them—belonged to other moments of my life. I’d listen to the music I had written, and I’d say, “This lyric fits the vibe of the rhythm or the melody I’m starting with.” Perhaps the Brazilian name for the album translates it better—Love and Other Chronic Manias [laughs].

I kind of like that title. Were there any challenges to recording again after the break, or did everything flow nicely as if you had never stopped?

My technique was all there. My creativity was still very active. But one thing that changed for me was what I consider this little gift. You see, when you have a child, you relearn how to embrace simplicity. That little smile, that little look, that little step—everything reminds you of these simple joys. I realized that two or three chords is fine—a song doesn’t need 400! It sounds silly, but I took this to be very deep, because I found that simplicity took me to another level again. The first change was with my focal dystonia in 1998, because I couldn’t do anything difficult. And then I changed again with Sofia. Something changed inside. I’m light through the heart. I don’t feel that I need to sit down and study technique for hours. It’s very interesting. I just play, you know. Even my shows changed. They’re not planned out as much. I can’t even tell you what I’m going to play tonight. I arrive at the venue, feel the vibe of the place where I am, and only then can I make a set list—right before I step onstage to perform. Sometimes, artists worry too much about things.

Still, a lot of things happened in the industry between Sofia’s birth and now.

Oh, yes. I was so busy with my life and the blessing of it, that I didn’t see the music business had become this totally different world. I completely missed the transition. I started looking for new partnerships, but all the people I knew were busy, and I couldn’t trust someone new. So I said, “ I’m going to do this by myself.” I began taking self-management lessons from Gilli Moon—a singer/songwriter and entrepreneur who lives in Los Angeles. Once a month, I would Skype with her until I started learning everything. I found my way through the new world. I started my own label and publishing company. I hired everybody. I am a boss manager for myself [laughs]. It’s interesting to feel how much control you can have in your own career. When I had the CD done, labels presented me with offers, but I said, “What? I’m not giving my precious thing to you—no! I can do it on my own.” It takes a lot of work, but I’m having fun.

What guitars have you been playing lately?

I have a custom steel-string that’s very easy for me to play, and my Paul Fischer nylon-string. I love that guitar. For the road, I’ll often use a Takamine. But I’ve had surgery in both wrists due to the focal dystonia, and a herniated disc in my back, and something in my shoulder, so I can no longer take the weight of the instrument for very long—hence my Frame Works “angel wings” guitar. It’s also very easy to travel with—it fits in every airplane. I don’t have to check it. It has a good sound, too. I am now in the ukulele world as well. Luna Guitars gave me one, and for my children’s project, I said, “Whoa, that takes you to that world.” The timbre is so sunny. So I started writing on it for Cantos de Casa, and I found such love. The ukulele is a lovely little instrument.

How many songs for Cantos de Casa did you compose on ukulele?

Out of 12 songs, five were written on ukulele.

It’s an interesting concept for a children’s record—to make songs for every room and moment of the day.

I did set up a day in a child’s life. I tried to make them smart, though—not silly. There’s a song for waking up, and songs for the kitchen and the living room. And the percussion instruments and other sounds are related to the rooms. For the kitchen, it’s pans and glasses and a stove. For the bedroom, it’s toy instruments—a little funky piano and so on. I actually play some of the songs when I do concerts for adults, and people love them. Ultimately, I’d like to play a concert during the day for the children, and at night for the adults—all in the same theater. It would be a double bill with the same musicians. I hope I can handle it. I’ll need to make sure I eat well and get the right amount of sleep!

Sofia makes an appearance on the record, singing about her favorite snacks on “Café da Manha.” What was that like?

Oh, she was already the boss of this project [laughs]. For example, I played one of the lyrics for her, and she said, “Mommy, you shouldn’t be saying that. It’s not politically correct.” You know, I’d take her to the studio, and I’d ask her if she wanted to be a part of the record, and one day she’d say “yes,” and the next day she’d say “no.” Finally, some of the kids were singing, and I said, “Listen to them. I don’t want you feeling left out after we’re done.” So she started singing, and going for a journey with the microphone. I said, “Sofia! Concentrate!” It was a very fun process. I’m really excited about this children’s project. Man, I tell you—I know how to handle kids!