Born in Cuba, but with parents hailing from Cape Verde, and now living and working in Paris, Mayra Andrade has a fascinating and broad heritage. She has been lavishly praised for her interpretation of traditional Cape Verdean morna music, but Lovely Difficult, her fourth album, branches out into more popular forms, including jazz-inflected, swinging folk song.
Her London shows earlier this year took place at legendary jazz venue Ronnie Scott’s, and there’s a lingering sense throughout this agile and delightful album that she has been absorbing the Great American Songbook as much as her own personal musical lineage, an impression that extends to her singing a handful of tracks in English.
The opening Tenpu Ki Bai sets the scene perfectly, effortlessly melding a variety of styles. With its gentle 6/8 lilt, it recalls doo wop, although its aching fiddle lines seem to come from somewhere else entirely. As ever, the most compelling element of all is Andrade’s deft, understated, intimate and conversational voice, one that feels as if it is addressing the listener directly as an individual. Andrade is a singer far from the tedious conventions of TV vocal ‘talent’ shows – there is no urgency or haste to exhibit her range or ‘power’, just a genuine skill for communication and storytelling.
The sprightly We Used To Call It Love is a bright, infectious, gently swinging tune with a touch of Americana about it. It’s not hard to imagine it being sung in a slightly different way by Jolie Holland or Josephine Foster. There are a handful of other excursions into more upbeat territory on Lovely Difficult. Rosa and Tera Lonji ride on insistent, kinetic grooves (the latter featuring a distinctly Stevie Wonder-esque clavinet part) and, if not exactly hurried, the excellent Les Mots D’Amour experiments with incorporating reggae influences.
In keeping with Andrade’s stated aim to make more of a ‘pop’ album, Lovely Difficult is her most sonically daring and varied work to date. Long term fans of her largely acoustic ensemble performances will still find much to admire, but there are also some inventive and imaginative flourishes here, many of them highly seductive. Simplement has mesmeric, foreboding cascades of distorted electric guitar (carefully balanced and never intrusive), whilst the superb Build It Up (written by Andrade’s fellow Paris resident Krystle Warren and perhaps the album’s best song) makes similarly thoughtful and imaginative use of a fuzzy, distorted bass line. Many of these songs are percussive, and they benefit from some tightly executed dynamic contrasts.
Yet for all the production values and embellished arrangements, it’s still Andrade’s voice that imbues this music with it gentle appeal. She sounds playful and joyful on Ilha De Santiago (which oddly bears some melodic and harmonic resemblance to The Beatles’ Hey Jude), whereas on the more minimal 96 Days (“It’s 96 Days since I thought of you…I have been eating well, you will be pleased to know”) she’s in a pleasing fog of self denial. Everything here feels light and unburdened, and as a result it’s a satisfying and memorable album. It’s certainly ‘lovely’, but it seems to be far from ‘difficult’.