Badi was raised in Rio de Janeiro in a musical family - her older brothers Sergio and Odair perform as a classical guitar duo. By the time she was a teenager, she had a following in her homeland and was on her way to musical mastery of keyboards and guitar.
Badi released her first album in 1989 when she was in her early 20s. Available only in Brazil, it was followed by two more local albums before she signed with Chesky Records and released Solo in 1994, gaining international acclaim.
Three more albums followed in the '90s, as Badi achieved some renown in the American jazz and acoustic guitar communities. She went transnational when she married former Megadeth bassist Jeff Young, who also became her musical partner and helped her record in English (they have since divorced).
A neurological condition called focal dystonia sidelined Badi for a few years, affecting her hand and forcing her to put down the guitar - something that ultimately proved propitious. She made a full recovery, returning in 2003 with her album Nowhere and also with the collaboration 3 Guitars, the other guitars being Larry Coryell and John Abercrombie.
Her latest album is Between Love and Luck, where she sings in both English and Portuguese (sometimes in the same song - Portuglish?). She remains a hidden gem, as promotion isn't her strong suit, although like most Gen-Xers, she's learning to navigate social media.
Badi is wired in a way that lets her express profound emotions through music. It's not easy to explain, but she let us in on her creative process and described how her illness taught her a new way to connect with the music.
Badi Assad: Well, I love to do both lyrics and melodies. But interesting enough, they practically never come together. So usually my lyrics come from some inspiration that can be anything. I just write down, write down, write down, and I usually keep these writings. And in another time when the music comes, I search for what I have written, and I kind of read and say, Hmmm, this fits to this melody, the note of that lyric. And then I start working from that point. And then new lyrics come.
Songfacts: It almost sounds like the way two songwriters would work. You'd have a lyricist and somebody writing the music, but in your case it's the same person.
Badi: It's like when I play the guitar and I sing. It's like two people doing the same thing, too, because the guitar's very intricate while the vocals are, too. So sometimes you can think that more than one person is performing. So I think that it's part of my personality.
Songfacts: Yes. Almost like there are multiple personalities, and I mean that in a good way.
Songfacts: Most people don't have these different channels going where you can sing, do some percussion, and play the guitar all at the same time. Is there a time that you realized that you had something special there?
Badi: I did. It was in the very beginning, because I started as a musician only playing guitar. I was not singing, and was doing guitar competitions, classical guitar. But, of course, very influenced by my brothers. At a certain point I said, "Oh, this is their practice, not mine. So what do I have here?" And I realized I also have a passion for singing.
In 1989 I recorded my first album in Brazil and a lot of musicians came as guests for that album. A few months after that I would perform and I was a solo artist. I realized that I needed those sounds, so I started imitating those sounds. That was the beginning of what became Badi Assad as I am known, because from that first show after the first album, I started to do these multiple things to recreate the album.
I started doing some percussion lessons to improve my rhythm, and one day I discovered that I really could play the guitar with one hand and a percussion with the other and still I could sing. So it's like a practice for a drummer that each arm is doing a different rhythm, but they're all connected. I created a score for me to practice where do this with my mouth and this with my arm - I was writing this big score for my body.
But with time that became more natural. So today I don't need to write anymore. It comes natural.
Songfacts: Talking about your lyrics, what language do you write in?
Badi: Portuguese. My native language.
Songfacts: What languages do you speak?
Badi: Good? I think none [Laughing]. Of course Portuguese, but I speak English, I do well in Spanish, and I can communicate in French.
Songfacts: And what languages do you write music in?
Badi: Mainly Portuguese. And English. I never wrote anything in other languages.
Songfacts: I guess I'm trying to figure out when you would decide to put some lyrics in English versus Portuguese.
Badi: I've been recording in the US since '95, and that first album that was called Solo, I only sang in Portuguese. And I did two independent albums after that, and my fourth album here in America was through I.E. Music that belonged to Polygram. I had to deliver nine songs, which was the first time I was committed to compose. Before that it was one here, one there, but I had to do that in order to have a deal. So, okay.
I wasn't very good writing, I was very immature in this avenue, so my partner by the time, he was American, Jeff Young, he was writing in English. So our compositions I started to sing in English. That became something very natural for me.
On all my CDs after this one, which was called Chameleon , I started to do covers of artists that I love, so I did cover of Björk ["Bachelorette"] and Tori Amos ["Black Dove"]. And that is how the English came.
So now for Between Love and Luck, I released this album in Brazil with all the songs in Portuguese, and I chose five songs that would work in English. Because I'm aware from many years performing in this country how the public appreciates when you sing in English. I chose these five songs and not the other ones because I know the other ones are more complicated to translate. So I thought five songs was a good number.
Songfacts: Talking about what your lyrical inspirations are, what the meanings of the songs are, are there certain themes that tend to run through your songs?
Badi: I write more in a confessional way. So it's like moments of my life that I'm going through some kind of inspiration, good or bad. It's part of my process, it's like a therapy to write.
I enter into this momentum in the inspirational zone, the motif. As I am there, I start writing about anything. Doesn't mean only about that issue, you know. There is a lot of love content and nature. Spiritual growth.
Songfacts: Give me some examples from some of your songs.
Badi: Let's talk about Between Love and Luck. Like the song called "Catch." It started with the idea of a woman, she wants this guy's love. But I started writing and I started to combine these images of very hot images, but very disguised. You have to think a little bit of what they mean. I really like to write in this way, not totally displaced, but you have to read under the lines to really know the meaning, and this song is practically that. But I came with some very nice ways of expressing this love scene.
There is another song, "Spicy Moments." It's about a couple and they love each other, but hate each other at the same time. Everybody knows some couple that is like that, but I take the song into an extreme. That happened to me. I was in a relationship with love and hate. But when I write the song, I take to another step: it goes beyond my personal experience. The song is about those couples, they are together, but they're always dreaming of what would be if they are out there. But they are stuck, because they are invested emotionally in each other. They don't want to be together, but they cannot survive not being together.
One more: "Mulheres e Cunhatãs." I wrote part of the lyrics at a moment of my life when I had to be very strong, because I had a problem in my hand back in '98, and the doctors told me maybe I would never play guitar again. So I had to really discover myself, to reinvent myself, and I wrote a lot about that and it became a lot of lyrics. "Mulheres e Cunhatãs" came from that period where I had to discover the strength in me to survive the experience. So it's about the power of woman.
And I write about the women that are very important in my life, what they taught me about being a woman. Mainly my mom, because she is my first model, and a lot of what she taught me is written in there, too.
Songfacts: What does that title translate to in English?
Badi: "Mulheres" is "Women," and "Cunhatãs" is a word from our native Indians for "kids."
Songfacts: That sounds absolutely devastating to lose your artistic ability. Tell me about going through that experience and how you came out of it.
Badi: Yeah, it was a very intense experience, but I was lucky enough to see it from the beginning as an opportunity. I didn't put myself in a victim position, and I'm sure that made the whole difference. Because if you feel yourself a victim, "Why this happened to me, why me, why me?", you are stuck. You don't have anywhere to go, because "Why?", we don't have that answer. Why you and why not the other person.
I had this perception from the beginning, so I put myself in a position that I should reinvent myself, not only as an artist, but as my whole being. So doing that process, I really found out what music was for me, what the guitar was for me, and I realized that the guitar was only a part of myself.
That is also the reason why my voice became so strong; not only because the guitar was not there, but because I discovered that through my voice, I had a voice. Because before, if the guitar was not there, I was naked. So the guitar was not there anymore, but I wasn't naked. The music was in me, not in this particular instrument.
That was the journey. I spent two years not performing and not playing the guitar because I was incapable, but I did everything that you could imagine beside my spiritual journey. And one day the gift was given to me; I started playing the guitar again.
Songfacts: Was it very sudden, all of a sudden one day you could start playing?
Badi: Kind of. It's like when you see a tree now that's beautiful and big, it started as a small seed. The tree didn't become that big without a process. So when I got out of the problem, the tree was already big, and then broke the surface.
Songfacts: How physically demanding is your work?
Badi: Well, when I'm on stage, it depends on the repertoire I am doing. When I am with the band, it's a lot of energy, I can tell you that. I dance on stage, and that takes a lot of emotional baggage. You have to be strong - I know that I'm going to leave everything I have there and through the last drop. But I've learned how to give everything I have, not losing anything. It's something that going on stage so many times can teach you, because the magic that happens on the stage only happens on the stage, nowhere else.
You cannot practice that if you are not on a stage with the public there, but physically it doesn't demand that much. Only when I am with the band, because this new concept I am doing in Brazil, the director makes me go here and there all the time on the stage. So I better keep going to the gym to keep my lungs strong enough. [Laughing]
Songfacts: So you're choreographed onstage?
Badi: Yeah. Not the choreograph with the dance, because my dance moves are all my own and I'm free for that. But I read poems, I have positions where I have to follow to make sense.
Songfacts: What are some of your favorite songs that you've written?
Badi: Hmm. That's hard. It's the same question: which kid do you like most? It comes from the same source, comes from the same inspiration. So I wouldn't be able to answer.
Songfacts: All right. Let me phrase it this way: which of your songs have connected most with your audience?
Badi: Ah. Well, when I perform live, what connects more with the public are the songs that allow me to fully experiment with my emotions. And one of those is "Spicy Moments," because when I sing that I am possessed. It's one of those songs that takes me away from who I am. I love to perform when the song has the potential to take me somewhere else.
"Mulheres e Cunhatãs" does, too. Even if you don't know what the song is about, the energy is there and you get it.
"To Reach My Heart" is another song that connects a lot with the public.
Songfacts: What did you write that song about?
Badi: "To Reach My Heart," this image, these little secrets, if you want to know how to go beyond my heart. They are images for a love song.
Songfacts: Those are some very romantic concepts. There are certain benefits to being from a different culture where the words translate so romantically into English.
Badi: Well, yeah. Like planting your love bit by bit in the land of my heart. It is romantic. In the little lands of my heart.
Songfacts: There's one song called "Ultraleve," and you switch between English and Portuguese in that one. Can you talk a little bit about writing that song?
Badi: Yeah. [Laughing] It was just impossible to translate the chorus, so I just left it in Portuguese. I love this song, it's very danceable, and I have a lot of fun performing it. "Ultraleve" is ultra lite. Like a paraglide. So I use this object that flies to make a connection with love. It's another love song.
See, it's all about images. It's very poetic to describe it. Like, for this song I have these kind of images connected. The song "To Reach My Heart" is a love song, but I imagine the person going inside of me to reach my heart - through the eye and through the voice to achieve the heart. And when you go out there, when you fly, you are free to reach that heart. The only person that will make you happy, is me. And our trip is priceless. So let's have a journey together and fly.
Songfacts: Have these melodies and these inspirations always come to you, or do they sometimes stop?
Badi: It's funny, if you put a lyric in front of me, I can compose anything at any time. It's very strange how it works. To write lyrics, I really have to be motivated to put them out. But with the melodies, I grab the guitar and it comes.
I've also been practicing a lot, even if I don't record everything that comes to my mind. I have a little daughter and I sing for her every day, so I always have these new melodies coming. So it's always sharp, the ability for the melodies to come, because I'm always practicing. And when I feel, "This is good," I leave her in the bed, go to the cell phone, record it fast, and go back.
Songfacts: It's very fortunate that these melodies stay with you. I've talked to many songwriters who say there are times when the inspiration just goes away, that they cannot write.
Badi: Well, in this sense it's a new phase of my life. If you asked me that in the past, I'd probably have the same answer. But for the past five years I've been in a lucky place creatively. I have to thank my daughter for that. She brought me that inspiration. It's a very amazing place to see this human being growing, and there's so much creativity in this little piece of person that keeps me fired.
Songfacts: The last thing I have for you, Badi, is about your audience and your fan base. Can you tell me where you are the most popular and how your audiences differ around the world?
Badi: I'm most popular in Brazil; I'm starting to be more recognized there now. Brazil's a very interesting place. But before, before my daughter was born I was touring a lot in Europe, and I stopped it almost completely when she came because I wanted take the time to enjoy it.
In Europe I would say the country that most digs what I do is Germany. Very interesting. And of course I always went to France and Holland. But the main foundation in Europe, if I have to choose one country, if I had to pick, would be Germany.
In America I'm not so well known outside of the guitar world. My brothers are there and they're very well known in this world, so they helped me in that sense.
But with this album I am reconnecting with my public here. I didn't perform in the US for two years, and I didn't release an album like I'm doing now for a long time. I am adapting myself into how to be a musician nowadays. It's not enough to play an instrument and sing, you've got to be doing things beyond that, and I'm still learning how to be part of it.
But I'm very proud that I am being able to reinvent myself in that scene, too. It's crazy nowadays - if you don't engage with your public in a more personal level, it's like you don't exist.
Songfacts: Yes. I know all about that. Do you live in America?
Badi: I live in Brazil. I'm starting to come back here [America] now, so I came, and it's been two months. I'll be back in July for the tour, and we are planning to come back in September. I hope I can keep coming often, because I love this country. My career started here, because my three first albums were recorded in New York, and mainly I was working in the beginning in the US.
June 25, 2013.
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