By Tola Ositelu
It’s been nearly six years since singer/songwriter Clarisse Albrecht – aka the Mulata Universal – first came to my attention. Her sobriquet could not be more apt. Born to a French father and Cameroonian mother, Clarisse had a peripatetic childhood. The family lived in various Lusophone African countries before eventually relocating to France. Her Teutonic surname hails from the Alsace region in the north-east of the country, which shares a border with Germany. As well as her native French, and smatterings of her mother’s indigenous tongue Yebokolo, Albrecht speaks (and sings in) Portuguese, English and Spanish. She has a strong musical and linguistic affinity with Brazil but is now based in the Dominican Republic. In short, Clarisse is cultural diversity personified.
All images: Ivan Herrera
Back in 2010 when we first met in cyberspace, she was promoting her debut single ‘Voce Me Da’. Much has changed since then. She has emigrated to the Dom Rep, had a baby girl, become involved in various projects and amidst all that released a full length album. A catch-up has been long overdue. I realise that we have never actually spoken before. All communication has been via email.
We schedule a Skype interview one cold February morning. At least it’s cold in this hemisphere.
On hearing the deep timbre of Clarisse’s internationalised English, I am a little taken aback. Albrecht’s smooth singing contralto translates into a pleasant rasp in speech. It’s interesting when a vocalist’s spoken voice sounds completely different. It’s as if they have two distinct personas; the singing version and ‘real life’.
Clarisse sees some merit in the theory.
‘I don’t feel like I’m a different person but it is a different aspect. And it’s different when I sing my songs and when I sing other people’s songs. It ignites other aspects.’
Although music has forever been a great passion, Clarisse was at first destined for another creative path. She studied film at the prestigious Sorbonne University in Paris. I ask if there was a defining moment when she realised that it was music that would be her main calling.
‘I always loved music, I always wanted to sing. I always had a very close relationship with writing. When I was younger if you were to ask me what the best invention humankind has created was, I would say writing. I love notebooks and I wrote and read a lot. I was the kind of kid always reading something. Anything that had words; my mother’s magazines, books, comics… This with the music made me really want to become a singer. That was my dream.’
Clarisse recalls seeing Sade for the first time on television aged eight. Her allure made an impression on young Albrecht; enough to reinforce her desire to perform.
‘I don’t know, maybe because it was a mainstream TV programme and maybe there were not so many black or mixed women [on television]. She’s very beautiful and her songs are very, very soothing.’
Clarisse came from a family who were ‘music fans’.
‘My father loves classical music, my mother loves to party. She sings a lot; even if she sings badly she doesn’t care. We dance a lot. We are really like the typical Afropean family. Cleaning with music on. Making music videos, singing in the car… I had my older brother and my older sister’s musical influence as well as my own. We’re not a family of musicians but we’re a musical family.’
Whilst living in the Mozambican capital Maputo, Clarisse’s parents introduced her to the piano aged seven. Along the way, she lost the love and gave up playing.
‘My father told me that I would regret it. I don’t; not that much. I have the ear and I can play something with one hand. I have a guitar at home and I barely look at it. I can tell it’s not really my thing to play an instrument; it’s writing. I’m worrying about the feelings and the words.’
Clarisse’s love of composition explains why singing with a covers band in her younger days just wasn’t the right fit.
‘I didn’t like it. It was making no sense to me just to sing. For example, if you ask me who I like more – Whitney or Mariah – I will always say Mariah because she’s a songwriter. I love Whitney but I was really like “No I need to write”.’
And write she will. Being a polyglot affords Clarisse a rich linguistic palate from which to choose. Still, Portuguese – the language of Saudade (roughly translated as ‘longing’) – is her preference. It came about through much trial and error.
‘I was writing songs for a long time. I started with poetry in French and English and it was not that good.’ We laugh at this burst of harsh self-critique. ‘No really. I had nothing to say. It was too poetic and it was not flowing. I really had a hard time. I didn’t like my songs.’
The move towards writing primarily in Portuguese is also closely connected to how Clarisse picked up the ‘Mulata Universal’ epithet. The story itself sounds like a scene from an exotic arthouse movie. A former-model in her early 20s, sitting on a beach in Rio, drinking Caipinrinha all night long. During that fateful evening she befriends a youthful-looking sexagenarian poet who writes a piece in which he first ‘baptises’ Clarisse (to borrow her phrase) with the affectionate moniker. By the time she returned to France, her outlook had changed.
‘It felt like “yeah this is it”. This is really who I am. I don’t know how he could figure this out. I came back to Paris saying to my friend “Look, this man wrote this poem and that’s just me and I think I’m going to write in Portuguese and I don’t care. With my German name and my French passport and my Cameroonian roots, I’m going to sing in Portuguese”.’
The Mulata Universal ethos brought together diverse elements that Clarisse had previously not been quite able to reconcile.
‘I was not really finding my way as a French urban girl in Paris. I was the black girl who likes Hip-Hop but she goes to Electronic parties. [People were] like “Who’s that girl?! She’s from the suburbs, she’s supposed to be a thug, doing Hip-Hop or soul music but she goes to the Queen [a Parisian gay nightclub] every Wednesday.” They were having the best Electronic parties.’
Clarisse was – and still is – a big fan of the UK Garage scene. (She claims that if she were dying, all she’d need to resuscitate her would be the Stanton Warriors’ remix of Zak Tom’s ‘Bring Me Down’). Whilst studying at the Sorbonne she and her like-minded, globe-trotting friends would hop across the channel to rave.
‘God bless the Eurostar night trips! That was great. When I was at University that was the thing we used to do. “What are we doing tonight? We’re going to Leicester Square”. We used to party in London and fall asleep in Waterloo station waiting for the Eurostar’. Clarisse laughs warmly at the memory.
With such an international perspective it’s no wonder that this is reflected in her multi-lingual output.
In an interview with a French magazine, Clarisse claimed that singing in Portuguese allowed her to express deep emotion whilst not feeling as exposed as she would do if singing in French.
‘I don’t know; maybe because I’m shy’.
You wouldn’t have guessed it.
‘It’s a weird feeling because I want to be heard. I’ve always been introverted. I’m a very talkative person but in the end you don’t know much about my feelings and who I am. So I was like “I want to, need to write but if it’s in French everyone’s going to understand it.” But if it’s in Portuguese people just go with the feeling. They even sometimes get it wrong, which doesn’t really matter,’ She laughs. ‘There are songs that make me want to have a Caipinrinha on the beach [but] actually it’s a very sad song’. I concur. Many a Brazilian carnival song has heart-breaking lyrics (Ivan Lins’ ‘Abre Alas’ for instance) and happy songs, sound sad .
Clarisse appreciates the incongruity.
‘That’s the magic of music. You’re seeing something sad [as] something positive. I really, really like that. Actually people don’t listen to lyrics anyway.’
Not quite, I insist. There are a few of us who do try and pay attention to what is being said. Clarisse concedes, remembering a recent interaction with a fan.
‘I’m very moved when somebody says about my lyrics “I really connect or relate to that” or “what do you mean?” There was a blogger who asked for the translation of a song. He actually wrote a lot about it and I was very moved.’
Albrecht’s album ‘Mulata Universal’ reflects that complicated mix of exuberance and Saudade that the chanteuse emanates. It finds expression through various Brazilian rhythms and an overall sound that would sit comfortably on any chill-out/smooth lounge playlist. The biggest concession to Clarisse’ club background is first single ‘Voce Me Da’; a jubilant Latin House blend which picked up the 2011 Museke Online Music Award (MOAMA). It stands somewhat apart from the rest of the album. It’s hardly surprising. It took five long years for ‘Mulata Universal’ to be fully realised. Clarisse explains the gap.
‘First of all I’m not even an indie artist; I’m a self-produced artist. I’m living in the Dom Rep and it’s complicated to manage a European career being based here. I work with my best friend LS, who is also the executive producer. It’s a matter of schedule and time. This opportunity comes and “Oh let’s see if we can have it…” and finally we can’t. By then we lose three, four months.
‘I was travelling to France to record or recording in DR and then sending it and checking everything through Skype… These are the ups and downs of artistic things.’
Not all the reasons for the album’s delay were negative. Four years ago Clarisse gave birth to her daughter with boyfriend director Ivan Herrera (http://www.imdb.com/name/nm2584134/bio), whom she met whilst on holiday in the Dom Rep. He was shooting a music video and asked Clarisse to make a cameo. The rest, as they say, is history. Whilst pregnant, Clarisse continued to perform locally in the Dominican Republic in between recording demos. The songwriting process for the album also evolved as Clarisse relocated from Europe to the Caribbean. She continued to write in Portuguese but noticed it had become more of a challenge.
‘Since I moved to DR I’ve had a hard time writing in Portuguese because I speak so much Spanish and it’s so close. The last track on the album ‘Além do Atlantico’ is about how my life has changed. My Brazilian dream is far from me now.’
Clarisse expounds on her writing process, or non-process, as she sees it.
‘It depends. For example when I met my boyfriend and I went back to France he once told me, “We’ll be together before December” and I thought “You know what? That’s cute. I’m going to write a song” she giggles. ‘It’s not really a process. I have a melody, I record it fast on my phone. At night, if the house is silent, I put on some songs of mine or other artists. I get in the mood and then I go into my writing frenzy.’
Clarisse is also step-mother to Ivan’s 15 year-old daughter. I ask if motherhood has had any direct impact on her artistry. Her website suggests that it has made her very conscious of her lyrical content.
‘I use my slang [read: profanity] and I…’ she sighs, ‘I still love Hip-Hop but I wanted the album to have nothing ugly; no nasty words, very smooth. It’s not really because I’m against bad words. It’s more like I don’t like negative things to be normalised.’
Clarisse cites ‘I’m In Love with the Coco’ by OT Genasis and its apparent glamorisation of drug use, as an example of irresponsible lyrics. Prior to the interview I was blissfully unaware of the song’s existence. Clarisse says it left her ‘outraged’. It’s a subject about which she’s evidently passionate. Does she think maybe 10 years ago, when she had fewer familial responsibilities, she might not have cared as much?
‘Mmm… I think I still would. It’s really not always about bad words; it’s about a bad message. This is not a joke. I’m like sorry, evil is not cool. It doesn’t mean I’m a saint but I don’t feel it’s cool. It’s all linked to my belief about the power of words. I can say “F**k!” but I’m not going to call you a name because I feel it gives bad energy. Swearing can allow you to speak your anger but I don’t think insults should become something normal.
‘You can talk bad about a woman if you want but a woman is a woman; that’s the name you should give. Now if you want to talk about a prostitute, yeah you can use the word ‘prostitute’ but you cannot use it for every woman. It’s not like “Oh my god she’s so prudish”. I swear a lot. I’m working on that as well, especially for my step-daughter. I feel I have to be careful. I don’t want her thinking it’s normal to talk like that or that it’s cool.’
Returning to other factors that might influence her creative process, I’m curious as to whether Clarisse’s background in film means she takes a more visual approach to songwriting.
‘For most of my songs I have great music videos in my head. I actually wanted to be a music video director’.
At this point in life Clarisse feels better able to fuse her twin passions; music and film. It’s somewhat poetic that her boyfriend is a director. The two are currently collaborating on a feature film ‘Agridulce’. In her younger days, the two art forms would occasionally overlap yet remained separate.
‘I always loved cinema. It was not something hidden or that I was ashamed of. It’s not that I was ashamed of music but it was like a secret. A lot of people only discovered I was singing through Myspace.
‘I really felt that filming and acting was something that would come to me [but] music was something that I was looking for. Finally I’m seeing [the two] fit well. It didn’t surprise any of my close friends when I said I’m writing a movie with Ivan. It was like “Oh you’re finally doing it!” So yeah maybe that’s my life. Music/Cinema/Music/Cinema; jumping between the two. Let’s see…’
Clarisse seems to have a general creative skittishness that has thus far served her pretty well. She has sung in a Gospel choir, with a Soul and Funk band and has a big place in her heart for Hip-Hop, House & Garage and Afrobeat. She counts Michael Jackson, Bob Marley and Marvin Gaye amongst hers inspirations. Is there one musical style with which she feels the closest connection? There’s a long pause and a sigh before Clarisse replies, seemingly reluctant to choose.
‘I think R&B is what I connect the most with but as I said there are different aspects… Brazilian [music] brings me a lot of Saudade; nostalgia that comes from what I would say was my lost childhood. I had to leave Mozambique and because it’s not my country, I never had the opportunity to go back. Portuguese links me to that. My most sensitive song on the album is ‘Maputo’. I had the hardest time performing it.
‘It really depends on the mood. I still love electronic music but I realised R&B is more versatile. If it’s R&B for the club, I dig it. If it’s R&B for the car and chilling I love it… I need variety’.
Is there a song that encapsulates the ‘Mulata Universal’ sentiment more than any other? ‘Voce Me Da’ perhaps?
‘I think it’s still that one’ Clarisse concurs, hardly missing a beat ‘There’s a lot there; Funk, Deep House, the Brazilian mood… The theme really deals with when people used to ask me “What’s your kind of man?” And I knew the question behind was “Are you into black, white, mixed men?” And I’m like “I’m into good men!” It’s more about the feeling. If you can love the way I love, if you feel pain the way I feel pain…that’s what I like. If you’re slim and tall it’s better!’
We both giggle girlishly. Yep. It helps if they’re tall.
She resumes: ‘But it really, really, really doesn’t have anything to do with the colour; my background says it. It’s about the mood, the feeling, the sensitivity, the way you see life. So ‘Voce Me Da’ is the song that represent the Mulata Universal thing and maybe ‘Deixa Rolar’; let go. Thinking doesn’t matter that much. It’s really a song about shyness but also freedom; to release your shyness and [inhibitions].’
(This sultry, mid-tempo bilingual number is also a firm album favourite of mine.)
I return to the subject of Sade, naturally. Any excuse. She’s an Afropean icon if there ever was one. Clarisse agrees. ‘I still look up to her for the way she manages herself…like a goddess. Unreachable. Not because she isn’t reachable but because she’s a songwriter and she’s a singer and that’s it; you don’t have to know more about her. I love her.’
Clarisse is candid about the effect hyper-exposed pop culture has had on her personally and the internal struggle that can ensue.
‘Nowadays it’s so hard. You have to share your personal life for your PR. Sometimes on my Instagram I put what I think are deep thoughts and they don’t get ‘likes’. But if I put a picture of my daughter or my boyfriend, I get so many likes; a selfie even more. I try to play the game but sometimes I don’t know, I feel like “Are people really more interested in that?”
Clarisse believes this is indicative of how women are routinely objectified in the media.
‘People like to show their sensuality or that you have to show your butt to prove that you feel good about yourself. I’m in my 30s; I don’t look the way I used to look but I feel good about myself. I don’t think that’s the reason I should show everything. If you want to do it, it’s fine but I feel that Sade allows me to believe there’s still another way to promote your music or spread a message. [Being over-sexualised] is not the only way. Maybe the best way to get fame but that’s not my way.’
Still, Clarisse seems a little conflicted about the subject.
‘I love people who [flaunt their body] as well but I think it’s great that artists like Sade and Alicia Keys offer a hope; “Look, it’s still possible. You can still make music your main thing”. I believe there are a lot more but those are two of the big ones.’
The conversation gets livelier as we discuss and dispute contemporary female pop acts who conform to objectification. Clarisse is hesitant to criticise acts she otherwise admires but is doubtful of their stage antics.
‘I feel right now some singers are sexualised when they don’t really need to. There are some where it works. For example I feel Rihanna is doing it great…’
I start my customary feminist protest. As far as I’m concerned, this is not a healthy representation of female sexuality at all. Clarisse sees it from a different angle.
‘I feel that she’s really like that and it works with her music and it works with her voice. She’s not Whitney Houston…’
Whereas the more talented singers shouldn’t need to buy into the whole ‘sex sells’ mantra, right?
‘That’s my problem. For example, I still love her but Mariah Carey didn’t need to do that. Beyoncé’s doing it too much. She’s gorgeous, she’s the greatest artist right now; does she really need to…? …It’s fine most of the time but I feel it’s a bit too much.
‘This is what I like about Sade or even Alicia Keys. You cannot say “Oh it’s because they’re fat, they’re ugly…” It’s because they don’t want to. There’s also Mara Hruby. I’m not especially a fan of her music. It’s nice but it’s more the way she manages her image. She’s very vintage. I like that there’s a variety. It’s not [being] against showing more skin. It’s more like not all the time and not so sexualised.
‘I’m a woman, I want to be attractive as well. I want to have a great body and I want to be sexy but not necessarily that much. A 37 year-old woman who is involved in a serious relationship and has two daughters? I’m just looking for a couple of compliments but I’m fine!’ she chuckles.
The conversation steers towards Clarisse’ future plans; real or imagined. Amongst her dream collaborations she cites Quincy Jones, Brazilian artists Marcelo D2 and Celso Fonseca, Guadeloupian singer Jean-Michel Rotin and, perhaps unexpectedly, Lana Del Rey.
‘I remember my sister asked me the same thing and she was surprised by the answer. I feel my African Saudade will fit great with Lana’s dark, romantic style. There is something I like about the way she manages her image as well and she writes her own songs. She’s dark but I think it might be interesting…’
Clarisse’ would also like to channel some of Bob Marley’s appeal.
‘This is what I wish I could reach in terms of universality; to have such a powerful message, to write beautiful songs and still be able to write love songs. To have that versatility and to have that strength. Bob Marley is really famous everywhere. The power of his artistic career, it really did things. You learn a lot watching interviews with him.’
We conclude with Clarisse’ plans for the coming year. As well as the Agridulce feature she’s working on with Herrera, she has a number of Afrobeat tracks in the pipeline. She is considering a different artistic direction in the near future.
‘I want to maybe go back to electronic music; take a pause from the melancholy and sing in English for the club to dance a bit.’ Warm laughter again. Saudade or not, Clarisse doesn’t take herself too seriously.
There’s another musical venture particularly close to Clarisse’s heart and which perfectly sums up the Mulata Universal credo.
‘It’s a special project. Ivan wanted to shoot a music video about slavery for a long time and he wanted to do it with a Dominican Rapper, AccentOh.’
Clarisse was intrigued. She offered to add some vocals to the accompanying track. LS was enlisted to take care of the production. It is then she realised just how international a project it would be.
‘I’m French/Cameroonian and LS is French – of Gabonese/Congolese descent. My boyfriend is Dominican of Afro-Caribbean descent. AccentOh is a dark-skinned Dominican. We’re really Afropeans. We wanted to do what I call a ‘triangle of peace’. I felt that about my daughter too; the African, European and Caribbean [combination]… Through her it’s like we’ve made peace over that [historical] trouble.’
This article first appeared on ‘I Was Just Thinking…’