The Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter drew on reggae, bossa nova, and Brazilian tropicalia to find sensuality in sorrow.
5,000 miles from home, Claude Fontaine had something of a musical epiphany. The singer-songwriter—born and raised in Los Angeles—was living in London when she stumbled into a record store and began exploring their reggae, bossa nova, and Brazilian tropicalia collections.
“When I heard Ken Boothe’s song, ‘Artibella,’ it was life-changing for me,” Fontaine says in a phone interview. “I just wanted to do everything I could to make music that evoked the feeling that it gave me.”
Fontaine moved back to Los Angeles, freshly focused and inspired. Soon, she began recording her self-titled debut record alongside a host of noted reggae and jazz instrumentalists, including guitarist Tony Chin, drummer Airto Moreira, and bassist Ronnie “Stepper” McQueen.
The resulting record is a languid, longing meditation on love and its discontents. Fontaine’s vocals have a sensual, sauntering quality to them, even when she sings of heartbreak. In “Hot Tears,” for example, she delivers the chorus with a light-hearted bob: “Hot tears in my coffee / cold sheets on my bed / If he really loved me / he’d be here instead.”
We recently spoke to Fontaine about her eclectic inspirations, her vision for the record, what it was like to record it in Chet Baker’s old studio. Claude Fontaine is out 4/26 on Innovative Leisure.
I grew up on the Westside of Los Angeles, sort of near Santa Monica.
I’ve lived here [for] the majority of my life. I spent some time living in London, which I miss every day. I would love the opportunity to live there again and hope to as soon as I’m able to. But I love Los Angeles—it’s my hometown. I really appreciate the two places for completely different reasons. London does hold a special place in my heart, for sure.
What is it that brought you to London?
A relationship, actually.
How long were you there?
I was there back and forth for about a year. And it was fundamental to discovering the music that I now play, so I’m grateful for that experience.
Were you playing music before that?
I was playing music for years in Los Angeles. I would write, record, put it up on the internet, and take it down a couple of days later. That was sort of the routine for years. When I first started writing music, I was exploring and playing around with different styles, and nothing really felt right. Nothing felt like it was what I wanted to keep out in the world for an extended amount of time. So when I stumbled across reggae and bossa nova and world music, it clicked for me. I came back to Los Angeles, and that’s when I started [working] on the record.
Were there specific artists or pieces of music that motivated you or changed your approach?
Yes, actually. When I was in London, I was living down the street from a record store called Honest Jon’s—which is a pretty renowned record store in the area—and they’re known for their reggae and bossa nova collection of records. When I heard Ken Boothe’s song, “Artibella,” it was life-changing for me personally. I just wanted to do everything I could to make music that evoked the feeling that it gave me. It was really instrumental in inspiring me to make the kind of music that I do.
I also came across records by Jorge Ben and Astrud Gilberto and Erasmo Carlos—those were Brazilian musicians that deeply inspired me. I felt completely in love with [their music] and wanted to try it too—pay homage in my own way.
What was that feeling [Ken Boothe’s] song gave you?
It was so familiar to me, yet so unlike anything I had ever heard. The music to me is so timeless in the way that jazz and blues is. I didn’t understand how this has been swept away, or [is] not as relevant in the mainstream in the way it was in the ’60s and ’70s, I suppose. To me, it was as classic and timeless and relevant as jazz and blues and rock & roll.
I guess it was the love songs that I have always connected to in classic music, yet it felt so fresh at the same time, because it wasn’t music that I was really familiar with until that point.
Are there any themes or narratives that persist throughout the record or come up a lot?
Longing. Heartbreak. Sorrow. All the melancholy themes surrounding love are pretty endlessly inspiring to me.
But would you describe it as a sad record?
I had a feeling you were going to say that.
There are melancholy aspects to the songs, but I can’t help but feel hope in them when I’m writing them. I feel like if I did my job right, that [hope] came across. I wouldn’t want them to just be flat-out sad love songs. In the feeling of the music, there is something hopefully a little bit uplifting, a light at the end of the tunnel.
I know you collaborated with a lot of notable instrumentalists. What’s your live act look like?
We have a record release show coming up, and it’s the first time we’re playing all of these songs live. I have all the musicians who played on the record—except for Airto Moreira, who is in Brazil right now. I was so lucky and honored to play with all of them. They’ve all had incredible careers.
Am I right that you recorded in Chet Baker’s old studio?
Yeah, that’s true! We recorded and mixed there. It was Chet Baker’s studio in the ’60s, and it’s just this little small space in the heart of Hollywood. You would never know it existed. It’s an incredible space called “Sage and Sound.” It has 1960s elements, like the rock walls and wood paneling and Moroccan lighting. It has such a feeling when you walk in. It’s really special. I think his ghost may be there, wishing us all luck.
What else do you see coming up?
I’ve wanted the opportunity to make a record that I feel proud of for a long time, and I feel that way. I am so honored to have played with the musicians who performed on the record. Truly, to watch them play music was one of the memories I’ll never forget for the rest of my life. It was as special as I could have ever imagined.
I’m very excited to tour and continue to make records. I can’t even wait to record the next record, actually.
Have you already started writing it?
Yeah, pretty much the day we finished mixing.
[But] to me, these songs are still new, because we’ve never played them live before. Maybe they’ll start a new life as live songs. I’m excited to share them with the world.