Let's play a word association game. I'll give you the name of a country, and you give me the image it conjures. Switzerland? Alps. Holland? Legal weed and overall permissiveness. Egypt? Pyramids.
And Brazil? Chances are, many of you would say sex. Juju Stulbach, the Rio de Janeiro-bred singer for the New York-based indie-pop/bossa nova hybrid Mosquitos, doesn't exactly disagree with the stereotype.
"I think Brazil is a big sexy country," she says in a husky, mildly Portuguese-accented voice. She's speaking from a hotel room in Charlotte, and she's bound for Charleston later that day. "But I'm not sure that it is the same sex that Americans think. I'm not sure what kind of [yawns heavily] perception Americans have of sex in Brazil. Like when I came here, guys would ask me where I was from and I would say Brazil and they would look at me and go 'Aaaah ' " -- she makes it sound like the verbal equivalent of Eric Idle's salacious 'wink-wink, nudge-nudge -- "And I would look at them and go, 'Aaaah -- what?' It was like, 'Maybe there's a chance she's gonna sleep with me tonight,' but it's not really like that at all. I think it's a little more open-minded sexually, but I don't think it goes that far."
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So don't even trip, guys. Still, the Mosquitos' music is undeniably sexy, as is almost all Brazilian music. It conjures summer, and summer conjures heat, and heat conjures sex. "Most of the main cities in Brazil are on the coast, and Brazil is a tropical country, so there's not much clothing going on, so everything seems to be more natural and more open. That's how I see it to be more sexy and open -- there's not much of an ashamed-of-the-body thing."
The Mosquitos' self-titled debut is a nice little excuse to lose your inhibitions to. From the whispery Portuguese and English vocals of Stulbach and American collaborator Chris Root, to Root's clear and gentle guitar lines, to the feathery keyboard touches of Jon Marshall Smith, Mosquitos is a melancholy smile and a glass of rum punch at the end of a long, hot day, the soul rush you get when you know for sure that you're falling in love.
The album was a long time and much bureaucratic hassle in coming. About ten years ago, a then-teenage Stulbach came to America to study dance in New York. After two years at the Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance, she hung up her leotard for good. She took a few bartending gigs, learned English along the way and focused on acting. In 2002 she landed the lead role in a short film a friend was producing. She met Root -- then the leader of the East Village band am60, and a guy who claims his mother blasted Sergio Mendes records at him when he was in the womb -- on the set.
"The film was directed by one of his friends, and Chris was there helping," she says. "They had all these balloons, and he was helping them blow them up. I was humming some songs, and he liked it, and he asked me if I wanted to do a CD, and I said, 'You're crazy.' "
The lithe Stulbach had never regarded herself as a singer, though she had sung a little in a play or two. Still, Root heard something in her humming that she didn't know she had within her. Root kept pressuring her, even after her visa expired and she went back to Brazil. He sent her a tape of am60, and Stulbach responded with an encouraging postcard.
"So he called and said, 'I want to go down there and make a CD with you,' and I said, 'God, you're crazy. I don't sing.' And he goes, 'Yes, you do. I heard you.' I said okay; he came to Rio and spent ten days there. And we went to the beach, brought a guitar and wrote a bunch of songs."
Root left Brazil under a cloud. One wild night, Root and Stulbach were pulled over by the Brazilian police and busted for pot possession. Root fled with a rough mix in hand, which he turned over to Jon Marshall Smith -- Mosquito No. 3 -- back home in New York.
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A while later, Stulbach was able to get her artist's visa renewed, and she returned to New York. Already, even though the album was far from done, a deal was in the works with Hoboken, New Jersey, label Bar/None Records. "We are, like, the only band ever that actually met in the ferry on the way to signing our record deal," Stulbach says with a laugh.
Smith is the veteran of the bunch, an engineer with high-profile album credits from artists such as Joey Ramone, Laurie Anderson and Richard Buckner already on his résumé. "I was scared of him," Stulbach remembers. "When I sang for the first time in the studio, I was trembling. Chris had to hold my hand. It was like, 'Oh, Jon Smith's gonna think I can't sing!' But at the end he became super-supportive. We've become like family the last two years."
In addition to drawing the singer out of Stulbach, the Mosquitos have drawn out Chris Root's latent inner Brazilian. "He used a lot of bossa nova beats in his other band, but he always wanted to do something more in that direction, but I really think he needed to meet somebody from there. Like I have a lot of Brazilian experience and he has a lot of his own musical background, and I think he needed to get that together."
It would be as inaccurate to label Mosquitos as an album of Brazilian music as it would to label, say, Calexico's output as Mexican music. "It's a very natural putting-together of our backgrounds," Stulbach says, speaking of herself and Root. "And Jon Smith is from a different background, so it's like baking a cake a little bit. Jon puts a little bit of his thing in, Chris puts a little of his thing in, and I do the same, and when we see it we really like it. It's kind of a cool experience for the three of us in terms of learning about music we were attracted to but didn't really know. It's a nice triangle like that."