Record of the Week: Helado Negro’s ‘Far In’

It is the challenge of the artist to find new ways to communicate in their inner most authentic voices, to always be in search of what is true both for themselves and the times they find themselves in. On his latest album, Far In, Roberto Lange, who records as Helado Negro, returns to that aim. Largely informed by his 2020 collaborative art residency with partner Kristi Sword in the desert town of Marfa, Texas, Lange structured Far In to be a brand-new sonic world, one in which he explores the landscape and textures of this world. At the start of the album, we the listeners are given the sense that we are to play the role of observers in his personal inward voyage, but this is quickly flipped and we become participants in a cosmic search for self-love and presence.  

It is one thing to tell a story in words, but in the 13 years that Helado Negro has been recording, he’s been fearless in his experimentation with sound and feel. He creates an almost 3D music listening experience.

“Gemini and Leo” brings us into the full sonic picture of the album. It’s a song that nods to Lange’s memories of ‘80s club music in South Florida and his career-long, insular celebration of the body and movement. He placed the vocals further back in the mix to feature the driving drums patterns of Jason Trammell, funk-inspired bass lines of Jenn Wasner (Flock of Dimes), and the dreamy, expansive synths and high-flying backing vocals of Opal Hoyt. The overall effect takes us to a dimension between feeling nostalgic and being present.

“Outside the Outside” starts us on the inward journey that will continue to unfold throughout the album. This cheeky and playful track has a synth-filled, electro-bossa nova groove that exudes warmth and positivity and welcomes us into this world of exploration. In the lyrics, you can hear a fragmented kind of dialogue between Lange and his partner that might have played out as they returned to Brooklyn after their residency in Texas, to finish the album and get back to city life. He shows us that they found themselves in an open and eager position to see what else the universe had to offer.

It can’t be ignored that the bulk of this album was created within the global experience of lockdown, and a particular type of distance. While this album primarily touches on a very personal kind of inwardness, Lange also explores the feeling of isolation from loved ones. He expresses this vulnerability in “Telescope,” a personal lament about not speaking to his mother for a long period of time, while simultaneously holding the small and simple, loving memories of her in a gentle reverence.

Rounding out the album is perhaps its most metaphysical moment, “Mirror Talk.” Here, we arrive at the end of this season of metamorphosis and look in the mirror to contemplate our journey, so that we may embrace the satisfaction and self-love achieved through giving meaningful attention to inwardness. In these final lines he reminds us that looking inside and searching for truth should always be met with patience:

let me grow a while.
let me try again.
Because love
grows right where we stand.

And love
will keep us open.”

On the Record: A Q&A with Helado Negro

Safara Parrott: Your educational background is in visual art and performance art, and you still do that kind of work alongside music. How does that inform the way you approach music, and how you zero in on and explore a theme over the course of an album?

Helado Negro: My background actually is in computer art animation. I went to art school, Savannah College of Art and Design, to study that, but also they had a specific sound art program or a sound design program. It was focused really on installation, sound and things that were more experimental. But all of that informed me in different ways, I think, visually speaking.

Since I didn’t have any kind of formal music training, I utilize a lot of the language in visual art and maybe even just animation, and kind of that process. And also, thinking about deconstructing sound a lot, taking things from experimental sound adventures I was on, not necessarily trying to make songs per se say until a lot later in life. How it informed the theme of the record? I guess t’s just part of a process now. It’s embedded in the work that I do, and so it’s less of a conscious thing, and it’s just part of an everyday thing.

SF: I understand the writing process for Far In has undergone many metamorphoses, beginning back as early as 2019. However, it seems like you have taken a lot of inspiration from your artist co-residency in Marfa, TX, and then a big move from Brooklyn, NY to Ashville, NC. How did these different settings affect or bring something new into your music making process?

HN: I think Marfa, what it did was stimulate space and time. What I mean by that is space, it’s so expansive there; it’s such an open, wide place. It’s a landscape I really wasn’t familiar with, to spend a long period of time with. I had visited Marfa before plenty of times, but there’s a huge difference between just being there for 24, 48 hours and living there for six months. It really reprogrammed my brain and it opens up a lot of opportunities in terms of just feeling different things in the environment. Going back to Brooklyn, there was a huge contrast, obviously, there, and I think I was just still riding high on feeling a lot of that energy that I that I had in Marfa.

SF: You have said in the past that your desire is to not have one project be the same as another. How was the experience of creating this album different from previous works?

HN: I’m always trying to make something new for myself. From an outside perspective, it maybe doesn’t sound new, but to me, maybe the process or ideas or even compositions feel new, in terms of the way they’ve been executed as well. I think this album was unique, because I had an opportunity to spend so much time thinking, and there’s so much work that gets put into thinking about what you want to make and thinking about what the sounds could be like. I would draw these sonic maps in my mind of what I’m hoping some things would be. More than anything, my hope is to execute these feelings and these emotions. That’s what the record sounds like to me now, is exactly like the things that I had in my head. I believe that’s how it’s different.

I think a lot of the previous records I’m exploring, then I stop on something and I’m like, “OK, this is it.” And as I’m exploring, I’m trying to finalize it as well. Where this record, I think I would explore and explore how to write it, but then I would also really just try to let things sit and settle. A good example of that is “Gemini and Leo,” something that I started in 2019, and it really evolved from the demo to what it is now. It was understanding that a song is really never finished and it’s just the version that’s created for now.

SF: Throughout your career you have been fearless in your exploration of sonic production being as much an element of storytelling as the singing voice. When listening to the album, especially tracks like “Gemini and Leo” or “Outside the Outside,” I can hear that your voice sits further back into the atmosphere of the music. Why did you find this decision to keep vocals further back in the mix necessary for storytelling?

HN: A big contrast between my previous albums This Is How You Smile and this album is the relationship with the vocals in the music. I purposely thought to give all the parts of the arrangements and composition and everything an opportunity to have a conversation in the forefront. I think maybe the leaders of the sounds on this record are the drums and the bass, mostly. But the voice is still a huge weight that that definitely anchors everything. But I chose to allow it to give more space to everything else and not be the thing that overshadows everything, and I think that was something that I really wanted to find on this record.

SP: The bulk of this album was created within a global experience of lockdown and a particular type of distance to our loved ones. While this album primarily touches on inwardness. you do speak to these kinds of disconnections through the song “Telescope,” a kind of lament about not speaking with your mother for a long period of time. Could you explain the importance of family for both this album and your greater creative process?

HN: I always lament not talking to my mother enough, I get caught up in my own world. I love talking to her, and I love being around her, so I think it’s something that was on my mind. It was a strange sensation. I just kept thinking about what it felt like looking through a telescope, and maybe it was drawing parallels to Marfa where we were watching these videos of the McDonald Observatory. They were looking at stars the whole time and they would do live feeds of star shows, essentially, where they would guide you through different stars and they would use their super powerful telescope to zoom in on different galaxies and clusters of stars. So that was really wonderful, and maybe there was a parallel there.

When you’re looking at a telescope you’re looking in your past. And it’s not that your family is your past, but in a lot of respects, they are. When you’re growing older, the life that you had with them feels farther than where you are now. Relationships have to be renewed all the time. I think sometimes you can just pick up where you left off, but I think most times with family, the memories that are attached are older memories, and you have so many things in your life now. It’s a close one to my heart, for sure, the song.

SP: The last track, “Mirror Talk” is perhaps the most metaphysical song on the album, with its discussion of self-acceptance, other people’s perceptions and one’s openness to self- love. How do you think your devotion to inwardness and self-love contributes to your music making?

HN: It’s hard, I think. As much as I project these ideas of self-love and whatnot, I think I push out the things that I want to see in the world. But it’s not my day to day experience. It’s not easy to feel good every day. It’s not easy to think that everything is going to be OK. It’s a lot of work to just figure out the things that are helping you versus the things that are hurting your day to day.

I think [with] my music, I try to find a rhythm and a feeling that excites me and that that triggers these worlds of curiosity and also confusion. I want to make sure that I’m like always going to a place that isn’t always comfortable, but it at least isn’t doing harm. And the second that I’m just becoming attached to an idea that feels disingenuous… What I mean by that is thinking about what people are going to think of this, or thinking about what someone might want to hear, what the label might want to hear—it’s always easy to get caught up in that, and then the second you’re trying to shape your expression into what somebody else wants, it becomes contaminated with a lot of just unnecessary complications.

The best part about working on music is that you can just stop and throw it away. I do that a lot. I stop and I just start over. And maybe 50 percent of the process is just stopping and starting over. I think there’s cracks of light through that, or cracks the darkness. I do I think there’s a really strong beauty in seeing yourself in darkness, opening your eyes up in the middle of the dark and trying to see, and maybe then giving yourself the opportunity to think about textures and things that you can’t see. You have to use other senses and then ultimately it stimulates your imagination. Then you kind of just start imagining things, and I think that that’s actually the light. That gives you a new way to think about what you want to do. It’s really just trying to create something that’s for you and for no one else.