EXCLUSIVE: Interview with Leo Varella

“Pocket Full of Change” is the latest release from Brazilian guitarist, songwriter, and producer, Leo Varella.

Since his 2019 debut release “Over It,” Varella has been gaining attention for his creative blend of 80s and 90s pop, alternative, jazz, hip hop, rock and Brazilian music. His unique sound has inspired international collaborations with JIM ALXNDR (Australia) and DAMYE (Korea), such as Ravyn Lenae, IV Jay and DEAN.

We chatted with the multihyphenate about the single, growing up in Brazil and more!

How did you first get interested in music?

I think I have to give it to my dad. He never pursued music professionally, but I knew he always wanted to. I grew up around dozens of guitars just lying around, and music was always playing in the house. Looking back, I don’t think there was a way of not getting sucked in by music… I still have some very early memories at the age of 4, 5 years old of being taken to guitar stores and pointing and naming models out.. Of me crawling in his office (which in truth was just a super unorganized room swamped by books, records, guitars and random memorabilia), scanning through all kinds of records… Deep Purple’s In Rock, Led Zeppelin Physical Graffiti, Genesis’ Duke, João Gilberto’s Getz and Gilberto album. The only natural step was to grab one of the guitars and start playing around. I got a small red Squier for Christmas once, and he taught me how to play the first riff of Hey Joe by Jimi Hendrix, the rest is history.

How would you describe your sound?

I would say that if this was a perfect world, and everything that happened in my head was able to be translated perfectly..  It is like if Prince and Nile Rodgers had a recording session with Nirvana and Questlove and they had to cook up something. At least I wish. I’m trying my best hahaha. I grew up listening to all eras of music, but I resonate with the 80’s and 90’s a lot. The whole Seattle grunge scene is a big influence in general, and I think that it creeps around my music a lot lyrically and vocally. But I am obsessed with 90’s boom bap drum breaks and Madlib.. Pharrell and the Neptunes, Dilla, the Soulquarians… In my process I always get inspired by crafting loops that on their own, have something that draws you in. Add Nile Rodgers and Prince, which are to me, the kings of pop guitar, and you get some sort of 80’s flavor as well. I grew up listening to alternative music, so at the end of the day, I guess I consider alternative music above anything, especially the latest stuff I’ve been writing. 

How did growing up in Brazil influence your sound?

To be quite frank, in my early years, I felt quite dissociated from Brazilian culture. The majority of my taste in things and music preferences were very much shaped by international influence, mostly because of my dad and because I got fluent in English at a pretty young age. I feel like that unlocked a whole world and it allowed me to dive in other cultures early on… I just didn’t resonate with Brazilian movies, television, clothing… It was only later, around 14-15 years old that I completely turned the other way around, once I found Brazilian music and Brazilian jazz. My understanding of music was forever changed, especially when I started learning brazilian guitar. For a good few years, Brazilian music was all I listened to and played. I’d sit in at jam sessions, go to every single local legend concert I could attend… it’s funny. I feel like the influence was always present, and growing up on an island definitely brought out a summer vibe to my music. I think my interpretation of rhythm is very influenced by that.

Who did you listen to growing up and are there elements that inspire your music today?

I listened to a lot of rock early on, especially because of guitar. Led Zeppelin, The Who, Pink Floyd, you name it… everything 60’s and 70’s. Then I got into 80’s rock because of all the guitar music. Pretty embarrassing hahaha. Then I finally found the Seattle scene – Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains. When I started getting involved in all 90’s music, my whole world came crashing down when I listened to what Dilla and other boom bap influenced producers were doing. Acts like Madlib, The Roots and the whole Soulquarians movement immediately lured me in… you could immediately tell there was something different there.. I think it lured me in because even though I had a rock background, I always loved RnB and mo-town music when growing up. My parents had a lot of early Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson music playing in the house, and I grew up with their discographies. I also remember finding Thriller and Purple Rain in my 80’s phase, then it was over. Heavy guitars and incredible song writing… I think these are all very important influences to me. They are in my head what the perfect representation of what GOOD music really is. 

What draws you to a nostalgic sound?

I think it’s more of a consequence rather than a choice. Musically, I lived in the past my whole younger life. I was very out of touch with current music until my young teens – I knew what was on the radio and stuff but it didn’t really speak to me. Funny enough, I think I appreciate the 2000-10’s music more nowadays. Maybe I’m always running behind.

I think it’s pretty impossible for me not to sound nostalgic when most of my influences have strong identities and characteristics to their eras. It’d be pretty bullshit for me to give an answer like “I don’t know, it all just comes together”. Nah. You can literally pick my music apart because I am very in touch with my influences. Prince and Nile Rodgers guitar… boom bap drums… Seattle vocals. At least that’s what it looks like at the moment. It all comes off as very “alternative” but that’s at least what I reckon.

Also… I believe my songwriting itself is currently very nostalgic. I love diving into the past a bit too much. Once, someone said to me that only writing about being happy/sad is not a realistic thing. People really feel something and relate to things that are bittersweet. Because that’s how life really is, it’s never black and white.. Nostalgia to me is one of the most bittersweet things there are. I find myself more in touch with my best work when I allow it to be an accurate representation of what I’m really feeling.

What was the inspiration behind your latest single, “Pocket Full of Change”?

To be quite honest, I was writing a lot of depressing music during the time and I made myself sick of it through it. I had this beat sitting for a couple of years and it just felt so good on its own, so I knew it was a “feel good” song. I wasn’t too worried about starting to write lyrics for it cuz I knew I had the vision on lock and it’d simply come when it was time to revisit it. I felt sick of feeling like shit, so this one was a big “f— you” to feeling like shit. It’s like an ode to laughing at your own misery. As the Brazilian saying goes, “it’s better to laugh rather than to cry”. We all have shitty landlords, bills to pay, shitty boyfriends and girlfriends, etc. Pocket Full of Change is a lighthearted laugh towards the tragedies of day-to-day life. 

What was the writing process like, especially how the rattling drum beat influenced the lyrics?

In general, I always tend to make a loop before anything. Me and my friend Max Nudi had a session in 2018, and he brought me this incredible drum loop. It was very dry at the time, but it was so good on its own that I quickly was able to come up with chords and the bass line. The real fun was that the same night, my friend Devin Smith (goes by DS.16) recorded keys in the song, and I briefly noticed the top note in his chords were super pretty and dope. I knew that was going to be the hook melody right away. A week later, I linked with my friend and producer Kevin Leung (goes by KVN) and I asked him what did the beat make him think of. He answered that “the pocket felt great” and then it was over. As you pointed out, I noticed the drum beat had this rattling thing with the hi hats and ghost notes… very much like the sound when you walk around with some loose change in your pocket. The rest was history. Everything fell into place.

If you could set fans up in the perfect environment to listen to “Pocket Full of Change,” what do you imagine it looking like?

Wow, I never really thought about that. I think the best possible setting to listen to this song is when you are walking down the street after you are done with a shitty situation and you are actually free from it. To you it might be anything… a Friday after work, quitting your shitty job, breaking up with your toxic partner… it’s all about release and embracing changes even when everything is not looking so good.

You’ve collaborated with artists all around the world including JIM ALXNDR (Australia) and DAMYE (Korea). Who would you love to collaborate with next?

A dream collab would be to work with James Blake or Kevin Parker one day. As I said, it’s a dream, but it’d be a privilege just to be able to see their process. I think they are onto something and currently in the vanguard of music. I’d love to just be a fly in the room.

What can fans look forward to next?

I am dropping one more song next month, and I’m a little scared to drop it but it’s definitely my favorite of my latest releases. It might be the most concrete representation of what I’m really about so far, so definitely stay tuned for that. I have more than an album worth of music that I wrote this quarantine alone, so I have a lot of new projects coming next year as well. Excited to show all this new music very soon.

What is one quote that you have heard or that you go by that you want to ECHO out to the world?

“You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.”

– Martin Luther King, Jr.