Sergio Mendes Talks 'Rio 2,' World Cup Music and The Legacy of Jobim

Sergio Mendes

Sergio Mendes did his first music for film, 50 years after he started his recording career with "Dance Moderno" in 1961. Three years after celebrating his career with the compilation "Celebration" and the animated film "Rio," Mendes returns with "Rio 2" and an album of new recordings for Sony Music Masterworks imprint OKeh Records.

The soundtrack to "Rio 2," featuring new songs from Janelle Monae, Bruno Mars, Ester Dean and others, was released March 17, nearly a month prior to the Fox film reaching theaters on April 11. Mendes reprised his roles from the first film as executive music producer, extending his songwriting/producing relationship with Brazilian multi-hyphenate Carlinhos Brown and composer John Powell.

"Any time you do a sequel you ask 'how can I top what I did before? Which is kind of silly, but this story took us to where we should be," Mendes tells Billboard. "We wanted to show the diversity of Brazilian music. It was a chance to bring different textures, different instruments from bands like Uakti who play PVC pipes and (the a cappella ensemble) Barbatuques. The key thing was to be different than the music in the first movie."

To create the film's music, Mendes and Brown met with director Carlos Saldanha in the studio of composer John Powell to write songs based on Saldanha's script and scene descriptions. Brown would start the songs rhythmically and Mendeswould contribute melodies; once the song took shape, Powell would fine tunesongs and score to fit together.

"The whole thing was a vibe," says Saldanha, who met Monae at a Rock in Rio concert soon after the first film was released in 2011. "When we spoke with Janelle we wanted a fun, festive song with a message of love and of hope. It had to convey the energy of Rio, something everyone could dance to, and when we heard it we could see it playing anywhere."

Beyond "Rio 2," Mendes and Brown have contributed a song to Sony Music's official 2014 FIFA World Cup album "One Love, One Rhythm" that will be released May 12. The Mendes-Brown track, "One Nation," appears along with new music from Pitbull, Shakira and Arlindo Cruz and pairings that include Bebel Gilberto and Lang Lang and Carlos Santana, Wyclef, Avicii and Alexandre Pires. Mendes discussed his projects after a performance in Seattle prior to the "Rio 2" premiere in Miami.

With "Rio 2" finished, are you strictly focusing on the new album?
Yes, it's all original music, all about new songs -- Brazilian music with guests. I wrote with John Legend, who's one of the guests. Carlinhos Brown, Seu Jorge, Milton Nascimento, Maria Cantu. It has the Brazilian magic - percussion, great singers, very contemporary. There's no rapping on it.

Obviously you worked with Carlinhos on both of the animated films and you brought Milton into "Rio 2." It's amazing how unique he sounds in the film.
I get goosebumps when I hear Milton. He wrote a brand new song for me. We went to the studio and he started singing it and it was magic.

"Rio 2" has a lot more involvement with Brazilian musicians that the first one. How did that come about?
The first movie was based on the music of Rio de Janeiro. One of my suggestions was to go Brazil and we went to Belo Horizonte where Milton and this group Uakti come from. We wanted to show the diversity of Brazilian music and go across the Amazon and find a way to bring different textures and instruments. It provided me with the opportunity to suggest Uakti, Milton, Babatuques and Carlinhos Brown. It's no longer just Carnival music from Rio.

The flavor of the music becomes increasingly Brazilian as the film goes along.
Until the big party at the end.

There had to be some trust between you and the director and the artists to be able to expand that palette.
It's the story. Carlos Saldanha is a brilliant young director and he's really the inspiration for the whole thing. Carlos, being from down there, was helpful whenever we had an idea or were looking for an approach. We were always inspired by the story.

While you, Brown and various lyricists are credited with most of the songs, the composer John Powell produced many of them. What was his role beyond writing the score?
John Powell was a very important collaborator. He's from England, but he knows more about Brazilian music than any Englishman I know. He delivered the orchestrations, the sounds. Uakti plays PVC pipes and they brought a totally different texture the movie. John was able to assimilate that and translate it to the movie.

This should be a very busy year for you with "Rio 2," the new album and a tour. When will we see you in the U.S.?
Probably in the fall or late summer, I hope. We're going to Japan at end of May, Europe in July for the music festivals.

Any performance during the World Cup?
If they would invite me. (He laughs). It would be great to play ‘Girl from Ipanema,' ‘Mas Que Nada' and ‘One Nation' (at the World Cup). That would be a dream of mine. 

It's amazing how 'Girl From Ipanema' stands the test of time. A landmark song at the time, nothing from Brazil has surpassed it in terms of popularity.
I played last night in Seattle and it got a wonderful reaction from the audience. I played it back in 1962 when I was starting out, more and less. I remember the first time I came to play in the United States in November of 1962 at Carnegie Hall with Jobim, Joao Gilberto, Luiz Bonfa, Stan Getz.  I still feel the same vibe that I did then. It owes to the power of Antonio Carlos Jobim, my friend and mentor.