As a 17-year-old, will.i.am fell in love with the music of Sergio Mendes after a fellow crate-digger turned him on to Equinox, Mendes' 1967 album with the Brazil 66. That appreciation led to the Black Eyed Peas leader buying all of Mendes' albums, tapping the pianist to play on the Peas' "Sexy" in 2003 and, in 2006, produce and perform on Mendes' Timeless.
"Nobody knows more about my music than Will," says Mendes, now 73, whose new album Magic is his first for Sony's Okeh label. "How many musicians can say that with admiration for another musician?"
Will.i.am is among the dozen musicians who wrote with Mendes and performed on Magic, which came out Sept. 9. Mendes, central to the introduction of Brazilian samba and bossa nova to American audiences in the 1960s and who most recently wrote music for the Fox films Rio and Rio 2, spent a year traveling between the U.S. and Brazil to work live recording Magic with Janelle Monae, John Legend, Seu Jorge, Carlinhos Brown, Milton Nascimento and others.
Mendes and will.i.am, 39, repeatedly complimented each other during a 20-minute conversation that began with a description of how they created "My My My My Love" on the new album and ended with them thinking about a second edition of Timeless.
With so many guests collaborating on mostly new songs, what was your intention for the overall sound of Magic?
Sergio Mendes: I wanted it to have the Brazilian feeling that I think I have on all my albums. All the percussion was done in Brazil and you can hear the older Brazil through people like Milton Nascimento, but the new Brazil with Ana Carolina, Seu Jorge, Maria Gadu. Then I got melody. I'm a melody guy, which is why I've done the great [Antonio Carlos] Jobim songs, McCartney and the Beatles, Burt Bacharach. The criteria were: write fresh melodies with a contemporary feeling.
Will.i.am: Sergio is the melody king. I like collaborating with Sergio because he opens my mind to areas I wouldn't normally travel down. It's an enjoyable journey, composing with Sergio.
Why add so many guests to the writing process?
Mendes: With everyone I worked with on Magic, it was a learning experience. It gives me the same pleasure when I was 19 and Cannonball Adderley invited me to work with him. No matter which side I'm on, it's the joy of learning and sharing.
Explain how "My My My My Love" came about.
Will.i.am: Sergio had worked on that [tune] before we met [in December 2013]. He probably had me in mind so he brought it to the studio and the first thing that came to my mind was the "my my my" melody, but of course, there was already a melody there.
Will, you signed Cody Wise, who has had some success in the U.K. What made him right for the song?
Will.i.am: This 18-year-old knows everything. His appetite for knowing the classics and hunting for obscure [music], for syncopation -- Cody reminds me of [the Black Eyed Peas at their start]. It's so easy to just to fall for the hot kid on the block, so we wanted a new guy who would have fresh energy and excitement and appreciation. You can buy a collaboration, but you want excitement from [a collaborator] screaming, "I'm part of this thing!" That's Cody now, that was John Legend [on Timeless] in 2003.
What attracted you to Sergio's records and how does that play out in working with him?
Will.i.am: [To Mendes] Whatever you were doing when you were recording those records, you were teaching future listeners. I was taught the layering, the nuances, the counter-rhythms and the elegance. There is no elegance in music right now. You play the piano so delicately. It's the delicacy -- everybody is rushing and you are so laid-back.
Mendes: You made a comment that it was absence of complicated things and I have a tendency to get complicated. I remember one time we were writing a song together and Will is at the ProTools and I hit a chord and he looks at me. I say "What?" "Too adult," he says. "That chord." That's what's so beautiful. He always pointed me to simplicity.
Timeless put a lot your classics in a new contemporary light. Could you do a second volume?
Will.i.am: Timeless was my first time to Brazil. That record was the ultimate stimulation of culture all at once and I think the best cultural learning experience in my life. That would be amazing to go back to the same studios in Sao Paulo and Bahia.
Mendes: At this stage of my life to be working with these people, I’m pinching myself. It would be a pleasure.