The Ecuadorian-American artist speaks on the VMAs, his notion of 'home,' and his most recent album, Far In
In June of 2015, Donald Trump announced his presidential campaign in a speech wherein he infamously called Mexican immigrants criminals and rapists. His campaign and the years that followed would come to ignite a protest movement among Latinx people in the United States. Almost simultaneously, Roberto Carlos Lange, who makes music under the moniker Helado Negro, released his single, “Young, Latin & Proud,” which served as a timely rallying cry for the movement.
But Lange never intended to create a protest anthem. He wrote a song for his younger self, about acceptance and family. But as these things do, the song ended up becoming an unexpected chorus of protest, with its meditative lyrics and quiet instrumentation providing a welcome softness in the cacophony of the culture war.
Growing up in South Florida with two Ecuadorian immigrants, Lange’s culture has long been a motif of his work. Before “Young, Latin & Proud,” Lange amassed a hefty discography full of shimmery, funky, and moody songs, many of which were sung entirely in Spanish. His records always have a dual nature to them, not only because they’re usually bilingual, but also for being both dancey and melancholic. It’s this unique dimensionality of Helado Negro’s work that seems to keep him a staple on the ‘Latinx Indie’ playlists one might find on Spotify and a gentle hum in the background of a dinner party with friends.
It wasn’t until 2019 that Helado Negro shot up from the arts and underground indie scene with the release of his critically acclaimed record This is How You Smile. As Lange’s profile grew larger and larger, however, so did the demands of the music industry and this career he’d made for himself. He spent months away from his partner, touring the album around the world and recording new music along the way.
Once the flurry settled down, Lange and his partner, the visual artist Kristi Sword, decided to take a break from the business of New York and went to Marfa, Texas, where they’d work on a multimedia art project together. This was the beginning of March 2020. They had no idea that what was supposed to be a three week residency would become a six month incubator for their cross-disciplinary work in isolation. Together, they created Kite Symphony, Four Variations: a film, score, and sculptural work interpreting the landscape of West Texas.
In the fall of 2020, however, Lange was ready to return to New York, reinvigorated with the goal of finishing his seventh album, Far In. This new record is flush with all the things that make an Helado Negro record special: sparkly instrumentation, funky synths, and warm lullaby lyricism. The album finds Lange simultaneously at his most refined and least inhibited, allowing songs to flourish and feel like their own little worlds. It’s no wonder he tells me it’s the album he’s long dreamed of making.
Ludwig Hurtado: After finishing the record in New York, you and your partner Kristi packed up and moved to Asheville, North Carolina. Why Asheville?
Roberto Carlos Lange: I think we were just looking for a new experience. Living in Marfa showed us that we could live in other places. Home is home, you know? There’s this Captain Beefheart song called “My Head Is My Only House Unless It Rains.” Those lyrics have always stuck with me, and I think they’re true. As much as the environment was such a part of my life in New York, the world is so big, and it’s beautiful everywhere.
Ludwig: The concept of home seems to be a recurring theme and influence in your music.
Roberto: Yeah, it’s interesting. I think home is something that I’m not necessarily—I’ve never been set on a singular ‘home.’ I’ve lived in so many different places. I’ve lived in Florida, Atlanta, Savannah, and all over New York. I’m open to the idea that anywhere can be home.
Ludwig: The music video for your recent single, “Outside the Outside,” features home videos from your family’s parties in the ’80s. Would you say your upbringing has inspired a lot of your work today?
Roberto: Yeah, for sure. Dancing was a very common thing in my house. Everyone was always dancing. Whether it was a party or just hanging out sometimes and dancing with my mom and my cousins or whatever. There were always people at my house. Friends, family, and kids my age. Everybody eating and hanging out and talking and drinking and dancing, and staying up late. It was a constant. And there were always so many different kinds of people in my life from different parts of Latin America.
Ludwig: Would you say that you make dance music?
Roberto: Yeah. Often it’s a slow dance, or a mid-tempo dance. Sometimes up-tempo. But I think all music is dance music. It just depends what kind of dance you’re doing.
Ludwig: When you look at your discography, do you see any sort of evolution or direction your music has taken over the years?
Roberto: I don’t. It’s difficult because I don’t necessarily think about it as, like, “This is where I started, and this is where I am.” I think in a lot of ways, I’m still doing a lot of the things that I did when I started. Part of that is curiosity within looking for stuff to do or that I want to explore.
As soon as I finished the last record [This Is How You Smile], I was like, “I never want to make a record like this again.” So making this new record, I was like, “Oh, wow, this is the record I’ve been wanting to make for a long time.” So, it’s moment to moment. When you finish a song or an album, it’s often a milestone of where you’ve been, and not necessarily where you are now. It’s always like looking back in time at something. Sometimes, I don’t even know who that person is.
On the last record, there’s a song called “País Nublado.” I wrote that song at the same time that I wrote another song called “Come Be Me.” I remember I had this distinct moment where I was like, “Okay, this next record, I want to make it like ‘Come Be Me.’ I don’t want to make it like ‘Pais Nublado.’” As I was finishing This Is How You Smile, I started recording all these new ideas. And one of the songs that I recorded is the last song on Far In, which is called “Mirror Talk.” I was like, “Cool, this song has a lot of the palette that I want to explore for the next album. I want to make this sonic world in it.” And that’s what Far In is.
“When you finish a song or an album, it’s often a milestone of where you’ve been, and not necessarily where you are now. It’s always like looking back in time at something. Sometimes, I don’t even know who that person is.”
Ludwig: This record’s title, Far In, is an inversion of the common phrase ‘far out.’ How’d you come up with it?
Roberto: I was at the airport in Berlin, and I saw Laraaji sitting in front of me, just waiting for his flight. I was like, “Oh man, I gotta say hi to him.” I felt really bad, because I really don’t like bothering people like that in public spaces, especially airports. But I just really adore his work, and I admire what he does. So we got to talking, and he’s super warm, and we’re just sharing what we’re up to. I told him I’d been working on this project, and he said, “Ah, far in.” And that expression just really stuck with me. I love how that sounded, and it just resonated with me. It got me thinking, what does it mean to go far in? I feel like that’s what happened to me when I started making this record. I really just went super far in. I went into these different places and kind of disappeared into them, and made these little worlds of my own and just lived in them. But somebody else recently pointed out, it also references how long I’ve been doing what I’ve been doing, and so in a way, it’s also about being this ‘far in’ to my own world and career.
Ludwig: Throughout your career, you’ve made a lot of music in Spanish and music informed either lyrically or instrumentally by your Latin American roots. Do you ever get tired of being categorized as a Latino artist?
Roberto: I’ve always been fine with it. Something that I’ve become conscious of is to be careful of the thing that I don’t like, which I see happening, where some people become representatives for a whole cultural identity. I think it happens on a lot of these streaming platforms. You know, the ‘Ultimate Latin Indie’ playlists, and so on. It’s part of the commodification of things.
I don’t ever want to pretend like I know what other people’s experiences are. Anything that I’ve ever done to talk about my culture is my own experience. There’s so much constant churning of identity. I know what I make. And if it’s as a Latino, sure. That’s who I am.
I think there’s an evolution of the people who live here now with Latin roots. Whether that’s Latino music or not, I don’t know. It can be. And I think, even with those songs that I made in the past, like “Young Latin & Proud,” that was a song that I made for myself—a time traveling song for a younger me to not feel like I needed to adhere to a construct. It wasn’t just that I was a part of a specific culture or anything, but rather that it was constantly evolving and changing, and I could mold it into anything.
Ludwig: When the music industry talks about Latin music, the conversation tends to focus on these Urbano artists and the so-called ‘Latino Gang,’ led by J Balvin, Bad Bunny, and the like. Do you feel like the Latinx artists who aren’t making Urbano music are getting a fair amount of exposure?
Roberto: I don’t know. I mean, honestly, I think it’s different levels of things, you know, and I think that music has its place and its space.
The world is so big, and there’s so many things that can exist. I’ve never looked for that platform that these big Latin artists have. I’ve never wanted what those people want. I think they have a specific idea, and I think that’s why they’re in that position of utilizing that as their brand.
Ludwig: So you’ll never make a reggaeton record?
Roberto: [Laughs] Maybe! I mean, I definitely could, but I don’t think it would exist in the way that their music exists, you know? And who’s to say my music doesn’t already have influences of reggaeton in it?
I think that’s the hardest thing for me. I have never enjoyed being a part of a genre. I think the best thing you could ever have going for you is confusion. Making it difficult for somebody to figure out how to talk about it. Music and sound are really a language. I would much rather create my own language, which is what I’m doing through music.
Ludwig: The VMAs happened recently. Two white women, Billie Eilish and Rosalía, won the VMA for Best Latin. They qualified because their song was in Spanish. What do you make of two non-Latinas winning that award?
“I have never enjoyed being a part of a genre. I think the best thing you could ever have going for you is confusion. Making it difficult for somebody to figure out how to talk about it.”
Roberto: To be honest, this shit is like a fucking M.C. Escher drawing. You know what I mean? Like you’re looking at it, and you’re not really sure where the beginning or the end is. The industry is a machine that’s kind of got its head so far up its own ass commodifying and trying to sell things. I think it’s kind of silly. And I think that’s just testament to how goofy it is, to be honest. If you’re taking it that seriously, then maybe you’re confused. They know what they’re doing.
What I want to do is make music for myself, and when I share it, I’m lucky that people care about it. I’m lucky that people will mess with it and try to talk about it. And I think, for me, I’d rather work on that, more than trying to figure out how to do whatever they’re doing. I think it’s a different kind of energy. If that’s the energy you want to use, cool. If you want to fight that system, that’s cool. But I think there’s also other ways to use that energy. For me, at least, my ultimate goal is not to get a Latin Grammy or whatever. If the industry’s definition is that Billie Eilish and Rosalía are Latin artists, then I think we’re talking about two different things.
Ludwig: We’re having this conversation during Hispanic Heritage Month. The very idea of a shared Hispanic identity was conceived in order to build political power. While it’s benefited the community in many ways, some find that the idea of a shared ‘Latinidad’ can be harmful and erase the nuances of identity. What do you think?
Roberto: I think it’s hard. On a personal level, I do enjoy it. I grew up having that. Like you saw in my video for “Outside the Outside,” there were cats there from Mexico, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Ecuador, Colombia, Argentina. I think there was a fun thing about sharing it. There was love, and this community built on uplifting one another. I think that that’s something that I’ve taken away from this idea of a shared Latinidad. There are aspects of erasure, for sure. There is a lot of colorism and racism. It’s not really language that connects us. I think there is maybe a shared experience that is connecting people more than anything.
African and Indigenous music have a huge influence throughout Latin America. And as much as colonial shit is horrible, if you go to Mexico and listen to ranchera music, it’s also got a lot of German instruments. Organs and accordions everywhere; that’s all from Germany and Poland.
We can’t help but be associated with colonization, because it’s a part of us. But we want to create something new from this. Build on top of it. That’s what I would like Latinidad to be. And I think that’s what’s happening.