Chilean chanteuse Nicole never knew quite what to expect when she arrived at Fun Machine, the studio of producer Andres Levin. The Venezuelan track-doctor behind major projects with Amigos Invisibles, Aterciopelados, and Nicole's labelmate Jorge Moreno -- to say nothing of turns with Nirvana and Tina Turner -- could propose anything. Right away, when they met, he asked her to write a song with him. Then and there. "That made me feel a lot more comfortable," says the recent Miami transplant, "knowing that we could work together." There were more unusual suggestions. "Let's go shopping," he'd say, then lead Nicole and the rest of the crew on a search for an archaic set of keyboards to get just the right retro disco sound.

Levin's spontaneity has a sonic payoff. "He brings out the best in all the musicians," beams Nicole as she assesses the experience from Maverick's Lincoln Road offices. "I prefer playing live, but my voice is the most relaxed it's ever been on this recording." The whole groove of Viaje Infinito (Infinite Voyage) is relaxed in the extreme. Levin, who has his own band going with the much-lauded Afro-Cuban-funk outfit Yerba Buena, chooses players for their idiosyncratic ability to groove. The result is music with personality, a very late-night-in-some-underground-dive flow. To keep up, Nicole -- already an extensively trained vocalist before leaving Chile -- put in extra study time once she arrived in Miami with local R&B legend Betty Wright. "She taught me runs and how to hit the pocket," she recounts. "I don't want to imitate the African-American sound, but I think it's important for a singer to learn as many styles as possible."

But isn't vocal virtuosity a little redundant at a time when a cute face and hot bod seem to be enough to sell millions of records? The naturally blond, naturally busty beauty is embarrassed by the question. "People ask me a lot about my look," she admits. "I think it's really just the look of any young person who enjoys style and dressing up. What really matters is what I can accomplish as a musician." From the sound of Viaje Infinito, that's a lot.


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