[This was supposed to run in a Texas paper, but because the shows Venegas is performing aren't open to the broader public - they're semi-private gigs you have to register online to see - they decided not to do it. So here 'tis.]
Born in Long Beach, CA and raised in Tijuana, Julieta Venegas is a singer-songwriter who blends rock, pop and Mexican music, using the accordion as a lead instrument. She began her career firmly within the Latin alternative movement, Mexican division – an early member of the punk band Tijuana No!, she split with the group over political differences. Her first solo album, 1998’s Aqui, was produced by Gustavo Santaolalla, who also brought her together with the members of Café Tacuba. That group’s keyboardist, Emmanuel del Real Díaz, produced her second album, 2000’s Bueninvento.
With her third album, though, she made a stylistic change. Heading to Argentina to work with producer Cachorro López and singer-songwriter Coti Sorokin, she released the very poppy Sí in 2003. This set the stage for her fourth and most commercially successful album, 2006’s Limón y Sal, which contained the hit singles “Me Voy” and “Eres Para Mí.” This was followed by 2008’s MTV Unplugged, on which she collaborated with Mexican art-popper Natalia Lafourcade, Spanish rapper Mala Rodríguez and Brazilian vocalist Marisa Monte. Venegas’s latest album, Otra Cosa, was released on March 16, 2010.
Otra Cosa feels like a middle ground between the more moody, alternative songs on your first two albums and the poppier material on your last two. How do you see it fitting into your catalog?
I don’t know; I don’t really have such a wide vision of my albums. I just express whatever I feel like expressing, and I feel like on every record I’m still looking for my sound. I’m not really defined into being one or the other, and I don’t separate them as much as other people do. I do think [my music] did change in character with the third one, especially, because of the songwriting itself, and since then I kinda discovered I want to do a different kind of song than what I did on my first two albums. But I feel that sound-wise, I’m still looking for something all the time. When I did the Unplugged [performance], and concentrated on all the instrumentation and the arrangements, that really opened the way for me to do this album. I think it’s the way I dress up the songs that is different from Limón y Sal and Sí.
You mostly produced this album yourself, right? How was that process, compared with being in a regular studio where there’s a producer or an engineer who might be looking at the clock?
The thing is that I did a lot of it at home, so I definitely didn’t have a clock. I had plenty of time; I didn’t do any shows in 2009, all I did was write and do arrangements and demos and work on the idea for this album. At first I wasn’t even thinking about the album, I was just going back to writing, and I think being at home for me is partly about that, going back to writing songs and starting something different. And then, when I had a few songs together, I started realizing that I was going into an album, but I think that was really important for me on this particular one. I always work like that; I always do all the writing and all the arranging before I go into the studio, but I think having more time this time really, a lot of the stuff I recorded ended up on the album. I didn’t have to change it, I already had it cleared up the way I wanted it to be. So I think that was probably the reason I did it the way I did it. And I feel more comfortable that way. The studio makes me a little nervous sometimes. I enjoy it, but at the same time I do feel the clock thing. I get a little bit shy around people, and I won’t experiment as much as I will do if I’m at home. So for me it was really important.
Did you play most of the instruments yourself?
The thing is that at home I wasn’t looking for a band instrumentation. I didn’t want to have a structure that I was working with. I wanted to do the arrangements first and then think of the instrumentation. So I did a lot of playing, but it was mostly programming drum machines and playing percussion over that, and I put a lot of effects on the accordion. I just wanted to play with different elements and I didn’t want to have a static band to base myself upon. I wanted it to be a lot more free. I did eventually have musicians playing, but it was when I went to Argentina. I went to Argentina to finish the album and to work with Cachorro Lopez, and that was when I decided what people were going to be playing. There were drums, but I didn’t want the guy to use any cymbals or hi-hats or anything, I just wanted the percussive drumming sound. And then there were instruments like cello in one song or the tuba in a couple of songs, but it wasn’t really a band sort of structure.
I was curious about effects, because on the song “Otra Cosa,” it sounded like you fed the accordion through a pedal or some kind of effect. Can you say a little bit about that?
On that one in particular I didn’t put it through anything, but I doubled it with a synth. The thing is that in some parts it’s not really very recognizable. I really enjoyed doing that. There’s one song called “Ya Conocerán” where there’s all these effects going around, and on “Bien o Mal” there’s three accordions playing, some with effects, some without effects. I liked playing with different pedals. I’m not a guitar player. I play some guitar, but I’m not into getting into the electric guitar and trying different effects out. But I do enjoy that with the accordion, and I feel like the result is usually a lot more interesting. So that’s why sometimes you don’t recognize it, there are just these little sounds off to the side.
Do you write on guitar, piano, accordion, or a combination of them all?
I mostly write on piano, and when I start arranging, sometimes a song that’s not really working for me anymore will get moved onto the guitar. But the piano is usually the instrument where I solve all my doubts. Because even if I’m working on the guitar, I’ll go back to the piano to see what’s going on. But I don’t really like to have all songs with the same presence of the piano, so what I usually do is, after I write the song and I start doing the arrangement, I’ll take the piano out and redo it with other instruments. That’s usually easier for me, because if I get an idea with the piano all the time then I’m probably gonna end up doing all piano songs and I just feel like varying it a bit more with the instruments.
You keep your private life very private, and no one really knows much about you offstage – does that free you up as a lyricist, that you won’t have people weighing your life against your songs?
Well, maybe. I don’t really think about it that much. The thing is, when I write my lyrics I’m usually writing stories. They’re definitely autobiographical in a way, but it’s more about “what would I do, how would I react, what would I say in this situation?” That’s usually the way I write songs. I don’t really think about people trying to figure it out. I think that’s kind of fun. When I see songs by other people that I like, I always try to do that, too – I try to connect it to their lives and I wonder “What’s that like?” or “Why did he write that?” What happened to him or her, or whatever.
Some of the first wave of Latin alternative artists, like Los Fabulosos Cadillacs and Maldita Vecindad, are coming back. Do you think these older groups, who made their Latin identity so central to their music, are going to have an impact on the current generation of laptop-based Latin acts that could be from anywhere?
I don’t know really. I think it’s changing a lot. When you talk about the ’80s and ’90s, there was no MySpace and places like that for bands to come out from, and now that’s changing things a lot. And it doesn’t only affect the way we listen to it, but also the bands themselves. Some of them will come out with stuff that they want to be listened to by wider audiences, and maybe it’s that attitude that makes their music sound different, or something. Because, you know, there’s nobody like Café Tacuba doing stuff right now, and there’s nobody like Maldita, and right now there’s people like Hello Seahorse! that have an English name and they write in Spanish and they’re very mysterious – you don’t really know they’re Mexican when you listen to them. I think music is just changing in that sense. But I don’t think it’s something that needs to affect so much. If you have personality, it doesn’t mean you have to be sounding like your folk roots or anything. The only thing I’m not in favor of is Latin bands singing in English. And they do that a lot, and I think that’s definitely Internet-influenced. They’re like, “Well, I’m here, so I may as well just sing in English and have more people understand me,” whereas before, when bands like Café Tacuba and Maldita were around, they wouldn’t even wonder about that, because they were playing on stages in Mexico City and in Mexico and then maybe going on to other countries, but they’re based in a different place. They’re based in Mexico, or in other parts of Latin America.
What’s your take on the drug violence that’s been going on in Mexico, particularly in the last few years? There have been connections between corrido performers and the drug gangs for years, but does it cast a cloud over other Mexican artists too? How does it impact the artistic community as a whole?
I’m not really sure. Violence affects everyone, the fact of the presence of violence makes you more scared about it, but I think a lot of the folkloricos – the norteños or banda artists, who are more toward the north – are probably closer to it, in the sense that not only do they want to speak about it, but also they’re sort of living in a different region, not only geographically but also maybe they play private shows [for the drug gangs] or whatever. I don’t know, it’s just different, I think. I think people who live in Mexico City or bands that play rock or indie or whatever have a different relationship to it, but I think definitely as people who live in the country, we’re all affected by it.
You grew up in Tijuana; did you see it when you were younger, or has it gotten worse over time?
It’s gotten a lot worse, definitely. It got worse as soon as Felipe Calderón came to power, because he started this media-guided war and sort of made it become something different, because he made it into this media thing. The thing is that it used to happen all the time but now there seems to be this war going on between the government and the cartels. But also, we’re a very corrupt country, so there are a lot of people who are in the government who are involved, obviously. So it’s sort of a really messed-up combat going on there, because it’s not only about good guys and bad guys. You don’t even know who’s who, who’s involved, and that makes it a lot more complicated and hard to disentangle. And so we’re all sort of going, “What’s gonna happen?” Definitely it’s in the mud, it’s not getting solved, it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. There have been more deaths after he started this. During this past year, there were, I think, 3000 deaths. And the people who die are usually between 19 and 23 years old. So you do freak out about that. You do go, “Wait a minute.” There’s definitely something that’s not working about this plan he came up with. So everybody’s wondering what’s going to happen. But I can’t say there’s something I could say that will solve it or even – I can’t even say that I’m inspired by it to write. It’s pretty crazy.
You’re currently on a mini-tour sponsored by a liquor company that’s all private shows, not open to the regular public. Is that kind of thing a genuine necessity given the state of the business? Will there be a regular tour to follow up?
I’m actually doing some extra shows besides the Jack Daniel’s tour, but it’s not gonna be all cities, it’s just gonna be four or five cities. Oakland, Los Angeles, I don’t know, some other cities. But we’re barely presenting the album, we’re not really ready for a big tour. The album just came out a month ago, I think it would be very soon for us to go out on a big tour. For now…we’ve always been open to do that kind of stuff with people, at least me as an artist. I think it’s cool to have someone help you out to present the album in smaller venues, because I don’t really feel like doing a really big tour with super huge places. I just want to present the album in a smaller way. It’s good for us as a band, and it’s also good for people who want to listen to the songs for the first time. I just think it’s a good excuse to do a small tour, and the thing is, I’m not gonna be doing a big tour this year. I’m gonna do it in 2011. So this year it’s only gonna be these two months, and then I’m stopping in June, and in February I’ll start a bigger tour.