Welcome to the year of Julieta Venegas.
In 2004, the Long Beach-born, Tijuana-raised, and Mexico City-based singer-songwriter was featured in the New York Times, won the Latin Grammy for Best Rock Album and swept the MTV Latin America VMAs, going home with Artist of the Year, Best Solo Artist, and Best Mexican Artist. And now in 2005, she has been nominated for a Grammy for Best Latin Rock Album/Alternative Album.
Blame it all on Si, an album of melodic, accordion-driven alterna-pop that has become the most talked about album in contemporary Spanish-language music, going double-platinum in Mexico and gold in the U.S. and Chile. It’s taken Venegas’s fame—which was already prominent in Latin America—to new global heights: the hip, Tokyo-set video for “Lento”, a performance at a Carlos Santana tribute concert alongside Herbie Hancock, Dave Matthews, and Rob Thomas, an expansive Pepsi ad campaign, a deft cover of the Black Eyed Peas “Hey Mama” for the Latin VMAs, and an album-stealing contribution on a tribute album to legendary Chilean poet Pablo Neruda.
One of Mexico’s most daring and independently minded singer-songwriters, Venegas has been a critics’ darling in the U.S. and Latin America since the release of her striking first solo album, Aquí, back in 1997 and 2000’s beloved Bueninvento, both produced by Latin music’s most sought after and most revered producer Gustavo Santaolalla (Motorcycle Diaries, Amores Perros, Café Tacuba, Kronos Quartet). But with the success of Si, Venegas has become a public darling as well, though she is quick to insist that the sudden surge of mass popularity isn’t changing the way she writes songs.
“I have a really skeptical take on popularity, fame, and all that,” explains Venegas. “What has been most important to me with this record is that I wrote these songs looking for a certain growth in the way I was writing, and in the way I perceived myself, and was perceived by others, and it was incredible. I have enjoyed Si very much, and I feel very, very connected to the public, and that is amazing. And at the same time, I always feel like an outsider. I can´t help it. But it has been really fun.”
Growing up in Tijuana, Venegas played piano and studied classical music-- even once taking cello lessons from The Nortec Collective’s Ramon “Bostich” Amezcua. In the early nineties, she became a key figure in the city’s burgeoning underground rock scene and played with Chantaje, a band that would later morph into ska-punk firestarters Tijuana NO (Venegas co-wrote the song that would become the band’s signature anthem, “Pobre de Ti’). Though she would eventually leave Tijuana to write music for theater productions in Mexico City, the US-Mexico border metropolis she grew up in—where Spanish mixes with English, where American sitcoms air in Mexican living rooms, where cultures are crossed everyday-- left an indelible mark on the way she thought about music.
“I always had one foot in Tijuana and the other in el otro lado,” says Venegas, “I grew up with the way of thinking of my parents, which was very Mexican and traditional, but also musically, my mom was all about popular music: Pedro Infante, Juan Gabriel, Jose Jose. Yet when I was a kid I thought that everything that wasn’t Mexican was much cooler: The Police, Madness, Culture Club. So there was always a combination. I discovered much later that the way that my mom listens to music is really the way I like to listen too-- just a good song that you can sing along to in the car or around the house.”
As a result, Venegas has always pushed herself to maintain a cosmopolitan ear. When she was recording Si, it was all about hip hop, electronica, and breakbeats. When she was writing Bueninvento, she was on a T-Rex and David Bowie glam rock kick. When she wrote her first solo songs for Aqui, classical music was on heavy rotation. These days she confesses to a new-found Brazilian obsession: Lenine, Caetano Veloso, Marisa Monte, Adriana Calcanhotto.
Venegas’ ability to transform her wide range of tastes and influences into the angular rhythms and sophisticated melodic shifts of Aqui and Bueninvento immediately allowed her to stand out from the Latin mainstream, establishing her as the queen of Mexican alternative rock and earning her comparisons to PJ Harvey and Tori Amos. For Bueninvento, she was even joined by veterans of the U.S. alternative scene, including Joe Gore (Tom Waits, PJ Harvey) on guitar and Joey Waronker (Beck, REM, Smashing Pumpkins) on drums. But now thanks to the more accessible pop structures of Si (not to mention its far cheerier tone) her guitar and accordion artistry is being appreciated by leagues of entirely new audiences. For Venegas, the album is not a commercial departure, but the organic next step in her growth as a songwriter.
“I have been going through a constant process of finding my way of writing and the emotions I want to transmit in my songs,” she says. “On Aqui, I was very shy, and because some of those songs were the very first ones I ever wrote, they were very introspective. On Bueninvento I was feeling very experimental, and whatever feelings of tenderness I had on the first album I think I left out on the second one. On Si I went directly to trying to express feelings of happiness and tenderness that I was too shy to try on any other album.”
Adds Venegas, “I don´t mind Si being called a pop record at all. I did turn to pop when I started writing the songs for it, because I was mostly attracted to the simplicity of pop songs. I was looking to do the opposite of Bueninvento. Just by instinct, I wanted to try something different, and I thought that was the place to start.”
To carry out her new vision for her songs, Venegas enlisted Argentine pop songsmith Coti Sorokin as a co-writer (she co-produced the album with Sorokin Cachorro Lopez). “When I heard Coti’s music,” Venegas recalls, “I was really intrigued with what we could do together. He has a totally different way of writing than me, and I wanted to see what our combination could do. I was looking to say more with less, and I knew we could find that together.”
Her collaboration with Sorokin has proven such a success—both creatively and commercially—that we should expect him back for her next album, which she will start recording later this year. “With Si, I really started a different path and I really feel like exploring more of it, happiness. Como se dice? Plenitud! Musically I am discovering so many rhythms, that the possibilities are endless. I can’t wait to start it and see what happens.”"