Language barriers, meaningless titles, and what it takes to "bake a cake."
Juana Molina is actually a herd of people in one. Anyone familiar with the Argentine singer-songwriter’s music can attest to her many-sided-ness. Her voice is a thin, competing choir; doubling, tripling, quadrupling as a song builds. Her arrangements are busy but carefully measured. There is labor in her music. You get the sense that what fuels her is that old Romantic, artistic intuition tempered by workhorse instinct. It’s these things butting up against one another that allow her work to retain all the nuance her followers have come to expect from her.
Her sixth album, Wed 21 (Crammed Discs), is a departure from 2008’s Un Día and 2006’s Son. The world of Wed 21 is just as whimsical, just as assertive as those previous albums, but there’s a resolve in Molina’s voice and a riskiness to her decision making that feels exciting, or, to use a word she likes, raw.
Molina and I chatted via Skype—me from a couch in LA, she from her home in Buenos Aires—about the new album, musical husbands, why her music found a following in the States, and baking cake.
Paola Capó-García Is there a part of the process that gives you the most anxiety?
Juana Molina When you think you have nothing to make a record with, that emptiness in front of you is just—we call it “the fear of the white page.” Afterwards, I really enjoy the process and I think it's the most exciting part, just to make it. I really love making records. Once I start.
PCG What about the touring process? Is that less exciting or does it just feel too different from recording?
JM It’s very different, because when you put the songs together on a record you’re just recreating something that came together on its own—something really fresh—without knowing what was going to happen. But to reinvent the songs, to put them together live—there are things that I just can’t do in the live shows. Once we figure out how to recreate the songs, I do enjoy that very much, playing the new versions.
PCG I think I listen to “Sin Guia No“ like five times a day, so maybe you can guide me through the creation of that song. When you write a song, is there a particular process, or does each song call for something different?
JM I’m not sure about that. All I know is that "Sin Guia No“ in particular was the most difficult song to finish. It was one of the first ideas that came to me. I knew that I wanted it to be part of the record but for some reason the song didn’t work, even though it had lots of things that I loved. I think I had so many things going on in that song that I couldn’t just make a song with all that stuff, it was like making a cake with eggs, flour, lettuce, tomatoes, and fruit! (laughter) There were too many things, different powders, different essences, too much stuff going on in the song. And then one day I discovered the high-hat part, and that organized the whole song. But the record was almost done, and that song wasn’t part of the record and I thought, Oh, what a shame I couldn't finish this song! And then by the end I had the high-hat and that whole thing gave it a particular force and a particular—well, what the song is now.
PCG So, you do it all on your own, every aspect of your sound is you. You “bake the cake” on your own. Are you interested, for future albums, in collaborating or doing duets?
JM I think these kinds of things are lucky encounters, and very rare as well. It’s as difficult as finding a boyfriend because even though you like someone else’s music, it doesn't mean that you should work with that person. I don't like to collaborate through emails or by sending things. I think you need to be in the same room at the same time. I also think the result of the collaboration needs to be something that neither of you would do without the other, so it needs to be a completely different recipe or a completely different cake! Another cake that you have never baked before. So I just haven’t had the luck. It really is something like chemistry. You form a molecule of something new or you don't.
I had that experience with someone who was like a musical husband when I worked on Segundo. Someone just introduced us and he showed me some songs and I loved them and he came to Argentina and stayed for four months. My husband was watching us through the window thinking, “What the hell are they doing?” because we were jumping and making music and having so much fun. I wouldn't do something with somebody else if it’s not like that, just for the sake of working with somebody who has a name. I would feel very uncomfortable. I think it’s something that needs to be mutual and you need to be really lucky for that magic to happen.
PCG What about collaborating in other mediums? When I listen to the new album I find myself choreographing it. I think of these big, contemporary dance pieces and I wonder if you’ve ever though of anything like that.
JM Absolutely. My favorite thing to do is to dance and we planned—you always plan things and then you can’t do them—to have different steps for the songs, some really silly and some more energetic, never too serious. I would really love to have choreography for these tunes.
PCG You said a lot of the artists you follow are outside Argentina, but do you follow the Argentine music scene at all?
JM I don't follow any scene at all. I don't know why I became a little bit away from what’s happening in the world in general, but there are bands that I find promising. I usually don't like musicians here because they have a very strong structure of what music should be, pre-concepts of what music should be and what you should do and how you should sound. That's changing, fortunately, thanks to the Internet. It was a very square rock and roll country until 10 years ago and you needed to sound like somebody who already had recognition outside of Argentina. If not, people didn’t even want to know about you. It’s a very insecure country. (laughter) We don’t know what we like! There’s a band I like a lot called Él Mató un Policía Motorizado.
PCG I love them.
JM They’re so great. And then there are bands that don't even have records yet! Bands that my daughter knows and she shows me songs and they sound really bad but you can tell that there’s something going on there, something that could be really good in the future.
PCG Would you produce?
JM I don’t know! There’s two ways of doing it: either you do it your way and everything sounds like you, or you really go into the band and have a skill to extract the essence and the important things of this band and make it bigger. I don’t know! I’d love to produce things that I like, but again I’m scared I would make things that would sound like me and I don't know if that’s good for anyone else.
PCG Do you find audiences in the US react differently to your music than Latin American audiences?
JM I’ve been through a very strange process of having to play to American audiences before playing for Latin American audiences. So I was used to the warmth and the way they accepted the songs without understanding the lyrics, which is a big challenge for English speakers, because they are so spoiled! The whole history of pop music has been sung in English! So it’s very odd for them when you sing in a different language, there is an unconscious kind of rejection because they don’t understand the lyrics, so there is a bit of desconfianza. They don't know what to think if they don't understand the lyrics. For us—Latin American audiences or “other languages” audiences—we grew up listening to music in English. So, for us, it’s easy to understand music without having the lyrics. I don't think it’s the same in your case because I think you’re as American as you are Latin, right?
PCG At this point yes, but I grew up in Puerto Rico.
JM So you know what I mean. I think that's been a big barrier between what I do and English-speaking audiences because there’s this thing that they are not used to, accepting something they can’t fully control. That's my understanding of the English and Americans. They’re used to having power over the world in general. So anything that is not in English is something unknown and I think the unknown can be a bit disturbing.
But, knowing that, it would be weird for me to sing in English. I can say some things that I need to say in English—like in “Eras”—because it’s someone else telling me to “come quickly.” It’s not me saying that. I don’t think I could just write a song in English in order to please other people. I need a better reason.
PCG It’s interesting to me that your success has depended on your arrangements of the music and your voice, rather than on the lyrics. So what do you make of your success in the States? Because not a lot of artists cross over, and yet the U.S. embraced you. Why do you think your music struck a chord with American audiences?
JM Well, I’m not sure. Because I grew up listening to pop bands that were in English and everything else I listened to—like classical music, jazz, bossa nova, whatever came into my ears—I was drawn by the music only. Even now, if a song is sung in Spanish, I don’t know the lyrics! (laughter) Not even for my favorite artists. I just can’t pay attention! I give myself to this music that takes me for a ride with landscapes and all these sorts of things. That’s exactly what I’m doing. I speak a universal language that anybody who likes music can understand without knowing what I’m talking about, because it’s not important.
PCG I read that “Wed 21"" is named after the specific day that you wrote the song. But why title the whole album after that song? What was it about that song in particular that felt evocative enough for the rest of the album?
JM Actually, it was my daughter’s idea! She doesn't speak English, so she said, “Why don't you call it Wed 21. It doesn't mean anything.” (laughter) I thought it was robotic but the cover is a bit robotic too. It’s like calling the record R2D2. It doesn't mean anything, it’s just a way to find it.
I was going to call it Eras. I liked how in English that could also be understood as eras, and that it had meaning in many languages. But in Spanish, that title is too mellow and the record is not mellow at all. I couldn't find anything better to call it, and “Wed 21” is the one song that doesn’t have any lyrics. In a way I think that song is very different from whatever I have done before. I don’t think it's the best song of the album, but I think it’s the most different. So, Wed 21 doesn't mean anything. It’s a nomenclature, just a couple of letters and numbers.
PCG But it works so well because you have more instruments in the mix on this album. It feels more industrial and aggressive than Son and Un Día. Were you conscious of this or was it just what happened in the moment? Did you set out to make a more aggressive album?
JM I didn't think about it being “aggressive.” I didn't think about that word, but I thought about the attitude. I just wanted something raw and less elaborate. Of course, I can never stop before I elaborate too much, but the original impulse was to make something really raw with no embellishments at all. But then I can’t help it, I just go into arrangements, they just come to me and it’s hard to tell them, “Go away, arrangements, I don’t want you here!” (laughter) They sneak in.
PCG There’s a moment in “El Oso De La Guarda” that feels like a big release, when the synths go off minimally at the end. It sounds like these creaking doors opening and closing, and for me that felt like a moment of rest—an exhaustion from all these industrial or aggressive sounds which are now quieting down. What did that moment mean to you?
JM Actually that sound sneaked in! There’s this sound that I programmed a long time ago where you play a note and that note repeats randomly, with random intervals and random lengths. So if you play two or three notes, then you have this concert of notes doing what you hear there. So I was playing that sound—once you play it you can’t shut it up because it goes forever—by accident and I couldn't shut it up. I made it much, much shorter, because at first it was about 15 minutes. When I found a probable end I decided to finish and cut it there. And then, I have a very squeaky chair and I don't know what I was recording but the chair sang so I added it. Things are lucky accidents. I don't have a pre-concept or idea. Things just happen and my only power is deciding whether they stay in the record or not.
PCG Vocal looping is such an integral part of your project. At this point, what does the looping represent to you and your music?
JM Well I was very disappointed when looping became a new tool for everybody because I was the only one doing that for a long time. Then I understood that it’s just a tool. But I don't use looping pedals in the records, only in the live shows, so what sounds looped is actually sung many times. It’s not a repeated vocal, it’s not a clone or a sample, except for the live shows. I have to loop live though, because if I didn’t I would need more musicians.
PCG Whenever I hear the looping, it sounds like a haunting, or like the voices are in conversation with one another. It’s really dynamic. How do you think of it in relation to your music?
JM I don't know. It’s just something that I need to do. I record something and then I listen and while I’m listening, another idea comes and I record it immediately so the process of making a song is just to play it over and over and to always have the tracks ready in case there is an idea that I’ll forget two seconds later. I can just hit record and the idea will not be forgotten. I can’t explain the way I feel when I record because it’s not like now, when I look at a computer screen and I’m looking at the track page and the screen with the empty space of the Skype photo. When I’m recording, I’m somewhere else. All these melodies and looping vocals are a part of a soundscape. Vocals and any instruments are just things that come into this process of “cooking.”
PCG Not to push because this one just came out, but it took you five years to record Wed 21. Do you think the next one will take just as long?
JM No! I hope not. My hope is to start recording after I finish all this touring. So if I can keep those months at the end of the year clear, I’d like to start working on a new one. There are things that stayed out of the record that I’d like to work on and other things that I’ve been recording recently. I just want to go for it and make another one quickly.
PCG Are you filming a video any time soon, to follow up “Eras?”
JM Yes, we are making a video of “Sin Guia No.” Yay!
PCG Yay! (laughter) I feel like you have the kind of storied life or background that people would love to see in writing. Have you ever been approached to write a memoir or any kind of book? Are you attracted to that idea?
JM I admit I am quite good at prose and I have written a few things. Sometimes I wake up with a sentence and I think, This is the beginning of the book! This is the perfect sentence to start a book! An immediately engaging thing that awakens the curiosity of the reader. But I haven’t written one yet and I don't know if I will. When I’m in the mood, I write really long letters or emails, and I get the same way as I do when I record songs. I get totally involved. And then I look at it and it’s too long!
Juana Molina's Wed 21 is out now on Crammed Discs, along with newly reissued versions of her previous albums.
Paola Capó-García is a poet, reporter, and translator from San Juan, Puerto Rico, based in San Diego, CA. She edits Remezcla, an online music source focusing on independent music from Latin America.