Julieta Venegas - LA ENTREVISTA: Part 1

Last Friday, Club Fonograma had the privilege of interviewing Julieta Venegas. Since the show was in Texas, we dispatched "the World's First Julieta Venegas Scholar" (big thanks to reader "FalsaBaiana" for providing that nickname) to meet up with her in a secret locale underneath one of San Antonio's many historic missions (or a hotel lobby, Andrew can't really remember). Because of the sheer length of the interview, we have decided to break it up into two parts.

Part one of the conversation touches on many topics, resolving personal crises through music, who Julieta writes music for, and the "simplicity" of her work. Women farting butterflies will be addressed in part two. Enjoy!

Andrew Casillas: I was struck by something that you said in a previous interview, that your music loves saying things in a simple way, but that it’s not entirely simplistic. Does that really describe the approach to your current music or is that always how you’ve approached your craft?

Julieta Venegas: Nah, I think I started approaching it after awhile. When I did Aquí, I never really thought about it, [because] I was barely starting to write songs, and with Bueninvento, it was probably the opposite of that. And I think when I did , I was trying to find another way to write and to express myself. The way I was doing it was sort of wandering, and I just wanted to get to the point, and I didn’t know how to do that. So I guess it’s something I started looking for after my third album.

AC: You’ve also said about Aquí being a better reflection of yourself, but you made that album when you were 26—

JV: Yeah, but those songs were really old. “Esta Vez” I wrote when I was like 17 or 18.

AC: Well, your songs are very detailed for short 3-4 minute songs, and the songs are really character-driven. Are these characters basically pieces of your personality extracted from yourself, or do you approach these sketches like say, a novelist, where you’re writing specific kinds of characters, and certain ones may have specific pieces of you but for the most part they’re their own whole entities?

JV: I think it’s a little bit of both. I think it’s a little more me, especially because when I write something I think “What would I say in this situation? What would I do? How would I react? What would I like to say?” and that’s basically sort of the point where I start to write. So I think it’s pretty autobiographical in the sense that it does express my way of thinking about things, but not in an anecdotal way in the sense of “This is what’s happened; now I’m going to write about it.”

AC: So what was your motivation for those early records, based on what you were saying about your songwriting ethos? How do you look at those albums now?

JV: I think I took myself a lot more seriously. I think I found my sense of humor on my third album, in the sense that when I put it out, I was really trying to react against my own prejudices. Like when I came out dressed as a bride on the cover, it was like the most extreme thing that I had ever done, and in a sense the joke was on [me]. It was saying “Hey, I’m not going to take myself so serious anymore” and I wasn’t going to care what other people were going to say because I knew I was playing with extremes, but it was also an experiment for myself in every sense. It was sort of this psychological thing I was trying to fix up, I was trying to grow as a songwriter, and I was also reacting to Bueninvento, which was a hard album to make, hard to play, hard to put out—it was just a very bad time for me. And when I finished the whole process of making it I was in some sort of crisis—“What am I going to do now? What do I want to write about? How do I want to express myself? Who am I now? Are my songs really affecting who I am now?” it was all of these questions. So I spent about a year in crisis. Also, people stopped answering my telephone calls. The record company, Gustavo Santaollalla, everybody was just sort of cut off from me, and I had a lot of questions and I just finally found my way out. But I do feel that Aquí and Bueninvento express another point of my life but it’s like when you see an old picture and think “Oh, that’s funny how I wore my hair like that” but you never say that you actually want to go back there, you just think “That’s the way it was.” A lot of people get mad at me all the time telling me “You should be more like in Bueninvento, back to being a punk rocker,” and I say “Punk rocker? I was never a punk rocker! I was always a songwriter”—

AC: I think it was the nose ring.

JV: Ohhhhh the nose ring. I didn’t have any tattoos {laughs}, but what I was always following, ever since I wrote my first song, was songwriting. Songwriting was always very different, a lot more complex. When I did Bueninvento, they were like orchestrations rather than songs. If you wanted to play any song on Bueninvento, like “Instantánea” or “Casa Abandonada,” I had to play at least 5 instruments. I couldn’t play with a guitar and nothing else. The way it was written was with the whole building [process], so after that I just said “No, I want to do a song that I can play with a guitar, with just the piano,” I didn’t have to think about all of that instrumentation.

AC: About a year ago, you played at a symposium at USC, and you had to play “Casa Abandonada” and you admitted that you didn’t remember how to play that song very well anymore. Was it because you just don’t identify with the person who made that song, or because of the crisis that emerged from the Bueninvento sessions, or do you just not like playing those songs anymore?

JV: Well, I had never played it on piano before, it was written on accordion. I think I can still play it on accordion without trouble, but it was sort of like a riddle. I realized that my songs are like riddles, and I guess I am lazy to play those songs because it’s like “Wow, this is like a trabalengua [tongue twister], where you play with words and move them around into a game.”

AC: Who do you write music for? For yourself as a songwriter trying to test yourself out or to see how you write about personal experiences, or do you write with your audience in mind?

JV: Nah, it’s totally selfish. I’m all about me {laughs}. When I’m writing, it’s very therapeutic, and yes it’s about placing tests on myself, and also talking about things so I can think about them in different ways. And I love words; putting stories together. I just love doing that and, yeah, it’s totally selfish.

AC: Moving on to your “pop era,” what was the major motivation behind the change in your sounds? Was it just that you wanted to write easier songs or that you wanted songs that could appeal to a wider range of people, or was it just because you met Coti and thought “Alright, someone can help me write pop songs”?

JV: {laughs} No, I think it was mostly about the songs. When I finished going through the whole Bueninvento trek, I was not even conscious that it was a complex album until I started playing it live. I thought it was easy to play live, and when I started playing it, people would be super nice to me and they were all like “She’s cool because she’s one of us, she’s a rocker,” but no one would sing along to a song; [I] didn’t think they were getting it, so I felt a little bit isolated when I started writing again. Also, I had done a few covers, which I realized that I really liked singing and they were so simple. And I was like “How come I can’t, as a songwriter, do what I want as a singer?” I mean, I loved singing these simple songs that had simple, direct stories just happening there—“That’s not so hard, and it doesn’t have to be so hard.” And when I started writing, I was like “That’s really hard!” Trying to get to that is very difficult, or for me it was. My songwriting has always been very intuitive so it’s like I don’t know what I’m doing. At one point, a friend, who then became my manager, said “Why don’t you get together with Coti, he’s this songwriter from Argentina” and I listened to his album and I was like “I don’t even like his album, so why would I want to get together with him?” and he said “No, because he’s really into the Beatles, he’s a really simple songwriter, I think you guys could make a good combination.” So I got together with him, and I was kinda curious about it, because I was like “Maybe I can learn something from him,” because I really felt like by myself I was just going around in circles—I wanted to do something different but I didn’t know how to get there. So I got together with Coti, and it was pretty cool because he does have a totally simple approach, but his personality is totally different from mine. So I think we made a good combination, because they weren’t as poppy of [songs] as they could have been, but they weren’t as dark—we found a middle point. So yes I did learn a lot from that experience, I think my songwriting did go in a different direction as I started to get together with Coti.

AC: So it was like in a sense, you’re making something more timeless, something more digestible. You found that middle ground that wasn’t so fluffy that the old fans would just hate you for—

JV: No, that I would like. It’s not like I’m a bipolar person, and all of a sudden I became like {gestures}—because I think my personality is the same but I did find, like I said before, a sense of humor in things and the ability to change and express things a little bit differently, and I think that was a big test for me.

AC: Speaking of a sense of humor, or rather a lack of one, how did you feel about some of your long-time fans’ response to ?

JV: The thing is though, with Bueninvento I felt really alone, I didn’t feel connected to people, I didn’t feel like I had this super fanbase which were betrayed by me changing musically or anything—I was really alone. A lot of people started coming out and yelling like “Oh my God, I’m a fan of Bueninvento!” and I’m like “You were probably five when Bueninvento came out so I don’t think you were at any of the shows” because the only place where I think that people actually sang along and were really passionate about the songs was at a show I did in Orange County in what must have been like 2002 {laughs}, I mean, it wasn’t like an album that I could have said that a lot of people really connected with and understood. It’s sort of like the “last album dilemma,” you know, everybody’s like “I like your last album better,” not this one. So I wasn’t really worried about it because I felt really disconnected and really didn’t know where I was going and I had to follow my own instincts. I wasn’t thinking about other people, because I had no idea what was going to happen. For all I knew, could have been a flop completely, and I wasn’t really thinking about that. To me, it was all about trying to change, and trying to do something that would help me get out of the dark little place that I was at and I felt really stuck with it. So I was like “I’m just gonna break that, and I don’t care what happens,” and I wasn’t thinking about “What are people going to think? What are my fans going to think?” because I didn’t even think that I had fans, I was so isolated at that point that I had no idea what was going to happen.