Julieta Venegas - LA ENTREVISTA: Part 2

Last Friday, Club Fonograma had the privilege of interviewing Julieta Venegas. What follows is part two of the conversation between Julieta and "the World's First Julieta Venegas Scholar." But first, Club Fonograma would like to thank Julieta for taking the time to grace us with an interview, and everyone in her band and management for allowing us such access and treating us so kind.

Anyway, in this installment, Julieta tackles detached perspectives in songwriting, the politics of Mexican bands singing in English vs. Spanish, and of course, women farting butterflies. Enjoy!

Andrew Casillas: Much of what makes your musical style so distinctive is the juxtaposition between your lyrics and the actual music. Take a song like “Canciones de Amor,” which has a jaunty beat and sing-a-long melody, but it’s definitely not a story with a happy ending. They sound like they could be children’s songs, but when you dig deep, you realize that these are songs for 25 year olds who’ve experienced broken relationships and have been mad at the world more than once. Most pop songs are either written from the aspect of what’s happening now, or present reflections on situations past. Your music typically explores love and frustration from a distance, but not in the abstract—sort of self-conscious observations on future events. Why do you think more musicians don’t approach songwriting from that perspective, and do you even think that’s an accurate statement about your music?

Julieta Venegas: I think I’m drama-less in a way. I don’t want to write [songs] from a dramatic point of view, I want them to be more from either an ironic or some other point-of-view which is not like the immediate “Oh! I’m so hurt!” because I don’t like drama queens, I don’t like drama. For some reason, when I hear a song about suffering and everything’s awful, I just get like “Ehhhhhh, I don’t know if I feel like listening to that.”

AC: How I categorize your songs is as “bittersweet whimsy”—

JV: I like that.

AC: Would you say they’re wistful and bittersweet?

JV: Oh yeah, because, especially if you’re talking about this last album, I think there’s a lot of reflecting going on, that a lot of things happened and now I’m just thinking, and it’s pretty bad. A lot of people are saying “Oh, this album is really happy,” I don’t think it’s very happy, not lyrically at least. That’s not what I was going for, or what I was going through in the sense of the stories that I wanted to tell but I didn’t want to be “Oh, this is awful and terrible,” I just wanted to go somewhere where the stories made sense to me.

AC: Like a garden, for instance, in “Amores Platonicos.” Something like that is great because it’s humorous and quirky, but the personification doesn’t prevent it from being a true rumination on love—except now the focus isn’t on the person, but on love.

JV: But I thought it was kind of cute for me as a woman to refer to somebody’s flower. I thought that was kind of funny.

AC: What’s also kind of funny is the idea of women farting butterflies.

JV: Some people love that video and some people hate it.

AC: I was wondering about the “Bien o Mal” video. Carlos is a film studies guy and ascribes all of these meanings to the images, but I’m a writer and focus more on the narrative and symbolism. Did you have any involvement with that video’s treatment or storyline?

JV: It’s really funny because a lot of people think that I actually develop my videos, and I don’t. I’m just sort of involved [at the beginning]—I’ve been getting worse and worse with each video that I make. I mean, I come and talk to directors that I really like and they come back with an idea. And it took me so long. I kept looking at ideas and I was like “No, no, no, no, no, no” and then [the director] called me. I had never met him before, and he said “I want to show you the idea, but I want to show you the idea in person” and I said “OK.” So then he came and what you see in the video is what he showed me basically, and I said “This is perfect. This is what I want.” But yeah, it was all his idea. I don’t think there’s been one video where I’ve said “Oh, this is what I want,” because I go through the songs so many times when I’m writing and producing and arranging, the last thing I want to do is come up with a video for it. What I like especially about this video is that he gave the song a totally different view that I could have never thought about because I don’t even listen to the song anymore. I play it now but I don’t go home and listen to the album.

AC: From a technical aspect, your music has intriguing elements. For example, you use accordion to affect and express what most musicians would with a violin, or acoustic guitar, or piano. Instead, you use this old world instrument foreign to pop music, which to the uninformed listener would be sort of jarring—

JV: {laughs} How cool is that!

AC: To me it is! But let’s look at it in terms of your MTV Unplugged album, which showed how much fluidity your songs have. How do you feel about the prospect that these “simple” songs, with their unique composition and instrumentation, are amenable to change? Would you welcome artists to rearrange your songs or does changing some of the “quirks” take away your intent? Or have your feelings on “your songs” changed since you did the Unplugged?

JV: I think when I did the Unplugged it’s because I needed that. I needed to transform them. I’m just not the kind of person who improvises during a show, so I’ve been playing the songs in a certain way and even if I change a few arrangements or something, I never actually focused only on that, so to me that was what the Unplugged was about. I’m the one who basically threw the rock at MTV, saying “Yeah, I’ll do an Unplugged if you ever want,” and they said yes. But I wanted to do it because I wanted to stop, I didn’t want to go back and do a studio album, and just come out again on tour. I wanted to stop and look at what I was doing on stage and the Unplugged kind of gave me an excuse to focus on the instrumentation. It was a changeable format where I didn’t have to go back to the basic rock stuff, drums, bass, whatever. That to me just opened a whole new world. Having all of those colors [just made me think] “Wow, there’s so much stuff I can do!” It definitely taught me a lot. And definitely, Otra Cosa came from Unplugged.

AC: Since your music is so frequently ambiguous, they’re easy to approach cerebrally. How do you feel, since you write these songs so personally (and selfishly), when people place their own tags and emotions to them? Is that really the point for you, or does this kind of blow your mind how anyone can place meanings on your songs that you never thought of?

JV: It blows my mind, but I love it. As soon as I finish an album I will never go back and listen to the songs. They don’t mean the same thing to me anymore—I think “I already went through that.” Again, it’s like looking at yourself in the mirror. If you see an album, if you listen to your own album—everything there is there for a reason, I put it there for a reason, I know where everything’s at, what’s the point—there’s no mystery in it for me. So wow it’s great that other people will go and listen to it, and hate it, or love it, or live it, or whatever. Because if not, that would just be so sterile, just doing a song for yourself and leaving it there in the corner. So it’s cool when it comes out and other people kind of find things in it, and I do love it when people come to me and they go “This song was important for me at this point in my life, and it did this and meant this,” I love that. I think it’s amazing that music can actually be that. And when I’m writing, it’s not about that, but when it comes out and I’m done with it, it’s like magic.

AC: I asked that last question because I once wrote a piece for Stylus Magazine where I described the accordion coda on “Lento” as a “revelation” with the accordion “embodying the sound of love’s fruition… grasping something as ineffable as love itself.” I’ve heard you do live performances of the song many times, and it seems that each version extends and plays around with the coda, reshaping the song every time. But the ingenious bit is how the album version fades out at the precise moment that the improvisation on the live version begins, whoever made that call in the studio, that’s just awesome—

JV: Do you know what the Unplugged was for me also, now that I reflect on it a couple of years later? I think the Unplugged was a way to get away from all of the co-producing that I did and make those songs into my songs. “Algo Esta Cambiando” was made the way I would have done it, and even the older songs, even “Seria Feliz” or “De Mis Pasos” I was like “How do I want to do these songs now?” It was the first time I actually just became my own producer and thought “What do I want to do with these songs?” and I don’t have anybody telling me, or stopping me, or discussing with me—

AC: It’s like if you said “I want Natalia Lafourcade to play a saw,” then she was gonna play a saw!

JV: {laughs} Yeah! Everything that happened there was stuff that came out of my head and it was like “I love that.” It was so important to be able to do that and it was the right time and the right people to do it with because, also, to me doing a live show, it was very important who I was going to have on stage. I think I chose people more for their vibe than for their musical ability. It was more about putting a group of people together that I wanted to enjoy this, and I guess it’s the whole spirit of the thing that I just felt like expressing.

AC: You were born in Tijuana, which is of course shares a border with San Diego, so you had relatively easy access to both Spanish and English language music compared to most people in the pre-internet era. Today, anyone anywhere can seek and download music from every corner of the globe, and thus many bands, particularly Mexican musicians, are singing bilingually. Had you been raised in this generation and then became a singer, do you think you would have fallen in line with this habit?

JV: I don’t like it. I grew up in a border city, and it definitely came up at one point: “Should I sing in English or should I sing in Spanish?” which I dismissed quickly. I only sing in Spanish because that’s the language that I really emotionally grew up in, and I’ve always been emotional about writing. If I write in English, I’m using my mind, my rational side is trying to communicate. I mean, I love English—I love reading in English, I love watching films in English, I’m inspired by music in English, but it’s not something that expresses me and who I am. Is that selfish? {laughs} So it goes back to that. Even if I speak English every day, I spoke to my Mom, and my boyfriends, and my brothers and sisters in Spanish, so I don’t see how I couldn’t sing in that language, since I think that music should express what you are about. And as far as people singing in English when they’re Mexican, I have this thing about Latinos singing in English because of MySpace and because of the internet, and I feel like they’re disconnecting themselves from their place, and it’s becoming this whole universe of people who are singing with a funny accent and just kind of trying to go with the flow, because when you admire someone who sings in English you’re thinking “If I sing in English I’m gonna sound like him.” It’s not expressing who they really are. That’s just what I think.

AC: That’s interesting. This whole topic seems to be a real source of controversy in the Latin music world.

JV: I can’t help, when people send me songs of theirs, I’ll go in and tell them “Sing in Spanish,” especially people who sing or write really well in Spanish. Like Juan Son is an amazing writer in Spanish. When I hear “Cuervos” my skin just gets [the chills]. And there are singers who are just so amazing when they sing in their own language. People can do what they want, but I’ve always had a thing with that, I’m always like “Wait a minute! We should talk about this.” {laughs}

AC: What would you say to those people who just want you to make another Bueninvento?

JV: I don’t remember how to do Bueninvento, I really don’t. When I sit and write songs I don’t really sing about what I’ve done before, and I’m definitely not the person who wrote Bueninvento. She’s not coming back guys! {laughs}