24 Hours with Ximena Sariñana

Last Monday, Club Fonograma’s Andrew Casillas saw Ximena Sariñana perform as her tour rolled through Austin, TX. Despite each party’s best efforts to meet up after the show (Andrew could not be found because apparently his green sweatband isn’t bright enough), they were resigned to congregate the following afternoon. What started out as a casual invitation to lunch turned into a 24-hour whirlwind of shopping, drinking, shit-talking, and intellectual discourse. Oh, and he managed to squeeze in an interview during al
l of this. What follows is an account of that 24-hour period, with the pertinent transcriptions appearing intermittently throughout…

Tuesday, 3 p.m.

I met up with Ximena and her band at a vintage store on South Congress avenue, a multi-block strip of secondhand stores, trendy and moderately-priced restaurants, a variety of food carts, and frustratingly impossible parking. However, I didn’t so much meet her band, as I noticed them. Mainly, because they were the only Latinos on the block dressed with the same hipster panache as me. So, yeah, don’t let anyone ever tell you that racial profiling never works. [Writer’s Note: This is not an excuse to racially profile anyone. Apartheid’s over, people.] After exchanging well-mannered greetings and jokes about the sweltering heat with the band, Ximena came out of the shop. After a quick introduction, we agreed to conduct an interview as we all walked from shop to shop. From the moment we walked into our first kitsch-filled antique store and began expressing incredulous statements as to some of the items (Seriously, a wooden doll arm for $18. Not the doll itself. Just the arm. Creeeeeeeeeeepy.), I knew that this was going to be unlike any other Club Fonograma interview that I’ve ever conducted.

Andrew Casillas: You’re 24, but you made that last album about 3 years ago. A lot of the songs weren’t really about things that you’d think a 21 year-old would really sing about.

Ximena Sariñana: Depends on the 21 year-old. Some of them are intense.

AC: Take for example, “Normal,” [Writer’s Note: I probably the greatness of “Normal” about 77 times throughout our time together. Sorry of it bugged you, Ximena] that’s a song which, on it’s face, is about this unbearable kind of weight being put on a romantic relationship, with this world weary tone. It’s the type of song you’d expect to hear from a singer who’s really lived what its saying. Would you say that your music is mature beyond your age, or do you just see the music as a reflection of your life?

XS: Well yeah, I just write about stuff that, at least on that first album, that’s very reflective. I think stuff through a lot, and I try and find to see what I’m doing wrong than what other people do. I’m always questioning myself and the outcome of things—that’s how I was brought up, to always question myself. On the first album there’s a lot of that, looking back at relationships and analyzing things from a very cold point of view, very dark—

AC: Analyzing things from you personally? Or things that you’ve seen?

XS: No, from my personal view. For example, “Normal” was kind of like a lot of relationships grouped together on one song, and it was just talking about how everything in the end, like you’ll go into a relationship and everything is so passionate, and so full of feelings, and everything is so extreme, and then time passes, and it’ll turn into something normal—it’ll end. Or how, at the same time, it’s something that you feel very passionate about but everybody’s been through that kind of intense love. Being normal just takes validity out of it—everyone going through it kind of takes away the value. And that’s kind of like what “Normal” spoke about. But there’s a lot of that in the first album. It’s very reflective about past situations and my feelings about them and analysis. It’s very open and honest, and I’m not worrying at all about being judged.

Tuesday, 4 p.m.

Continuing our discovery of Austin’s most decadent ephemera, Ximena, her band, and I began discussing some of the more notable features of Austin’s nightlife. Or at least, I attempted to, until the conversation turned towards where one can get cheap beer in this town. [Writer’s Note/Travel Tip: Barton Springs Saloon has $1 Miller High Life on Tuesdays. Really, there’s no other option.] Of course, the natural result of this talk on frugality was Ximena deciding to buy a pair of shoes.

AC: It’s interesting that we’re referring to your songwriting being very personal, because you personally have a very interesting history. I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a musician whose music I passed along to friends, only to have them become excited because they remember you from a soap opera from like 12 years ago…

XS: The amazing thing about the soaps is that they just re-run them, and re-run them, and re-run them, like people recognize me more for those three soaps than for all of the music or movies that I’ve made since then.

AC: It’s because you were the antagonist. EVERYONE loves to hate the villain. Of course, you were like 13, which is sort of twisted.

XS: Hahaha. Of course.

AC: Uh-oh. It appears that [the band] wants to begin drinking…

Tuesday, 5 p.m.

So here we are. Sitting on the patio of Doc’s Motorworks, I felt compelled to re-pay Ximena and her band for allowing me and some friends free entry into her concert by buying them a few pitchers of Dos Equis. [Writer’s Note: Dos Equis really is the Bruce Bowen of beers. It’ll never be in the Hall of Fame, but still a totally reliable part of your team. Not to mention that Kobe Bryant really hates them both.] From here, Ximena and I discussed serial television (fine, we just talked about novelas), fast food (she calls San Antonio-based fast food chain Taco Cabana her “favorite thing ever.” As someone from San Antonio, I say “Ew.”), and carbonated soda (particularly Big Red, which honestly is the most delicious thing ever), before continuing with the interview.

AC: What is your goal? Are you just trying to grow specifically under your own terms or do you want to become as big a star as you can while still maintaining your sense of art?

XS: That definitely is a goal, and I think that’s everybody’s goal. I don’t think anybody will tell you the opposite, and if they do, they’re lying. {laughs} It’s like the ideal process. To be able to live from what you do without compromising, what you really like without changing your artistic voice. I mean, come on! Who wouldn’t want that?! To be able to make money off of this. It’s the best deal ever.

(Writer’s Note: Ximena then takes a sip of Doc’s signature margarita, looks up, and says “Oh shit.” I think I should also mention that she was earlier warned by yours truly that said margaritas would “fuck you up.”)

XS: Once you start the path of writing and making music, and going into the business. That’s definitely the main and ultimate goal for everyone. But it never was my goal to make a living out of music. I mean, I was singing jazz and I wanted to start making an album that I was gonna do on my own and everything was gonna be super organic in little baby steps, and then as soon as I put that thought out into the world, suddenly I had managers watching out for me, and then a record contract. And then before I had two songs, I had an album that I had to turn in and then I was like “Oh shit! I gotta start writing music! Oh fuck!” I was going crazy, writing and writing, and it’s been like that since then, even with this second album. The same thing, I was thinking in baby steps, to manage it easier. And then suddenly, BOOM!, something happens that throws me into this tornado that makes me come out way higher than I thought I would be at this point.

Tuesday, 9 p.m.

After about two hours at Doc’s, I needed to get away for a few hours to study (and sober up). However, I agreed to meet up with Ximena and the band later that night at a local interior Mexican restaurant. At our second meeting, Ximena and I discussed some of the more notable events from her show, including the sound at the venue, her merchandise options, and an incident where Ximena had to tell a group of chatty women to be quiet between songs. But what I was really interested in talking about was the most abrupt change in her sound. Ladies and Gentlemen, Ximena Sariñana is now singing in English. Yes, amongst some new Spanish songs (including one co-written with Natalia Lafourcade), and old re-mixed favorites, were programming-based English-language tracks. Of course, being completely new songs, they didn’t exactly get the most enthusiastic response from the crowd, but for the most part, it was an intriguing enough direction that I had a few questions about it.

AC: You’re known for singing in Spanish, but you also speak pretty much perfect English. And you’ve proven on this tour that you can write and sing songs in English. What’s your personal feeling about the divide amongst many Latin musicians regarding singing in both languages?

XS: I’m not at all skeptical of it. I just think that the problem with a lot of musicians that sing in English before singing in their native language is that they find writing in English easier. And my only feeling with writing in English versus in Spanish is that you can do whatever you want as long as it’s a challenge, you know? That was my initial approach towards Spanish. I grew up studying in a British school, and all of the music that I mainly listened to was in English; I guess it was just natural for me to write in English first. But I found Spanish to be such a beautiful language and so important to me, to be able to master that language, that I just focused 100% on my Spanish songwriting. And that was why I started writing in Spanish, and why I developed my Spanish-style, I guess. For example, nowadays, I feel like I’ve reached a certain point in my Spanish writing that I can say that I’ve clearly established a way of expressing myself that works. Now I find it a big challenge to do it in English.

Tuesday, 10 p.m.

At this point, pretty much everyone is tired and/or drunk. At this point, everyone begins discussing music making, music writing, and music criticism. Of course, these are not topics that I’ll bore you with writing about further. Instead, I will enlighten you with some of the details from our Village People argument. Look at the following cover to their “Macho Man” 12”, which Ximena’s programmer apparently purchased earlier in the day for 25 cents (which is still about 35 cents too much for a Village People single):

OK, so I see a cowboy, a construction worker, a police officer (who clearly influenced Eddie Murphy’s late-80’s stand-up wardrobe), an Indian, and a “biker.” But WHO THE HELL IS THE GUY AT THE END SUPPOSED TO BE?! The “normal” one? Is he the older brother of Rerun from What’s Happening? Did he just forget his costume at home?! We need to have this answered!!

AC: So Spanish was the challenge at the beginning and you mastered that. Now English is the challenge. Do you, when you sit down to write, have in your mind that you’re going to write in Spanish/English today? Or does it come more organically?

XS: I wish it was like that, all organic and stuff. But to tell you the truth, it all comes from a prior decision. In my case, for example, I’d written a couple of songs in English, [while] most of my writing had been in Spanish, and then suddenly I realized that I had this bulk of Spanish songs already and very few English songs, and I went through a very important phase in my record-making process where it just hit me—I was taking the easy route. I could have produced the album myself or done more, but then everything would have been very organic, but I wouldn’t have grown as much as much as I feel like I have. That’s one of the reasons that I started writing in English more. It was part of the challenge.

Wednesday, 11 a.m.

That next morning, Ximena texted, asking for places in town where she can get fruits and veggies. While there were certainly many options around, I figured that I would suggest the Whole Foods headquarters that was a few blocks away from her hotel. However, it appears that the rest of her band was, um, “tired” from the night before, so this turned out to be a private lunch between a future big-time lawyer and a current major label pop star.

From the moment we got there, it was apparent that Ximena REALLY LOVES WHOLE FOODS. She was virtually in awe of all of the food stations, and the variety of choices available to her. And did I mention that she’s already been to Whole Foods many times?? Oh, and did I also mention that I freaked out too? And that I’ve been to this particular Whole Foods dozens of times over the past few years? What I’m saying is, I’m completely full of shit. So of course, while Ximena went from station to station looking for healthier food to eat for lunch, I went straight to the Indian station and loaded on the curry. Because NOTHING beats the heat on a 90-degree day than some spicy ass food and fresh-squeezed lemonade.

After we finally sat down to eat (the future lawyer pays, just in case you were wondering), Ximena and I kept the conversation light, mainly discussing the awesomeness of El Paso (CHICO’S TACOS FTW), At the Drive-In/the Mars Volta (Ximena’s boyfriend is guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez), and the best music of 2010 so far (her pick is Owen Pallett’s delightfully ornate Heartland, my choice is still Four Tet’s There is Love in You). But there’s also talk about her personal disdain for social networking, and how she is too easily compelled by it, but becomes frustrated by the amount of time that she ends up putting into it. And we even had a chat about Club Fonograma’s delightful commenters (we both love each and every one of you…especially Carla Morrison ;)).

AC: Obviously you have a bit of a dramatic background. Do you bring that into your music or do you consciously not act while you’re singing?

XS: I think there’s definitely a bit of acting when it comes to performance, especially when I would sing jazz standards. It really helped me to have that kind of acting background. There’s a lot of taking what you’re saying and relating it to something that you’ve lived through; find a point of recognition in the song so you can make it more your own. It’s the same process when it comes to character building. I really think that stayed with me, at least to remind myself that I’m interpreting and that I have to come through with a point, and set a point across to the audience. Acting definitely helped me do that.

Wednesday, 1 p.m.

Right in the middle of our Whole Foods shopping (Ximena wanted to pick up some gluten-free foods for the road and home [stash pictured above]; I jumped at the chance to purchase some good green chai tea), her band called asking us to meet them at the Clay Pit, a downtown Austin Indian restaurant. Resigned to the fact that Mexico would not likely come back from a 2-0 deficit to the Netherlands (CURSE YOU, VAN PERSIE!!!), I figured this would be a good distraction. What followed was some light-hearted “business” talk, and a verbal judo match over “What’s the best city in America?” with the final candidates coming down to Austin, Seattle, San Diego, and Chicago during the summertime. Oh, and there was one tip for the ladies: Girls, the key to Juanes’ heart is through Metallica. So I suggest you begin memorizing Master of Puppets and Ride the Lightning as soon as possible. I see no possible downside from this.

AC: I want to talk about the second album. Let’s face it: your first album was very successful, at least by Mexican pop standards. Do you feel any pressure for this next album, especially considering the fundamental changes in sound and language?

XS: Well…I try not to think about it in terms of success. I don’t wanna put that kind of pressure on [myself], especially now that I’m barely finishing it, and I just tried to do the best that I could, and that’s pretty much all that I was focused on. Now, when I see that the deadline is coming, that’s when my head starts thinking, more than in terms of sales, I think “Am I making the right choice? Did it come out right?” I don’t know how people are going to receive this bi-cultural, bilingual thing. There’s just a lot of fear, of course. But I guess that’s how it is with any life project or change. But I made a decision, my decision was to jump in, front all consequences, and make the best out of it, and enjoy it as much as possible.

Well, that was my 24 hours with Ximena Sariñana. While some of you may have been expecting some sort of rock star-stereotypical decadence and insanity, let’s remember that the industry has changed. No one can afford to party like they used to, well, unless you’re under the impression that Gossip Girl is a documentary.

I’d like to thank Ximena and her band (including Gustavo Gallindo) for all of their warmth and good cheer during their short time in Austin. Sadly, I was not able to procure any Big Red for them to try, but they still provided me with this wonderful quote to close this piece with:

AC: Carlos Reyes: shy, or just a giant pussy?

XS: HAHAHAHA. He’s the nicest guy, but yeah, he’s super shy. [which is totally nice girl-speak for “giant pussy.” Sorry, ‘los.]