Julieta Venegas: Mexican Spring

While in Montevideo for a couple of shows, Mexican singer Julieta Venegas gave Panorama of the Americas an interview and talked about her new album, Algo sucede, the topics that inspire her compositions, her favorite literature, and the troubled political situation in her country.

By: Gloria Algorta
Photos:  Cortesia

Julieta Venegas exudes an air of freshness and spontaneity throughout our interview. After the customary greetings, she gives her cell phone a quick glance, anxious for news of her daughter Simona, and we get down to work.

Julieta, tell me about your new album, Algo sucede.

Well, I produced the whole thing with two people: Yamil Rezc in México and Cachorro López in Argentina. To me it feels like a very bright album, with a lot of acoustic instruments, stories of encounters and the way life can twist you around or be nice to you. It’s very spring-like. It also contains the essence of the pain I feel for México, which I need to express. And my childhood and adolescence are both present in it.

Are your childhood and adolescence present in the first song of the album, “Ese camino”?

My childhood is in “Ese camino” and my adolescence is in another song. I’ve been reading a Norwegian writer, Karl Knausgård, who writes about his life, his relationships, and it got me thinking and writing about my childhood and adolescence. “Ese camino” is a song about my childhood, from the perspective of my adult self. You know what I mean? The way time goes by and you forget the concrete, everyday things, but certain feelings remain. You come across a kind of food that they made you when you were a kid, or you go by the place where you went to school and it’s like, “Wow!” Something happens, right? It takes you back. I think we all hang on to a part of what we were as children, the naiveté maybe. We’re all a little naive, right? Thank goodness! If we were to lose the little bit that’s left, if we allowed it to get diluted, we’d shut down.” That’s my theory anyway. But it’s just a theory [laughs].

But it’s a good theory; I stand behind it. You’ve read about memory, you’ve read Proust, In Search of Lost Time.

Of course! I read the first three volumes ten years ago and am reading the third one again now. I alternate between Proust and Knausgård and they both deal with memory. I love reading Proust; it’s really entertaining. It’s also difficult, because of the long sentences… He writes something very beautiful, very well thought out, about everything he sees.

Is it true that your song “Los momentos” is based on a poem by Borges?

Yes, it’s based on “Lo perdido.” That poem is beautiful. He’s talking about a parallel world and I was thinking in terms of the decisions you make in life. They take you in one direction but what about the other direction, you know? I wrote a song inspired by that feeling and several of the songs on this album deal with the same sensation. Algo sucede also deals with the question of the unexpected. In fact, I called the album Algo sucede because something can always happen; things can get turned around, your life can suddenly flip over and you think: “Wow! I had no idea!”

In other words, there’s always time?

There’s always time and opportunities, as long as we’re alive!

Tell me about your music videos, which are always so unique.

I really like making videos, choosing a director with his own strange world and having him suggest things. And maybe I’ll suggest a few things. That’s my job: finding people who have this playful thing in their videos and, yes, I have fun.

There’s something surreal about them. In one, flowers spring up wherever you step.

Yes, that’s “Lento.” And another one has butterflies coming out of women.

And the one with the balloon.

Yes, that’s the video for “Me voy.” Many of them are like metaphors. A metaphor for “I let go of what I can’t use.”

Exactly, because you throw away the vacuum cleaner, the TV, and at the end, the man.

Right. I throw him away literally [laughs again].

What made you start playing the accordion after you learned classical piano and cello? 

The accordion has to do with México. I started playing when I was younger and I was curious about it. In time, I began using it more and more as a Mexican element.  At first, it was more melodic, more melancholy. Later I started to use it like they do in Norteño music and I really liked the sound; there’s something about the accordion that gets the party started.  There’s also something humorous in it, something relaxing; no matter what you mix it with, it makes you happy again. I never know why I choose certain instruments; it’s very emotional.

Because you’re a very emotional person.

Well, in the way I write and when it comes to music, I’m very emotional. It’s like choosing colors. I don’t know why, but sometimes I’ll say: “No, I don’t want it so acoustic,” or “No, not that instrument.” I went through a period when I didn’t want to use all the metallic drum sounds. Sometimes, as an exercise, I like to get rid of the known and find ways of replacing it. I think that with “Los momentos” I wanted to make a more serious record.  More serious than this one, for example. And, I don’t know, the accordion just didn’t seem to fit.

And what about in this album, Algo sucede? 

Most of the songs on this album have accordion on them. There are lots of acoustic instruments: Venezuelan cuatros, acoustic guitars, horns… We created a more colorful sound, which I really like.  Even the lyrics… I was able to get into subjects that have always been difficult for me.

There are songs about disappeared people.

Right. I couldn’t, I didn’t want to avoid the subject. It’s as if in México we want to just accept this reality and I find that horrifying. You can’t pretend it’s normal and say: “Oh, sure, look at what happened in Iguala, or in such and such a place.” It’s terrible, horrific, like we’re adrift in a boat. It’s not a question of “what’s going to happen to me?” I don’t know, right now in the capital you feel okay. It doesn’t feel unsafe.  It seems like we’ve lost touch with the value of life, you know? Things can happen, people disappear every day, the femicides… things that I find very painful and make me wonder: “What’s going on? What’s happened to us?”

You’re from Tijuana.

Yes, I’m from Tijuana. What was happening in Juárez is more on the other side, but it’s still a border town. I think Tijuana is a wonderful border town, I really do. Tijuana has had it’s own very difficult moments too, but it has calmed down. There are many places in México right now where violence springs up, then dies down, then springs up again. Something very powerful is happening. I wrote two songs that have to do with México. One is “Explosión,” because it’s important to me to not avoid the subject. It’s hard… I don’t often write such explicit songs, but I said to myself: “I have to do it, I have to try, I can’t turn away and write another pretty song, another love song…” It was the hardest song to finish, because I’m not used to writing about my social or political convictions. I’m more emotional. And I wanted it to be a pop song. I didn’t want to write a very serious song about a difficult subject. It’s great when someone is singing along to the song and says: “Wait a minute! What’s this about?” I don’t think it will change anything. You write songs because you need to and if anything happens with them, great. If I can make two people talk about a subject… I always say we don’t have the answers. We can ask questions, like anyone else; the difference is that we do this in our own way.

We were on tour when Ayotzinapa happened; we were all super depressed, it was such a sad thing. It’s like you always block it out a bit: “Oh, it’s the drug traffickers.” But when forty-three students disappear, student teachers, training to be rural teachers… It brings you face to face with something much more powerful. It blew up in our faces.

Is that why the song is called “Explosión”?

There are two songs are about it. “Explosión” talks about the disappearances, it could be a student, or a woman, about how the lives of some people have no value, how justice never comes to them… because it doesn’t! It’s a song about helplessness, that “what are we going to do?” feeling. How can we keep this from happening? It’s a metaphorical explosion: how can we change a little; you can’t just go on with business as usual, right? “Una respuesta,” the other song, isn’t so explicit. We were on tour in México and the last thing I wanted was to get up and sing “Limón y sal,” you know? And I had to tell people: “I don’t have the song I need right now. I feel a deep sadness, I don’t know how to explain it, but I can sing my songs, which is all I have to give; I have nothing else.” So “Una respuesta” is about not having the right words at the right time and how sometimes reality beats you. “Una respuesta” is much more open to interpretation, but both songs are about México. So, yes, there’s a little of everything. And lots of joy. There’s a song called “Buenas noches, desolación,” which is like “Bye-bye, no more sorrow”… like [laughs and waves goodbye with both hands].

Is there anything you’d like to say to our readers?

Well, that Algo sucede comes out on Aug. 14. We’ll see you here or there, and thank you very much.

The day after our interview, Montevideo’s daily El Observador reported that Julieta visited one of the city’s best bookstores and bought a book by Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa. That night she played the first of her two concerts at the National Auditorium, where I watched her perform, unleashing her charms and talent, and ended up dancing with the rest of the audience in a grand finale.