Carla Morrison: Daughter of Tears

A romantic break-up inspired her raw, melancholy album, Déjenme llorar, which made her the new voice of México and brought her worldwide recognition, launching her to stardom on Latin America’s indie scene.

By: Roberto Quintero
Photos: Carlos E. Gómez

Carla Morrison is Latin America’s new indie phenomenon. Just 27-years-old and four years into a solo career, she quickly moved from playing her songs in front of small audiences in bars and selling CDs she burned on her computer, to winning Latin Grammies with her most recent album, Déjenme llorar, in the Best Alternative Album and Best Alternative Song categories (for the song that gave the production its name). The album was also nominated for Album of the Year and Song of the Year. It was as if fame had been waiting just around the corner to give her a warm embrace.

She can’t quite say how it happened. It seems like only yesterday she decided to throw her hat into the ring as a solo artist. In 2009, she decided to stop working as the vocalist for Trío Babluca, a band with which she earned nominal recognition while studying in Phoenix, Arizona. She recorded her first EP, Aprendiendo a aprender, and returned to her native Tecate, México. “I uploaded it to MySpace and that’s where Julieta Venegas and Natalia Lafourcade found out about me and started asking me to go to this coffeehouse and then that one, and then all of a sudden a coffee shop in the next town, until I played at one in a faraway town I’d never been to before.”

The dice had been tossed; thanks to word of mouth and social networks, Carla’s name caught fire. A growing audience succumbed to the charms of her sad songs, sung in a beautiful, melancholy voice. Next, singer/songwriter Natalia Lafourcade offered to produce her next record. “That opened up a lot of doors and I started meeting a lot more people.” This brought about Mientras tu dormías, her 2010 release, and her first Latin Grammy nomination. And, as if by magic, she went from singing in front of small audiences to playing packed shows at the Vive Latino Festival in México, one of Latin America’s biggest, most important musical events.

The rest is history. She won two awards at the most recent Latin Grammies and now travels the world promoting her music. In the middle of her US/México tour, she took a detour to Panama’s capital for a few days to promote her upcoming shows in October and November of this year in Argentina, Uruguay, Colombia, Chile, and Panamá, before going on to Europe. 

Your recent album, Déjenme llorar, launched you to fame. Tell me about the work that went into the production and the heartrending experience you sing about on this album.

I recorded Déjenme llorar at home, in Tecate, before I moved to Mexico City. In a home studio, an extremely home studio. We used blankets and mattresses to keep the sound in. I wanted to record in Tecate because I wanted the record to carry the energy from my homeland, where I was born and grew up. And I wanted it to have the vibe from the place where I experienced everything I sing about in the record, which was based on, and inspired by, a love affair in which I lived almost exclusively for the other person. The relationship came to an end and I got my inspiration from the time of the break-up, when I wrote all those songs. So it was important to me to make the record sound as raw and real as possible. Even though it was kind of humiliating and I was scared to death because I thought, “I don’t want people to listen to my most private things. How embarrassing!” But, at the same time, those are the things that make you blossom and that’s more important than being embarrassed.

So I went to live in Mexico City (in October of this year I will have spent two years there) and my record came out, which has been all good and very powerful. I’ve stepped onto stages in México after only two or three years, knowing perfectly well that it took many of my Mexican musician friends up to ten years to play venues like these. This has all happened so fast; it’s been emotionally very powerful for me.”

How do you explain the phenomenon your music has become? Do you think about things like that?

I don’t know if fate exists. Life is so complicated. Sometimes I stop to think about the fact that I’m alive and the things I’m doing, and these are the things that just blow me away. But, of course, it’s wonderful. Sometimes I think it’s God’s plan for me. Sometimes I think I was just lucky. But most of the time I think it’s something that was kind of in the cards, but that if I’d made other decisions the road could have been different. When I was little I always said I wanted to sing. I wanted to show the world I could sing. There was a moment I’ll never forget: one day, when I was seven years old, my dad said to my mom, “Honey, I had such a crazy dream. I dreamed we were at a concert and there was a lot of people shouting and I knew one of my daughters was up there singing, but I didn’t know whether it was Carla or Alejandra.” Inside, I said to myself, “It’s me! It’s me!” because that was my dream and I hadn’t told anyone about it.

Do you think México needed a new voice and that’s why you’ve been so successful and the public has reacted so favorably to your work?

A lot of people have said that. I do think that, as a fan, from what I felt as a spectator, I needed someone I could admire that way. I mean, when somebody hurts me and I feel sad, I want to listen to José José, I want to hear Lola Beltrán, and I want to listen to the people who sing songs with real lyrics. I don’t want to listen to something modern that isn’t talking about those things. I don’t mean it’s a bad thing; it’s just that the kind of music that talks about love, about pain and your heart, wasn’t around anymore. Or at least I felt it wasn’t out there. And I wanted to make that kind of music. I want to give people real music, music that talks about real pain, normal things that everyone feels and nobody has the guts to talk about. So I tried to do something that could be assimilated. But it wasn’t a tactic; it was about feeling, speaking from the heart. I don’t want to make fashionable music; I want to do something that will leave a real mark. So I started from there, and people often say, like you mentioned about México’s “new voice,” that thanks to my record they got past a horrible noise, or that my music gives them hope and relaxes them. But I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I am the new voice of México, because I’m nobody.

Was love just a circumstantial theme, or do you see yourself singing and writing romantic music throughout your career?

Sometimes I think so, but the idea also bores me sometimes. I try to write real songs about what is happening to me. My first EP talks about love and loneliness too. The second one talks about love and confusion. This last record is all about falling out of love. And I don’t know what my next record will be about; I have a lot of songs for it already but I still don’t know which way it’s headed. I don’t know which way I’m headed. I would like to always work the same way, from the heart. If one day I want to make dance music, I hope it will be because something in my heart moved me to do it, and not because I want to sell more records or break into a market. I don’t care about that. I just want to make it to 80 and still be singing and playing guitar.

So you don’t think about genres…

Sometimes I get an idea and I think I’d like to do this or that. But the real Carla inside says, “No, you’re not going to do anything like that. You’ll do whatever comes to you in the studio while you’re recording that song.” Naturally, after two Grammies, there are days when I think I have to make a great record. And that does scare me. And when I start to feel insecure I say, “No, what I’m going to do is go in the recording studio and make the record I need to make.” And if while I’m in there I play some kind of punk guitar, then that’s what it will be. I’m not going to try to say or do something just because I want to be cool. I’ve proven that being yourself sells; it’s not enough to just be cool.

How has winning two Latin Grammies so young and at the very beginning of your career defined you?

That doesn’t define me. It motivates me. It’s like an incentive. It makes me feel special and it’s like hearing, “Hey! You’re doing great” You know? But it’s no guarantee. Sometimes I look at the Grammies in my living room and say, “I’m legit! This is all real and it’s really happening to me.” That’s fine, but I don’t think, “Wow! I’m so special! I’m such an incredible songwriter!” It doesn’t define me and I don’t feel like I’m better than anyone. What I love about winning the Grammy, more than anything else, is knowing that my indie colleagues can also do it if they want; the Academy isn’t focused exclusively on Beyoncé and Shakira, whom I also admire, naturally. If you want something and you put your mind to it, they may choose you too, even if you’re an independent artist. And that message, which people got through what happened to me, is extremely valid.

Aren’t you afraid of the public’s expectations?

Yes, at one point I felt frightened thinking about what would happen after the two Grammies, more like what would happen if I released a record and it didn’t win a Grammy. I’ve thought about all that, but I try not to focus on it too much or let it worry me, because that’s not what’s important. What’s important is to keep playing and act as if I hadn’t won anything.

In spite of your success, you’ve chosen to remain an independent artist, handling your own career. What motivated you to uphold that decision?

It’s a beautiful way to work. It’s like making homemade cupcakes. If you make them at a big factory, they’ll taste good, but there’s nothing like the love you can put in them. A lot of record companies tried to get close to me, and my friends signed to labels said, “Don’t sign with them.” I asked them, “What do you get from a record company? What do they have to offer?” They told me and I realized I was earning more money than my friends who had spent years working in the industry. It’s terrible; it’s just not right.

Also, if a friend of mine wants to collaborate on the picture for the cover of the next record, she would have to get through about twenty filters before hearing “no” or “I don’t know.” As an independent artist, I can tell the photographer directly, “I love your work; I want to work with you. How much do you charge?” And I can help that artist out too, put their work up on my social networks and talk about how they helped me and we can all help each other. Why would I want to work with so many filters if I don’t even ask my mom for her opinion? I feel very comfortable doing things at home, handling my own career in my own time. I don’t need anyone to say to me, “Come and write; you have to have a record out in December.” Because I’m not a machine; I’m a person with a heart and a soul. I won’t do it. At the end of the day, I never wanted to make music to become a super star. If I had, I’d have a different body, a different face, and I’d be somebody else. That’s not bad, but that’s not what I live for.