Juana Molina is an Argentinean songwriter whose fourth album, Son, teems with the lush atmosphere of her home outside Buenos Aires—it is a record touched by the symphonic chatter of birds and insects, which would overtake the songs altogether were it not for the hushed power of Molina’s voice and her delicate production work.
Before she was a singer, Molina was best known in South America for her comic skills on the Antonio Gasalla show and her starring role in the comedy series Juana and Her Sisters. She abandoned the small screen in 1996, determined to write and perform her own music.
This interview took place by phone on April 5, 2006.
I. SHAKY HANDS
THE BELIEVER: One of the things everyone likes to talk about regarding your career is that you began as a TV comedian and then went on to be a singer. Was there anything about being a comic working in TV that taught you how to be a singer?
JUANA MOLINA: No, I think they were two totally different careers, because when I was acting, I was always impersonating different people, so it was never me—it was never myself. When I started to sing, I suddenly felt naked. I mean, I knew that was going to happen, because that’s the reason why I couldn’t do it before—when I was a teenager, I just couldn’t play in front of anyone at all—it was impossible, my hands started to shake, my voice was gone, and I was so self-conscious of what people would think about what I was doing. Because I didn’t know how to play songs that anybody knew—all I knew how to play were my own songs, and so I had this feeling of having my own chords and my own things that weren’t—I was afraid of being judged as doing nonsense music. But then maybe what the acting did to me was that I got more courage to do what I really wanted to do, even though I had all these fears that were still inside me.
BLVR: When you hear actors talk about their craft, it’s exactly how you said—it’s about putting a version of oneself out into the public, but it’s never exactly who you are.There’s always some level of performance. And then singers say,“What I’m giving you is the raw me— I’m putting myself out onstage every night.” But—isn’t music also a kind of acting, a kind of performance?
JM: That’s exactly the difference for me. I don’t feel like I am performing when I sing. I think a performance— I might be totally wrong, because I have this understanding of the word performance that might be different from the English definition—Let’s say, Peaches? I wouldn’t say she’s being herself onstage. She’s obviously acting, she’s performing, but if you see Cat Power, she’s not performing, she’s just playing her songs. I have the feeling that, to perform, there’s a part of it that’s not you—it’s still for the audience. It’s not the real you.
BLVR: I think you’re right—I think there are certain singers that decide that when they go onstage, they’re going to take on an alter ego. So it’s common to hear a singer say, “When I get onstage, I become a different person.” But it sounds like, for you, the difficulty of being onstage is that you’re not performing—you’re bringing the private into the public.
JM: Exactly. That’s the most important barrier I’ve had to go through. Because I feel that when some music moves me toward an imagined world, and a record takes me for a ride all along the record, and I play the record and lie down and go away with the record… I lost what I was going to say.
BLVR: You just went on exactly the sort of journey you were describing.
JM: [Laughs] Yes, I guess so.
II. DANIEL MELERO, RECORD CLEANER
BLVR: I’ve been listening to your music since your first solo record,Rara, in 1996.That record sounds really different to me from the work that’s followed. Your newer work seems to be more of an all-encompassing sonic experience, drastically different from the first record.
JM: Yes, well, the first record, it wasn’t me. I just wrote the songs and the arrangements, but the producer took control and he told me how it had to sound. We were in the middle of the alternative rock era, and I think it sounds a little bit like that. If you listen to the demos of that record, even the ones that sound horrible, even when you can barely hear the voice or the drums or whatever, the spirit is more similar than the record itself to the other records I did.
BLVR: Because you had more control.
JM: Yes. Also the main difference was that Rara was recorded in one week in a studio where we were doing one, two, maybe three takes, all playing together at the same time, after a lot of rehearsal, whereas Segundo was recorded over the course of two years, when I didn’t even realize I was making a record.We’d entered a new era, where the home studio was good enough to make records with, and, well, I didn’t notice that when I started to record the songs of Segundo. I thought I was just putting some ideas together, all these first takes that were looking for something. It was like a kind of research.
BLVR: One of the things you mentioned about the first record was about the pressure of trying to fit your sound into the Latin alternative rock world of the ’90s. But on Segundo, some of the production work was done by Daniel Melero, someone known for his associations with alternative rock.
JM: What happened was that I thought I had the record done. But when I played the record in somebody else’s house it sounded horrible. It only sounded good at home, and that was because I didn’t know about EQ. And so everything was recorded and left the way it was recorded: plain, rough, with nothing—no EQ, only pans and volume. So I met Melero, and he listened to the recording and he said,“Oh, here is a conflict—there’s a huge conflict between the guitar and the vocal.” I was so overwhelmed and so frightened from my experience with Rara—that someone could change my music— that I was on guard, so I told him,“There’s no conflict at all—what are you talking about?” And he said, “No, no, no, calm down. I’m talking about frequencies.”And I said,“What?”And he showed me that you have to EQ instruments so that you can hear them all without having one disturbing the sound of the other ones. He was originally going to master the record, but he ended up going through a sort of cleaning process. I hired Daniel Melero to clean my record.
BLVR: The reason I bring him up is that he seems to be an interesting figure in Argentinean music but also in the transformation of alternative rock in Latin America, in that he obviously has roots in alternative rock culture, working with Soda Stereo, for example, but he’s now gone off and done so much electronic music, and almost avant-garde music in some cases.
JM: He’s a guy who is always looking for new things. He’s a very interesting man to spend an afternoon with, just talking. I learned a lot by watching him work. He removed the veil from over my ears so that I could hear all these frequencies he was talking about, so that, when I recorded Tres Cosas, I could hear them already, and I didn’t need anyone to mix or EQ because I was able to do it by myself.
III. THE SHAPE OF WORDS
BLVR: When I first heard your music, I worried that you were going to get lost in an unfortunate marketing shuffle in the United States, that because your music colored outside the lines of so-called Rock en Español on the one hand,and so-called electronic music,or even world music, on the other—you weren’t overly “ethnic” or “folkloric” or anything like that—that you couldn’t easily be sold at Starbucks. I was worried that you were going to get lost in the machine, and I’m so thrilled that you haven’t.
JM: I wasn’t afraid at all because I didn’t know any of that existed before I made the records. The Americans and the English are so spoiled by having everything done in their own language, and I didn’t understand that that was so important. I didn’t realize it until I was playing live, because I could feel that people were enjoying it but also, at the same time, were a little bit lost because they were watching me, looking at me singing all of the time, without understanding anything. I grew up that way—I grew up listening to music without understanding what they were talking about, and I didn’t care, because I was enjoying the music. So, once in a live show, I said,“Well, you know, I grew up listening to foreign music all my life, and I never understood a word of what you were saying, so welcome to my world,” and everybody laughed, and I felt something—it was a little bit like breaking the ice, and everybody started to feel more comfortable afterward. They maybe understood this different way of listening to music.
BLVR: Because when you don’t know what words mean, you end up paying attention to the shapes of sounds.
BLVR: The way you shape sounds in your mouth— especially onstage, because you don’t try to hide what happens in your face or your throat or your body when you’re singing—watching you sing is watching sounds being shaped.
JM: I think I also never like when the words go beyond the music,like when you get the feeling that the words are attacking you, like “I WANT TO SAY THIS!” OK, OK, OK, but say it softly, please—I don’t need you to tell me what has to be heard.Or sometimes people will use words that don’t fit with the music, so that the words become like cats in a bag that want to come out, but they can’t.
BLVR: I saw you play here years ago at McCabe’s Guitar Shop, and I remember being very impressed with your skills at imitating a dog howling and barking.
BLVR: And on Son, there are birds chirping at the beginning, and midway through another song, there’s a sound like cats meowing, but it’s actually you, correct?
BLVR: Do you practice animal sounds?
JM: No, I don’t practice. I don’t sound very humble saying this, but I’ve always had the skill of imitation. My work as an actress was to impersonate any kind of character that one can find in Buenos Aires, and I had to speak in exactly the same way that they did. I think that sometimes, form leads you to the content. It’s not only the content that gives you form. So when you find a way of speaking, you can understand what kind of person you’re imitating. Further back, my cousins and I would play a game— I don’t know what commercials used to be like in the States, but in Argentina—it wasn’t like now where you have all the images and music—the mouth and the tongue licking the ice cream, and everything’s more about image and sound and editing.When I was a girl,the commercials were little stories.You had a girl who came into the room to ask her mom something, and the mom answers, and then you have the product that was advertised.My cousins and I used to imitate those commercials.And they had to be exactly the same—they had to have the same intonation, everything.We had two teams, and it would be like, “No, no, no, no, no, you lost—that m was too long.”
BLVR: [Laughs] You were serious.
JM:We were totally serious.We spent hours playing the commercials game. There was a particular commercial that was a guy selling powdered milk, and he kept shifting the can of that milk from one hand to the other.The milk was called Molico, and the times he said “Molico,” pointing to the label, and the length of time he spent pronouncing the m in Molico, was a whole world in itself. We could spend an afternoon just trying to say it exactly the right way.
BLVR: I realize now that the question isn’t “How do you learn to make your voice sound like something else?” but rather “How do you learn to listen that well?” That’s what it seems you just described—you weren’t only mastering the vocal imitation; you were also mastering close listening.
JM:You’re right, yes. I didn’t think about that.
BLVR: I really hear that on your records—you really hear that sound—even when you’re not singing, your records feel like records made by someone listening very closely to the world around her.
JM: I have a problem with my ears. I really have a problem.When I was living in the city, I threatened people because of some noise they were making that was bothering me. It sounds psychotic, I know. Once it was a beep from a fax that I heard in the night, very far away. I went to every floor, to every neighbor, putting my ear to the door, until I discovered where the sound was coming from.Then I would tell them,“You have a fax machine that’s making this sound and it’s driving me crazy.”“You’re four floors away from me—how can you hear that?” they said. “You’re crazy, you’re a hysterical woman.” Whatever, call me whatever you want, but I hear it, and I can’t sleep because of it. And then there was another noise. I was in my room and I heard “tck-tck… tck-tck…” always two like that, in a very random frequency, and when I opened the window to listen more closely, the sound was gone, because it was a frequency that you couldn’t hear with other noises. And after weeks of research, I found out what it was. It was a manhole in the street that was a little loose, and whenever a car went on top of it, it was the sound of the two wheels driving over the lid, the first wheel and then the second wheel, and sometimes the cars didn’t go exactly on top of the thing so I couldn’t hear it all the time. So what I did was I took a piece of cardboard and stuck it in the manhole…
BLVR: So you’re really kind of an interventionist— you’re not going to just let that sound exist. I love that you went out and actually tried to change the environment so you didn’t have to hear it anymore.
JM: I know it’s a very psychological thing, and also kind of whimsical. If I hear a cicada in the night, I don’t mind, but if it’s the sound of a light that’s not working well on the street, I go crazy.
V. BECAUSE EVERYTHING BECOMES MUSIC
BLVR: On this record there are natural sounds and unnatural sounds, and now that you’ve been living out in the country, I know you’ve been listening very closely to birdsongs, studying their patterns and how they take shape as frequencies. So that seems important to you: making the distinction between natural and artificial, or man-made, sounds.
JM: Yes.And what is interesting, too, is that once I decide to listen to the noises of the birds and noises of the whole thing, then noises don’t bother me anymore. Because it’s like an experiment. So if I was recording the birds, and there was the sound of a car horn interrupting the recording, but when I put that recording on the computer on a track in the song,all these random sounds become arrangements—they aren’t random anymore because, now that they’re in the song, they’re always going to occur at the same time in the same place. On “La Verdad,” I’m changing from the day recording of birds to the night, and you can hear crickets in the middle, just at the end of one verse, and at the beginning of the crickets, there’s a noise—I know what the noise is, but nobody else knows—it’s someone pouring dog food into a metal dish. It’s like “da-da-dada, ch-ch-ch-ch”—it’s like a rhythm.
BLVR: And that’s from your house?
JM: It was someone feeding the dog—she poured the food on a metal plate, and I remember thinking, when I was recording, “Oh, she’s feeding the dogs right now—why? Right when I’m recording!” but then, when I listened back, I didn’t care. Because in the song, everything becomes music.
BLVR: On the one hand you allow chance to play a big role in what you do, because you put these random sounds into your songs and allow that randomness or chance to affect the outcome of the song, but at the same time, you’ll go out of your way to put cardboard under a manhole cover to make it stop, so there’s this mix of whimsy and a sort of compulsive control. Have there been moments onstage when you’ve heard things in the audience, or maybe a siren outside, that adds something to the live performance?
JM:Yeah, I remember exactly that—I was in San Francisco, playing at a beautiful venue, and the siren of an ambulance came through, and it fit so well with the song that I started to play more to draw it out. I like to play in more noisy places so that I can take advantage of all the sounds helping me to build new things. But the one I remember the most is that siren in that venue. Sometimes I’ll play in venues where they’ll have coffee machines or milkshake machines—all these noises that I hated maybe five years ago—I love them now.
BLVR: It positions you—it’s a wake-up call to how little a part musicians play in a much larger sonic world. I mean, there’s a kind of arrogance that, if you’re not careful, you can develop as a musician, where you forget that the sounds you make are part of a symphonic world that exists every single second that you’re making music. And that to forget that kind of connection dampens the effect of your music.
JM: Because it gives you opportunities to create new ideas in music. I take them as gifts now.