The bio your publicist sent me says you’re fully bilingual, yet the first thing I was told was that you wanted to have this conversation in English. What’s up?
Yeah, I prefer it in English, it’s easier for me to communicate. Podemos hablar en español, pero mi español no es perfecto (“We can speak in Spanish, but my Spanish is not perfect,” she said in perfect Spanish).
I’ve been hearing these songs for almost two years now. Tell me why it took you so long to release it. Or was it always your plan to release it in January 2015?
No, not at all. I got sick about this time last year. I got diagnosed with a pseudocyst on my vocal cord, so I had to delay the release of the album. I had to take about six to eight months to just really recuperate, re-prioritize, and just cut everybody off and get really healthy and do vocal therapy. There are also other things that happened in the background. You know, stuff that happened with me back-and-forth, but that was the main thing that pushed it.
Yeah, I heard some of those extra problems. Just before you came to San Antonio a few years back for the People En Español Festival, you had a little situation with the cops in Miami, but, frankly, I couldn’t care less. I want to talk about the album. For example, please clarify something for me: In the lyrics for “Gangsta,” I always heard that you would buy your daddy a big house before your first Grammy, but in a Spanish translation included in your press kit it was translated as your dad being in jail! (“the big house,” I guess…) Which is it?
It’s “…put him in a big house before I ever see a Grammy.” And I simply meant…
…that you’re going to buy him a house before you win a Grammy, right?
Yeah, exactly. The Spanish version is… [starts singing the lines fast to herself] “Le voy a comprar una casa antes de mi primer Grammy [“I’ll buy him a house before my first Grammy.”]
Yeah, that was perfectly clear to me. I don’t know where that translation came from. You should take a look at it.
Yeah, maybe I will.
I love “My Garden,” the video and the song. Not only you daringly started the album with it, but now you made a video of it and it’s not even an official single. Did anybody tell you, “No, that song is not commercial enough, we can’t open the album with it”?
No, and you’re right, it’s not an official single for radio. I wanted to do something visual with it, as a tool to take people to the album. I think it’s a really strong song, a strong record. It’s always been a favorite of mine and always wanted to make a video for it. We just kind of did it and are very happy with the way it came out.
My Garden, the album, is very eclectic, and you have touches of Afro Cuba here and there, but with Sergio George you went all the way for a different album. Tell me about “Bajo la Tormenta,” which shows your salsa side.
Yeah, I wrote that record with Eli Palacios, a Puerto Rican writer. We were actually writing a song for me and it ended up with Sergio George hearing it and wanting it for his album, the Salsa Giants project. Of course, I let him have it. It was surreal to have all these salsa legends sing it. It was really exciting. It was my first number one. But originally, I was going to use it for a Spanish album.
An all-salsa album or just that one song?
We were just messing around with different sounds. Salsa, pop, hip-hop…
You’re neither a full-fledged rapera nor a straight-ahead singer, and it is the songs, not any particular style, that dictates the sound of your records.
That’s exactly, exactly right. I just write songs. Whatever moves me, moves me. If I feel like writing something acoustic, I’ll do that. If I hear a record with crazy energy to it and I end up in a crazy mood, I do that. I’m so easily influenced by so many things because I grew up listening to all kinds of music. That’s how I approach music.
My Garden has several producers and co-writers, but it’s amazing how everything works and it’s not at all overproduced. At times it feels minimalist, and every instrument and sound you use has a purpose. One of the most powerful songs is basically just you and a guitar. Tell me about the making of “Just Another Dude.”
Dave Julca [Julca Brothers] was just playing guitar in the studio. I was in the booth and I just basically blacked out. I think I nailed that song in one take. I didn’t even write anything down, it was right in the moment. I wanted to capture the magic of that moment. We tried to add production to it but it just didn’t work out, it was too much. I told the Julcas I just wanted a guitar. So we went back into the studio and recut the guitar and kept the vocals as it was.
Great decision. But was he playing what you wrote or you improvised over him?
Exactly. He was improvising on the guitar, I just heard… [mimics the opening guitar riff] and I was like, “Oh my God…! This is like, killing me right now! I just need to go into the booth.” I didn’t write anything down. I was going into something so heavy I didn’t even want to talk to anybody. I didn’t even want to… Not that I didn’t want to collaborate, because I did for most of the album, but [in this particular song] I just wanted to get the thing out of my heart, the gist of that, out there, on the song. Then we went back to the more melodic parts and rounded them up together, but the gist of it was really impromptu, in the moment.
You credit several co-writers in the album. Who does what? Do you add lyrics to their music? Do they work around your lyrics or do you usually start with a melody? Does it vary? Or is it truly a spontaneous collaborative effort, as in the case of “Just Another Dude”?
I usually start with a melody. I’ll either listen to some track, or maybe I’ll be with some friends and they’ll be playing guitar, and from there melodies just come out. Sometimes lyrics come out right away, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes I need to sit down and it takes me two or three days to write a song, and sometimes it takes me going into the booth one time and the song is completely out. It all depends on where I’m at emotionally at the moment.
Do you compose using any instrument besides your voice?
I sing, I don’t play any instruments. I usually get together with producers or friends who are musicians and we make something together.
But they mostly work around your stuff…
We work on each other’s stuff. It’s both ways, really. Sometimes their chord on the guitar will inspire me…
…like “Just Another Dude”…
Exactly. When I’m really inspired, I usually nail the song in one take.
What about the lyrics? Are they 100% yours, or is it also a collaborative effort?
Sometimes is 100% me, sometimes it’s collaborative, but there are three songs on the album that I wrote 100% myself: “My Garden,” “Gangsta”… What else did I write completely? Anyway, I can’t remember, but there are three songs [in the album] that I wrote completely. [I suspect she refers to “Walk on Water,” credited to herself and Frankie Storm]
As I mentioned earlier, you came to San Antonio shortly after having a run-in with the law in Miami. What do you remember about our city and the festival? As if that time in your life wasn’t shaky enough, the sound person killed you in the beginning of your set!
San Antonio was fun. So was the festival. I remember meeting Gloria Estefan. Somebody told me that she knew me, so I introduced myself thinking that she knew who I was. She had no idea who I was! (laughs) That was embarrassing. But the show was really fun and the crowd very energetic. I got to run on the river.
The River Walk?
Right, the River Walk. It’s a very pretty city.
Yeah, many San Antonians don’t give a damn about the River Walk, and I love it. Maybe it’s because I come from somewhere else and see the value of it.
Yeah, it’s like the Empire State building for New Yorkers.
Are you following the recent development in the Cuba-USA relations? What do you think of that?
You know, everybody has their opinion on that and I respect everybody’s opinion. Personally, I think the embargo has been going on for so long and it just kind of sucks being… For me, being a second generation Cuban-American and not being able to go back to my family’s country, to my roots, and not being able to visit family and not feeling more connected to my country… It seems the embargo will be lifted and we’ll be able to visit, and honestly, I know lots of people have mixed feelings about it, but I’m a little happy about it! I would really love to visit Cuba and visit my family there and get to see my roots and experience all that. So many people have that privilege, but we never had that privilege of going back growing up, so.
So happy you said that. And that’s a trip you should make for the musical significance alone. The most literate, smart musicians I ever interviewed were Cubans living in Cuba. And musically, no one could touch them. Tito Puente once told me “they sound like Weather Report,” praising their technical skill, and added, “When they open the doors in Cuba we’ll all have to go back to school” (I’m paraphrasing). I can only imagine how inspired you’d be as soon as you set foot in Cuba. It’ll be fireworks.
It’s amazing. What Cuba has is music. That is what they have, and that’s almost all they have. The passion for it is unreal and I’m dying to go, honestly, I’m dying to just go and feel the energy out there.
I can’t talk about Cuba without talking about Africa. You talk about “la blanca” que “tiene tumbao'”, but your music is so dark, black… Santana once told me during a rehearsal for the Latin Grammys that “we should invite Nelson Mandela, because Latin music comes from Africa, that’s all we do.” I hear blackness in your voice, not only Janis’ blackness, but also Odetta’s. Do you know her? She has that same thunderous voice that comes from the center of the earth, like you sometimes.
No, I’ll check her out.
Yet, your darkness is heavy, but also full of joy and guts. You don’t give a shit: you sing your ass of, and if your voice breaks, so be it. Besides your innate talent, who are your role models or big influences?
Yeah… First of all, thank you! I don’t have “role models,” but I do have a lot of people who influenced and still influence me. On the female side, I grew up listening to Whitney Houston, Janis Joplin, Karen O from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, lots of Nina Simone, Ella Fitzgerald, Etta James, Buika… On the male side, I’m obsessed with Robert Plant’s voice, Bob Marley, Jim Morrison, DMX… (laughs) Michael Bublé, I’m obsessed with. Sinatra, I can’t stop listening to. Elvis, B.B. King… No one cries better than B.B. and Buika on record.
When will your 2015 tour start?
My tour starts in March, everything’s being set up. I definitely want to stop in San Antonio and other cities in Texas. The fans have been waiting for three years for this album, and I really want to see all of them. Thanks a lot for this interview. It’s been awesome.