Venegas stays close to home
By Jess Righthand
Nov. 4, 2011
Grammy-winning Mexican singer-songwriter Julieta Venegas could easily have the universal name recognition of an Enrique Iglesias or a Shakira.
But who needs it?
The 40-year-old singer is already a mega star throughout Latin America, and she tours all over the world. She hasn't put out an English-language crossover album, but her music - an accessible hybrid of traditional Mexican ranchera and more modern electronic and mainstream elements - is instantly recognizable, regardless of language. Besides, translating her songs into English is something she has simply never wanted to do.
"My music is very personal, and my way of working is also very personal," Venegas says from a hotel room in Los Angeles, one stop on the second tour for her 2010 album, "Otra Cosa."
"Spanish expresses who I am emotionally. . . . I think to translate an album into English or any other language, you have to be a different sort of artist."
Venegas is a different sort of artist. While many of her songs will entice you to get up and dance, there is also an intimacy to her work that comes through even for those whose Spanish doesn't go much beyond "hola."
That intimacy, at least on "Otra Cosa," largely comes from the fact that Venegas wrote, arranged and recorded almost everything by herself, from the comfort of her home in Mexico City.
"I like doing nothing but writing," she says. "I barely leave my house. I'm not the kind of writer who's like, 'Oh, I'm inspired, let me write a song.' I'm more, like, everyday on the piano. I really love that process."
After five studio albums and one "MTV Unplugged" album, Venegas is still incredibly shy about exposing new material to other musicians. By the time she went into the studio to finish recording "Otra Cosa" with Argentine producer Cachorro Lopez, she had dozens of completely fleshed-out songs, some of which would never even make the album.
"Sometimes I lose objectivity when I'm working by myself too much," Venegas says. "I don't know what's good and what's awful, and I really just need somebody else to listen to what I'm doing, and [Lopez] really helps me out with that."
In the case of "Ya Conoceran," a punchy yet tender meditation on loss and living in the moment, Venegas also enlisted the help of a "listener friend" in Mexico City, who she says "isn't afraid to be mean."
"I was like, 'What do you think? . . . Do you think I should throw it out? Or should I keep working on it?' " Venegas played the song and was surprised to see her friend's emotional reaction.
"He made me like the song more," she says.
Venegas may be something of a lone wolf when it comes to writing and recording, but her live shows bring all hands on deck. Venegas, though primarily a pianist, also plays accordion and guitar, and she expects the same versatility of her bandmates. Her current band may have only seven members - far fewer than the 15 or so who played on her 2008 "MTV Unplugged" album - but each plays multiple instruments.
"I've always wanted that kind of band, people who just kind of dare to play around," she says.
Although a melancholy, introspective tone permeates several songs on "Otra Cosa," the album still glows with Venegas's characteristic playfulness. "Despedida" (which translates to "goodbye") might be the least angry breakup song out there. On the chorus, Venegas croons: "Para lo que tuvimos tu y yo / Y se acabo / Por eso brindemos hoy," which translates roughly to "For what you and I had / Though it's finished / Let's toast to it today."
"Otra Cosa" is, in many ways, a response to Venegas's last studio album, the 2006 smash hit "Limon y Sal," which won a Grammy for best Latin pop album. (Venegas has also won several Latin Grammys.)
"I think there was a lot of 'desencanto,' or disillusionment, in this album," Venegas says. "When I wrote 'Limon y Sal,' it was very passionate and running off to things and throwing yourself at them. [On 'Otra Cosa'] I wanted to give it a different feel, and I didn't really feel like writing stories about falling in love and all that. It was more like falling out of love and just getting kind of tired of love."
After nearly a year of touring and the birth of her daughter, Venegas says she is ready to get back into the rhythm of writing. She hopes to try something entirely new and different, but she still has both feet firmly planted on the ground.
"I think change is always good," she says. "Sometimes it will take you in one direction, sometimes in another. I guess my attitude is much more laid-back now. When I put out my first album I didn't know who I was, I didn't know what I really wanted to do or what kind of career I wanted. Now I'm pretty clear about it."