Juana Molina: A musician taking flight

The Argentinian comedian-turned-singer Juana Molina tells Phil Meadley why she uses birdsong on her new album
Click to follow

Juana Molina is an Argentinian singer/songwriter, but don't mention the L word to her. "That word really hurts because it has put a certain kind of music together that I really think I don't belong to," she says. "I associate Latin with salsa and Central American music, or even Shakira and Ricky Martin. When record stores put my stuff in that category I think that no one's going to find me there. No one that is interested in Latin will buy my record because it's the wrong label. I think I'm there just because I sing in Spanish."

She laughs, but there's undoubtedly an element of truth in what she says. Molina's music has certainly very little to do with the likes of Ricky Martin, and far more to do with avant-garde experimentalists, both old and new. "My father bought King Crimson's Larks' Tongues In Aspic when I was a little girl, and I enjoyed it so much that I listened to it every day for five years."

Therein lies a clue to the sound of Molina's new album Son, not least because it references a breed of bird, and birds are what floats Molina's boat. "I think I've been in ecstasy listening to birds, especially where I live." She lives 40km outside of Buenos Aires surrounded by trees and wildlife. "I'd live further away, but I have a daughter and I can't take her away from everything," she says. She moved back to Argentina after a brief stint in Los Angeles to kick-start her music career. Previously she had been one of Argentina's most popular comedians, having appeared in TV shows at an early age to help fund her guitar lessons and pay the rent.

"Every bird has its mode," she explains. "I like the fact that birdsong is so unpredictable. You can't follow their songs because you don't know which note is going to come next. Trying to record them is really difficult because you never know when their crazy singing is going to start."

The most notable inclusion of birdsong is on "La Verdad", in which she claims that her feathered friends were singing so loudly that she had to record them from 25m away. The song in question translates as "the truth". "I think that any translation is horrible, but roughly it says that any truth can be invented with a lot of imagination and precision. What I'm saying is that if you want to lie you can tell me anything, but make me believe it. Don't make me doubt you because I don't mind if it's true or not."

She says that her lyrics talk about everyday things. " Son means a pleasant sound, but it also means 'they are'. So the title track is about the fact that things 'are' and just 'are'. Everything that's not human just 'is' and there's nothing you can do to change it. You have a beautiful flower and then an earthquake, and the only thing you can do is contemplate the beauty of them."

The artwork (always distinctive on her albums) is a patchwork tapestry woven by her great aunt of her and her sister when were they little girls. "The cover really describes the record because I was very influenced by the randomness in the behaviour of sounds and movement in nature," she says. "It's like watching fireflies. They look like they're floating in space, and you can't follow them because you can't tell where they're going. I think the odd, out-of-synch looping that I do represents a little of that. Each loop has a mode so it's like having two different birds singing in time, but ignoring what each other is doing. The disparity is beautiful."

Son has been described as her most accessible work to date, although she is never likely to break into the mainstream, especially as she refuses to sing in anything other than Spanish. "I've been realising the importance of language lately," she muses. "But even though I know people care so much about it I'm not prepared to sing in English, because I wouldn't feel like myself. I'd feel like I was faking something... trying to be something that I'm not.

"I grew up listening to music I didn't understand so I'm totally used to enjoying music without understanding the lyrics," she continues. "I think the whole way I listen to music now has been a little bit deformed by that experience. Even in Spanish I don't really pay attention to the lyrics. I think that sometimes I'm quite lucky not to understand the words of songs that I love because they can be really bad, and then you're in trouble."

She believes that live performances had the biggest impact on the sound of the new album, most notably through newfound singing techniques. "I had a problem at this big folk festival in Seattle when the rented keyboard I was using wouldn't load my music samples. The audience were waiting a long time and a few yelled out that I should just sing with my guitar, so I started to sing the keyboard parts with the voice, and it sounded great. So when I returned to the studio I decided that I should sing like the keyboard notes, and that the behaviour of the singing should follow suit. Even if it was out of tempo or didn't fit with the other notes, I had to sing it. So a new world of de-tuning and out-of-time notes opened up to me. I discovered that the note that didn't work at the beginning becomes so beautiful that you build everything around it. It's like the story of the ugly duckling that grows up to be a swan."

Although she took a gamble giving up a highly successful acting career, things finally seem to be taking off, especially in Argentina. And it's a decision that she doesn't regret in the slightest. "I didn't want to be an old lady in her bed watching MTV and thinking: 'I could have done that so much better than her', and be really angry that I didn't at least give it a go. All of a sudden I saw the future and was determined that that wouldn't happen."

'Son' is out now on Domino. The Picturehouse tour begins on 17 August ( www.juanamolina.com www.dominorecordco.com)