“Nah … that’s complicated,” says Julieta Venegas on the phone from Mexico City when I ask her the identity of her five-month-old child’s dad. But she’s wrong — that is not complicated. That’s simple stuff.
Complicated was finding an explanation for her third album, 2003’s Sí (“Yes”). After two critically acclaimed alternative singer-songwriter gems, 1997’s Aquí (“Here”) and 2000’s bueninvento (“goodinvention”), both produced by future two-time Oscar winning composer Gustavo Santaolalla, Venegas had established herself as the most promising Mexican cantautora. With a powerful voice and instrumental ability (she plays guitar, piano, and accordion), she was a “serious” artist focused on songs, not sex appeal. It was hard to find her smiling on her CD sleeves, and her songs were beautiful yet moody, dark, and intense. She was mysteriously edgy.
Then, Sí came out, and the artsy girl was now seen on the CD cover wearing a wedding dress and with a finger in her mouth, all before a pink background. Her smart existential lyrics became smart girl-meets-boy-breaks-up-with-boy lyrics, but that was the least obvious change: she was now a full-fledged pop star. Fuck edge. Not since Liz Phair forgot Exile in Guyville had so many people gone nuts at once.
Her original fans said she was nuts for changing her image and “selling” herself to bubblegum pop. The rockeros went nuts, immediately dismissing her as a traitor, and the public at large (many of whom had never heard the first two albums) went nuts as well, but for her. They started requesting her music on the radio stations, which gladly played the record. Sí earned Julieta her first of four Latin Grammys (Best Solo Rock Vocal Album) and has sold almost two million copies to date.
“I have no idea how many records I’ve sold,” she said in Spanish. “I never cared about that.”
But what the hell happened? Why such a drastic change in sound?
“I felt I had a very limited range of emotions,” she said. “All the songs `on the first two albums` were full of melancholy and also a little angry. Which is fine, but as a composer I had to move away from there, it was getting tiresome. Plus, I was a little bit of a gritona (“screamer”) then. I needed to write a different type of songs, more simple and direct, something that I would want to play live.”
So she got together with singer-songwriter Coti Sorokin and legendary producer “Cachorro” López (both from Argentina, like Santaolalla) and recorded Sí, which was the blueprint for the still-popish but increasingly sophisticated (and commercially successful) Limón y sal (“Lemon and Salt,” 2006, which won a Grammy) and Otra cosa (“Something Else,” 2010). Only her superb MTV Unplugged (2008) shows traces of the “old” Julieta.
“I never listen `to the first two albums`,” she said. “Today in rehearsal somebody played ‘Oportunidad’ `“Opportunity,” from her debut` and it was kind of nice, so I started singing. But after a few seconds I went, ‘Yikes …’ So I’m not going to sing it on tour. I like those first albums, but I don’t see myself in them.”
Sí was Julieta Venegas saying, “This is me, now. Deal with it.”
“I mean, I was myself always, but maybe in the future I’ll see Sí and Limón y sal as coming from a stage in my life where I felt a little more coquetilla (prissy, sassy), and I don’t know if I feel like that now,” she said. “Some people ask me ‘Why don’t you do albums like at the beginning?’ Those albums happened 13 years ago! I wouldn’t know how to write a song like those. One changes, you know?”
That change began on the tour for bueninvento, her second album. It was then that the roots for Sí were planted, and that third album would become both her breakthrough and a liberating experience.
“Bueninvento was a hard album for me, in all respects,” she said. “It took a whole year to record, it took six months to release, and it was very difficult to play live. During the concerts, in the middle of the songs, I knew I had to sing a different type of songs.”
So those of us who prefer those first two albums just don’t get it?
“No, I don’t believe that at all,” she said. “Those are the albums I wanted to do at that time, and I would’ve never thought of doing something like Sí. I was in a mood, and now I’m in another mood. And I could change again.”
In fact, she’s already changing, and she knows it. Gone are the mini-skirts and the playful man-eating Julieta image of Sí and Limón y sal; also gone is the sad Julieta of yesteryear. “I’m not smiling as much `as in albums #3 and #4`, and I’m not stone-faced as much `as in #1 and #2`,” she says. Musically, at first Otra cosa sounds just like an extension of her “happy” period, but a closer listen reveals a continuation of the careful, arrangement-oriented path started by her MTV Unplugged album.
“Maybe those are changes only noticed by me, but I’m feeling that, again, I want to play other things and tell other things,” she said. “I don’t know, it’s hard to explain. ”
Yeah. It’s complicated. But this is Julieta Venegas, and her formula is also simple — even if you get pissed off at first, sooner or later her songs steal your heart. •
Thu., Jan. 27, Doors open at 9pm, Showtime 11:30pm
281 & Bitters Rd.
$25-$45 (available at Club Rio, El Taco Tote, Guajillos, La Michoacana, and La Vaca Naca)
18 & over
(210) 403-2582, julietavenegas.ne, club-rio.net