Q&A: Catching Up with Lila Downs

Mexican songstress Lila Downs is bearing her soul once more with The Very
Best of El Alma de Lila Downs
(Capitol Records), a poetic collection of
career-spanning songs filled with the kind of raw emotion that transcends
borders. I spoke with the Oaxaca native from her home in New York:

Why did you decide to do a compilation album?
What happens is
that 14 years go by and suddenly you look up and go “Wow, we have a lot of
songs.” Part of it makes you a little depressed, but I think we’re pretty happy
when people put it on their stereo.

Was it difficult to choose the
songs?
I consider myself a cabaret singer. I started singing in bars. My
choices are very eclectic. To get people’s attention, you have to be dramatic.
That’s the tone of our album. A lot of it has to do with this border region,
which is really about who I am in a very personal and instinctive sense.

What’s your favorite track?
“La Cama de Piedra” is a
standard in Mexico about the Mexican Revolution. It’s anonymous; people don’t
know where it comes from. It’s a beautiful metaphor about a bed of stone
referring to the intimacy in a relationship, as well as the importance of
fighting for your ideals. It covers all the basics. The pieces that I’ve had
more fun with are pieces like “La Cucuracha” and “La Niña,” a song about the
women on the border. It’s a narrative about a particular time that Latin
Americans are living in terms of their immigration status; not only in the United Satates,
but also the notion of being rural and going to the city.

Each one of your
songs feels like it comes from the heart; where do you find inspiration to
write?
It has to do with the life that you’re living and the sensitivity
that you have toward issues and concerns. I’m reading this beautiful Polish
poet—her name is Wislawa Szymborska. I fell in love with the way that she says
things. I get my inspiration from different places. Right now I’m writing a song
about the women that are sold, about the Albanian people and women in that part
of the world. We toured close to that region recently. I’m concerned about
converting darkness into light.

What are you planning for the next
album?
I have the desire to do many things, and one of them is to do a
mariachi of all women from El Paso, Texas. My mother keeps asking when my album
of mariachi is coming out. On the other hand, I’m working on standards with
intimate arrangements. But at the same time, I have a need to write songs that
are reggaeton, bachata, merengue. Ha-ha!

I read that you’re writing
the songbook for the musical version of Like Water for Chocolate. Is that
true?
We’re working on that. I think these projects take a while to do.
It’s very exciting, working with a team of choreographers, directors and
designers.

It seems like you’re super-busy, but any plans to
tour?
We have a few tours in the United States and Canada. We’re going to the
Montreal jazz festival. We have a few things in Denver and California, including
a rock festival in San Francisco and something in Santa Monica.

You
mentioned you started out performing in bars; do you enjoy these bigger
gigs?
It’s a big difference. You have to be in shape to perform
high-energy gigs. There’s a lot of jumping around and dancing. I just love the
energy that dancers have. For a classically trained singer, it’s a little
difficult. I go out jogging and doing yoga but I feel it takes away a lot of my
reading time.

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About this author

Grace Bastidas, Deputy Editor

Born and raised in Queens, New York, where more languages are spoken than anywhere in the world, Grace Bastidas is Latina’s Deputy Editor. She oversees lifestyle content, including topics as diverse as career, health and relationships, and occasionally writes about her own experiences in The Good Life section. As a writer, Grace’s work has appeared in The New York TimesNew York magazine, The Wall Street Journal and Travel + Leisure. She is fluent in Spanish.

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