Exclusive: Julieta Venegas Breaks It Down

We didn’t realize how much we missed Julieta Venegas’ presence on the music scene until this week, when the Tijuana-born alt-pop singer returned with full sound and fury via Julieta Venegas: MTV Unplugged. Recorded in Mexico City on a March evening, the intimate show was directed and produced almost entirely by Venegas (with some help from famed Brazilian arranger/composer Jaques Morelenbaum) and features an array of special guests, like Spanish rapera La Mala Rodriguez, Marisa Monte and Porter frontman Juan Carlos Son, who are all as eccentric and musically vital as Venegas but not nearly as commercially successful. It's her effortlessly melodic sensibility that's always elevated Venegas above her peers, a fact that becomes all the more obvious when her biggest hits--and four new songs--are stripped down to acoustics, rearranged with everything from a cello to a tuba, and laid bare for all to see. The result? From the hip-hop-infused "Eres Para Mi" to the classicized "Como Sé," pure beauty.

Your Unplugged album is already becoming a huge success, both critically and commercially. Are you happy with how the show turned out?

I don’t even have a TV, so I didn’t actually see it! [laughs] But yeah, I’m really happy with it. I’ve had a rock-pop band for ages, and I wanted to kind of refresh the whole thing. I’ve never had a chance to use some of these instruments before…on some of my albums, I used one clarinet here or a French horn there, but I never had the chance to use classical instrumentation in a complete way. I was actually the one who kind of started throwing the rock at MTV. I spoke to my managers and my record company and I was like, “Maybe you can ask them, see what happens,’…and they said yes!

How did you go about choosing the artists who appeared as your special guests?

It was definitely musical reasons: people I really love. I figured if it’s my party, I get to invite who ever I want! So I thought about who I would really want for each song. With Marisa Monte, I chose her before I even had the song. I was working with Jacques in Brazil and he knows her. So I thought it would be great to meet her and invite her to perform.

Is “Ilusión,” the song you perform with Marisa, addressed to a particular woman?

No, it’s actually addressed to illusion itself. I think that illusion needs to be courted, you know? Like you court a person. And if you lose it, es horrible…you need that in life. But I also like the ambiguity of two women singing to somebody else.

When did you first meet La Mala?

I met her first as a fan because I’ve loved her since her first album, Lujo Ibérico. And then on her latest album, Malamarismo, she invited me to sing. When I went to record with her, I said, “You know, ‘I’m planning an Unplugged and maybe you want to come and sing?’ She was like, ‘Are you crazy? I’d love to!’ So she was the first person I knew was coming from the beginning. She’s amazing, and we connect a lot—we’re not like going out buddies, you know, but for some reason we have a good connection when we’re together. And musically, we click.

Did you prepare new material for Unplugged on purpose, or was it something you were working on already?

When I spoke to MTV about the whole thing, they told me it would be nice to have some new songs. And I was thinking, ‘Good, because I’m using a lot of new instrumentation and it’s a great reason for me to add new songs with that in mind.’ I actually dedicated a month to that; I wrote 14 songs and just chose the ones that I thought worked better for my idea of how I wanted the show to feel, which was pretty festive.

There’s a strong norteño influence on one of the new songs, “El Presente”—had you been listening to a lot of norteño music?

Well norteño music has definitely always been present in my life. I’m from Tijuana, so my mom used to sing “Contrabando y Traición” from Los Tigres del Norte when we were kids. I listen to norteño and I’m just like, ‘Ajuuua!’ If you listen to the demo of “El Presente” you’ll hear all mis gritos: ‘Woohoo! Ayyyyyy, mama!’ [laughs] I just love it.

What has Gustavo Santaolalla meant to you and your career?

He produced my first album and part of my second album, and that was really important for me. I’ve always had a very personal vision, so it’s very hard to kind of peg me somewhere and say, ‘This is what she is, this is the style she does.’ He validated what I was doing, and that just kind of gave me a direction to follow on my next album. We stopped working together on my third and fourth albums and I worked with Cachorro Lopez, who’s a great producer too, but Gustavo was always present. He’s always been a good friend.

On a sidenote: Your English is just about perfect! How did you learn it so well…was it the time you spent living in California?

I lived in Tijuana, and then for some years we lived in San Diego, but we went to school in Tijuana so it was almost like not living there. I learned English from TV—I loved Sesame Street! We had TV until my Dad took it away when I was like seven years old, but by then we all already knew English pretty well.

Do your fans ever mistake your identical twin, Yvonne, for you?

Oh yes, I’ve taken pictures of people with Yvonne. People are always like, ‘Ooh, can you take a picture of me with her?” And I’m like, “Sure!” Sometimes I feel bad later, but people can’t tell the difference at all, so what’s the point of explaining? It’s fun.

Your keyboardist and good friend, Ceci Bastida, is striking out on her own now with some really cool music. Are you in full support of her decision to go solo?

Ceci’s like a sister. We've been friends since high school, so we totally grew up together. It took a while for her to decide how to start on her own, but when she showed me her first songs I was like, 'What?! Ceci, this is beautiful! It sounds like you’ve been doing this forever!' It’s just so natural, and so personal, and it works so well. It doesn't sound like anybody else; it just sounds like her. it was kind of hard for her to stop playing with me, but we talked about it a lot. She was like, “I wanna go on tour with you.” And I was like, “Yeah, but when you go on tour you’re not focused enough...it’s cool that you’re doing your own thing, and maybe one day we can tour together!” I’m really proud and happy about her music.

On your MySpace blog, you cite Los Tigres del Norte and Sufjan Stevens as two of your musical inspirations. How do two artists who are so different represent your musical taste?

I don’t know, for me they make total sense. It’s just as easy for me to understand Tigres del Norte—not just language-wise but mood-wise—and understand Sufjan Stevens. I think Sufjan’s music is beautiful: his melodies, his songs, his voice. He’s a total genius. I don’t see any conflict! [laughs]

What’s a typical weekend like for Julieta Venegas?

I’m a “long breakfast” sort of person. I like to read in the morning, first some newspapers on the internet, and then whatever book I’m reading. Then I might go do some Pilates. That’s what I do sometimes on the weekends, because it’s not such an early class. I’m a pretty homey person, so when I have the chance I just spend time at home.

Back in 2000, you shared your thoughts about Latin rock vs. Latin pop in an interview: "There is much more depth to our music…But it's still a hard sell. There's no reason why we can't be marketed the way a Ricky Martin is marketed, but I suppose that will come with time." Now, your new Unplugged album follows Ricky’s own Unplugged recording in 2006. So how has the situation changed?

I said that?! Well yeah, it’s definitely changed a lot. The great thing for me has been that everything in my career—all the positive things that have happened, and people knowing me more—has come from my own little way of doing things. I’m directing my career the way I want it to be.

This MTV project was a luxury because I had the chance to put all my musical inquietudes out there. It’s the first time I produce and direct a whole album. If I was at a university, this would definitely be my thesis, and I had the chance to do it the way I wanted to. At the same time, my reason for doing things—curiosity and intuition—that hasn’t changed. I know I’m lucky about that.

-Monica Herrera