The Return of Lila Downs
‘La Reyna’ makes another rare stop in Austin – tonight
By Raoul Hernandez, 9:47AM, Tue. Apr. 9, 2013
Lila Downs performs with all the force of a tropical depression. On 2012’s Pecados y Milagros, her ninth LP, the sexy, mezcal-swigging Mexican-American singer dazzled both sides of the border with folkloric stomps original and traditional. Circling back from last year’s South by Southwest, she uncorks this evening at the Long Center.
Austin Chronicle: Where am I reaching you today?
Lila Downs: This is Oaxaca, Mexico.
AC: You were born there, correct?
LD: That’s right. I was.
AC: Do you live in the house you grew up in, or one close to your family?
LD: No, I grew up in a village that’s two hours away from Oaxaca City, and now I live in the city. I just moved out of my mother’s place, actually – just a few months ago [laughs]. At my 45 years of age.
AC: What prompted the move out of your mother’s?
LD: We constructed another house, on a hill, and we’re very happy here now. She’s coming soon enough, but we built separate houses so that we both have our spaces.
AC: Your father was from Minnesota, and you spent part of your childhood there.
LD: That’s right, yeah. I also went to college there.
AC: In watching the DVD included with the deluxe edition of Pecados y Milagros, I was struck by your lack of an accent. Is that because you were speaking a lot of English at a formidable age?
LD: Yeah, I was bilingual. My father always spoke to me in English, and my mother always in Spanish.
AC: Does that ever get you in trouble in Mexico, because they think you’re not from there?
LD: No, I think it’s actually the opposite. I think that a lot of times people on both sides of the border have there judgements or ideas of who I am. I guess I’m a little bit Mexican-American, I’m a little bit Chicano, I’m a little bit Mexican. And of course my Native Indian identity has also been an important feature in my life, because being conscious of that, and coming out of the closet, so to speak, with that notion has been a very central part of my art and music.
AC: You and I are about the same age. I grew up in the Bay Area with parents that were very active in the Chicano movement. Was that sort of activism part of your experience as well?
LD: It really wasn’t, because I grew up in Minneapolis, which at the time had very few Latinos, much less a Mexican community. It was very small in another area of the city, and I wasn’t in contact with them. So I think I inherited my knowledge of that era, the Sixties and Seventies, from my father’s rebellion toward the U.S. – in wanting to leave the country and marry a Mexican woman, and then bringing students down to Mexico. I remember that really marked an influence in my youth, because I always thought, “Well, they’re listening to Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan, and I think I would like to do that some day.” So it marked my need to seek something else.
AC: In watching the DVD, I wondered, “Is this the type of Latina who’s safe for Americans with limited contact to Hispanic culture”? Ever gotten that feeling?
LD: Oh my, well, I don’t know. I guess that very early on in my career I always wanted to be very inclusive of Anglo-Americans. I’m married to a North American Jewish man [laughs], with a Russian and Polish background, and my father also was a white man. So, I guess in my mind I believe in not being racist, and I believe that we can truly do that with music. We can open people’s hearts and we can reach out. Sometimes I lose patience. Sometimes I’m much more comfortable being a Latina, especially more recently, but it was something that I was very concerned about.
That’s why on my albums I have songs that address Woody Guthrie. I have songs that are about migrant workers and being conscious, and possibly that’s why people from a certain generation identify with me. That, and because I’m constantly talking about this. Like you said, I don’t have an accent, so maybe that’s less threatening. I don’t think the content of my songs is less threatening [laughs], but that’s what I hope it does to people – opens their minds about who we are.
I hope it teaches people about who we are, because as Latin-Americans, we’re a huge diversity. We’re not just one kind of Latino. There are several dozen types and cultures and traditions and many, many things.
AC: This last album of yours, all that really came together. It was a hit in Mexico, and seemingly got good saturation here in the States–
LD: That’s nice to hear, because we didn’t sell much in the U.S. of this album. Not compared to Mexico. We sold 110,000 here in Mexico, and in the U.S., we sold 7,000-8,000.
But you know, we kinda of didn’t do our homework either. We haven’t been touring in the U.S., partly because we just moved to this new house I was telling you about. Life decisions take you a certain way artistically as well, and this record really brought us back to Mexico in a deep way, and has taken us to some very scary places in this country right now. I’m proud of that in a way, because I think those are the places that need art more.
AC: One of the promotional things you did for the album is play South by Southwest last year. How was that experience for you?
LD: We did, that’s right. It was fun. Sometimes those festivals are a little difficult because of the tension. There’s just so many groups and so much music, so it’s a little crazy that way. But I had a great time at the set we did, and I think there was a lot of tequila and mezcal circulating in the audience, so it looked like they were having a good time as well.
AC: I recall our review of your showcase opening with something like, “Any set that begins with the singer taking a swig of tequila and then putting the bottle of her head is going to be good.”
AC: You do the same thing on the DVD.
LD: It was actually mezcal. Mezcal is a traditional alcoholic beverage that we have in Southern Mexico, and it’s used a lot in the fiestas and the parties that have a ritual side to them. It’s something that I’ve had to explain a lot to Anglo-Americans, because they kind of don’t understand that side of seeing it as a sacred ritual. To have a drink and offer it first to Mother Earth and thank her for all the fruits of our labors, and then of course we have a right to get drunk.
AC: In the U.S., a lot of people think of mezcal as, “That’s the bottle with the worm in it.”
LD: Right, right. Traditionally we do eat the... We process the worm so that it flavors the mezcal. The worm is from the actual plant, which is called espadine. Espadine is a particular species of an agave that’s the most common here in Oaxaca, and in many other regions of Mexico, actually. It’s not particular to Oaxaca. The worm has a very strong flavor of the earth and of the plant. Sometimes people think it’s just some worm from a cadaver, but it’s not. It’s a worm that’s endemic to the plant.
AC: Legend has it that if you eat the worm, you’ll hallucinate. Is this true?
LD: Well, there’s some truth to that, but not because of the worm, actually. There’s some truth to the hallucinations, because mezcal does have mescaline, which has a chemical that can provoke hallucinations of some sort. I do know that when I’ve been drinking a bit of mezcal that my personality starts to change [laughs]. My husband can probably tell you a little bit more [laughs].
AC: That’s funny, because in watching the DVD, where you look like a movie star, I wondered how different it is for women in terms of groupies. Not so much in the sexual sense, but just in people wanting to adore you because you’re in the limelight. Do you get male groupies?
LD: Yes. Yes, I do. But you know, I think the thing with folk music, which is where we’re coming from, is that it’s quite different. There’s something about folk music that grasps you because of the meaning of things. That’s why whenever I get the chance I talk to people and I ask them their stories. Sometimes they just come and tell me: “I found your music when my sister passed away. One of these songs helped me pull through.” A lot of times they’re stories like that, and a lot of our groupies, actually, are people who have somehow been lost in the path of life. In their groups, the way it was with the Grateful Dead, I think people find each other and find things in common. It’s about appreciating your roots and traditions, in our case.
AC: In contrast, do you ever just get the guy that says, “Hey, let’s go get a drink after the set”?
LD: [Laughs] I wish! No, I don’t – the guys are all too respectful [laughs].
AC: Even the Latin males, who are thought to be more aggressive?
LD: Oh yeah. Definitely respectful.
AC: One of my favorite songs on the new album is “La Reyna del Inframmundo.” Tell me about that song, its inspiration.
LD: Thank you. That was birthed with much pain and anguish. There are a lot of stories of women who have entered organized crime here in Mexico, and you see their stories here in the paper where they join and then they become big names in the business and suddenly they disappear or are in some shoot-out and you don’t hear about them anymore. It’s this fascination for us, trying to understand what that’s about.
Paul, my husband, and I were thinking, “How can we make it more interesting, so that this character in the song is telling her story in a very particular way”? What we thought up was the way it’s done in a traditional form. In Mexico, we have these songs that we write during the Day of the Dead. They write songs or verses about everyone being dead. We’re all skeletons, so – in verse – you would say, “Obama sitting at the table with all the bones,” then there’s some punchline at the end that’s a joke, because it’s a good exercise to place yourself in the place of the dead.
So that’s what that song is about: “Well, it’s too bad I can’t look at my sweetheart’s face anymore because I am now six feet under.”
AC: You mentioned the dangers in Mexico right now, and with this underworld story, I wonder if you’ve been drawn to narcocorridos – murder/drug ballads.
LD: Oh yeah. I think if you’re a singer, you naturally would have done a few of them. It’s inevitable, because it’s such a strong tradition in Mexico. Fifteen years ago, it was no big deal. It was just one of those forms that’s a narrative of a reality. Suddenly, it just blew up. There are people of the opinion that it even promotes violence. On the contrary, I think if we didn’t have the music, there would be more violence.
As an anthropologist, I think that it’s also a form of documentation of what’s going on. I have sung a few songs that I no longer choose to sing, because sometimes these songs, when you perform them in certain places, there are leaders in organized crime that may ascribe to a particular song and if the competition is not happy and it reminds them of the other territory or the cat they want to rub out, they will take it out on you.
As a musician, then, you have to be smart about it and say, “Okay, I can’t sing those songs anymore.” You never know with these things.
AC: I reviewed the album and there wasn’t a bad song on it. If you could keep only one, which one would it be?
LD: I think it’s this amazing song called “Cruz de Olvido,” which is a song I was never interested in. First of all, I don’t like songs that refer to the cross [laughs]. Now, suddenly, it’s just in my blood and I can’t wait for the moment to sing that song in my concerts. There’s something so incredibly spiritual about the piece. It’s about someone that’s leaving and who is longing for this other person, but has to leave because of the situation.
It’s a song Chavela Vargas used to sing, and many other ranchera singers sing, but we’ve made it a tradition to dedicate it to her every night and to the people who have fallen in recent times in Mexico, so it’s kind of like a good-bye song. [Ed note: Costa Rican-born Mexican singer Chavela Vargas died last summer at the age of 93.]
AC: When you played Austin last year, that wasn’t your first time here was it?
LD: No, no it wasn’t. We hadn’t been there in a long time, but we have been there – many years ago. I love Austin. Every time we go there I think, “We should come and live here.” And I really love Texas. There’s something about Texas that’s in my bones. I feel like I’m coming home in a strange way, because I’m not a Texan, but I feel the....
Everything is very familiar to me in Texas. The whole border, to me, is very familiar, like Tijuana, El Paso, Ciudad Juarez. All these place on the border I have a deep sense of belonging to. Even though I’m not a border person, I love it.