"I was born in the U.S., grew up in Tijuana, and live in Mexico City."
Julieta Venegas sums up her citizenship succinctly, but a half hour on the phone with her in San Diego – where her parents now live – can't do the same for her musical sovereignty. Two weeks from headlining Austin's Pachanga Latino Music Festival, she's hopscotching borders to play two nights in Tijuana, "sort of like my birth city, because this is where I grew up."
As warm and exuberant as her peerless pop/rock remains, in conversation Venegas comes off somewhat guarded, frequently invoking "I wouldn't know what to tell you about that" in a 20-minute stream of one-sentence answers. Mostly, she's simply distracted by her 2-year-old daughter.
"There's this fight going on with me," admits the 43-year-old singer. "One part of me wants to stay home and hang out with my daughter and another part of me really wants to go out and play, because I love doing shows and touring. It's an internal fight I have going on. For now, I just really feel like stopping and doing the hang-out-with-my-daughter part, cooking for her and making breakfast for my kid."
After nearly two decades as a major-label act, Venegas has earned the right to pause and be a parent.
Beginning with her 1997 BMG debut Aquí, which opens with her squeezing an accordion on alternately intimate and expansive pop – hints of electro, touches of avant garde, and always capable of a punctuating indie-rock boom – the classically trained multi-instrumentalist has cut a singular channel through an ocean of pre- and post-millennial music trends. Neither as rockist as Ely Guerra nor the experimentalist that is Juana Molina, both acclaimed generational peers, Venegas outdistanced most of the international female community with three successive discs that play out a trilogy of love and hooks: Sí (2003), Limón y Sal (2006), and Otra Cosa (2010). The first now gets played at nuptials (Venegas on the cover of Sí in a wedding dress alone sells it), the second won her a Grammy (Best Latin Pop Album), and by the time of the third, she'd taken home five equivalent Mexican trophies.
"Well, it surprises you," she says of both the American and Latin Grammys. "It totally surprises you. I was in a few Latin Grammy ceremonies. I think for the American ones I was only there maybe once."
That latter citation constitutes half the number of times she's played locally, once at the Austin City Limits Music Festival in 2003, and two years later inside at Stubb's. Both performances came off as alluring and endearing as her LP triptych, and she remembers them because one of Venegas' sisters and her nephews reside here, "though she's not going to live there much longer." In other words, sightings of the singer in the greater Anglo indie-rock community are few and far between. For someone born in the U.S., Venegas' profile remains that of a Mexican artist.
"Well, I am a Mexican artist, haha!" she exclaims. "And I've lived in Mexico my whole life, so yes, I am a Mexican artist. Here in the U.S. I've been playing a long time, and it's mostly been for a Latino audience. Since that audience is really big in the United States, it's been natural to come and do things here. When we go to Texas, we do mostly San Antonio, Houston, McAllen. We do other cities, but Austin we've only been in twice."
Her mother (Venegas) arrived from Santa Rosalía in Baja California, while her father (Percevault, her surname) originated in Aguascalientes. The family, including Julieta's twin sister, took root in Tijuana, with mama y papa only recently settling in San Diego. Meanwhile, Julieta's clocked the last two decades in the Mexican capital.
"Everybody asks me, 'Do you miss Tijuana?' Well, I've been in Mexico City for 20 years. I miss it because my parents are here, but my adult life has been lived in Mexico City."
Which explains why Venegas doesn't enjoy a profile in this country on par with a Cat Power or Feist, singular voices both figuratively and literally: powerful, vulnerable, feminine through and through and by force of nature.
"Oh my god, yes!" she exclaims – finally engaged. "Feist. I met Feist a couple of times. Once when she played in Madrid and once when she played in Mexico City. I love her."
Only Feist and Cat Pow--
"I love Cat Power, too, by the way," injects Venegas.
Neither of those two ladies ever cut back-to-back-to-back albums as pitch perfect pop as Sí, Limón y Sal, and Otra Cosa, impossibly buoyant productions of flirtatious, clear-eyed emotion and harmonic convergence. The first two discs especially sound drunk on love. Venegas laughs at the description.
"Yeah, I think so. Not necessarily because I was going through it, but yes, they're very contrasting to albums like [2000 sophomore LP] Bueninvento or even Los Momentos."
Released last April, sixth studio effort Los Momentos strips away the girlishness for a mother's concerns, while amping up the electro undercurrents running throughout her catalog.
"I didn't feel like writing easy stories," acknowledges the songwriter. "I also just needed a change in the sound for some reason. That was totally intuitive. I wasn't trying to make an electronic album, but we were definitely looking for other sounds to use."
While a language barrier might obscure the album's issues, once again it can't obscure Venegas' melodic gifts, primed with almost a decade of classical piano beginning at age 8.
"I've never really written any songs in English," she says. "I don't know why. It never really came to me in English for some reason. I don't know. I just like writing in Spanish. I know how to express my emotions better in Spanish than English."
Grammys, family, a global cult ... What's left?
"Last year, I did something for theatre, and I love playing instrumental music also. I'm producing a band for the first time now, a Norteño band. There's a lot of stuff I'd like to do. For now, I'd like to finish this tour and start writing. See what comes up and what I feel like doing.
"I don't plan so much – 'This is where I want to go!' – as much as I like the process of things. Doing things. I'll keep going with that, see what happens. Go with the flow."
Any good Texas tales?
"I really enjoy Texas a lot. It's a very complex sort of state, because it's different. It's different from other states. It has its own personality, maybe because it's from the South. I feel it's very influenced by Mexico and at the same time the north of Mexico is very influenced by Texas. I really love the food, and I consider it Texas food, but at the same time it's very Mexican, so I feel very much at home in Texas. It's easy for me to be there and feel comfortable there.
Is there such a thing as a breakfast taco in Mexico?
"Nooo," she bursts out laughing. "No, you guys made that up, but I love it. And you know what I love that's really funny? I think I prefer Texas huevos rancheros to Mexican huevos rancheros. I love both, but they're not the same thing. There's something about the way you make the sauce that's really different and I love it."
Julieta Venegas headlines Pachanga Fest at Fiesta Gardens on Saturday, May 10, 9:30pm, in the H-E-B Pavillion.
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