Someday Still Wants More
La 'Nueva' Tish Hinojosa
What is there to ask Austin singer-songwriter Tish Hinojosa that some other interviewer hasn't already asked? After considering all the press clippings, all the history, all the chisme, and especially considering the look and sound of her new album, Sign of Truth, the best question turns out to be: Girl, where have you been? Sign of Truth comes a full four years since her previous release, Dreaming From the Labyrinth (Warner Bros.). An unusual break for Hinojosa, who has managed to release an album almost yearly since her first self-produced and -distributed cassette, 1987's Taos to Tennessee (re-released in '92). Not that Hinojosa was missing in action. She's been performing, writing new songs, and living her life in Austin just as she has for the last 12 years. But that still doesn't answer the question posed earlier, prompted as much by her recording hiatus as by the image of the "new Tish" on her album cover.
The hiatus was caused in part by Warner Bros., which wouldn't drop her, but wouldn't put anything else out either. It took some time, but she finally got a release and recorded her new album for Rounder Records. As for her look, Hinojosa still has that delicate face, but the fluttery peasant skirts, the cowboy boots, the long hair and braid? Gone. She cut her wavy mane to a short, spunky 'do two years ago. She's now going for stage attire that's a neutral, more mature look, Hinojosa says, though New York Black seems a better description for the attire she wore at her Antone's record release several weeks ago.
Her music has had something of a makeover, too. Pop rhythms dominate Sign of Truth, a turn from the folksy, culturally self-aware tunes of prior albums like Culture Swing and Frontejas. On the other hand, it's never been a good idea to label Hinojosa's music, it being a hybrid of Mexican corridos, Spanish pop, new country, folk, and pop. Even so, the new look and the music signal definite shifts. But there's something else going on with Hinojosa. Something intangible, but present perhaps in her lyrics to "Mona Lisa by the Rio Grande": "Her eyes could tell a story, but then she holds it in."
"There've been some cosmetic and cosmic changes," says Hinojosa in the living room of the new Southside condo she recently moved into with her two teenage children. "I just found myself in circumstances that life has thrown me into over the last two years, telling me that things are changing and I have to change certain things."
One of the biggest changes is her divorce from Craig Barker, husband of 20 years.
"Craig was in charge of my career, and my marriage, and my lawyer, I mean everything," she continues. "We got divorced and that changed the dynamic of our relationship.
"All these changes -- me becoming independent, me buying this [condo] by myself, and doing [Sign of Truth] -- it was the first record Craig wasn't involved in at all. My kids are growing up, and I don't have a handbook to raising children. I'm at midlife now, too."
She pauses to take in all that she's just said.
"It's been an important journey, and [Sign of Truth] touches on some of those things."
Meeting with Hinojosa at this time in her life and career is an experience in contrasts. Onstage and on her Web site (www.mundotish.com) there's an undeniable warmth that encourages fans to cozy up with her under the blanket of her music and stories. In person, she's friendly, but mildly standoffish until she feels comfortable. That's not so unusual. What's unusual is the strong presence of something eminent, something rumbling under her peaceful eyes.
In fact, it's only when you sit with her a while that you realize she's a woman in the process of shedding a familiar chrysalis to make ready for a new one to emerge. Change is frightening, Hinojosa agrees. But it's also exhilarating, bringing with it new promises, new music, new ideas, and maybe a new audience.
"I'm sure my old folk fans are going to be saying, 'Well, I sure miss that Culture Swing. There's going to be more of that, I just chose not to put them on this record," she explains. "I chose these songs because of their universal nature. In some ways, they're really personal and introspective, but they're not cultural pieces or border stories."
Hinojosa need not worry about alienating fans, who, if the Antone's crowd was any indication, are a loyal bunch, ready to take whatever musical ride the songwriter leads them on.
"My intention has always been, as soon as someone pegs me as something, I'm going to change into something else," says Hinojosa. "I want to be pegged in some general ways, like, 'We're always going to get something good from her,' or, 'She's going to surprise and educate us.' But I don't want to just be thrown into the 'roots' box. If I was just a roots person, I'd be really proud of that. It would be fine, but I'm not. My first interest in music was in pop music."
The social consciousness of some of her past work, the embracing of her Mexican roots, combined with the level of success she's achieved, brings another new challenge: identifying the line between becoming a crossover artist and a sell-out.
"This record could be considered [a sell-out]," says Hinojosa. "It's definitely geared toward the contemporary pop-folk ... I'm well-known for supporting women's rights, children's rights, bilingual education, immigration, border issues, and farmworker rights. Those are all things I still care about. But it's like when I get caught doing too much benefit work. It's like preaching to the choir, and my career is not advancing.
"With this record, I was hoping to leap into a little higher level of competition, if that's the word to use. I'm not leaving my conscience behind, I just have to put it in the back seat while I focus on my career. I haven't had a record out in four years. It's important I get back out there and create some momentum."
At the same time, Hinojosa's eclectic mix of styles, and her proud claim to being Mexican-American, which brought her the respect and affection of her fans and the appreciation of critics, has not exactly made her career in the music industry a breeze, particularly when it comes to radio play time.
"I could get really cynical when I begin to think about the places that won't play me," she says. "It's not like country music gave me the welcome mat. They won't play my music on country music radio, but they won't play me on Tejano, and they don't play me on Mexican stations either ... I put out an all-Spanish-language album or two, and even though some of what I wrote about is clearly things that our culture should care about, or things I care about because of my culture, they won't play because I'm not Mexican enough."
The one place she's been welcomed with open arms is public radio, both locally and around the country.
"It's an audience that has a sensitivity and care about issues, and about the culture, and I have to appreciate that," nods Hinojosa. "I don't think commercial radio, be it English or Spanish, really wants to hear that."
"I have laid some words out on the table ... someday still wants more." -- "Sign of Truth"
In one respect, you could say Tish Hinojosa is the archetypical Mexican-American who has learned to navigate between borders, traditions, and expectations. Sitting in her new digs among furnishings not set in place, her embrace of the traditional and the contemporary is revealed in her living room. A secondhand store side table painted purple, an early-American dining table, an eggplant-colored sofa, a palette of black-and-white family photographs, all share space with a fax machine, a cell phone, and an upright piano with embellishments in the wood.
The youngest child of 13, she's the mother of two, a blue-haired teenager named Adam who's taken up guitar and a comely daughter named Nina, who was an interest in acting. For many Mexican-Americans from working-class backgrounds, finding themselves at a level of success that surpasses their parents can cause a certain kind of disequilibrium from time to time.
"Artistically, I've gotten a lot farther than I thought I would," reveals Hinojosa. "Writing my own songs and producing my own albums was something I never imagined when I was 20."
Though there have been some challenging patches as of late, she's hardly at the end of her rope. She credits family, friends, ex-husband Barker, and colleagues Margin Dykhuis and Chip Dolan for their support. So, lest her fans think it's time to hold a vigil for Hinojosa, let it be known that she's thinking about tomorrow.
"In five years? Besides my kids being in college? I'd like to have a few more records out, have a respectable career, have more audience. I'd like to slow down maybe. Take a few more vacations," she says thoughtfully.
Suddenly animated, the thought of resting leaves her.
"But I don't think a musician ever stops -- especially a songwriter! There's always going to be the inspiration, the project to get excited about. It comes from interacting with people about this project or that project.
"I imagine I'll be doing what I'm doing for a long time."