Solid Roots Support the Tiarras' Indie Chicana Sound
No longer Tiarra Girls, the outspoken sister trio still puts family first
Sophia sensed a creeping tension in the air from behind the drum set. Tiffany held eye contact with her as she maintained a steady bassline. Then it happened: Tori spontaneously leaped onto a speaker and broke into a vacillating solo of yowling riffs, reluctant to end their fan-favorite rendition of Cuban folk song “La Negra Tomasa.”
"I was not expecting her to do that," admits Sophia, as the three Baltierra sisters reminisce about their favorite set at this year's South by Southwest – during Austin nonprofit DAWA's showcase at Stubb's – through separate windows of a Zoom call. Emblematic of their assorted reach, they also played a TikTok-presented party and Rodeo Austin's outdoor stage that month.
"But yeah, the sister telepathy really helps us in those moments."
Bonded by blood, the Tiarras always attribute their success to family.
Known until last year as the Tiarra Girls, the Austin-born-and-bred triumvirate first found music at their father Hector Baltierra's many DJ sets. As he shuffled between cumbia rhythms, R&B hits, and hip-hop hooks, the kid sisters danced around, played imaginary instruments, and sang into unplugged microphones. They marveled in awe as their father controlled crowds – themselves included – with his diverse mixes.
"What he played as a DJ really influenced our own tastes in music," says Tori, lead singer and guitarist. "It was a big mix of everything, but the Tejano songs he played influenced us to learn more about our Chicana culture, while also not confining ourselves to the machismo culture and its norms."
In 2012, Tori told her father: "I want to start a rock band."
Then 14, 12, and 10, respectively, Tiffany, Sophia, and Tori took music lessons individually. Hector and Debbra Baltierra already had the idea for a family band floating in their heads. Tori merely lit the fuse.
The Mexican American parents poured themselves into realizing their daughters' dreams: Hector sold some DJ equipment to buy them used equipment, while Debbra chased down opportunities for them to play in the city.
Their No. 1 rule? Never leave the girls alone.
"Wherever they had to go and set things up, or even the restroom, I was always with them," recounts Debbra. "While they performed, I would be on one side of the stage, and Hector would be on the other. When people wanted to interview them or take pictures with them, we were always there."
In 2017, then Tiarra Girls released their self-titled debut EP. In just under 10 minutes, the three-song offering revealed the trio's various influences: Opener "Answers" evoked Bob Marley with a funky reggae backbeat, Tori's soulful vibrato echoed Selena in jazzy follow-up "Lonely Room," and bright, jangly rocker "I Made a Garden" closed out the teenage effort.
As for early live shows, covers stumbled onto their set lists via Hector's picks. The wedding DJ, also one of the originators of Austin's B-boy scene, suggested Stevie Wonder's "Isn't She Lovely" and Cyndi Lauper's "True Colors." Making his choices their own, the young stars won over the city and brought home Austin Music Awards for Best Performing Band Under 18 in the final three years – 2016 to 2018 – of the category's inclusion.
In the Tiarras' studio recording of onstage staple "La Negra Tomasa," a wailing wah-wah riff whirls over a psychedelic cumbia rendering of the Cuban folk number, popularized by Mexican rock band Caifanes. Yet another recommendation from their father, the March release came after a live performance Tori posted on TikTok found online virality last summer, with some even dubbing the trio Chicana Batman.
"We were bullied into the studio by our fans," jokes Tori.
These days, the trio's music reflects a more reciprocal dialogue between them and their parents. Beneath zesty shakers and a hypnotic backbeat, 2021 Latin groove "Let Love Free" unearths Tori's catharsis coming out as lesbian to her parents: "Believe, we know it's hard/ But you gotta let love free/ And scream what's meant to be."
"We cried when we first listened to it," recalls Hector. "We knew where it was coming from, and as parents, we want our children to never, ever be afraid to come to us with anything. Debbie and I didn't have that kind of relationship with our parents, so we found it important to help build their character and who they want to be."
In a video posted in February of last year, the Tiarras revealed their name change with a nostalgic montage soundtracked by the Beastie Boys' "Girls." Old elementary-school-age news footage and photos chronicled the sisters' growth. With a keen sense of self-awareness, then came the announcement: "We are changing our band name. Yes, we are still Austin's favorite young, Latina, sister-power trio, but we are growing up," said Tori onscreen.
"As we've stepped into our womanhood, our music has followed, and we want our name to reflect that," added Sophia.
Wasting no time, catchy bongo rhythms elevated yet another caterwauling guitar solo on "They Don't See Us" in March 2022. Lamentations of unrealistic beauty standards and feeling invisible on the track echoed the empowerment of 2021's "Soy Chingona" – which tapped into a wave of reclamation of the Spanish term for an overaggressive woman, chingona, now slang for badass. Then, October followed up with syncopated fretwork and choral harmonies in "Cumbia en el Cielo," inspired by Tori's encounter with their great-grandmother in a dream.
Both deeply personal, the Tiarras' post-rebranding singles prove serious testaments to their musical growth.
The band says they've received affirmation from many families for sparking conversations about coming out and carving out a safer space for open discussion. Still, others hounded the sisters for mixing sexuality and politics into their music, which has included endorsement of progressive state and local candidates. Undeterred, they also recently performed at the queer, Latinx-focused Preciosa Night fest in Los Angeles.
"The reason we love music so much is because it's a way that we can express ourselves," says Tori. "So why would we limit something that's relevant in the world, relevant in our minds, relevant between each other?
"We don't want to be a pretty thing that people just look at. We're really standing our ground and saying what we want to say."
Staying true to that mantra, the sisters take pride in their growing impact on younger musicians. Recalling an encounter with a young drummer in Fort Worth, percussionist Sophia says: "Her words were that I inspired her. I hope to hear that a thousand times more in the future, because that's exactly what I want to do."
As for her own inspiration, Sophia notes Austin drummer/vocalist Clemencia Zapata, who moved to Austin in 1985 and was a founding member of allgo (then known as the Austin Latino Lesbian & Gay Organization). She's known for years of prominent performances around town with acts like Conjunto los Pinkys, Conjunto Aztlan, and Susan Torres y Conjunto Clemencia.
"When we started, I didn't see a lot of females playing, specifically Latinas in Austin, but I did cling onto one," says Sophia. "I always talk about [Clemencia]; she's a percussionist in Austin and I love seeing her play, I love the way she would groove behind her drum set. I hope to be that, and pave a way for other girls everywhere, not just in Austin."
Currently making demos during weekend sessions at Firefly Sound Studio and Michael Ramos' Brown Recluse Studio, the Tiarras continue to hone their artistic voice and indie Latin style in their upcoming debut album.
"A lot of the music we're working on right now is about empowerment, womanhood, and love," says Tori. "We're all at that age where we're realizing our worth and diving deeper into love. We haven't shown that a lot in music because we started when we were so young.
"A lot of people know us as the Tiarra Girls, and now we're like, the Tiarra Women."
During a May show at Flamingo Cantina, an enchanted crowd broke into a cumbia circle while Tori and Tiffany swayed in sync to Sophia's steady beat. With a decade of music behind them, the laid-back venue, known for hosting dub and ska acts, remains their favorite. With plays in reggae influences, the Tiarras act as a perfect bridge for the 32-year-old venue's integration of next-gen Latin and hip-hop scenes.
In fact, they ascribe their footing in the nightlife scene to venue owner Angela Tharp, who gave them opportunities to open for other cumbia bands early on.
"I like working with young artists and helping develop them in our market," says Tharp, who first booked the trio for a Valentine's Day show in 2020, inspired by their music, style, and story. "I am so impressed with their growth and development that I feel that the world is their peach, and to devour it as they see fit.
"We feel like they have become part of our family."
Last week, the band continued a two-year run of playing Hot Summer Nights at the Flamingo – last year with El Combo Oscuro, and this year with El Tule.
"It was really awesome to find a community that was comfortable saying the word 'Latinx,' because even that was very controversial," says Tori. "There are times where it does feel like, 'Oh, we're playing a Latin night,' or, 'Oh, we're playing Margarita Day again.' But I think because we're aware of being pigeonholed, we won't allow it, you know? We're kind of doing it now because it's what feels good, and what's been helping us find our crowd.
"I don't think there's a set date as to when we're going to feel like we made it and we can start headlining every single show, but I definitely have a feeling it's coming soon."
Now 25, 23, and 21, the young women find importance in nurturing their identities beyond music. Offstage, Tiffany works as a nurse in a cardiovascular stroke unit, Sophia works as an administrative assistant, and Tori splits her time between audio engineering and wholesale fulfillment.
The Tiarras have been signed to Texas-based label Lucky Hound Music, also home to Austin artists Walker Lukens and Nobody's Girl, since 2020. They're co-managed by the label's sister company, 484 Artist Management, and Cosmica Artists (Luna Luna, Estereomance). Yet, the Tiarras still look to their parents – "mom-ager and dad-ager," dubs Sophia – for guidance, with Hector continuing to oversee the logistics of every show, while Debbra helps organize the band's finances.
"There's a lot of trust in having our parents help manage us," says Tori. "They don't want to take from us, they just want to set us up for a good future. And it's really fun, overall, to experience all of this with our family, because it just brings us closer together. We have all these great memories and we get to learn about one another and ourselves every day."
Cognizant of their limited time together, especially after Tiffany moved out of the family home last year, Tori continues: "But sometimes we have to regroup and not focus on the business aspect as much when we're having family time. That comes second. We're a family first."
Likewise, the Tiarras will always remain sisters first.
"When we started the band, our dad would always tell me, 'Protect your sisters,' because I was the oldest," says bassist Tiffany, finally chiming in. "Now that we're all women, I feel like Tori is the head."
Tori adds: "But we all look out for one another, especially at the shows, because things can get crazy.
"When it comes to that, we're all the big sister."
The Tiarras join Grupo Fantasma, Carrie Rodriguez, and more at the Paramount Theatre on Sept. 30. Prior, they play at the Martian Arts Festival in San Marcos on Sept. 22 and the River Revival Music Festival in New Braunfels on Sept. 29.