Lila Downs Talks New Album 'Balas y Chocolate' & Her Husband's Terminal Diagnosis

Lila Downs
Courtesy Photo

Watch video for single “La Patria Madrina” with Juanes.

“I’ve seen hell; I’ve seen the news” sings Lila Downs at the start of the song “La Patria Madrina.” A video for the track flashes shots of deforestation, oil excavation, headlines of violence in Mexico, and images of war and consumerism that have become part of our daily media feed -- combined with skeleton masks and indigenous warriors.

“I think it’s a difficult time to be optimistic,” Downs tells Billboard during a phone conversation from her home in Mexico. “To say, 'We need to get our stuff together, we need to vote and change our leadership.' But a lot of people are feeling obstinate…It’s kind of a fearful moment.”

Downs calls her new album, Balas y Chocolate, “More personal than any of the rest” of her previous eleven studio albums. It could also be her best. On the new record, out on Tuesday, (March 24), the Grammy-winner known for her unique brand of rough Mexican-rooted folk party songs -- and emotional ballads with the pull of incantations -- goes to a higher level musically, notably on the furious opening track, “Humito Copal.”

Downs and her long-time musical collaborator/husband Paul Cohen found inspiration for the album in Mexico’s Day of the Dead, taking as a theme the traditional celebration of death as a natural extension of life.

“It’s about enjoying, of course wearing black and going to the cemetery and weeping, and eating and drinking and playing music for the dead,” Downs says. “Hoping that the dead come back and enjoy the moment with you is one of our main concerns during that time.”

Balas y Chocolate expresses a similar dichotomy of celebration and mourning, the artist notes.

“It’s confusing to me because musically it seems very festive,” she says. “But there’s an intensity that makes me cry a bit when I perform the songs.”

Downs says she was directly influenced by much-publicized incidents of violence in Mexico, like the abduction of 43 young men in 2014 in the state of Guerrero.

“Being on the road and seeing things in different states of Mexico had an effect on all of us,” says Downs. “I am a mother now, so I guess that became more important than it would have been a few years back if I had not been a mother.”

Downs and her family were also directly shadowed by the specter of death while working on the album. When their little boy, now four and a half, was two years old, Cohen was given a terminal diagnosis.

“My husband was given a death sentence,” Downs confides. “We thought, ‘Ok, let’s just try and get it together and figure out what we are going to do.'” But Cohen’s health has improved. “He’s right here beside me,” Downs says with a smile in her voice.

“La Patria Madrina,”  like other tracks on Balas y Chocolate, is ultimately not without optimism. The song is a collaboration with Colombian singer Juanes, who Downs sees as something of a Latin American brother-in-arms. By the end of the video, the extra’s death masks have been removed, and Downs and Juanes are leading a mock protest march.

“Obviously I’m an artist and I’m not a politician so I can’t make drastic changes,” Downs comments. “But I do think that music offers us the ability at desperate moments to have moments where we can actually feel the emotion that we haven’t been able to express. I think a lot of what we are feeling is confusion, anger, anxiety, mainly political confusion. You’re not even clear as to what you are going to do. Art in general really can make you express all of those things, and hopefully then you can make a decision, you can say, 'Now I know what I’m going to do.’ That’s what I’m hoping for.”


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