Ileana Cabra of Calle 13 Talks New Solo Album

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Ileana Cabra Joglar performs live on stage during a concert at Columbiahalle on June 20, 2015 in Berlin, Germany. 

Ile frees her old soul on timeless debut “iLevitable”

The songs on ILevitable, the first solo album from Ileana Cabra Joglar, immediately get under your skin. Rooted in the classic bolero ballad style, with touches of trova folk and a little Latin funk, it’s a sound that could be deemed retro. But timelessness is a better description for this striking debut.

Cabra, the little sister of Calle 13 leaders René Pérez Joglar and Eduardo Cabra, was previously known as PG-13, the tough teenage vocalist of the Latin Grammy-sweeping group, which gave what may have been its final concerts last summer.

The 27-year-old Cabra now calls herself iLe, and on iLevitable her strength comes from her muscular, free-ranging voice, which, in the bolero tradition, expresses the feelings of a fragile heart. Honey drips from her open vein on the album’s cover, a reference to “corta venas” [wrist slashers] a common and self-explanatory name for the kind of ballads iLe was drawn to as a child. Her inspiration has come from crate-digging in the archives of Caribbean musical history, but mostly from a musical family, which, in addition to her brothers and parents, included her songwriter grandmother.

Ile spoke to Billboard prior to the release of iLevitable on June 3.

Fans of Calle 13 may be surprised to hear that your album is more about old school romance than urban edge....

It’s music that has a lot to say. And in the times we are living in today, I think people are looking for that kind of direct communication. The idea of being cool has literally ended up creating a kind of coldness; people are more distant from things and maybe we are more afraid than before to express what we feel inside.

Before there was a more direct way of writing about and talking about things.

Why boleros?

The songs [on iLevitable] definitely have that air because I grew up with that music, thanks to my grandmother, my father and my mother. And ever since I was little I was fascinated by it. Starting from when I was a teenager what I was doing was more current, but I always liked old music ... As a family we have a lot in common as far as our musical tastes, but because of the education of that musical environment that we grew up in, everyone was free to go their own way. This is really the music that I wanted to do, and it’s an idea that became stronger as time went on.

Who was your grandmother?

My grandmother, Flor Amelia de Gracia, wrote songs, and I always planned to record them. She always told me that I should sing them my way. There are two of her songs on this album, "Dolor" [with the late Cheo Feliciano,] and “Quien Eres Tu?”

Apart from your grandmother, who are some of your musical influences?

A lot of music from here in Puerto Rico and the Caribbean: Ismael Rivera, Cheo Feliciano, Cuban singers like Blanca Rosa Gil. That’s just to name a few. There are so many. 

You started working as a teenager with Calle 13. What was the most important thing you took away from that experience?

Working with your family is different. There’s a deep communication and understanding. Sometimes we didn’t even have to look at each other  to know what my brothers were trying to say. There was this feeling of protection working together. It made it easier for me to be surrounded by them onstage; it gave me security.

The most important thing is to work as a family.

You’ll be debuting songs from your album live in New York in July as part of this year’s LAMC. Are you looking forward to touring again?

I’m ready. I really want to liberate all of those songs that I had shut inside. I’m ready to free myself. The members of my band are Puerto Rican, we are six including me. Putting the band together was like forming a new family.

Do you think we may see a Calle 13 comeback at some point?

Yes [hesitantly]. People talk about how we broke up. I don’t see it that way, because we are really a big family. And like in every family, all of us are just taking time to find ourselves.

Do you see iLevitable as kind of your declaration of independence in a way, the sign that you’ve come out of the shadows of your older brothers?

It’s not really about recognition. What I like is music, and above all singing. It’s about giving everything I have and letting it go. Sharing what I am doing and enjoying it, that’s my main objective.