Julieta Venegas cherishes the past to enrich the future, as she explores the different facets of personal histories. That’s the crux of Tu Historia, her eighth studio album, in which the Mexican singer-songwriter rejects a mainstream mentality, goes independent from her former major label, and comes full circle to find more intimacy.
On her journey to penning these perspectives, she revisits her roots in Tijuana, which was the inspiration of her introspective guitar ballad “La nostalgia,” and where she filmed a few music videos.
Never one to write a vapid hook for the sake of catchiness, Venegas possesses the rare quality of writing both memorable and reverent lyrics with apparent ease to make them relatable. “Respira el tiempo te hará bien/ Algo has aprendido y lo llevarás contigo, ya vas a ver/ Deja tu pasado ser parte de ti” (Breathe time will do you good/ You have learned something and you will take it with you, you’ll see/ Let your past be a part of you”, she croons on the album’s title track, along with her unmistakable accordion riffs. (Venegas can play just about any instrument with keys and strings.)
In talking with the Tijuana native, she is modest about her many talents. Recently, she collaborated with contemporary superstar Bad Bunny on “Lo Siento BB:/”, but the wider exposure is never the driver behind her work — it’s always about the art, and experimenting with new sonic textures.
Her new album was produced by Chilean electro-pop artist Alex Anwandter, who was very impressed with Venega’s level of artistry. “When I was with her in the studio, I was like, ‘Wow, that’s why Julieta is doing amazingly well, because she’s such a genius,’” he told Billboard. “And to see a genius working for me was very impressive.”
Julieta Venegas became a full-blown international pop star at the start of the new millennium with Sí, her third album. But to some longtime followers of her ‘90s-era indie rock days, it was sort of the equivalent of Dylan going electric. She had established herself as a prominent voice and songwriter in the Mexican punk rock scene with band Tijuana No!, and as a solo artist with producer Gustavo Santoalalla (Café Tacvba, Maldita Vecindad, Molotov). “I don’t like to stand still and say, ‘I do rock’,” she says. “I don’t do rock, I make songs.”
While living in Mexico City, she released some of her best work, including Limón y Sal (2006), which entered the Billboard 200 album chart, as well as Los momentos(2013) and Algo sucede (2015), which debuted at No.1 on the Latin Pop Albums chart. At the end of the month, she will present Tu Historia live in Los Angeles and New York. She will also perform at the eclectic Bésame Mucho festival in L.A., along with Los Tigres del Norte, Caifanes, Zoé and Café Tacvba, among others.
Venegas recently talked to Billboard Español from Argentina, where she now lives, to shed light on her story. Below, she speaks at length on her recent work and her earlier career.
On the concept of Tu historia and some songs:
Tu Historia is the album, but there are also many stories. They’re different songs that have to do with everything — friendship, love, heartbreak, everything. What [the title song] is telling you is to carry your past with you and never abandon it. Don’t think you have to erase it.
And “En Tu Orilla” is inspired on a poem by Chilean poet Raúl Zurita. He is asking [an ex] that when time passes, to continue keeping him in her corner. It is a request that I thought was very tender, because he is asking [a former lover] — even though the two of them are a done story — to keep him somewhere within.
About her creative process and her collaboration with Alex Anwandter:
With Alex, we’ve been friends for many years. In fact, we collaborated on another album, [2016’s Amiga, in the song “Caminando a la Fabrica”] and we see each other a lot. I told him I was making these songs, and asked him to listen to them and tell me if I had something for a record. From there, we started talking about “hey, I want to work with you.”
The most important thing is the choice of songs, the repertoire. That’s the foundation for everything, and the essence of the album. Alex is that type of producer — like, “First let’s focus that the songs are great, and from there we start thinking about the sound.” I really liked the idea of having the acoustic elements, but also putting lots of synthesizer into it. And he is very into synths, he is also a violinist. Of the ten songs, about seven of them have strings.
On transitioning from Sony to an independent label:
I think you have to try different routes. Since Algo sucede, I had already done a Sony distribution. In other words, little by little, I naturally began to distance myself from such a large structure. I wanted to work on a smaller scale, perhaps build everything in a more personal way with my team. I don’t know if I ever identified that much with the huge structure like what a large label requires. I really like what it means to work with a distributor like Altafonte. It’s involved in the promotion and marketing part. In other words, if someone is going to be the label person, it’s going to be me. I was interested in this new way of doing things.
From doing underground punk and indie rock to being a pop powerhouse:
First of all, the songs come first. I always look at the songs from a songwriter’s point of view. I started composing with Chantaje, the group before Tijuana No!, and I learned a lot there. Later, I began to experiment more in my way of writing. Then, on my third album, Sí, I liked the idea of trying more simpler compositions, because I had been making more complex albums prior. It was more intuitive and played a lot with structures. I am very curious and I always like to try different things. Then, you see what style you want for it — whether that’s electronic, acoustic, rock, if you want to add an electric guitar with distortion, or a charango.
I don’t like to stand still and say “I make rock”. No, I don’t make rock, I make songs. In fact, there are hardly any electric guitars on my [new] record. There are like two in a couple of songs, but it’s minimal. I’ve always been more about the piano, accordion, drum machines, synths — those are my elements that I can’t stop coming back to.
About her collaboration with Bad Bunny and Tainy on “Lo Siento BB:/”:
It’s a Tainy song, actually. Tainy, Bad Bunny’s producer, was the one who called me. He’s produced a lot of reggaetón, urbano and pop artists. He started producing for reggaetón artists, but he’s expanded his reach. I like him a lot because he has a very broad vision of music, and I very much agree with that vision. He identifies these parings and links his teams with artists that come from the pop, folk, Mexican music world.
He told me: “I would very much like you to write a response to what Benito is saying.” It seemed very gracious to me, and at the same time he gave me complete liberty to be able to express what naturally came to me. Originally, the song was going to be sung by Benito, and my part was going to be left at the end, as a kind of interlude. But in the end they decided to put it as an introduction, and I loved it.
On filming music videos on the border and Tijuana:
The video for “La Nostalgia” was filmed on the Tecate highway; and the one for “Tu Historia” was filmed in Tijuana. They were directed by Nicolasa Ruiz, a director from Mexicali who lives in Mexico City, and I wanted the videos to be filmed in those landscapes. I started looking for people and I came to Nicolasa through my sister and friends. I really liked her work, because it’s very personal, very outside the mainstream. She has a very beautiful and biographical vision that tells stories. She had not directed videos, but it felt nice meeting with her.
I left Tijuana when I was very young, but it’s a place that always keeps pulling me back and making me think about my childhood and teen years. That is where I developed as a person, it’s my land. [Being in Tijuana] is a whole package: seeing my family, my friends, eating, and the landscape. The Pacific gives us this Baja Californian beach freshness and the desert. That combination of climate and landscape is very unique.
This interview was originally conducted in Spanish.