After Some Dark Years, Chicana Rocker Lysa Flores Burns Brighter Than Ever
In 1997, InStyle magazine showcased celebrities looking hot in red-dyed hair. There was Halle Barry, Neve Campbell — and a new up-and-coming Mexican-American starlet, Lysa Flores.
By the time she started popping up on the celebrity fashion radar, Flores had already played in numerous bands and was about to release her first solo album, Tree of Hope. The same year as her InStyle spread, she gave an acclaimed performance in the award-winning film Star Maps, and produced the film’s soundtrack with famed Argentinean composer/musician Gustavo Santaolalla.
In the years since, red has proven to be more than a fashionable hair color for the East Los Angeles singer, musician and actress. It's a color symbolic of her passion for life and devotion to music, worn like a banner of defiance. On the cover of It Hurts to Be Your Girl — one of two new albums, along with Immigrant Daughter, she's releasing this week — Flores appears in a long red dress as she runs across the 4th Street Bridge, like a flaring match struck across the concrete face of the city. She looks astonishing, though she bears little resemblance to the '90s indie darling that many still remember. This is Flores in a rush, with no more time to lose.
Once at the heart of L.A.'s Chicano music scene, Flores emerged as a young alternative rock queen in the '90s. But then, over the course of the next decade, struggles in her personal life caused her to fade from the public eye.
Now, after a nearly 10-year "hiatus," Flores returns with two albums and opens up about being a survivor of domestic abuse. The albums’ releases correspond with Mexican Independence Day (Sept. 16) and mark both a break from her traumatic past and a return to her former powerhouse self.
From the early days of her career, Flores’ versatility as a singer, songwriter and guitarist led her across genres ranging from new wave to cumbia to grunge. She created music alongside John Doe and D.J. Bonebrake of X and David Hidalgo of Los Lobos. She also discovered a natural knack for acting in theater, film and television; her performance in Star Maps received an Independent Spirit Award nomination.
Flores started her career at 16 and came of age during a decade marked by political turmoil. Confronted with a surge in anti-immigrant efforts in California such as 1994's Prop 187, and feeling a sense of solidarity with the indigenous uprising of the EZLN in Chiapas, Mexico in response to NAFTA, Chicano artists, musicians, actors and writers became more politicized and gave rise to a new Mexican-American cultural renaissance. This new, politically engaged generation produced such talents as Quetzal, Rage Against the Machine, Ozomatli, Culture Clash, performance artist El Vez, writer Michele Serros and cartoonist Lalo Alcaraz, among many others.
As awful as the 1990s may have been for Chicanos, it was also an undeniably special time for women in music, with the rise alternative rock. Whether in the backyard scene or in the mainstream, suddenly women could be raw, moody, vengeful, playful and even experimental, yet still feminine, if and however they chose. A rocker could talk trash and rip into a guitar while wearing a tiara and dripping mascara all over the place.
In this environment, Lysa Flores blossomed furiously with an extraordinary voice that was quickly embraced, particularly by young Chicanas. However, although Flores paid her dues to this movement, playing at fundraisers and rallies for no pay, she was also committed to her own personal, artistic path. “I’m one that believes that the personal is political,” she says, “and I’ve really stuck to that.”
Along the way, she found herself having to navigate a sexist music industry where male colleagues commented more readily on her wardrobe than her work. Nonetheless, she continued writing and recording music, collaborating with other artists, touring through Europe with El Vez, and putting out two more albums, The Making Of A Trophy Grrrl! (2004) and Bring Your Love (2008).
But during this time, her life also started unraveling, as her relationship with a record producer took a devastating turn that, she says, left her financially and emotionally bankrupt. “There’s such a thing as financial infidelity,” says Flores. “It’s a way that men control women through their finances. It’s very traumatic.”
This was the beginning of a long downward spiral that isolated her from her family, friends and fans. Vulnerable after the sudden end of her relationship that all but left her on the streets, Flores says her friendship with a member of a popular Mexican rock band soon became amorous and complicated — and, she claims, physically abusive.
Flores says she finally escaped the relationship after an escalating series of violent episodes and losing her unborn son during pregnancy. “I had to run away for my life.”
Once returned to Los Angeles from Mexico, Flores started her road to recovery with the birth of her daughter, coming to terms with her past and making music again. She also finally revisited some of the music she had written and recorded during the most traumatic periods of her life. “I was afraid to release [the albums], but my daughter has given me so much strength to move on and find my way back to myself.”
As Flores sifted through fragments of the songs that would eventually find their way onto Immigrant Daughter and It Hurts to Be Your Girl, piecing them back together, she was astonished to find that through the years of each stormy relationship, she’d been documenting her experience, often unconsciously. Each shard of music she recovered was like a photograph, a frozen moment of time that she could now look into.
Sitting with the brokenness and handling the sharp edges of these memories was painful. Dealing with the shame of experiences that she’d kept concealed from most of her family and friends was almost unbearable. Yet she continued with the records, determined to bring them both back to life.
Along the way, Flores made an unexpected discovery — many of her friends had also suffered through domestic abuse. “I was shocked. These were close friends of mine, yet we’d never talked about this,” she says. Her longtime friend and former bandmate Alice Bag admitted to being a survivor of domestic abuse, and earlier this year made her own comeback with a new record (which Flores produced). Other female musicians have recently spoken out against various forms of abuse experienced by women. Annette Torres of Las Cafeteras, a popular L.A.-based band, ignited a social media firestorm when she quit the band and publicly accused her male former bandmates of emotionally and psychologically abusive behavior toward their female colleagues.
Though abuse is a significant underlying theme in It Hurts to Be Your Girl, Flores refuses to define herself or her work by it. She's releasing It Hurts alongside the more playful Immigrant Daughter, an album that weaves together stories of love and immigration and cleverly tampers with the sanctity of Chicano icons Emiliano Zapata and Frida Kahlo.
Through it all, she has insisted on making music that is true to herself. “Being authentic has always been really important to me,” she says. And though she has never been one to buy into militant or nationalistic identity politics, she does see the importance of supporting Chicano voices. “Society is more polarized than ever, but we also need Chicano voices more than ever.”
Flores most clearly manifests her new artistic nuances during her live performances, simultaneously delivering vulnerability, smoking rage and unshakeable power. On stage, her voice builds as her strumming quickens; she is running down all her life paths, those marked by destruction and pain, as well as those illuminated with accomplishment and community. She keeps going until she is fully alight, once again the flame many of us love and that many more will soon discover.
For more on Lysa Flores and her new albums Immigrant Daughter and It Hurts to Be Your Girl, visit lysafloresmusic.com.