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Francisca Valenzuela Won Over Chile's Tough Crowds. Now to Conquer the States

Francisca Valenzuela Won Over Chile's Tough Crowds. Now to Conquer the States
Maria Madrigal

On Monday afternoon, Francisca Valenzuela flew in from Miami, drove to West Hollywood, ran through a sound check, played an incredibly energetic acoustic set, excitedly greeted her guests and sat down to an interview -- seemingly without so much as blinking an eye.

Animated, her petite arms waving wildly, the 24-year-old Valenzuela talks about her "half South American, half North American" life. All the while, the off-kilter table between us wobbles from her enthusiastic gesturing.

Francisca Valenzuela
Francisca Valenzuela
Álvaro Puentes

Born and raised in San Francisco, Valenzuela was the fourth child in a family of five and the only girl. Like many teenage girls in the '90s, her first music concert was Lilith Fair. Valenzuela's parents, both scientists, had left Chile to escape political unrest in the 1970s and stayed in the Bay Area until she was 12, when they returned to Santiago.

Soon after the family's return to Chile, Valenzuela started writing songs, including what would eventually become her first hit single on Chilean radio, "Peces." Valenzuela also published a book of poems called Defenseless Waters, for which compatriot and Bay Area resident Isabel Allende wrote the prologue.

By 17, Valenzuela was playing happy hour music in Santiago's jazz bars, dropping off copies of her demos at every radio station and reaching out to all the labels in town. "I just made a Myspace, made a blog, and started booking shows on my own. I would have to beg them, 'Pleeeease won't you let me play a show?'" she recalls.

Now her unstoppable energy -- the table's still shaking -- starts to make sense. She's a tried and true hustler. In 2007, her first full-length album went gold in Chile. Given the way the music industry works there, she says, that was important.

"The blessing and curse of Chile, being such an isolated country, is that people do what they want, however they want without thinking, 'Which label can I go to? Where can I be successful?' It's much more artisanal. In that sense, people get nurtured and are willed to do what they want."

Chileans are a tight-knit community, she says, but they're picky too -- they have to be won over. "They're not gonna applaud generously. Here in the U.S., people are very receptive and attentive -- they're so polite," she says, "In Chile, no."

Indeed, Valenzuela is one of several artists coming out of Chile's small but talented independent scene, which includes rapper Ana Tijoux, singer-songwriter Gepe, DJ Latin Bitman, and others. Her boyfriend and producer Vicente Sanfuentes has worked with Gepe, L.A.'s own Pilar Díaz and rockers Los Amigos Invisibles to name a handful.

But even among the dense collection of talent, Valenzuela stands out -- and it's not just her liveliness and vibrant voice. Valenzuela's way with words, in both Spanish and English, is extraordinary.

"It's cool that I now have an opportunity to show them both," she says of her talents in English and Spanish. "When I started performing it was like 'Why are you singing all in English?' Then I did the Spanish thing and it was, like, 'Come on you're also Gringa, sing in English!' To have that duality is great and I just have to kind of work on it, especially now since I think art in general has no boundaries. Everyone's from everywhere in a sense."

Sala de Espera Radio presents an acoustic show with Francisca Valenzuela tonight at R Bar in Koreatown. Fernanda Ulibarri opens. 3331 W. 8th Street.

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