Photo by Alejaddro Ros
My first encounter with Argentine singer-songwriter Juana Molina was in 2002, with Segundo — deeply private music full of detuned synthesizers, acoustic guitars, bird sounds, deep-space chirps and Molina’s singsong melodies. The rhythms were complicated yet leisurely, in a way familiar to fans of Brazilian music. The contrast between playfulness and groove, freedom and hypnosis, also reminded me of stranger antecedents like Sun Ra or Stereolab. The intimate mood would lull me like a cup of tea, then sounds I’d never heard before would snap me back to attention.
Though she was living in L.A. back then and had garnered airplay on KCRW, Molina was something of a secret. Not much longer: She plays Coachella this weekend; Domino will give her Tres Cosas a domestic release in May; she’ll open David Byrne’s U.S. tour later this spring.
In person, Molina is comfortable in her own skin, her voice easygoing, with a slight rasp. But when pushed to recount an ecstatic memory, she slips into the hammy voice of a former comedian. Which she is.
L.A. WEEKLY: Can you provide a bit of
JUANA MOLINA: I lived in Argentina until I was 12, when my family left to live in Paris because of the coup d’état. After six years I returned to Buenos Aires and went to university, but decided that wasn’t what I wanted. I had a TV show, because I needed money to pay the rent and have my guitar lessons. It ended up being a trap, because I forgot about music for eight years. The show was called Juana y Sus Hermanas — Juana and Her Sisters.
Were the characters based on your life?
It was real, which is why I became so successful. My family has that thing: We all make fun of everybody, and impersonate each other to see how mean we can be.
When did you switch to music?
Suddenly I got pregnant, and it was a blessing. It was a blessing that I had such a beautiful daughter, and it was a blessing that I rested for two months in bed. I had the time to think about where my life was headed, and I said, “What am I doing here with all this big success and everyone going, ‘Hey, hola, Juana!’” Ahhhhhh!
Your first record, Rara, was released in 1996 on MCA, which hoped to exploit your TV fame, but it disappeared. How did the one career lead into the next?
At the beginning, 500 people would come to my shows and scream, “Hey, do that character!” “Hey, Juana, make a little bit of that Korean girl!” By the end, maybe 30 would be there, and like it — or at least listen to find out. But with time, and a lot of work, and a lot of “I don’t care I don’t care I don’t care,” I started having a new audience. This was 10 years ago. Now there are kids who say, “Oh yeah, you were an actress. My mother was a fan of yours.”
Do you have a sense of how your current fame compares?
I don’t like to have that sense, and I didn’t when I was doing my show. It’s out of your control, so it’s stupid to care. People won’t love you more because you want to be loved more.
Though I’m reminded of Brazil and bossa nova, your music seems quite of itself.
Maybe because you’re not into Uruguayan music. I’m more into Uruguayan than anything else. It not only has swing and good vibes, it has everything. One interviewer from Uruguay said I was the best modern interpreter of their music, even if I was from Argentina, which made me very proud.
Are there other obvious influences?
Larks’ Tongues in Aspic by King Crimson was a huge influence. I was 9 when my father brought the record to me, and it blew out my mind, totally. I put a speaker here, another speaker there, lay down on the floor and played it over and over. I also listened to Led Zeppelin II. They are very soundscaping records. I didn’t listen saying, “Oh what a wonderful guitar! Oh that keyboard, my god!” It was just a whole thing, a song.
That’s what is curious about your music. You can’t tell what’s being played. You just know you’re getting this final result, this sound.
And that’s the best compliment you can make.
Juana Molina plays Coachella on Saturday, May 1.