MIAMI — The title of Mexican songwriter Ximena Sariñana’s first album, “Mediocre,” is exactly the thing she most fears. The name was a form of public-private therapy.
“My songs criticize this being in the middle very much,” the soft-spoken, 23-year-old singer says from her home in Guadalajara. “I noticed why do all these songs criticize being normal and being one of the bunch? What is my problem with this? And I thought well, maybe the only way to confront this is to call my album this thing I dread the most, which is being mediocre.”
Mediocre is the last thing anyone’s calling Sariñana’s haunting, idiosyncratic alt-pop-jazz debut, which has enjoyed a rare combination of grassroots excitement and media and industry raves. Her MySpace page has had over a million hits, and “Mediocre” has been a hit in Mexico. North of the border, glowing reviews have compared her to Norah Jones and Edith Piaf.
Sariñana, who opened her first U.S. tour here April 18, has forged her way by exhuming her own emotions and experiences with sometimes startling intimacy. At the same time, she takes an analytical step back to examine the result. Take the song “Normal,” which puts you inside the head of a woman ecstatic to be caring for her man and the tranquility of “happily ever after” — except for the looming doubt that the affair will end, the sun will go out, and that ending will have been as normal as the ecstasy of being in love.
“I’d just gone out of a very quick, very passionate relationship and I suddenly realized most of my relationships had been like that — you’re the love of my life, and six months later you’re in love with someone else,” Sariñana says. “I was like ‘wow, maybe this whole idea that we have as kids of finding the one and marrying and living together for the rest of your life happily ever after, maybe that doesn’t exist. And maybe everything you’ve ever felt is something normal, love is something normal, and why do people keep thinking of it as something special?”
She learned to examine her feelings as an actress, a career she started at age 4, helped by her father, a film director, and her mother, a screenwriter. Her parents encouraged Sariñana to manage her emotions in life as well as on screen. When Sariñana was 15, she was in tears over breaking up with a boyfriend. “And my dad told me, ‘forget about what he did wrong, what does it mean to you?’” she remembers. “You should always ask yourself, where is it that you went wrong, what can you learn from this experience? So that stuck with me in my songwriting. I’m always trying to look at myself from a very cold point of view, always trying to see the bigger picture. Kind of like reading a script. When you’re going to play a character, it’s very important to understand what part the character is going to play in the story.”
Sariñana’s own story has been both charmed and unconventional. In her teens she gave up acting for music, studying at a Mexico City conservatory and also at Berklee College of Music in Boston, drawn by music’s capacity to transform her own experiences. “It was like a soundtrack to my life,” Sariñana says.
She loved alternative artists like Radiohead, Fiona Apple and Björk, but in school she also fell in love with jazz, with the power of singers like Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald, and its freedom. “There’s this misconception jazz is only for adults,” Sariñana says. “To me it’s the opposite. Jazz is really a young genre, because there’s so much exploration, so much philosophy and spontaneity.”
Sariñana wrote or co-wrote all but three of the 12 songs on “Mediocre,” which she co-produced with the highly regarded Latin alternative producers Tweety Gonzalez, Bajofondo Tango Club cofounder Juan Campodonico, and the group Bro’ducers. The album’s success puts her among a small but influential group of independent-minded female Mexican singer-songwriters, most famously Julieta Venegas, but also Ely Guerra and Natalia Lafourcade.
For Sariñana, creating her own path as an artist also means shaping her image and role as a woman. The cover of “Mediocre” shows her primly dressed as a conventional young lady of the 1950s, staring with what Sariñana calls “this lost look of the years that you missed and the dreams you didn’t fulfill because of this stereotyped situation that women faced at the time.”
She is hoping her songs inspire other women to focus on themselves outside of the ecstasy and turmoil of love. “It’s a part of women that’s not very well represented in Mexican music,” Sariñana says. “I thought if I was very honest about how I was, maybe other girls out there can identify with my album.”
These days Sariñana is both happily independent and in love, with Omar Rodriguez Lopez, the Puerto Rican guitarist and lead songwriter of famed U.S. rock band the Mars Volta. The couple have a house in tree-filled Guadalajara, in Southwestern Mexico, where Sariñana was born and where much of her family still lives. “It feels like my childhood home,” she says. “Lopez loves it and I love it.”
Most importantly, her new home is a refuge from the touring and hectic attention that’s come with the success of “Mediocre.” “It was very surprising the album did so well and so quickly,” Sariñana says. “I’m very happy. But other than that I’m just focused on making what I’m doing better. I still feel I have so much to accomplish.”