Juana Molina’s music is full of surprises. The sweetly simple guitar lines and the waves of otherworldly synths, the gentle ache of her voice and the unexpected eruption of birdsong—listening to one of her albums is like walking into a wardrobe and suddenly finding yourself in Narnia. More remarkable than hearing her music is to see her perform it live. Molina is a very modern one-woman band. Like Jamie Liddell, Mathew Herbert and Final Fantasy’s Owen Pallett, she uses pedals and samplers to loop her voice and guitar playing, building her music on the fly. Intricate songs full of shifting melodies and shimmering harmonies are built in an instant but live long in the memory.
As befits a person of such singular talents, her story is far from ordinary. Born in Buenos Aires in 1962, she started learning guitar from her father at the age of five, spending long summers with two of Brazil’s finest songwriters, Vinicius de Moraes and Chico Buarque before a coup d’etat forced the family to flee to Paris. They returned to Argentina six years later, and Molina fell into an acting career that culminated in the fabulously named Juana y sus hermanas (Juana and Her Sisters), a sitcom that made her a star across the Spanish-speaking world. Then she returned to music, releasing her first album Rara in 1996. Two more have followed in the past decade: Segundo and Tres Cosas.
PopMatters caught up with Molina as she prepares for a U.S. tour to discuss career changes, shoegazers and her new album, Son.
You were once a successful comedian. How did you make the transition from mainstream TV comedy to making personal, experimental music?
What I actually did was, I was trying to find a job that allowed me to live as a musician, but I was so shy at playing music that I wasn’t able to play in front of anyone. So I found this job on a TV show. I thought that was perfect for me. I watched TV for a week or so to find the right show so I could ask them to hire me. And then I found it and I went there and they took me. The only thing I wanted to have was a job that paid my rent and my guitar lessons and that gave me free time to play music. The first year was just perfect, because I was only working on Mondays but was paid as if I had been working for the whole week. I was really in heaven. After that a guy from another show called me and offered me a role in his comedy and that took more days. Then I had only two days free. And then a producer came and offered for me to have my own show. Then I got lost and totally forgot about music.
I realised when I was in bed pregnant. I had to stay in bed for a couple of months so I had the time to think. And I thought, Well, how did I get here? This is not what I wanted to do. So I decided to stop everything right away and come back to music.
You composed and recorded Son alone, and you play alone on stage. Are you more comfortable working by yourself?
I would say yes. I think I have to say that, because if not, I would work with someone else. Composing and making the record is definitely something I feel more comfortable doing on my own, because I am able to get into a deeper way of working. I get into a tunnel that is really personal, and I don’t really recognize that I am getting there. If I am with someone else, everything gets more superficial. It doesn’t mean that it’s worse or there is nothing you can make with someone else, but working alone the feeling and the mood is—I don’t like to say obscure or dark, but you know when you are half asleep and half awake? You have your own indecipherable thoughts that you can’t really explain. It’s that feeling. Only by being on my own is that possible.
Your live shows are intriguing. I love the way you build the songs from samples and loops live on stage. How did you come to work like that?
That came about by accident. I was playing with someone who couldn’t travel with me. And instead of being really worried because I had nothing to play I started to put a show together on my own because I knew someone else couldn’t do what this guy could do. Because I had a really personal—how do you say, like sex appeal but with music? Let’s say a music appeal. I had a strong music appeal with this guy. He’s the only one I can really play freely with, but he couldn’t come on tour. So the first thing I did was begin to plan the architecture of the set, just to see if I was able to play the whole thing on my own. Little by little I was realizing I could. And for a long time I felt that there was this molecule of me that was traveling all over the world in a very safe mode. But some songs are almost impossible to play on my own because there are too many things, or everything has to start or stop at the same time, and that is something I can’t do.
What equipment do you have with you on stage?
I have two loop pedals, two synths, an effects machine and a mixer. And the guitar, of course.
And do you feel like this equipment has liberated you? I mean in the sense that you can control everything in a live show the way you would when you record?
In some ways, yes. But there is a new pedal, it came out a few months ago and I bought it, but I had to give it back because it was too much of an upgrade. It had too many new features, too many small pedals. How do you call these people who look to their feet when they play?
Yes! I would’ve become a shoegazer, because there is no way you can feel or see those new pedals. I think they are meant for people that have prerecorded sequences. I was disappointed, because I thought this would be the solution for the things I can’t play on my own. So I’ll have to wait or find someone who can do what I would like to have.
Despite using such sophisticated recording techniques, your music has a very natural quality. Is that something you strive for?
I recorded Segundo in 1998 and 1999, and from then it’s almost eight years. In that time I learned. That record, Segundo, has a lot of good vibes, but the recording is really bad, even though some people ask me, ‘Oh, how did you do the recording? It sounds amazing!’ It was only by chance. I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t even know an EQ existed. Later someone helped me to remix the record—not the levels or the bands or the atmosphere but the frequencies that were bothering me. So I learned a lot when we did that in 1999. And when I recorded Tres Cosas afterward I knew a lot more about recording and mixing. And now with this record, the composition and the mixing is almost at the same time. I fix anything that is wrong immediately as I record.
The songs on Son are full of crickets and frogs and dogs. Is nature a big theme?
Yes, I live in Buenos Aires, where nature is really loud. I’d really rather be listening to that than a record, because you have a different symphony every day. Because birds, they are the same instrument, but they don’t play the same sound every day. And also the other sounds around, maybe a truck or someone working with a… how do you call these things to make holes?
Exactly, like zzzzzzzzzzzz, when you hear electronics there. And every noise can become part of an arrangement. When I listen to the music I record, the birds and nature are there, so I just decided to make it part of the record. It’s not something I brought from somewhere else. It’s not an African bird. It’s not in the middle of the jungle. It’s just around where I work.
And is nature a lyrical theme on the album, too?
Not so much. There are the everyday things that make me think about the behavior of relationships between, let’s say, mother and daughter—the everyday relation and everyday dialogue and everyday problems that make a pattern. So I can tell a story that has all the everyday problems or features. Or, of course, between a man and a woman, or sisters. Just a lot of family stories. I try to make them… I don’t remember this word. How do you say when something is not true but could be true? It’s a very important word.
Yes, but no. It is like, if you tell me a lie, make me believe that lie. If you lie, I would rather you make me believe that lie. I would rather not to be thinking that you are lying to me. I’d rather you were just telling me the truth. Verisimilitude! That is it. Every truth can be invented. But it needs a lot of details and precision. If you lie, you have to be good at lying.
Are lyrics the last thing you add to a song?
Yes. I am very careful with lyrics. I wouldn’t like it to sound silly or stupid or pretentious, so I try to find my own way of speaking using words I feel that belong to me or my way of talking. The problem with lyrics is the code. Like talking with people in a different language. They can communicate but the code is missing. And they think the whole thing, the whole communication is the code. And if I don’t have it, I’m a little lost. That is why I write in Spanish.
The album’s title, Son, means they are, right?
And it means also pleasant sound. I didn’t choose it. A friend of mine was listening to the songs, and they didn’t have a name. And my friend, he says, ‘I know the name of your record.’ And he said Son. And I thought, Hmm. At first I thought it was too short. And also the meaning in English, I didn’t like it. But then I thought, Well, everything is in Spanish, so there is nothing I can do.
You have a daughter, don’t you?
Yes, I have a daughter, and I don’t feel my records as sons. The only son I had maybe was Segundo. That one was more like a son. But they don’t really have that feeling. I think it is too serious to call a record a son.