*Originally printed in Mas Magazine, Vol. 1, issue 11, 11 - 24 - 06
LOS ANGELES, CA
Singer-songwriter Julieta Venegas is not only Mexico’s most famous accordion- slinging rockera, she also happens to be one of its best kept secrets.
Venegas, recently performing to a packed house at LA’s Wiltern Theater Nov. 17, is currently experiencing another triumphant phase in her career as an artist, continuing to reach even more fans.
Though she declined to give her age — “You can ask,” Venegas said, followed by laughter, but no answer — a compilation of Web sources shows the singer turning 36 the day after Thanksgiving, Nov. 24.
Backstage at the Wiltern, Venegas prepared for another sold-out show by visiting with family and friends before meeting the massive audience eagerly awaiting her inside the theater’s main ballroom.
“These are the first dates we’ve been doing in the states for ‘Limon y Sal,’” said Venegas of the evening’s show and subsequent California tour (promoting her new CD) starting in Los Angeles, then moving on to Fresno and San Francisco. “We’ve been doing mainly dates in Mexico, Spain and Central America.”
Born in Long Beach, Calif., Venegas grew up in Tijuana, Mexico. Keeping a foot on both sides of the border, Venegas was automatically influenced by the language and cultures of the US and Mexico via — what else — TV.
“It was easier to watch American TV than to watch Mexican TV growing up,” she said. “That’s how I learned English, and TV is where you learn from as a kid.”
Beginning with piano lessons as a child, Venegas began playing keyboards while still in high school with Tijuana alternative rock band, Chantaje — a band that would later evolve into Tijuana No!, credited as one of the most influential groups in Latin alternative music.
That’s when Venegas realized her passion to write and perform.
“I think it was from then that I realized the creative side of music, not just interpreting classical music, but improvising, writing and singing,” said Venegas, who left the band to pursue a solo career.
Reaching her goal of becoming an independent artist, Venegas released her solo debut, 1997’s “Aqui” followed by “Bueninvento” in 2000. Both releases were warmly embraced by fans and critics for their strong musical poetics, but it was with the release of “Si” in 2003 that things heated up for Venegas.
In 2004, she picked up both a Latin Grammy and an MTV Latino award for the same album, establishing her star power.
Still riding high on the popularity of “Si,” Venegas dropped her latest CD, “Limon y Sal” in 2006, again to rousing response. Like her prior release, “Limon” is filled with songs of love, sprinkled with the hangover of relationships lost.
“I like writing about love, the beginning and the end of it. It’s what inspires me,” she said. “‘Si,’ was an experiment for me because I had never written a happy love song before. I knew how to write about feeling sad and melancholy, but never about being happy and sure of something.”
Incorporating elements of modern rock with folk music traditions, Venegas’ signature use of the accordion in her performances also attracts attention.
“When I started playing the accordion, it wasn’t just for norteño music, it was because of how artists like Los Lobos and Tom Waits were using it — it has so many references” she said. “It’s something very organic, like I’m touching the earth, with the air and strength of it.”
For someone experiencing this current wave of success, you’d think Venegas would be living glamorous on the road, traveling with a posse of diva-like proportions.
To the contrary, the singer’s backstage dressing room is quite modest. Noticeably absent is the flash associated with a celebrity concerned with her public image.
“I can’t think of myself as an image, and this is what I want them to think about me,” Venegas said. “I just like to be honest and express myself the way I want to. I’m pretty shy.”
Recording mainly in Spanish — but aware of the crossover success of other Latin artists like Ricky Martin and Shakira — does Venegas plan on recording in English any time soon?
“I don’t want to say never, but it’s not something that interests me,” Venegas said. “I like writing songs in the language that I’m used to feeling things and speaking with — the best way to know my music is to know it they way I’m inspired to write it.”
Apart from the many statuettes and awards she’s received over the course of her career, Venegas also feels that being recognized for your artistry comes in a more rewarding form.
“On a personal level, they’re great,” she said of her awards, “but at the same time, the important things happen when you connect with the public at a show, when people are listening to your album and somebody comes up to me and says, ‘Hey, you know, I heard this song, and this is what I thought, or this is what happened to me, and it’s totally describing what I feel.’”