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Live Dead: A Q&A with Lila Downs 

Wednesday, Apr 15 2015

Music writers are always dropping the 'i' word. Who are your biggest influences? What influenced you the most? Lila Downs has no problem talking about her influences; she even covers numerous songs by some of the most influential artists. But as a performer, the 47-year-old singer doesn't just incorporate a few stylistic quirks from the artists she admires; she positively embodies those quirks, twisting and turning them, pulling them apart and putting them back together again, freeing them from their constraints, and then spitting them back out in exaggerated, postmodern interpretations of familiar standards or originals that look like warped mirror images of earlier songs, although from a parallel universe. She's David Bowie as the Thin White Duke. Beyoncé as Sasha Fierce. Janelle Monáe as Cindi Mayweather.

One key difference: Downs has no special name for her alter ego — she is her alter ego. Another major difference: The musical forms she experiments with are predominantly traditional Mexican and other Latin American folk and pop styles that remain just outside the peripheral vision of most English-language music fans. Downs channels Lola Beltrán, Mercedes Sosa, Chavela Vargas, and other musical greats in performances that conjure their voices and spirits, but with intensified makeup, heightened colors, and a sweeping vocal range that takes her from deep, guttural moans and soft coos to dramatic, high-pitched wails.

"I loved Lola Beltrán," Downs says of the great Mexican ranchera singer known as Lola la Grande. Downs is speaking from her home in Mexico the day before she departs for a tour that brings her to San Francisco's Nourse Theater April 22. "When I was a little girl I would watch [Lola's] movies with Antonio Aguilar. My mother says I would imitate her, running around the house with hats and skirts."

On Downs' new album, Balas y Chocolate (bullets and chocolate), the singer — also a human-rights activist who has long sung of cultural and political issues — takes a more personal turn, combining her relationship to death and transformation with larger issues of cultural decay and rebirth. In the past, Downs has collaborated with traditional and experimental Latin artists from the late Argentine protest singer Sosa to Rubén Albarrán of the Mexican alt-rock band Café Tacvba. On Balas y Chocolate, Downs enlisted a pair of more mainstream names: Mexican pop icon Juan Gabriel and Colombian pop-rock singer Juanes, with whom she duets on the single "La Patria Madrina" (the motherland). In the acoustic-based protest song fueled by horns and fluttering rhythms, Downs goes straight for the emotional jugular: "Woke up today with my eyes stuck together / Saw hell, saw the news / Graves, the dead, destruction of Mother Nature / Ambition, power, I got depressed."

She has reason to be depressed, having endured her share of hardships, including a recent life-threatening heart diagnosis given her husband and musical collaborator, saxophonist Paul Cohen. When we talk, she tells how the confluence of personal and global challenges has affected her recent songs.

You've said the new album is an homage to el Día de los Muertos — the Day of the Dead. What does that Mexican tradition mean to you?

When I was little I remember the first thing that would wake me up in the morning on the first of November was the smell of the beautiful incense, the copal incense. It's very mysterious and beautiful and makes you think of the sacred and the ritualistic. It carries with it this kind of mystic side that has something to do with our Indian past — and of course, the copal is a Native American resin, so it makes us connect on a very primitive level to the notion of another world besides the live one.

My father died when I was 16 and my grandmother died just a few years later, and my connection to death has been quite present and profound ever since that time. My grandmother was a great influence and she used to speak with dead people. So that was my childhood. In my life, things seem to go in cycles, and being surrounded by people dying constantly is something that starts to have an effect on your dreams about your life.

The English translation of your album title is "bullets and chocolate." Do the bullets represent death and danger and the chocolate, life or desire?

Well, yeah, danger and seduction. The title came from my son, who's four-and-a-half years old, and he loves to say the title. So the perspective came from a child's vision, and I think it's safe to say that that's where our instinct is. The chocolate is a sacred element and we are being surrounded by bullets. There's something very deep in our bones about that, and that's why we have so many problems in our lives, I think.

When I began digging more deeply into Latin popular music several years ago, one of the first songs that really moved me was Juanes' "A Dios le Pido." How did your collaboration with him come about?

I wanted to be accompanied by someone in the Latin American scene that would have strength, and so I thought it would be wonderful if Juanes accompanied me. I sent him the song ("La Patria Madrina") and he loved it and said he thought it really speaks strongly about what's going on in our countries. I have great admiration for his songs. He's done some beautiful songs that really express the nature of the Latin American — our relationship with faith and, in spite of all our historical circumstances, keeping that faith. I think he's a great person to hold by the hand for this piece that talks about our homeland. I always think about the song Natalie Merchant wrote called "Homeland," and I have great admiration for the way she expressed our fears and our love for this mysterious womb that we call the homeland.

Juanes is from Colombia and you're from Mexico, both countries that have experienced serious struggles and dangers ...

[Interrupts] ...along with other countries, too, like Hondurus and Salvador. Yes, it's a difficult time for us, and again, it has to do with bullets — and with drugs, of course. The things we hate and the things we love.

If Juanes' tough political pop helps you represent the bullets part of the equation, would you say Juan Gabriel is the chocolate part — the desire for the sweet, the spiritual?

[Laughs] Well, yes, I guess. And in a way, he's such a beautiful performer and so loving to his audience. He really shows the force of art. In Latin America, as you've probably seen, many people are greatly homophobic, and I think [Juan] just surpasses those boundaries because his art is so strong — his lyrics, his writing, his composing, and his voice as well.

You're pretty well-known for your activism — Mexican rights, immigrant rights, education. How much time do you put into that as opposed to your music?

Well, as a musician, it's my obligation to question these things and talk about them. As a singer and a performer, I can do a lot. I get invited to things. For example, Amnesty International is opening an office in Mexico City, so we're going to be performing along with several other artists. But the event that I take most seriously and that I invest more time in — along with my husband and our production and team of musicians — is a scholarship fund in my hometown in Oaxaca. We support young women to continue in their high school education and then in their university education.

Your mother was a singer, too. Did she encourage your interest in music, or discourage it?

She discouraged popular music. She wanted me to be an opera singer, and I was on my way to being an opera singer. As you can tell, vocal technique plays an important part in my life and my music. And those important years of formation of the voice have been very helpful for me, technically.

You've said that your father — who was Anglo and a rather famous painter, photographer, filmmaker, and professor of Mexican art — had introduced you to English-language folk music. What was it like exploring that music together with him?

He greatly admired Bob Dylan, and this was in the '60s and I had been surrounded by university students who were into this music, listening to Jimi Hendrix and Carlos Santana, and so that becomes a very important part of my musical eduation. And of course I love it as well — later on, in college, I listened to that music, too. And jazz — Billie Holiday, John Coltrane and Miles Davis — they were constants in my father's evenings of whiskey and music.

One of your biggest influences was the Argentine protest folksinger Mercedes Sosa, whom you were able to work with before her death in 2009. How did it feel to perform with one of your childhood idols?

It was beautiful to hear her say anything, because she was so committed to truth. And she was also a very humble person, in a very relieving sense. All of us in the arts can sometimes be such extravagant birds — and I include myself among them — but she was a folkster in all senses and I loved that about her. I loved seeing it, and I continue to hold her as one of my saints. I think she helps me out sometimes in times of trouble. To have been able to sing with her was the greatest gift I could ask for.

When I first started listening to your music, I was seeing a woman who grew up in Texas listening to Lola Beltrán with her mother, and when I played her your album La Cantina, it took her back. Was Lola Beltrán a particular inspiration for you, or just one of many?

She was my first influence. I loved her. I loved her. She definitely was the most important mother among all my artistic influences. And then later on I discovered that I needed to sing about other things that weren't just beautiful songs, and so that's when I discovered Mercedes. I had actually dropped out of music — I was studying anthropology and then I discovered Mercedes and that changed my life again.

Is that the period when you were following the Grateful Dead?

Yes, I dropped out literally from society and followed the Grateful Dead and kind of lived on the streets, and that became my next education in terms of what I wanted to say as a person, as an individual. But then I came back, because I had a sequence of sad events in my life.

Did the Dead's music or vibe have any lasting impact on what you do now — musically or otherwise?

Oh definitely. I think the whole vision of being open and loving and not jaded — even though, later on, I found a lot of jaded people in that scene. But when you first enter that scene, it's just so loving, and I think love is the best thing that describes it. [Laughs.] And then, of course, the drugs — they helped move things along. I don't think you can ever go back after those experiences.

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About The Author

Mark Segal Kemp

Mark Segal Kemp

Mark Segal Kemp is SF Weekly's former Editor and the author of a book called Dixie Lullaby, as his tinge of a southern accent will attest.


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