Photo: María Fernanda De la Torre Portillo
Natalia Lafourcade On 'Un Canto Por México, Vol. II,' Music As Activism & Uniting Women Through "La Llorona"
With Un Canto Por México, Vol. II, Natalia Lafourcade’s latest album released on May 28, the Mexican singer/songwriter closes her two-part project raising money to repair a musical cultural center preserving Afro-Mexican folk music known as son jarocho in her home state of Veracruz, Mexico. A powerful earthquake badly damaged the center in 2017.
The undertaking began with Vol. I, an album honoring Mexican folk sounds—son jaracho included—and modernizing some of the country’s most well-known ranchera songs like "Cucurrucucú Paloma," first sung by the late beloved Lola Beltran and featured in Pedro Almodóvar's 2002 Spanish film Talk To Her. (Unsurprisingly, the album went on to earn her several Latin GRAMMYs, including Album Of The Year, and a 2021 GRAMMY for Best Regional Mexican Music Album.) But while Vol. ll mimics the same thematic approach, it is apparent that at the end of the project, something greater flourished.
While meaningful collaborations like the one with Pepe Aguilar, one of today’s most recognizable ranchera singers, on "Cien Años," an unrequited love song made popular by the late great Pedro Infante, are at the heart of the project, the alt-pop singer, who has delved deep into Mexico’s folk music on her last few projects, also makes room for social change. On “Nada Es Verdad” featuring son jarocho group Los Cojolites, you hear Lafourcade embrace activism as she calls for the end of the violence that has plagued Mexico for years.
"Maybe I wouldn't have seen it a few years ago, but today I realize that music has such a brutal capacity to impact," she tells GRAMMY.com about using her voice for change.
Then there’s "La Llorona," one of Mexico’s most haunting folk songs serenading Mexico’s weeping woman, which happens to be her most-requested song outside of Mexico. The deeply melancholic song, she shares, connects women through a sobering note. The track's inclusion on the album feels especially meaningful now as femicide across Latin American countries receives more attention: "I feel that La Llorona is the voice of women's pain, it is the pain that comes from the womb, from the depths of being."
At a larger scope, the album grew to be a communal project encompassing both the beauty and pain that coexist in Mexico’s fraught reality, something that came as a surprise to her. "Un Canto Por México is a musical piece that is encapsulating the collective voice," Lafourcade explains. "I didn't think of it that way when I started doing this project."
Lafourcade recently spoke with GRAMMY.com on how the project impacted her, becoming more conscious of the messaging behind music and how women are uniting to face dark times.
This interview was conducted in Spanish and translated to English; it has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Un Canto Por México, Vol. I was a fundraiser for the Centro de Documentación del Son Jarocho en Veracruz. How’s it looking now?
It’s going, it has foundations, it has walls, it has columns. Our center is still missing, but it is in the works and is looking beautiful.
Now we have Un Canto Por México, Vol. II. How was it working on this album?
The same as the first, in part, because we actually made 80 percent of the album in Mexico when we recorded Vol. 1, but when choosing the songs we gave priority to Vol. 1 and then Vol. II stayed a little dormant until we said, "Okay, let's finish Vol. II."
The rest of the album, which was about 20 percent that we had pending, was really very interesting to finish. We practically finished it at a distance from our homes. Our possibilities, the wonderful technology that exists today allows us to plan videos from a distance, plan recordings, make mixes. Incredible really, it was a learning experience. That's how it went down, that's how we finished the album. We are very happy, very proud.
COVID-19, as you mentioned, changed a lot of things. Did you ever think, "We have to put a pause on this album?"
Yes, of course, we paused, not just the album, we paused the whole project. We paused the construction of it, the album, the album release … When we released the first volume we were already in lockdown, and from there it was like, "What do we do? Do we let it out? Do we not let it out?" We decided to release that first volume, obviously also with the intention of bringing people a lot of happiness, of being able to bring music that could take them out of this uncertainty and give them moments of great joy.
Now with this volume, it was the same; we did a bit of waiting. The hope always with this volume was to be able to finish the construction of the center [in Veracruz], but that has also been something that we have learned, with this pandemic, that we have no control of saying, "This will happen on that date" because there are other factors that can alter what we want to do.
It also became like, "Well, since we don't know when we are going to actually finish the [center] physically, we are going to finish the album and in due course we are going to celebrate the album and then we are going to celebrate that we finished the center for sure." That is what we are already doing.
How has that loss of control affected you? Because we have a lot out of our control now, do you get anxious?
I have felt everything to be honest. I have had moments of great peace here in my house. I personally had a need for years to stop touring. I was very happy playing on stage and the stage is my home. I like to say that my house is here and the stage is my house, too. It is like water for me, it’s necessary. However, to do it involved being away from my home, from my other home, being away from my family and being away and traveling a lot. It was something I needed, my soul needed not to travel. I got ready to stop, I had intentions to stop until 2023, I don't know if that will happen or not, but then all this came. We really don't know when we are going to perform the album live.
I had moments of everything, I had moments of not knowing what to do in my own house because I had never been in my house, it was like, "Well, what now? What are these rooms and what do I do in them?" That little by little was transformed into, "Wow, I love being at home, I don't want to leave," of procuring my spaces, my candles, my incense, my favorite corners of the house. The truth is, it has been very nice. Then at the same time I went from really being on vacation, kind of being able to rest, to being totally booked. Right now, I'm totally busy, I don't have time to watch any series, I don't have time to read. Really from the moment I get up, all the time we are working on things for Un Canto Por México. It is impressive, it is like the times have changed the industry and we have been working a lot, but we are happy, I am very happy.
The concept of the two albums brings you together with other great singers. It has themes of love, themes that make us think about society, among other things. Did this change you in any way personally?
Totally. Collaborating always affects what you are doing. It can inspire you so much that it can alter the way you are creating. It’s not about copying, it’s about being inspired by what others do, it is that thing to absorb, that art that moves you and that takes you out a bit of what you would have done or what you had in mind that was being done.
That is the case, for example, with Mare Advertencia. When I saw what Mare is doing, the work she is doing with her community, the way she relates to words, to the power of the word, it was very moving and very inspiring for me. I see her as a total warrior and a teacher in that aspect, seeing how she has released her project being this way. That's why I invited her on Un Canto Por México because I wanted that, when it came to having Rubén Blades’ voice and being able to think that a rapper like Mare could be there too [on "Tú Sí Sabes Quereme"], that seemed very cool to me.
We invited Silvana Estrada. She is another beautiful fellow friend who already has her niche, she has her space, she has her followers and listening to her is like, "What a wonder what this woman does." The same thing happens with everyone. I really think all the guests that I have, I admire them all, I love them, they are friends, they are people who have been there in some way for me. Jorge Drexler and I have seen each other’s [path] for many years and we love each other very much. Leonel García [composed] "Hasta la Raíz." We have been there for each other ... Meme, Mon Laferte who is a great friend, I admire her deeply. Anyway, it really is very nice to be able to collaborate and it is very nice to be able to share those spaces [with them.]
I noticed there are two versions of "La Llorona" on the album. Why?
There really just is the "La Llorona" acoustic version—it is the version I did during the international tours. It became a song that I did not sing in Mexico, but that I sang outside of Mexico for the people of Mexico who were outside of Mexico. It became that hymn requested by the people, it became the song that people said, "Please, ‘La Llorona,’" they yelled at me to sing it. It was that moment, we could sing together and, for them, to connect with Mexico and with their longing from a distance.
"La Llorona" is that kind of song that really confronted me when it came to singing it, interpreting it. It's one of those songs that has so much spirit, so much strength, so much mystique that the songs don't allow you to sing them overnight. Actually, interpreting them implies opening, it implies going deep, it implies going within and allowing that energy to come to the surface. It is very confrontational.
I feel that, as a singer, as a performer, I needed to get closer to this type of song and this type of music to explore other ways of singing, of interpreting the music that I make. I owe a lot to songs like these. I didn't want the acoustic version to be forgotten because it became an important song that connects me with my audience internationally. Later, I returned to Mexico and I wanted to sing it there too, but it had an extra meaning outside of Mexico. That's why I wanted to leave it as a solo with my guitar. Later, in the version I did with Ely Guerra and Silvana Estrada, its tinge is much more of women interpreting and chanting it together.
Was it on purpose that you sang it with only women?
It’s one of the most popular performance videos.
Yeah, a lot of people have watched it.
Of course, it was a beautiful moment. The inspiration really came from there. Angela couldn't sing because she had scheduling and timing issues, but we said, "Well, we're going to do it with two powerful women. We're going to think of a woman who has been a pioneer in some way."
I had already collaborated with Julieta Venegas at the time but had not had Ely Guerra on any of my albums. She is another friend that I love, another artist that I admire and who came before many of us. It was also nice for me to have her and to have Silvana, as a representation of different generations of women. That also made it interesting for me, representing different generations in a song that will continue to be ours throughout life, through history.
"I feel that La Llorona is the voice of women's pain, the pain that comes from the womb, from the depths of being."
We’re talking about La Llorona’s symbolism in the world. In Chicana literature, she represents a woman archetype. What does she mean to you?
For me, she’s that mystique, that mystery, that force, that existing femininity, not only at the physical level. For me she’s like the force of the earth, the force of nature, the force of Pachamama. I feel that La Llorona is the voice of women's pain, the pain that comes from the womb, from the depths of being. The pain of love, the pain of loss, the pain of death, the pain of violence, pain in general. It is that song that manages to inhabit, not only that feeling that can be so collective among women, but the one that exists in the universe that is earth, in nature, at night, on the moon; I feel that in all that mystery is La Llorona.
Hearing you say that makes me think a lot about what’s happening in Mexico in cities like Juárez, also in Puerto Rico, with all the violence against women. It makes me think that songs like these unite us as women. What do you think about that?
Totally. They are necessary because they are also important—that’s one thing that I love about music, it has this ability to bare emotions. That is really nice because when you can really see the emotion, when you can connect with it, whether it's happiness—because music can make us very happy, it can make us dance—but it can also connect us with pain, what hurts, with its weight. [With music] we can see it and we can sing to it. And while we sing, we cry. Everything is a cleanse.
Of course, songs like "La Llorona" connect us women. I especially feel that at this moment, all women are waking up to something that we had to turn around and see. We had to turn around and see each other, we had to allow the moment to happen with precisely these issues that hurt, heavy issues, issues that hide [beneath], those issues that can live in the closet for years and that we could even die and they never come out.
That is ending now and that makes us meditate and makes us reflect on the importance of mutuality between women, how we strengthen each other and push ourselves out of that pain, out of the boxes, out of the drawers. We're letting it out, those topics that were not discussed for so long have come out, we've put them on the table. To say, "Enough, this is not going to happen anymore. What do we have to do so that we can change the way we live as a humanity?”
It’s not only women who have to put these issues out there, men too, because men also have a lot of repressed pain and a lot of repressed sensitivity. I feel that the music becomes like a warrior to help us with that, the music makes us see it.
Speaking of powerful songs, I really liked "Nada Es Verdad" that you sing with Los Cojolites, who are like the voice of the people of Veracruz. The song has a strong message about society. How did this track become a part of the project?
It had to be part of this project because Un Canto Por México is a musical piece that is encapsulating the collective voice. I love this project. I didn't think of it that way when I started doing it—every project, every album, every song has its own spirit. You start to do it, but there is a point when you are recording in which the music shows its own spirit, its soul, its personality. There was a point in which Un Canto Por México began presenting itself as this collective project, of beings, of musicians, of artists, of a community.
Being that this is a community project, it is not just me. A community is the voice of all and is the song of everything happening today in our Mexico, whether it's nice or whether it's painful. This is what we are. We see it and sing to it and with love we look at it. This tree of life, you have to look at it, you have to fix that too, but it is a tree, it is a whole, it is a unit.
I really like to see this project like that and there had to be [songs like "Nada Es Verdad"] as well. Yes, we can sing to love, but we can also sing to that system that—sorry, but that system has failed. I [also] learned the power of love. How are we afraid of turning around to really look at each other? [We can] see that we are different, but at the same time we come from the same place and are made of the same thing, but we are different and there is diversity. Long live diversity, that is nature, this is the earth.
I feel like all those values are encapsulated in Un Canto Por Mexico. This project was born out of earthquakes that forced a collapse, a beautiful community center where good [has come from it] and that is this new reality that we can build.
That’s the reflection that remains for me. At least, you can always turn around and say, "I am going to be another kind of truth. I am going to build another kind of reality." I feel that it is a very inspiring project in that aspect and that all this is accompanied by music, that I could not explain all this to you and [so] you are going to feel it with the music.
Do you see music as activism?
Yes, totally. Maybe I wouldn't have seen it a few years ago, but today I realize that music has such a brutal capacity to impact. It moves us all, stirs us, confronts us, impacts us without us realizing it. There are songs today that I think we are already beginning to ask, "What? What does that song say? No. No, this is not cool." You start to question yourself and you say, "The rhythm is great, the music is great, the production is great, but [the lyrics] … no."
Just a little while ago someone asked me about how certain groups or artists have decided not to sing certain songs from their repertoires anymore because of the lyrics they are singing. I say we are living in an era, a time in which we are possibly waking up and we are being more aware of what we were singing and promoting without realizing it.
It is not because we are bad, it is only because we were not aware of certain issues that are experienced in other contexts. That is part of what we were talking about, is to begin to see and say, "I live a reality, but I have companions in other places who live another reality."
We have to see how to strengthen the threads because we are all connected. Art, music makes an impact, in some way or another it becomes—I mean, there are those who might say, "No, I'm not an activist," OK, fine, but what you're doing is going to make an impact in one way or another, it will generate something in whoever hears it.