Texan Carrie Rodriguez first came to most folks’ attention when she teamed up with Chip Taylor back in the early noughties, the pair recording four albums together. She then carved out a successful solo career with her debut album, 2006’s Seven Angels On A Bicycle quickly followed by another six discs leading one writer to describe her as perhaps, “The hardest-working woman in American roots music.” An appellation that’s borne out when you dig around into the background of her latest (and in the opinion of many, her best) album, Lola, released earlier this year. The album is a result of Rodriguez delving into her Mexican family roots, a project she has been considering for some time, the fact that she was more than midway through a pregnancy when she recorded the album no hindrance. Happily, she and her partner Luke Jacobs are now the proud parents of their son Cruz while Lola, their sonic offspring is also thriving.
Lola consists of Rodriguez’s settings of classic Mexican songs; rancheras and boleros, reclaimed from the past along with several of her own songs which were inspired and informed by her listening to the crackly past. The originals are sung in Spanish, her own songs in Spanish and English. The result a collection of songs, some languid, some passionate, all delivered by her crack assemblage, The Sacred Hearts who include Jacobs, Bill Frisell and Viktor Krauss. It’s a magnificent celebration of her Mexican heritage, not dissimilar from some of Ry Cooder’s recent efforts, while it’s not afraid to address current issues that have been stirred up concerning the plight and fortunes of Mexican American citizens.
Ms. Rodriguez is coming to the UK in November offering us a chance to hear these remarkable songs in a live setting and she took some time out to talk to Blabber’n’Smoke about the album and its conception. It all started when she was given a collection of songs recorded by her great aunt, Eva Garza, back in the 1940’s. So first of all we asked her about this and why it eventually led to Lola.
Eva was my grandmother’s older sister and she got her start singing on a programme in the ’40s called Voice of America. It was a radio show that was broadcast all over the world where American troops were stationed and her first gigs were at Radio City Music Hall singing in Spanish. I didn’t really get to hear her music until my grandmother gave me a bunch of her songs taken from old scratchy recordings that had been transferred onto CD. She gave me them when I was in my early twenties and I remember I was living in New York at the time and the moment I heard them I was literally brought to tears. She has this gorgeous big alto voice and the type of music she was singing was very dramatic, ballads and boleros with very melodramatic lyrics and big orchestras behind her, strings, woodwind, trumpets. I was completely blown away that this was my relative although I never met her. She was quite a bit older than my grandmother and she died very young, just in her early forties when she passed away. She was a family legend of course but I probably thought that my grandmother had exaggerated her until I actually heard her and I was just so moved by her music and her passion so that’s what started my journey into thinking about singing in Spanish. It’s been many years, I started singing one song in Spanish as an encore in my shows and little by little I got braver, I added some more songs in and eventually I worked up to the place where I could make this record.
So the album has been in the making in your mind for a number of years then?
Yes. Maybe for the past seven or eight years I’ve been thinking about doing this, making an album of Spanish songs but I didn’t quite feel ready. I really didn’t know what it would be, I knew I wanted to record an album and I had started to dig into some old songs and I really did think that the album would all be in Spanish. In the end however I wound up writing half of the songs because it just didn’t feel quite authentic to me to make an entire album of classic songs even though they’re adorable to me, these old ranchera songs. I thought I had to introduce more of myself into the album and so I added my songs which in the end turned out to be sort of “Spanglish.”
The album opens with Perfidia, a song that’s fairly well known as its been covered by the likes of Glenn Miller and Linda Rondstadt but the other covers are much more obscure. How did you go about selecting the songs?
Well after listening to my great aunt, I started researching into these old songs and learning more about other artists of her time. I’d listen to her singing and see who wrote the song, say, Cuco Sanchez, one of the greatest Mexican writers so I’d look up Cuco Sanchez and see who else had covered his songs. Just through listening to my great aunt I discovered so many wonderful artists that I now listen to all the time, people like Chavela Vargas, Lydia Mendoza, Javier Solis and Lola Beltran. It really was a golden era of Mexican music that went all the way through to the sixties, they called it “Época de Oro“, the golden era and it wasn’t just the music, Mexican films were being made in Hollywood, really big productions and the music was part of that. So I dug through all of that and found my favourite songs which weren’t necessarily the most popular ones. But Perfidia is definitely the most recognisable one and the version I find most inspiring is the one by Trio Los Panchos which has the most incredible harmonies all the way through. And from the moment I knew I wanted to cover Perfidia I also knew that I wanted Raul Malo to sing with me on it. I just thought it has to be Raul and of course he did it. I was so thrilled that he said yes.
Of course the words for these songs are in Spanish and they often tell a tale, usually fuelled by love, lust or treachery. When you’re playing them live do you explain the stories to the audience?
I do because I don’t expect everyone to be fluent in Spanish. So I explain the story and one of the interesting things that came to me over the course of doing the album was how many parallels there are between Mexican ranchera music and American country music. For example I did a song called Que Manera De Perder which means What A Way To Lose. It’s a bilingual duet on the album and the first time I heard it I couldn’t believe how much it sounded like a Merle Haggard song, one of his really sad songs like Today I Started Loving You Again. You know, the kind of song that makes you want to stay up too late and drink and cry and look at old photos. So I like explaining the songs and pointing out the similarities. I think that these days it’s really important to point out the similarities between our countries because we’re just so insanely divided right now.
There are a couple of your songs that address these issues head on. Llano Estacado is about the plight of immigrants into the USA and West Side recalls a sort of schoolyard apartheid with Mexican kids shunned by the white kids. Why did you put these songs into what is essentially an album of old love songs?
Diving into the older songs and singing them in Spanish brought about some feelings, memories and such that I really wasn’t aware were in there. Thinking about how I grew up, what it was like when I was growing up, what it felt like to be half Mexican American, half Anglo American and living on the west side which was the Anglo side of the tracks. I hadn’t thought about my school since I was a kid but as I was working on the record the memory came back and I sat down and wrote the song (West Side) in like 10 minutes. It was something that had been sitting there but hadn’t been brought to the surface until I started looking back at these old songs and it kind of got mixed in with the way things are right now. So some of the songs do have that sort of political slant and even though it’s kind of strange to have them there along with these romantic ballads I think the album is a reflection of who I am, my culture, my roots. I think it’s an authentic representation of me.
And of course Chip Taylor has just released a new song with you, Who’s Gonna Build That Wall, which addresses one of these issues head on.
That’s an amazing song. Chip just wrote that recently and we were touring Canada and decided to record it because it’s so timely. We really wanted people to hear it so I know Chip’s doing everything he can to get it out there before the election.
The album is beautifully played and sung and very evocative of the images and sounds that many of us have of Mexico. Images gleaned from Hollywood of hot cantinas and Latin passion. How long did you and the band spend on working up the arrangements?
Luke and I did a lot of the work together before the band showed up so we had the basic arrangements. Luke’s background is more rock and pop so it was a nice juxtaposition for these classic Mexican songs. I wanted to have a “mariachi” sound of sorts but I also wanted it to be something modern, kind of culturally mixed up. I didn’t want to just play the songs as they originally sounded so we started off with the arrangements Luke and I did and then the band got together for about four or five days before we went and recorded the songs live in the studio. The only overdubs were a little bit of pedal steel at the end. It was so much fun and this is the first record I’ve made where I didn’t need to fix any vocals afterwards, it’s all just live takes as I was inspired by the music and the band around me. I was also seven months pregnant and I think that also inspired me having this little life in my belly dancing around as I was singing.
The album certainly reminds me of some of Ry Cooder’s recent work, Chavez Ravine and his album with the Cuban Manuel Galbán, Mambo Sinuendo.
I have’t heard those albums but I’ve got Ry Cooder’s Talking Timbuktu which he recorded with Ali Farka Touré and of course Buena Vista. So I don’t know too much about his work but I like the comparison. The idea of getting Bill Frisell in was too make something completely new and to take these classic songs into outer space. For example, on the instrumental take of Si No Te Vas I worked up an arrangement where I was thinking of a Phillip glass type figure in it that took it somewhere else, like we were up there with no ground to stand on and when we recorded it just exceeded my expectations of it, it does sound otherworldly to me.
We’re looking forward to hearing these songs when you tour the UK in November. Who will be playing with you on stage?
It will be Luke and me. We’ve toured as a duo in the UK many times and we’ve been playing these songs as a duo over here in the States. They come across really well and of course Luke’s got his lap steel which adds a lot of atmosphere. So it’s Luke and me and we’re bring our son, Cruz and my mom who is the granny nanny, it’s a family affair
Carrie’s UK tour starts in Birmingham on 3rd November ending in Edinburgh on 17th with a Glasgow show on the 16th November. All dates are here.