Q&A: Juana Molina On Making New Music, Outrunning The Past, And The Pleasures Of Being Impossible To Pin Down
There is no one else quite like Juana Molina. For those who might not know, the Argentinean-born musician, who spent much of her childhood living in Paris, also happens to be one of the most beloved comedians and television personalities in all of Argentina. After spending seven years working on her own wildly successful television show (Juana y sus hermanas), Molina pulled the plug on her acting career — much to everyone’s dismay — and decided to focus her energies on her first love: making music. Now nearly a decade later, Molina has released five albums of wonderfully inscrutable music and established herself as an artist with a truly distinctive, singular voice. Is this world music? Jazz? Electro-folk? Pop? There seems to be no real consensus, but Molina’s music has had every possible adjective attached to it at some point. Later this month she will release Wed 21, her first new album in more than five years. Composed, performed, recorded, and produced solely by Molina at her home studio in Buenos Aires, the new album expands her already expansive sonic palette — a wily assemblage of loops, layers, and organic/electronic sounds — in a variety of new and wholly unexpected ways.
STEREOGUM: It’s been five years since your least record was released. How does it feel to be getting back into the swing of doing stuff like this and do promotion and talk about the record? Does it feel good?
JUANA MOLINA: I’ve been so silent for the past year, so I don’t think lonely is the right word, but alone… alone, that’s the right word. It feels weird all of a sudden to have to talk to people and come back to the road and have all these emails and phone calls and things to do to get ready for the trip. But you get used to it. It’s just the first days that you’re stressed, because every “new” thing stresses me. But that’s okay. I’m very slow. I need time to get settled in anything new that comes.
STEREOGUM: I’m the same way — total creature of habit.
JUANA MOLINA: So you understand.
STEREOGUM: After that last record, Un Día, came out in 2008 did you spend a lot of time touring?
JUANA MOLINA: Yes and then I had this invitation also to play with Congotronics. I don’t know if it’s two or three years ago, I can’t remember. But so that took me a very long time because we spent the previous months prior to the tour with all the members of the band sending us… we had to create new music. It’s not that we were going to play in each other’s songs. We had to build and create new songs for the tour. So for months we were sending files all over the world in Sweden, America, Belgium, Africa…
STEREOGUM: Wow. How was that experience?
JUANA MOLINA: That was heavy metal. It was very difficult. I am very, very… well let’s say I’m a control freak. I admit it, I know it. It’s a bit of a pain for people to deal with sometimes, but it’s very good to have things done. Because if no one takes control of anything… I was with two or three more people and we were taking care of the songs and putting them together. It was very tough work. Also very enjoyable. And very exciting. I have never done something like that before. So we started to play music without knowing each other. We were starting to exchange files and then we wrote maybe a dozen songs. But then when we met, everyone had understood something different. So we were 19 on stage. It was incredibly crazy; there wasn’t an actual director that made us all shut up and made us all “okay you do this, you do that.” It was bit of chaos, and of course you respect the other people because you don’t know them very well. All these things that happen when you don’t know people. So we spent a month and a half rehearsing in Brussels. I didn’t realize how difficult that was and how much of a miracle that was to get 12 or 13 new songs with people you’ve never met before. There were people who didn’t even speak in other languages but this. It was easier for me because I could almost speak everyone’s languages besides the dialects that some of the Congolese spoke. But everyone spoke French, English and Spanish so to me it was easier to get a feel of what was happening. But some others never got what the others were saying. But it was so strong and so powerful. All these personalities. Different personalities there. Everyone was so different from each other. It was very hard not to hurt feelings and be nice, but not be… condescendant? Condescending has another meaning in Spanish that’s not what I meant. Condescending in Spanish means when you say yes to someone to appease them. I don’t know that word in English. So it was very hard to have a balance with all that. Plus we needed to go and play very big shows. Very very big stages and big shows with lots of people traveling, lots of people working besides the musicians. It was a very strong experience.
STEREOGUM: That’s wild. How many shows did you play?
JUANA MOLINA: I don’t know… maybe 15?
STEREOGUM: I find that part of maybe why I’m drawn to being a writer is because it doesn’t involve any other people. I don’t have to depend on any other people to realize what the project is that I’m doing. Still, on the occasions where I have done that — where I’ve worked with other people on, say, a screenplay or some kind of writing project — it is incredibly healthy. It does sort of take you out of your head in a way that’s probably a psychologically healthy thing to do sometimes… especially if you’re someone who always works alone.
JUANA MOLINA: Yes. I never thought about that but you’re right.
STEREOGUM: I mean, when that was all sort of finished, do you feel that had an effect on the work you did afterwards? Or the way you thought about going back to your own process?
JUANA MOLINA: I don’t know. Something’s changed from the last record to this one — from the previous record to this new one. But I don’t know exactly what influenced me or what exactly made me change. Maybe I was too comfortable with my tools and my set that was totally under control. And I felt it was too easy to make a record like that. I don’t want to lie, I never thought about the influences of traveling with Congotronics or anything like that. I just thought that the real engine that moved me away from doing another record was I didn’t want to be in that comfortable position to do something that I knew was going to work. I knew what I was doing on those previous records. Here I didn’t really know what I was doing. I had very happy moments when you discover things that you never thought you were going to discover. Or when you doubt a lot. Because in order to be sure about anything you need some time to let it settle down, to let it grow or die. I think songs are like… not entities, but like seeds. Some seeds don’t grow. They die in the record. And some others really grow and have this song evolving and changing and sometimes getting to its final form and sometimes there are songs that I still play a bit different every time I play them because they still haven’t found their final form yet. And some others… they just work.
STEREOGUM: I’m sure a lot of people have been saying to you that five years is such a long time between records, but I don’t know… I kind of love it. I appreciate the anticipation that comes with not having put a record out for a really long time. I’m a big believer that work is sort of enriched by turning away from it. That you need time to sort of recharge your batteries or live a life for a while then come back to it.
JUANA MOLINA: Yes. And it’s also like if there was a formula to have a boyfriend; every five years you need a boyfriend and it’s going to last three months and seven weeks. You never know when you’re going to meet someone or… maybe the battery charge was something important to have because I hadn’t talked for almost five years. It was pretty intense. And honestly… I didn’t do much in these five years.
STEREOGUM: Was that stressful for you or was that nice? Just to not be doing anything.
JUANA MOLINA: Well I started to get some itchy feet that got uncomfortable that I should maybe start trying to do a new record. So I started. And then when I had that idea solved and I knew I was going to record then I got excited about it.
STEREOGUM: You have a studio at home?
JUANA MOLINA: Yes.
STEREOGUM: When you start engaging in the process and the wheels start moving, are you someone who tends to be a very dedicated worker? Do you dutifully go into the studio every day?
JUANA MOLINA: Yes. Yes for a couple of weeks I work every day to get somewhere past the things I see in front of me: the computer, the instruments, the table, the chair, the guitar. And then after a few weeks of work — when I really start working — I don’t see anything else. I am somewhere else. And when that happens, the record is starting to happen. Even if I’m here staring at the things, I don’t see the things anymore. I just see something; I just see what music shows me. And I think that’s the sign to know if I’m in a good direction or not because if I don’t get into that mood, it means that everything I’m doing is kind of superficial. And not really interesting, at least to me.
STEREOGUM: As far as the process was concerned, or the way that you work, when you set about making this record was there anything you absolutely tried to do differently? Or are you one of those people that’s like, this time I’m not going to use this instrument or this keyboard or something? Do you make those kinds of rules for yourself?
JUANA MOLINA: A little bit yes. I think previous records are part of something dead. Like, what’s the word, they’re like pieces of one work. It’s the same work evolving. It’s not that you can’t stop something and start something really new, but you can struggle with it a little bit and then do a new one. I just didn’t want to have a record where everything builds up, layer and layer, layers on top of layers. But I really like this thing that happens with all these layers because you enter a world, it’s like traveling in a very rich, colorful world, at least to me. But I didn’t want to do that, not because I don’t like it, but because I already did it in four records. So it was just to challenge myself to see if I was able to do something a little bit different. You can’t do something completely different from what you are, but you can divert a little bit the direction.
STEREOGUM: Yes. In comparison with the last records, did this record feel particularly harder to make?
JUANA MOLINA: No, it wasn’t harder to do. It was harder to make decisions because you know when you… I don’t know how to describe it. You know when you listen to a song on the radio that you really get excited about but three weeks later you can’t stand it anymore? You just hate it? Well with new things that happens. So I got very excited about a few things and weeks later I just couldn’t stand it any longer. I thought it was something I didn’t want on my record. So that’s what I meant when I didn’t want to do something… I wanted to get out of that zone of comfort, where I know all the sounds are cool, I know everything fits with everything else and it’s all under control. Here I was exploring new territories of sound and sometimes I thought something was very exciting, maybe very loud and distorting, and then two weeks later I just couldn’t hear it any longer. So a lot of that happened in this record. But those things are gone; they’re not on the record. Well, some of them are. I feel a little awkward when they arrive, even though I like them. I don’t know. It’s like when you have long hair for all your life and then you have a haircut and your hair is short and it’s still new, but it’s something weird. And then people say, “I love your haircut, you look so pretty!” and then you start liking it more and more, but after a few years you have it long again. So I don’t know, I haven’t had that time yet with this record. I don’t know if it’s really all that different from the previous ones. The structure of the songs is a little bit different, but there’s still something that is recognizable I guess. I hope.
STEREOGUM: I’ve been listening to it a lot. I was trying to think of a way to articulate how I felt about it that wouldn’t make me sound foolish. For me it was something textural — some kind of sonic quality to this record that’s different from the others. I can’t really put my finger on it though.
JUANA MOLINA: No, it’s true. There are some new instruments, there are new sounds. Absolutely. Because that’s exactly what I wanted to do. I wanted to get away from my old palette of sounds that I know by heart.
STEREOGUM: There’s a long string of tour dates up on your website. Will your way of playing live be different now with this new material?
JUANA MOLINA: Well, they are not going to be like on the record. That will be impossible. To do that I’d need at least 8 musicians, and that’s absolutely impossible. I would also need, because some sounds are like digital library, I would need a computer on stage and I refuse to have a computer on stage. There are so many sounds that I could put in a sampling machine, I could do that but I don’t. Instead I’m just replacing sounds with ideas. So the idea of the song is that this happens, okay let’s make it happen with something else. And I really don’t think yet that I will be able, like in previous records, to make a solo version. I have a solo version of all the records, but I didn’t get there yet with this one. I find it very difficult to have a set of songs that I can play on my own that really represent what the songs are for this album. I think so far there’s only one song that I could play more or less on my own. So there I am.
STEREOGUM: Are you excited about going on the road again?
JUANA MOLINA: Yes. We are not ready, but we have a few months. We just got the difficult part of the music, which was just solved last week. Everybody knows what they are doing. Now it’s just a matter of rehearsal. So the hard part is done. Because it took a long time to decide, “Okay you do this. No, I do that. Okay you do that but when do I do this? Okay, no let’s try something else.” Because you find a solution for something, but that solution is a complication for something later. So that part was a little bit hard. We did that with the keyboard player; it took us like a month to solve the way we were going to play the record, before even playing it.
STEREOGUM: I was thinking about this when the first song from the record was released and all these music websites had posted it and I was reading the variety of ways people describe what kind of music you make. I think it speaks to the specialness of what you do that people don’t really know what to call it.
JUANA MOLINA: That’s something I feel proud about.
STEREOGUM: I think it’s cool, because someone was describing it as being a kind of jazz, and someone else was talking about it like it was world music. And I know that a lot of those signifiers don’t really mean anything anyways but I mean you’ve been doing this for a long time now. Are you still surprised at all by the way people react to the kind of music you make? Or the way people don’t really even know how to talk about this kind of music?
JUANA MOLINA: Yes, many times I read comments or descriptions or even comparisons to other artists and I’m like, “What? WHAT? Are we listening to the same record I put out or are they listening to something else?” Sometimes I really don’t understand where they got those ideas from. It surprises me completely. But I think it’s maybe the same way someone finds a girl or man pretty or ugly, when it’s the same face. Everyone sees different things in that face. You see some things and I see other things. So I guess it’s a matter of perception. I don’t know. But I like it… I like when that happens.
STEREOGUM: I think it’s cool. It happens very rarely these days. Most new music is strictly codified by genre.
JUANA MOLINA: I think that’s a need also. People need to classify things.
STEREOGUM: I think so too.
JUANA MOLINA: It makes them feel more secure.
STEREOGUM: I remember whenever I spoke to you the last time — five years ago — we talked a lot about your feelings about transitioning from working in one world — as an actress and comedian — to moving into this totally different world of being a musician. You mentioned the way people viewed you, or were unwilling to view you, if they knew you first as being an actress. It was still hard for them to see you as a musician. You said that it affected the way you saw yourself and what you were doing as a musician and that, at least for a while, it had made things much harder. At this point you’ve been making music and records and touring as a musician for a very long time, but have your feelings about that changed? Do you feel more secure in your identity?
JUANA MOLINA: Absolutely. It’s funny… I made and recorded an ad for a phone company earlier this year. They kept asking me, so finally I accepted. It was nice money and it was something easy for me to do. And even though I had doubts about doing it or not, I just couldn’t refuse. So I played four of my most important or recognizable characters that I used to play on television here in Argentina… and people went crazy. Totally crazy. For three months I had calls nonstop from producers wanting to produce me or get me to do a new show, “We can give you whatever you want, you’ll have free time for your music!” But when they say that, they say it like you will have time for your hobbies too, as if your music were a hobby. Like, diminishing it a little bit. They didn’t even consider that I am a musician. But people went crazy. And I almost, almost almost accepted an offer to have a show for a year. Because they tempt you in many ways. And then I started to really feel bad and totally stressed and I was angry and in a bad mood. And one day I just called the guy without asking anyone’s advice, I just called and said, “I’ve been thinking and I’m not going to do it.” The guy couldn’t believe I was saying no. And from then on my good mood came back and I wasn’t feeling stressed or anything at all any longer. I felt free and so happy that you can’t even imagine. It was so good that I didn’t do it. Because I would have been starting now in October. When I think about that idea, I feel so relieved and so wise that I said no that I don’t care that everyone thinks that’s something you can’t say no to. But here I am and I said no.
STEREOGUM: I would imagine after spending so many years creating this other identity for yourself, or not even creating it, but sort of embracing this other part of your identity that’s important to you — I could imagine how that would feel like undoing many years of work. And not even work in the way people view you, but the way you’ve come to view yourself. It would be like stepping backwards. Those are hard decisions to make though.
JUANA MOLINA: Yes, they’re very hard but I always knew I took the right position because of the way I felt afterwards. Immediately, the second I was making the call, I was already feeling better.
STEREOGUM: What will the next year or so be like for you? Do you anticipate touring a whole lot for this record?
JUANA MOLINA: Yes. I really hope it’s going to work, and for the tour to happen in a nice way. But you never know what’s going to happen. There are so many musicians in the world; it’s hard to find a slot out there.
STEREOGUM: Yeah, everyone is on the road trying to make money. Do you know when you’re playing in the States?
JUANA MOLINA: I think next year in the spring.
STEREOGUM: Well, I have to say I really love the record. I loved the other ones but I think this one is so beautiful and so interesting.
JUANA MOLINA: Thank you. I’m so happy it’s happening because to me it was a challenge. And I was a bit like, “Oh what are people going to say?” Like “Oh no she’s done something totally different I don’t like her anymore. Boo boo boo!”
STEREOGUM: Whenever you do everything yourself, and you can sort of work in your own bubble of creativity at home in your own studio, it must be kind of scary thing to start sharing that music with other people. Do you have people in your circle that you share things with as you make them?
JUANA MOLINA: Not this time. No, I don’t.
STEREOGUM: Well, it must be sort of nerve-racking when you finally offer this thing up to the world for consideration and see what people have to say. But I get this sense from other people I know that they’re really loving this record. I hope that’s the feeling you’re getting from it.
JUANA MOLINA: Yes it is. I’m very happy. I’m starting to get more relieved. I’m only waiting to have the show ready and go on the road, and I think it’s going to be fun.
STEREOGUM: Well, thanks so much for doing this. Good luck with everything and hopefully I’ll see you when you make it to NYC.
JUANA MOLINA: Thank you so much. Yes of course.
Juana Molina’s Wed 21 is out 10/29 via Crammed Discs.