Y La Bamba’s fourth album, Ojos del Sol, is an easy contender for one of 2016’s best. The music fuses Mexican folk and experimental pop via the expansive, expressive mind of lead singer-songwriter Luz Elena Mendoza. Mendoza’s voice—a burnished instrument, tough and tender—conforms to the need of each song, while her production alternates between distance, diffuse ambiance and crisp, snappy immediacy. It’s an incredible work, achieving that artistic ideal of deeply personal and broadly universal. We spoke with Mendoza over the phone this morning, a day before she and Y La Bamba perform in Seattle.
City Arts: The album is so good, Luz. It works on so many levels. As much as I love the songs, the production really gives the whole thing a dreamy, timeless atmosphere. That’s all you, right?
When I got into the studio it was my first time really attacking [production] on my own. Challenging myself in new ways to articulate my creative sensibilities, you know? I’ve always produced stuff but I didn’t really know how to value that. I was just making sure that I had this freedom. So the atmosphere you hear on the album, that’s something I was vulnerable to and open to.
I’m not really a gear head—it’s more how it feels, how I feel inside. And you can’t see all the effervescent parts of our spirit; that speaks for itself. There’s all these mysteries. And that allows me to deliver my expression. The atmosphere in the music is me just kind going with the flow and allowing the wind to collaborate with me.
I know that’s an esoteric answer but I really wanted to feel not limited with the plug-ins or anything like that that they had at the studio. I want everything! I was asking questions, saying what’s cool, what’s not cool, that feels good, that doesn’t. It was my first time without having other opinions around. Steve Berlin [from Los Lobos] was helping out at first and the intention was for me to grow. I learned what I needed to learn. Steve helped with the comping, but as for creative stuff, that was all me.
It doesn’t sound like you were just figuring it out as you went. The sound is cohesive and complete. I hear clarity of vision.
Yeah. A lot of patience, too. I don’t like forcing shit. Anything forced, my spirit will know it. I need perspective, too. Some of the songs on the record were already written and some were written while I recorded them. I knew that was happening and I accepted that process. Everyday was a ritual. I’m accepting the expression of the day and accepting that I’m gonna document it until it was done. It’s crazy to talk about it in hindsight! People ask me how I feel about it; I feel like it’s done. I articulated that sentiment. I’m gonna release it and people will hear it if they choose to and I keep going.
How is it playing these songs live?
Because I wasn’t playing a lot of them live the way they’re recorded, I’ve been in this music band camp the last few months. A few of the bnadmembers moved here from San Francisco and rented the room upstairs from me and we’ve been playing three to four days a week nonstop. The same way you’ll hear the set is the same way I recorded the album. And it’s the same way I’m gonna keep creating and doing things. It’s really myself, you know, in a way that I wasn’t awake to before. Being 34, being the woman that I am, the Latina that I am, I’m starting to understand the responsibilities that come along with that and I’m grateful for that. It’ll influence everything I do—the music, the visual art, the way I speak, all of that. And the songs are my homies, my ancestors. You don’t wanna hang out this year? Cool, you can just hang at your house. I don’t have to release everything at once. It’s just these sentiments.
What’s brought you to this place then, this awareness?
It’s all evolution. The reason I do what I do, from what I understand, is because I can’t help it. Then there’s talk about where we come from. I know my history. And even if everything was verbalized to me as a child, I feel intuitively what hasn’t been spoken to me, where I come from with my blood and lineage. I feel that, how I speak, how I think, how I dream, walk, play music, do art is an extension of my evolution. I’m evolving as a person and this album is an extension of that. I really want people to see this record not just as Luz as a person or artist, but as a mirror to everyone else in the world. You know?
There’s a lot of noise happening in the world. I feel like our generation, we’re unlearning a lot of unnecessary chatter. There’s always that around, but maybe what I’m doing or how I feel is trying to break those walls by representing myself making myself vulnerable and hoping for people to meet me in that space.
Thao & Get Down Stay Down put out another of the year’s best albums, which also veers into experimental pop…
I love her!
Ah OK, I was wondering about that. She’s a Vietnamese-American woman; you’re of Mexican descent. Do you think people are looking for perspectives like yours in pop music right now?
For sure. I really feel like the western society lacks an emotional intelligence. It’s not our culture’s fault. I say “our culture”—yeah, my parents are from Mexico but I was raised here and I know what it’s like to be raised in America and be Hispanic. People here lack a sense of being vulnerable with themselves. To find your voice you have to accept that vulnerability. There’s fear around that here. People are searching for that and they don’t know it. I can see it, sense it. Collectively, as a whole, there’s awareness of what’s happening in our country. People need their salvation. There’s religion, all this stuff that caters to that, but I feel like there’s something deeper.
I believe that music can help with that, but sometimes I worry that, with all the distractions in the world, music is being depleted of its power.
What is strong will speak for itself. People are mining for that gold. The more it’s covered, the more people will search for it. You feel like some part of it is disappearing, but I don’t. I carry that with me until I disappear. It’s alive and strong for me. Regardless if the people choose to hear it or not, it’s still strong for me. It’s my truth. That will always speak for itself. Music and sound and art are so strong, even with all the distractions in the world. Nothing’s permanent anyway. We’re here, living with this together, and things are temporary until the next time.
Let’s say the world stops eating; somehow it’s determined that we don’t need to survive on food anymore. But as a human your visceral intention is to eat food. Your hunger is never gonna go away. It’s always gonna be there no matter the alternatives that man creates. The sprit will always maintain. It’s just the most natural thing.
How do you decide if a song is in English or Spanish?
That just happens. “Ojos del Sol,” I have no idea where that song comes from, I don’t remember writing it. That’s the song that drove the whole project. That was my awakening. I was like, keep going. Didn’t mean the next song would be in Spanish, too. But “Ojos del Sol” was the first Spanish song that wrote itself as I was realizing that I was making a record. I write all the time and it clicked then, a year and a half ago, that I was gonna do it. I was saying my songs are my homies, my teachers, my ancestors. That song revealed itself in my family. Or something.
Are there other artists out there working in a similar vein? Specifically Spanish-language folk and indie rock?
There’s a lot but I don’t know the names. Before I moved to Portland 10 years ago, I was 24. And I was still living in Ashland and I went with a tattoo artist I used to work with to Portland for a demolition derby thing. We were in Northwwest and listening to the radio and a guy was singing in Spanish, a live show, and that was Devendra Banhart. I was like, who’s that? He was a kid! We were the same age. He was a person who inspired me viscerally. It was a strong, influential reaction hearing him for the first time at 24 years old. Through that I met with him in 2011. He made me this mix CD and put this band Helado Negro, I think they’re from Brooklyn.
There’s othere stuff out there. My friend Papi has a band called Orquestra Pacifico Tropical from Portland and they’re so fucking rad. He likes to collaborate with many musicians and keep our Latino community woven within it. The few Latinos in Portland integrate and collaborate with him, and for him he’s just representing his roots. Fabi [Reyna] from She Shreds magazine in Portland, she has an awesome cumbia band.
You just wait. Remember this conversation. I believe there’s gonna be a new generation really exercising that voice. That’s why there’s no fear. There’s gonna be so much more, effortlessly cultivating culture and the tongue and the music. It’ll always speak for itself. It’s this thing that’ll happen. I already see it.
I have a different story, but for me to find the fossil of my voice has been a journey. And now I’ve arrived and now we’re doing this interview. I’m sitting back watching it all and it makes so much sense. People ask, why did you take three years off? I don’t feel like that. Time is irrelevant. It happens when it happens. And now it’s here.
Y La Bamba plays with Bryan John Appleby and the Mountain Flowers Thursday, Aug. 25 at the High Dive.