Catching Up With Juana Molina

Music Features Juana Molina
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Argentinian singer/songwriter Juana Molina hoists her musical machine into more psyched-out, textural and diverse territory with her latest, Wed 21. It marks her first full-length in five years. Paste snagged Juana recently via Skype to chat English curse words, recording in her grandmother’s home and whether or not lyrics even matter.

Paste: So the new record, Wed 21, is so wonderful.
Juana Molina: Thank you!

Paste: It definitely has a much fuller sound than past releases. Did you happen to record with more people time around? Or what was different?
Molina: I never recorded with anyone but, but—me. And this time around, it’s only me, so. The difference is I guess, I got me an electric guitar and that gave me a new palette of sounds…

Paste: It has a very beautiful and atmospheric sound.
Molina: Thank you.

Paste: And you recorded it all in your studio in Buenos Aires? What is your studio like? What’s the set-up?
Molina: I don’t have much. It’s just a computer—where I have my software which works as a recording machine—then a little desk, a couple of keyboards, two guitars…that’s mainly what it is. Not much.

Paste: How long have you been working in that space specifically?
Molina: Since Segundo, so I’ve worked here for 14, 15 years.

Paste: That’s amazing. It must be really special.
Molina: Yes, it’s nice. It once was my grandmother’s house.

Paste: How has it changed over the years?
Molina: Well, it just doesn’t have her bed any longer. And this was actually a weekend house, so it’s very small—one room, the kitchen and a bathroom then a big room…Now I [have all my] equipment here. It’s nice!

Paste: It must be nice to record in a place so personally meaningful.
Molina: Well, yes, but I think I could record anywhere. The thing here is that I have very large windows so I can see outside when I’m recording. And I don’t use electric lights in the day. That’s much better than having turn on the lights in a very dark, no-windows studio.

Paste: How do you think that light might impact your sound?
Molina: I couldn’t tell. Because when I really…go into that moment and trespass this reality to the one that the record gives me, I could be anywhere. Because I don’t see anything else, I just listen and all I see is what the music shows me. It’s weird, I don’t know….I think it’s—you know when you read and you’re very interested in the book you’re reading? Then you go into work, you’re talking to people, then back [on the way] home you’re on the bus…you open the book, then all of a sudden, everything else disappears?

Paste: Yeah.
Molina: Well, that’s exactly what happens when I get into the music. When it doesn’t really matter where I am. The thing is that I live here, so that makes a very big difference because I record whenever I want to. I mean, I have an idea when I’m in bed, I just get up and I record it.

Paste: So you live in your grandmother’s old house?
Molina: Yes.

Paste: The single—excuse me, I’m going to butcher the pronunciation—”Sin Guia No”…I know very little Spanish, got the gyst of it, checked in with a friend of mine—and correct me if I’m wrong—but is it sort of about trying to leave the house, fear holding you back, waiting for the day you can be free?
Molina: [laughs] Yes. The house, it’s metaphor for anything you what to leave. It’s the past…Yes, you got it correct.

Paste: Before I knew for sure, regardless, that track stuck out to me. I felt like I could relate with it, without really knowing Spanish. I think everyone can find something to relate in their life to that scenario.
Molina: Yes, of course. And the fact that there’s lot of description of the little, invisible legs. You look at yourself and you think you’re free but there’s these little legs that are invisible and totally grabbing whatever you can’t really let go [of].

Paste: How do we activate those legs?
Juana: I don’t know! That’s the thing. They’re there, they’re independent. [laughs] You tell them, “Just leave me alone! Let us go!” But they are just there, stuck. Maybe you need an axe, just to cut them—but you don’t see them! So you don’t really know how to strike.

Paste: In what way could those little legs be a positive thing?
Molina: There’s no positive thing. No no no.

Paste: Where are they trying to take you?
Molina: They’re just trying to get you where you are, so you don’t move. So you don’t change. So you don’t move forward. So you don’t leave things behind.

Paste: It’s interesting because it sounds like the legs almost cripple you.
Juana: Exactly. I didn’t imagine it that way, but yes. Well, no, because you know, they’re your own legs because if they weren’t your own legs, you’d have an excuse…but it’s your legs, and you are grabbing things. That’s why there’s nothing positive about them.

Paste: That makes sense. How do you think that somebody who doesn’t know Spanish can enjoy your music in a different way than somebody who does? Do you think that if you don’t understand the lyrics, you’re not fully getting the song?
Molina: Listen, I grew up listening to music in English and I didn’t speak a word. My favorite bands, my biggest influences have been from music from which lyrics I never understood—even now. When I listen to them, those words that they are saying are totally meaningless to me. They’re part of the song, and part of a sound and part of a landscape that I see and maybe if I understood the lyrics I’d like less the songs—maybe more. The way I think of it is that you English-speakers, English-speakers, have been spoiled by the fact that 99 percent of the music you listen to is in your own language. But in other parts of the world, 99 percent of the music we listen to is in English, too. For us, it’s very common not to understand the lyrics. Even people here—not me because I’m not a lyric person when I’m talking about songs—but most people who like music, they know all the lyrics of all the songs and that’s why people speak English. Many people have learned English by listening to the music. Most of the people I know who like the Beatles know all the lyrics. I don’t know the lyrics at all. You sing those lyrics over and over, then you find out what they mean and finally end up learning a language through music.

Paste: How do you feel it might be beneficial to not understand the lyrics when listening to music?
Molina: I think lyrics somehow, even if they are the most beautiful ones, brings the song back to earth. And I think music belongs to a more airy, atmospheric world. You have this sound that takes you for this trip—not all the music, but the music I like to listen to or liked when I was young—but I think words can put limits to a song. I think the song is freer without a verbal meaning. It’s in—I hate not being able to say exactly what I want to say, not even in Spanish. I don’t have the idea totally…but I have that feeling even with my own songs. If I finished a song and it doesn’t have the lyrics yet, the song is somewhere, high—like in a cloud. Then I put lyrics to it and it feels totally earthy. It becomes just one specific thing that has this. I don’t know if you know what I mean.

Paste: That makes sense to me. It’s like going into an art gallery and being in love with a painting, then reading what the artist meant by it later.
Molina: Exactly! There you are. Yep.

[We chat and start talking about the upcoming tour.]

Molina: I don’t understand [employing visual components]. Maybe my mind is too tiny to create a show beyond music.

Paste: I don’t think it’s case of a tiny mind in your situation.
Molina: When I go see bands, in general, my favorite concerts have been [where] it’s only the musicians just playing. I think visuals are great, but they distract you from music. It’s a bit like a performance. I am sometimes called a performer—and I really don’t understand the difference because the language translation—but in Spanish, a performer has a little bit of [a] show-off meaning. It has an extra conceptual thing. That, to me, is not necessary. I can’t find my words tonight…I don’t need it. I don’t need it. I just need the music.

I remember one of my favorite concerts in Los Angeles was a Tortoise concert. There was just five people there playing nonstop, and I had my eyes shut. It was one of the best experiences I ever had. I think they had energies. I had my eyes shut the entire concert because I honestly don’t need any extra—I already have my own images. I think [visual elements in concerts] lower the possibilities of expression because you’re—I’m going to look for this word in the dictionary because I’ve looked at it a hundred million times…hmm…[English] doesn’t really have a word for that. It says “deliberate,” “mark out.” “mark off”...

Paste: Maybe “limiting”?
Molina: I don’t know. “Defined,” “designate”...well, what I mean is you’re putting limits where there shouldn’t be…I know it’s crucial to have YouTube videos now because as soon as I hear a name or anyone hears a name, they check it on YouTube. It’s important to have a video, but then you don’t really appreciate the music, you just watch the video. At least to me, it’s a handicap. Let’s change subject because I can’t really explain. [laughs]

Paste: What does the title WED 21 mean?
Molina: It doesn’t mean anything, it’s just the name of a track that didn’t change names after I recorded on Nov. 21. Also because it’s one of the first songs I wrote for this record. When I wrote it, when I found that new thing, I thought it was a very characteristic sound for this new record…What I didn’t want to do with this record was I didn’t want to use the same formula I discovered for the past two records. I didn’t want to stay in that comfortable couch, knowing what was going to happen. I know I have a formula that works really well for records—even though they are different, they are all made with the same kind of formula. The same kind of structure and what’s worked. I wanted to avoid making a record the same way, and I didn’t know how that would be possible. So I just experienced different things, things I before myself found strange or awkward or didn’t represent me.

Paste: Like what?
Molina: Like very loud sounds—some of them didn’t stay on the record, some of them got me crazy after a few weeks and I deleted them or at least muted them. I still can’t describe what I did because I’m still finding…this record—like Can said, it’s a work in progress. They said something like, “Every record we make is a work in progress.” Something like that. This record in particular, it’s like someone caught me in a picture in the middle of doing something and I don’t still have a fixed idea of what it is and how I did it.

[We talk more about language. She knows like, five.]

Paste: What language do you dream in?
Molina: When I lived in France, I got to the point of dreaming in French. I’ve had a few dreams in English, but I dream in Spanish mostly.

Paste: Do you ever end up cursing in another language?
Molina: Yes, in English.

Paste: That seems fitting for some reason.
Molina: Yes, but I don’t know why…if I’m thinking about something that’s related to someone—either American or English—maybe because I am having an internal dialogue with them, then if something happens, it’s, “Shit!” That’s something so not natural for me. Or, “Merde!”

Paste: Language is very interesting.
Molina: It’s interesting and it betrays you because—not that it BETRAYS you, but, most of the problems we have with people is because of language. Misunderstandings, you say something but mean something different. Depending on the amount of—like, me now, I’m not able to put a sentence together…You drive a language?

Paste: Derive?
Molina: Handle?

Paste: Yeah, that would make sense.
Molina: Depending on the way you handle even your own language, there’s people who know how to express themselves much better than others. It’s not necessarily because they are more cultivated, they read more…they’re just people who really know how to express themselves, really get to you. It’s so difficult. There can be so many misunderstandings—not even knowing you’re having a misunderstanding. You can live with someone for ages, thinking you both think similar and there’s a main, huge thing you never saw. And maybe never will. [Language] is a thing that really interests me.

Paste: It’s like you said. Words are limiting.
Molina: Yes, they are because [with] human beings, everything comes from emotion first. The most important things in the life of a man is feelings—love, hate, rage, hunger and those kinds of things. In order to deal with those emotions—that are totally primary and primitive and that’s what we’re made of—you need words. And you’ll never find words that define what you’re feeling.

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