Interview: Ximena Sariñana is México’s next crossover star

Photo by Emily Shur

It was a year ago at Stubb’s when I first saw Ximena Sariñana perform. Growing up in México, I knew her as an actress and I was aware that her first record, Mediocre, had been a success. But I didn’t expect to show up at Stubb’s and find a line of people that went around the block, and men and women of all ages eager to get inside so they could sing along to the words they knew so well. I learned right there and then that Ximena Sariñana was big. Bigger than I imagined. Raised in a family of artists, Sariñana has always been involved in film and the iconic world of Mexican telenovelas.

In 2008, she was signed by Warner Music Group and released Mediocre, which got her three Latin Grammy nominations. It even made her the only Latin artist on iTunes’ Best 10 Albums of 2008. She’s collaborated with Jason Mraz and Omar Rodríguez-López of The Mars Volta. Now, after two years of touring, Sariñana’s completed her second album, a self-titled collection of work done in English and produced by Mexican singer Natalia Lafourcade. Currently on her U.S. tour promoting Ximena Sariñana, the singer sat down with me during South By Southwest to talk about the challenges that come from being a Mexican singer in the States and growing up with The Beatles and Britney Spears.

You do music now, but a lot of people in México still know you from film and TV. Between music and acting, which world satisfies you the most and why?

Sariñana: I don’t really consider myself a person who does only one thing. I find both things just as satisfying. I like film a lot. It’s a very collective job, and it has a very short life, unlike a record, which you have to promote for a period of two years. And a movie just lasts about six weeks, and there you go, next! But I like both. I get some things from acting, and I get other things from music. But right now I’m at a point in my life where I want to do music and I’m concentrated more in that area.

How has growing up in a family of artists affected your work?

Sariñana: I think it’s only affected me in positive ways, because you can share interests and share another layer and another part of your life with your family. And your family is where you’re from, they’re the closest people you’re going to have in your life, and the most important. It’s been incredible for me to be able to share that with my people, with my parents, my siblings, and it’s only brought us closer. And they can also give you other kinds of advice, not just typical mom and dad advice, but work advice. You can trust them 100% because they don’t care about anything other than your well-being.

What did you listen to growing up? Did you listen to more Spanish music, or English?

Sariñana: I think that, like everyone who listens to pop and rock, we tend to listen to more English music than Spanish. Just because there’s a much larger variety and market for it. When I was younger, I listened to The Beatles, of course, and everything my Dad listened to. I listened to classical music, some Tracy Chapman, Paul Simon, Elton John. Then when I was around ten, I listened to all of the pop that came out. Everything from Backstreet Boys to Britney Spears, to Fey and OV7 in México.

You’re describing my childhood, right there.

Sariñana: I know! It was, basically, our childhood. Remember Kabah? Then, around fifteen, there was this moment when I knew music was my passion and I wanted to be involved in making it. I started listening to more alternative stuff, like Pearl Jam, Radiohead, Bjork, Fiona Apple, and that just opened up my world. And that’s why I decided I wanted to study music. And then while I was studying music, there was this other phase. I started listening to a lot more jazz, which I listened to a bit before because of my dad, and then some funk, Brazilian music, music from Argentina, from Chile, from Perú, classical, blues. Everything. I think that’s when I truly absorbed everything music is, and every kind of influence.

Photo by Emily Shur

Sariñana: I’m influenced by everything, really. I love to write about my experiences and what’s happening to me, because for me, music is a kind of escape route. It allows you to release any feeling, allows me to express myself in a very honest way. I like to write about myself, I guess, about the things that matter to me and interest me.

What are you looking to do when writing your music? Do you want to inspire, do you want to connect? What stories do you tell through your work?

Sariñana: The main purpose, first, is to express myself. Second, which is a thing I’ve found is an extremely gratifying feeling, is the way people can identify with your music. It’s very inspiring to find people that say, “This song meant so much to me, and I felt like it was talking about me and what I was going through at that moment.”

How has your life changed since being nominated for the Latin Grammys?

Sariñana: The Latin Grammys was one of the things that came from Mediocre. Mediocre itself changed me so much. Since its release, and the success it had, I became almost a slave to my work. It was all touring, touring, touring, and I didn’t even tour that much, but it was a lot of promoting, a lot of traveling, and it was also learning to deal with triumph, which isn’t always easy. It was really good for me, I’m happy and satisfied with everything, and it was incredible to win an MTV award, to be nominated for a Grammy, all as a result of the work I did.

Why did you decide to make your second album in English? Was it simply because of contractual agreement, or is it something you’ve always wanted to do?

Sariñana: Well, neither, really. When I started making music, I wasn’t expecting anything at all. I never thought I’d sign with a transnational label or release a record, I just new I loved music and wanted to do something with it, but didn’t know what. And Mediocre presented itself as an opportunity to record an album with a transnational label so I thought, OK, it’s a challenge. I’m going to leave my comfort zone and I’m going to try. Then suddenly, with the success of Mediocre, and it was, fortunately, quite successful, I was really happy. And Warner Music U.S. showed up and told me they thought they could take my music to another level, to an international level, and asked if I was interested. And I thought it was really a huge responsibility, I mean, just imagine. Suddenly they tell you, “We want you to come and compete in the most competitive market in the world.” There was a part of me that thought I couldn’t do it. And then another part of me thought, You can’t just not try. So I said, OK. Fortunately, English is kind of like my first language, because I grew up in Los Angeles and went to a British school all my life. Plus there was this whole new artistic challenge, which was to express yourself in another language. I was already so comfortable in México and expressing myself in Spanish. I’d already found a way to say things and I had every door open. And suddenly it was like, OK, now I have to try another language, and it’s going to be just as hard as it was to record my first album. To go into another market where you basically have to start from zero, and work four times as hard because there’s people from all over the world wanting to get into this world. So, I did it. And that’s why I’m here now.

All of these challenges really make you grow as a person, right?

Sariñana: Yes, so, so much. That’s the most important thing about music for me. Music is really just a vehicle so one can grow and learn what one has to learn in life. Just like any other job for any other person. Work is a tool, and it’s part of who you are, but it’s not what you are, and it’s not the center of the universe. It’s simply a way you can learn and become a better person.

What’s the main difference between Mediocre and this first single from your English album, “Different”?

Mediocre

Sariñana: I think I felt a need to have fun with music. Because suddenly, it was like I had been touring for two years, playing the same songs from Mediocre. And I wanted something, I needed something a bit more uptempo. When I make a record, people have to remember that I’m also considering everything I’ve made in the past, and I was missing songs with which I could truly feel energy when playing them live. I love, love going to concerts where I can dance, enjoy and have fun. And that’s what I wanted to have when playing live. And now that I’m trying that out with a band, it’s so much fun and full of adrenaline and energy, and I love playing things that are more upbeat. Although, if you really read into the lyrics, they’re not so poppy. “Different” speaks specifically about the cultural clash I felt when starting to work in the States, coming to another culture where things are so different. And in general, that song speaks of feeling like an outsider. I think a lot of people feel that way. Not just because you’re from another culture, but simply because you’re different. On one side, there’s this cultural clash, and on another side, there’s this constant in my life of being cast as “weird.” A lot of people say I’m a bit autistic. I always feel that I have to apologize for who I am. A lot of people meet me and tell me, “When I first met you, I thought you were stuck-up.” Or, at home, I’ve always been considered kind of autistic. All of the people in my family who aren’t in the art world always tell me, “Oh, you were always the weird one.” And I mean, I’m sorry if I’m this way or that way. If I blatantly stare at you, it’s not because I’m judging you, I’m just like that. So this song is like saying, “I’m different from you, but at the same time, deep down, we’re from the same place, we’re all human beings and we feel the same things.”

What was it like to work with Natalia Lafourcade on this second album?

Sariñana: It was incredible. Natalia is a wonderful being, in every way possible. She’s a great person and a ridiculously talented artist, I think she could rule the world if she wanted to. By listening to her records, I knew what she was capable of as a producer, so I wanted to make something that would show her the way I see her as, in the production area. And it was incredible, we’ve both wanted to work together for a long time. It brought us closer as people, as friends, as artists. When I worked with her, it was really when I felt most comfortable making music.

If you could pick someone to collaborate with in the future, who would it be?

Sariñana: I love working with women. If they’re my age, even better. I would love to work with any girl, all the great Latina artists that are coming out right now, like Carla Morrison, for example. It would be incredible. A great thing that’s happening right now is, because business is so hard, people are helping each other, especially artists. I think there’s this great sisterhood that’s been growing in México, between Mexican women, girls that are starting out, all of us around my age, and I’ve never seen that happen anywhere else. I’m very happy and proud of Mexican women, and Latinas in general. There are women like Francisca Valenzuela in Chile, Javiera Mena, Camila Moreno and Daniela Spalla, Russian Red in Spain, there are so many. There has to be some kind of support, and a lot of people say this is all a bunch of lies, but personally, I love to be able to share music with other women.

What do you think about México’s music scene?

Sariñana: There’s definitely more support and better infrastructure for alternative music. There are more and more quality bands coming out of México, and I think people are paying more attention. But at the same time, with the industry and the economic crisis the industry’s going through, it makes it harder for Latin American artists. Especially in places like Chile, where it’s very difficult to get into other countries like México, which is considered the mecca for Spanish music. There’s so much incredible music that I’ve discovered, through the internet, or traveling or by meeting different artists.

What’s your goal at SXSW?

Sariñana: To play and try out the new songs with a band, and see other shows in my free time. I had a chance to see James Blake, and other Mexican groups like Rey Pila, Adanowsky. It’s been really great.

What are your plans for 2011?

Sariñana: Well, the second album comes out August 2. And now I’m going to be touring the U.S. from April 1 to April 23 with Sarah Bareilles. I’ve got some shows in L.A, the 22nd at The Roxy and at Costa Mesa on the 24th. It’s just touring from here on for a while.

Eugenia Vela

Writer - Eugenia Vela was born and raised in Monterrey, México, with the frustrated ambition of becoming a writer. Now in her 20s, she is finishing her degree in journalism at the University of Texas at Austin and looking for new adventures around the Live Music Capital of the World. She is in love with words, fashion, Steven Tyler, early Dylan, late Beatles and anything Jack Nicholson-, Johnny Depp- and Cameron Crowe-related.

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