As delightful and charming as the songs she composes and sings, so sat Francisca Valenzuela for a quick interview in the quietest alleyway we could find during the craziest part of South by Southwest. Francisca and her songs have enchanted Chile and Latin America since her first major hit “Peces,” which she originally wrote at age 13, to her current album, Buen Soldado, which is on sale now. Not to mention all of this had been achieved before Francisca’s 24th birthday! What is not to love about a young artist filled with endless aspiration? Although she has already gained critical acclaim abroad, her name is not yet a common one to U.S. audiences. Luckily this summer she and her band will tour the U.S. and we will soon fall in love with her smart Chilean pop. Francisca digs deep poetically and musically because she has a profound love for her art, which was apparent throughout the entire back-alley interview. Besides, you know how the old adage goes, give me someone who can talk comfortably and passionately about their art next to a dumpster and I will lend them my ear… or something like that. Regardless, Francisca is it, read below.
When did you begin to explore music and writing?
Francisca: It has always been a super-spontaneous kind of flow towards the arts. When I was living in the States I was already doing classical piano training, dance classes and painting. I ended up publishing poetry, books and shorts stories when I was in high school. It was very spontaneous and natural. Then in high school I moved to Chile with my family where I began to explore my creativity in a more professional manner. I began to have more opportunities to perform at festivals and all sorts of contests. Then in my senior year I began to perform in the indie circuit in Chile and made an album. It has always been very spontaneous, kind of a natural thing that I love to do and it’s a priority right now and who knows what will happen in the next years of my life.
What were some of your earliest fond experiences with music?
Francisca: I am thinking of different aspects of how music has been involved in my life. I think on the one hand there is the experience that comes with being a music lover. It’s exciting to think back to some of the first concerts I went to and I remember I was six or seven years old when my parents took me to see jazz pianists at Yoshi’s in San Francisco. I would be so excited and I was so little but it was so stimulating. Sharing the culture and music with my family in general, even though nobody else is a musician, along with the memory of always having music in my house is one of the most simulating things that could have happened. But the actual day to day experiences that I have now are just as exciting… to have a project and to have people involved in your life that you meet through music that become a big part in what you do.
Did your move from the U.S. to Chile influence your music or creativity?
Francisca: I think being in the Bay Area growing up stimulated an initial cultural experience that in Chile probably wouldn’t have been as strong because my school was very diverse and open-minded. The Bay Area is so progressive so of course it was stimulating at a very early age. Then moving to Chile, I think it did impact what I wanted to say in terms of a message. I think how many of the songs that are on my first album, Muérdate la Lengua, have a kind of social tone that came in part from the experiences I have had in Chile. In San Francisco, being in a privileged situation, you have a sort of bubble around you. But in Chile I was surprised with the conservative, Catholic, and Latino aspects. I was surprised by the poverty and how it is such a third-world country in many ways. This all had a huge impact in what I wanted to say.
You sing in both Spanish and English. Are you able to express certain ideas or emotions better with one language or the other?
Francisca: I think it came by circumstance more so than decision. For example, when I began to write songs I always wrote in English, always, and I thought it was easier to write in English than Spanish. But when I moved to Chile I was singing in English and nobody understood me, so I began to write in Spanish and it became such a thorough and rigorous training that I left behind English. So now it’s much more Spanish than English in general. I am picking it (English) up again and I still do song writing in English. But at a time I wanted to make it local and make people feel like that my songs were theirs. You know? What a great way to contribute to a society.
Francisca: It came really naturally. During the time in between both albums I was terribly thirsty to explore and do new things. I wanted to work with producers and create new lyrics. Of course I am not doing experimental music or hip-hop or anything really different but I think there is more exploration, a fresher sound, it is more dynamic and more of what I like to listen to as well. I got to work with amazing producers such as Vicente Sanfuentes who is a Chilean producer who has worked with Señor Coconut, Amigos Invisibles, and Feist. So it was super enriching and I think its natural to speak about songs with more intimacy.
What would you say are the themes of Buen Soldado?
Francisca: There isn’t one in particular but there are two sides to the album in two ways. One is in gender where there are two characters. One character is a girl and these songs, Quiero Verte Más, Corazon, are more intimate or desirable or lusty. But there are songs like Crónica, Buen Soldado, and Salvador, which are male. For example, I have songs from the perspectives of a man singing from jail or a cantina. And then on the other hand there is a duality in the musical style. We have the pop songs but we also have the acoustic songs, which are more serious and reflective.
For the song “Crónica,” it seems that you take a male role and depict an extremely tender issue of the difficulties of masculinity and with “Buen Soldado” the man is portrayed as more of the macho man. What steps did you take to gain the perspective of this man? Did you have to do a lot of research? What kind of research?
Francisca: No, it was totally in the imagination. I think I have these fantasies in my head when I write sometimes. With “Buen Soldado” I began to write it and I would write one phrase and then would think “Oh this is a character who comes into a cantina, he has big boots and a mustache and he is slapping the girls on the ass” and that was the first thing I imagined and I kind of imagined myself in him so that is the theatrical part of it. In “Crónica” it wasn’t researched. It had to do with the twenties, Gershwin and Joplin like influences, and I think I did imagine this guy on a chain gang with lyrics of a swing song. I imagined too an immigrant maybe or an old, withered man who has been lost in a society that doesn’t except him. And more than research, it took imagination.
From what I gather online, even in comments posted under your YouTube videos, Chileans (amongst others) hold you in an honorable light and as a national hero. It must be an honor. How does that make you feel to sort of be sort of an unofficial musical ambassador for Chile?
Francisca: It is a huge honor. I think on the one hand I get super excited and am grateful and I get kind of embarrassed. But on the other hand, I try not to take it so seriously and try to take it day by day. I think it is a privileged situation. If you put something out there that is really true to you, it comes through. I concentrate on the artistic integrity. That’s what is making it happen rather than subscribing to the fame.
What musical accomplishments or milestones are you most proud of at this point in your career?
Francisca: Well I think in general, I am always surprised how everyday there is a new thing. I look back a couple of years and there have been amazing milestones. When I got to go to Pompeii and perform in the ruins and represent Chile, the first tour I did with my band, seeing my CD produced, hearing people’s positive feedback from all over the world…it’s all amazing.
What are the sources of your musical and poetic inspiration?
Francisca: There are two sources in the way I write. There are the super confessional diary-like songs that are very spontaneous and have to do with writing when you are blue or when you are happy and have to do with emotions or biographical feelings, which I think is a kind of universal language when you song write. But at the same time there is a part of me that is super stuck on the idea of writing with a message as well. It wasn’t a conscious decision until I began to notice it was kind of repeating itself in my music. So I was thinking I want to use music as a social platform; I want my music to tell a story that is disturbing me or catching my attention. There is both the intellectual and rational approach as well as a confessional, “tummy” approach.
What are your plans for 2011?
Francisca: We had an amazing start! We were on tour in January in Chile then the album came out in Chile exclusively and it has been number one is sales. Then we came here for SXSW, which has been amazing, overwhelmingly exciting! When I get back to Chile, the idea is to kind of do a tour of the album in Chile and then a regional tour throughout Latin America and Mexico. And then we will come to the States sometime in the summer. I want to start songwriting again, probably some more songs in English. You know, taking it to the next level… a 2.0 of the first experience!
Watch the music video for “Quiero Verte Más” from Buen Soldado below: