Playing the Cat’s Meow

Loopy Argentine actress and singer Juana Molina builds songs with bird chirps and wispy vocals.

Typical sacrifices for your music career can include $1,000 monthly rent in Greenwich Village or playing the Haight for handouts. Argentine indie-pop star Juana Molina has a weirder story. She quit a lucrative career as a soap star and comedy actress, and promptly took a lambasting from the press who mocked her as a sideshow. Her fame got her gigs, but audiences grew confused with her ethereal minimalist live show. Eventually, she played to virtually silent halls.

“But I was not myself when I was acting,” Molina recalled recently from Buenos Aires, where she lives and records. “When I’m acting I was always someone else, and I was tired of someone else.”

The fickle fans came back when she released the gorgeous Segundo in 2003, employing sounds from the natural world and computer music. She was hailed as a new queen of bossa nova, even though her rhythm sections barely existed. It’s her inventive use of loops that carries her songs.

With Segundo, and on the subsequent Tres Cosas and just-released Son, bird chirps, electronic squibs, and minor guitar chords float along. A cycling of instrumental segments and simple notes appears to point somewhere, but then over all this, Molina’s slight voice sings and often whispers, calling to mind lullabies, and her songs became playthings. “I hope they make you believe in truth, possibly in beauty,” she says.

On Son, critics might demand an end to the ethereal, but no one listens to them anyway. This record shows far more experimentation. The electronic sampling swings away from beeps to more natural sounds like birdsong and cats’ meows. Vocals overlap each other, and while Molina’s voice once sounded like a gentle rain, she has brought in a bit of thunder. The best songs are chaotic, but she resolves them, and even without an English translation, you understand the songs are of hope.

During the interview Molina twice referred to a translator to find the exact words of the song “Que Lluvia!” on Segundo as an example of how to interpret her music: Let it rain, let it rain, the old woman is in a cave. Then, after an atmospheric break: The birds are singing, the sun is shining. The entire song works on its loop, advertising it as truth without antecedent. “I love to play the loop over and over and over,” she said.

Call it quasi-bossa nova if you want, though you can equally hear airs of tropicalia as well as wider influences, like the technical aspects of Sun Ra or Stereolab. Molina has says her deepest influence is the percussive folk music of Uruguay, and the tales she spins, parables basically, call to mind the Argentine novelist Jorge Luis Borges on IDM, if you can imagine that.

While Molina touches on various aspects of Argentine life that made an impression on her, it becomes striking how music has shut her in. She’s not fond of revisiting her acting career, and it seems as she could happily remain in seclusion forever. She repeatedly stressed that music is the sole force that sets her free. “When I would like to listen to a record, I would rather not listen to anything at all, because I would rather listen to the silence,” she said.

Silence ends up being critical to her songs. They create a moment of rest, and then the warm sounds return, like stepping in the sun.

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