A major star in her native land, via her successful acting and music careers, Argentina’s Juana Molina should be a household name in the rest of the world. In 2000 a friend passed along a copy of Juana’s second release, Segundo, and I have been hooked since. In April 2017 she released her seventh album, Halo, and will be touring the world in support. I caught up with Juana to discuss the making of her new album, her process, and the path that has led her to this point.
Segundo was the first record that I heard of yours. I was wondering how you view the progression of ideas from one record to the next.
Well, I think Segundo is the freest record, because I didn’t have any expectations of myself, and especially not from the audience. It took me a long time to make it; almost three years of not thinking and of not having any pressure. Just doing what I felt had to be done, and really enjoying the process during the nights. I had a very young child at the time, so it was impossible to work during the day. It’s a very, what’s the word… Nocturnal? Do you have that word?
For some parts of it I was half asleep. A good thing about Segundo is that there was no thought at all. Nothing. Then, after I made that, I started to have a response from people that I had never expected. When I had to make [the follow-up], Tres Cosas, things changed. I knew there was someone expecting something on the other side of the world somewhere. So I started to have thoughts like, “Should I make it a little bit more straight-down? Should I do it exactly the same?” When you start having that, it is a problem that you need to learn to live with and to work with. Those thoughts ruin your record. It’s something very difficult to achieve, in my case. I decided to stop the record before it became too similar to Segundo. I didn’t record thousands of layers of things on that record. When I came back, and I recorded Son, I had the live shows as an experience that I didn’t have during the previous two records. I started to add more. I started to record a lot on the loop pedal, and I started to compose in a different way. I was looking for a looping pedal before it existed, because I didn’t want to have the musicians playing the same thing over and over, thinking that they were going to get very bored or that they wouldn’t like to play just three notes for five minutes. I was really looking for that machine, but it didn’t exist. You had delay pedals and other things, but that looping pedal didn’t exist. When I found it, I really found the best friend I’ve ever had. I didn’t record loops on the records. I just played the same thing over and over, but I thought that no one would like to do that, except a machine. I started to record real loops when I got the pedals, and I started to compose faster than before. I had the loop immediately, and I could record other things on top of it immediately. So I would record a full song in almost the time it takes to play the song. That’s why the songs on Son are more stripped down at the beginning, and then they build up towards the end.
I was really happy, because I had found a very personal way to do things that totally represented me. I didn’t feel that there was something missing, or [that there was] too much. In the past few years, the looping pedal became perhaps too popular, so I felt like I had to change – I had to find a new way of doing things. But how can you change yourself if you’ve been playing loops since you were ten years old? It didn’t have a name. I just called it repetitions. So I really had to try to change the way I naturally do things in order to grow, or to grow and try to not repeat myself. So it’s been more difficult.
What was different about the way you approached getting rid of the loop pedal? What were some of the new approaches and ways you wrote and recorded this new record?
Well, for a start, when I play, I play repeating phrases, because that’s the way I’ve always done things. I wanted not to have, for instance, was this building process. Instead I wanted to have different parts where I had all the instruments coming in at the same time, or none of it. Also, we went into a studio, which I hadn’t done for 20 years. We had many instruments to play with, and new instruments always give you new ideas. Like violins in the first track “Paraguaya.” Many sounds just told me what to do with them, as it usually is. The difference there is that I don’t buy new instruments, in general. I have made five records with the same instruments, except for the electric guitar, but that’s not a big difference. I couldn’t really tell. There were also other people [involved]. I was not used to working with other people because I had recorded on my own for many years. To have other people around was a way to have more options, but at the same time I risked being more shallow. Sometimes when I am recording on my own and I find an idea, I go until I find what I really want. I could be there for hours, and I don’t realize time is passing by. But when you have other people with their arms crossed, waiting for you to finish something, well, that makes you stop before that. But I came back to that situation when I returned home and I had to edit what was recorded in the studio.
So is that how the record was made? You went into the studio and gathered a bunch of performances, and then you got home and worked on the record there doing edits?
I had a few songs. I had many simple ideas for the songs that had been recorded at soundchecks on the [Roland] Loop Station. I didn’t want to work on them before I went to the studio. I had a pattern, or a sound, or the seed of the sound, but I hadn’t developed the song at all before going to the studio. We stayed there for three weeks; we tried to develop the original ideas and to add more things with the new instruments we had there. We took the songs and sometimes played for maybe half an hour, just playing around. Then I came back home and edited that recording that lasted half an hour or forty minutes into something shorter.
What are you working in at home? What system do you use?
Well, I used to use [MOTU] Digital Performer. But everything had been recorded in Pro Tools, so I had to learn how to use Pro Tools, which thankfully is very much like Performer. There are a few things that Pro Tools doesn’t have that I really missed; very simple tools that are obvious to me. But, in exchange, Pro Tools has many things that Digital Performer doesn’t have. Now what I want is to have a mix of both. It would be great. It took me a little while to get used to Pro Tools, especially the shortcuts and all that. In Performer, you can change the shortcuts the way you want, but in Pro Tools, they are mandatory. They force you to use what they build, what they have designed.
When you’re starting a mix, where do you begin? What are the essential elements in your approach to a mix?
In general, the mixing comes with the recording, because I’ve already found a place for the new instrument in the mix. Maybe then, if there are other things that come into the track, I decide that something that was in the middle needs to go to the right or the left. But it’s like embroidering, when I mix on my own. Here it’s been a different process, because I had previous mixes made at home, and then I took them to the studio. He [Eduardo Bergallo] took the mixes from zero. I was very scared, because I had worked a lot on the mixes. The only things that he sometimes kept were the panning and the volumes. For instance, in songs like “Lentísmo Halo,” the guitar that starts the song was really low and very quiet. When he proposed to do that I was a bit reluctant at first, but then I thought he was right and I loved it. The problem with working a lot on something is that, when you give it to someone else, you suffer a little bit. You’ve worked so much. You’re used to the song and things sounding one way, and then someone starts from the beginning again. All I do is tell him to do this so it sounds exactly the same way it was. Then he asks, “If you want it to sound the same, why do you need me?” We made a good team. He insisted on having delays and reverbs that I didn’t want, but some of them are really good!
It’s always interesting when you have something that you’ve worked on, and you have somebody that you trust mix.
One of our contributors, and a friend of mine, Thom Monahan, who I know you’ve worked with in the past, wondered how much of your writing is based on pure improvisation. Do you see composition as a curation of ideas initially, or is it a thing you do daily and then watch what themes emerge?
No, I think it’s the first case. It’s curating a few improvisations. Especially because I think improvisations have something so fresh, so I try to keep all of them in the records. Then I learn them [in order] to play the record live, but it has something that you can’t really repeat. I don’t know if people would notice the difference, but I can. And if I can, anybody else could. Sometimes you’re playing a key, and you just move the modulation wheel in a way that has something special. When you do it, it’s heavier. Not everything, but many things are impossible to repeat. Sometimes [it’s possible to] improve them, but I usually take what’s been recorded. If it’s really wrong, and I see what the idea was, then I play it again. But I try not to.
When you’re programming synths, do you program for a specific song or purpose, or do you program more broadly and then pull from that what you need when you need it?
In general, I go first through the sounds in my keyboard. When nothing works, I go to the closest one that I imagine that could work, and then I start changing some parameters to make it fit in the song. Sometimes I am just playing around with the keyboard and make a sound that I find very nice, and then I make a song with it. It can be either way. I am currently taking programming classes, because I got a new keyboard that I really can’t manage at all.
Which one is that?
It’s a [Dave Smith Instruments] Prophet 12. For instance, there are a few things on the song “Cálculos y Oráculos.” The sounds are like little cats. I programmed that sound in the studio, but if by chance I wanted to repeat that sound, I wouldn’t be able to make it. Odin [Schwartz], one of the guys who plays with me, and I are going to take classes on programming synths, because everything I’ve done is just by ear. Sometimes I struggle trying to do something, and I really don’t know what exactly. I know many things, but this new keyboard really has too many parameters. Sometimes I’m moving knobs here and there, and nothing changes. It’s just because you need to enable who-knows-what to make it change the sound that you are trying to get. I’d like to try to make things faster. Although accidents, as everybody knows, are our best friends. If you know too much, then you are less inclined to have an accident.
It’s like driving, except you don’t die.
Thom said, “Rhythm is super forward for her. It’s all pocket. Everything is so contextually tied to being in a groove of some sort, being at an angle to it, stating and not stating it, but feeling its absence; a never-ending multitude of entry and exit points. She is always the master of the moment that’s happening. She’s not a cloud in the sky in the world of the arrangement. She’s the center of everything, the fabric of everything that’s going on, just one big vibrational field, with Juana in the center.”
Wow! I want that quote to make that part of my bio!
I think you should! Where do you draw the rhythmic influences from, and how are they reimagined for your music?
How can you know that? How can you know? People tend to think that what you listen to is what influences you. I’ve been listening to James Brown for ages, when I was younger, and I don’t think I have anything from James Brown. Sometimes I find myself having some African rhythms that I may have gotten from when I was 13 or 14, that I discovered on some French radio station that was playing music from all over the world. But, at the same time, I wonder if that had an impact on me, or if it had awakened something that was dormant in me. I have this theory about music and influences: that influences are only awakeners of what you already are, because people listening to the same music would create the same music, and that’s not the case. I really have an inclination to approach rhythmic things. I like it better when it’s very rhythmic than when it’s not. At the same time, there are very melodic things that I like a lot.
You came from a very musical family, and there was music in your life from a young age. There’s something to be said for passive influence. It’s in your DNA, so to speak, but then you’re a filter.
You’re a filter. Can you control that filter? I don’t think you can. I think it’s something that’s not even a virtue. It’s not something that you can congratulate anybody for. It’s not like making the effort of doing something like sewing a coat. I don’t know. “Sew a coat. Oh, congratulations! You’ve made a very nice coat!” But something that you can’t really control. It’s there. What’s your accomplishment? It’s very strange. I don’t have a very strong position on that. I don’t know what’s happening. I don’t understand what it is.
I read that at a young age that you were intrigued by Indian music and the drones in the music.
I think I like it because it takes you in a tunnel and drives you. You float in there. That’s what I like about the drone, or about that constant repeating element. There are no alterations. It could be very rhythmic as well. I don’t think I like songs with many changes. Although I do like them… So, I don’t know exactly what it is that a song has to have for me to like it or not. I think it’s a combination of all of that, of course. Sometimes I don’t like to have very clear ideas of what I do, because then I am aware of something that was natural or spontaneous. Once I notice what it is, it’s not spontaneous anymore.
What is it about recording music and performing music that was so strong that you left a successful acting career?
The problem with me was that I was really very, very shy. I couldn’t play in front of anybody. I was playing a lot at home, always learning guitar, taking lessons, and practicing a lot. But the second I thought there was an ear [listening], I stopped playing. I would shut all the windows, all the doors, everything, so that no one could hear what I was doing from anywhere. I didn’t want anybody to criticize me, I guess. But one day, I was already 30, and I thought, “If I don’t do it, I won’t ever do it.” When you’re young, as everybody knows, you think life is eternal, infinite. Then you get to an age when you realize that you’re getting older. When I started to be very successful with my TV show, I couldn’t even think about music anymore, until I had to stay in bed for a few months. There I had the time to think and to see where I was, and I realized that I had my path. I wanted to work on TV to have enough money to play music, and that that idea had been a trap and I had gotten caught in. I really needed to get out of there as soon as possible, so that’s what I did. I stopped the show in the middle of the season, and that was it. I started with music, but it took me a long time to do it confidently.
So after acting, your shyness just disappeared for you?
No, not at all! Had you seen any of the first shows I gave for the first three or four years… My god, I would be so embarrassed if you had seen one of those. They were awful. I couldn’t even open my mouth. I couldn’t play. I was shaking. I missed all the notes on the guitar. I was never happy with the sound. I couldn’t understand what was happening, so I couldn’t tell the sound guy what to do to make it sound better, because I knew nothing. I didn’t have the confidence to just go and do it myself. I remember one time that was the worst time in my life. I couldn’t play, and I just told the guy, “I don’t know! I just can’t play! I just can’t play.” The guy said, “I don’t know what you want me to do for you to be able to play. Just play.” But I couldn’t! Years later, remembering that time, the only problem was that my monitor was too loud! I couldn’t even notice that it was just that. It was so loud and so crisp that I couldn’t even play a note, because it was like exploding everywhere. That show was awful. There were people in the audience [during soundcheck] having something to drink, and I didn’t know that people were going to be in the audience. Then someone came to me and said, “I think you can start the show.” I said, “Well, are those people not going to leave?” “No. This is the audience.” It was so humiliating, because they had seen me in such a state, swearing. and suffering, and almost crying. How could you do a show after they’ve seen you naked? That was the worst experience in my life. But, with time, and many, many, many concerts, there were people that (even though everything was a disaster) could appreciate a little bit of what was behind the music. I started to build a new audience. The people that came to see me in those first shows were people who knew me from the TV show, so everything was very heavy. I just didn’t have the tools to manage that at the beginning.
Obviously that wasn’t enough to slow your passion for playing music and performing.
Apparently! I am very stubborn, because I really persevered. It was so frustrating. After every single show I said, “The next one is going to be better!” And it finally was. It got better. But it took me easily five years to have a proper show where people didn’t leave. It was a nightmare. People bought a ticket to have a fun time, and they were suffering seeing that monster on stage. It was a monster!
You talked earlier about making records after your child had gone to bed. There’s something to making music at night, when it’s quiet and still out, and you’re tired and a little free of the day.
I think it’s important to lose your mind when you are playing music, because thoughts are the enemy of doing anything creative. That’s why I don’t really like conceptual art. It’s not that I don’t like it, but doesn’t interest me as much as free things, or eternal pieces of music that are not responding to something that already exists. When you are there – very tired, lonely, at night – the mind is also tired. So it doesn’t think that much. Because sometimes I was really half asleep, I started to have images that were bigger and more dreamlike. So you have an instrument that you’re playing but, at the same time, it’s the instrument that tells you what to do with it. The instrument, or the sound, I might say, especially in a keyboard; different sounds make you play in a different way. There are sounds that don’t allow you to make rhythms, and there are sounds that don’t allow you to make long notes, so the sound really tells you what to do. When I’m there, I just lose myself and I forget about everything involuntarily, without willing it, without wanting to do so. Everything becomes like a dream. Things get confused and, at the same time, are very clear. They have a meaning while I am there. Sometimes I would wake up in the middle of a song, and I’d say, “Oh, oh!” I had images, and then all of a sudden I’d see the computer again. The magic is broken when that happens. It’s like a spell gone. Sometimes certain musical phrases don’t have an end because of that. Sometimes I need to invent, or to create, an end for something that’s been created in a totally different mode. I really don’t think that people can tell where the real magic phrase ended and where the false one comes in, because I really work very hard until I find something that matches what was before.
How do you remedy that?
Well, sometimes you can’t. For instance, there’s a vocal in Son on track three, “La Verdad,” where I sing something that goes like [sings], and then it goes on and on. I remember the second I said, “Oh, this is really cool!” I couldn’t keep singing. I had to copy and paste for the last second and invent an ending to that song, to that phrase, because the way I was singing – everything – nothing matched after that. I really tried to do it again, to match the sound, to match the atmosphere, and I couldn’t. I had to make a sewing process of cutting and pasting, many little pieces of the other faces, and invent a new one from that one. I had the idea in my head, but I couldn’t make it sound the same. I never could. I had to finish that sentence, and I did. I don’t think you would notice, but I always do when I hear it. Always.
There’s a marriage of machine, acoustic, and human in your music.
I hate technology. I think I hate it because I didn’t grow up with technology. It’s something that is always new, and if I don’t use something for a few months, then I need to relearn the whole thing again. For instance, I’m editing a video right now. I made a whole video three years ago with this software. I couldn’t even [figure out] where to put the raw material to start working. I’ve been watching tutorials for a week. I just forgot! I knew how to make it work, three years ago. Now I want to make a new video, and it’s impossible to remember. Everything’s gone. That happens with anything I start from scratch. Any program, or any new instrument that has too many things to it. I can’t pay attention, and I don’t remember how to use it anymore. I am working with a guy now, Odin Schwartz. He grew up using these machines. He grew up with technology, so everything’s easy for him. Because it’s easy for him, it’s even more difficult for me, because I know he can do it, so I ask him to do it. Then, once it’s ready, I do what I really wanted to do. But everything I need to do first in order to create... I don’t like the word “create;” it’s a bit pretentious. But to play, or to do anything, [the set up] is a pain for me. I hate it.
It’s funny to hear you say that, because your music, with all the loops and beats, has a very technology-influenced sound. It’s funny to hear you say that you hate it.
Yes. I mean, I love it once I know it. Digital Performer, for instance. I really know how to work with it because I’ve been using it for almost 20 years. I really know how it works, but I’m using 10 percent of its possibilities. I really mastered that 10 percent, because I’ve done it a hundred trillion times. I like editing. I’m very meticulous when I edit. I don’t stop when I’ve found an idea, until it’s exactly what I want it to be. I can be editing until six in the morning on something that lasts three seconds, looking for things like, “Just one tick to the left, one tick to the right, one volume up, and one volume down until it’s perfect.” Some people ask, “Oh, but why do you take that time?” People sometimes don’t like that kind of work. I love it. I really like editing. I think it’s part of what I do now.