“I was apparently recording things without paying attention to what I was doing,” says Juana Molina about the creation of her fourth album, Son (Domino). Watching Molina speak is like taking in a one-woman show. She gestures broadly. She bursts into momentary song. She demands audience participation. (“How do you call … ?” is a common phrase for the Argentina native, who didn’t start speaking English until the late ’90s.)
Molina isn’t creating melodrama out of molehills as she discusses her music in a hotel on New York City’s Lower East Side. She’s just inherently entertaining both in person and, as she found out, on record: “It was a very nice surprise when I was listening to all I had recorded, and I was liking it,” she says in a voice that resembles Eartha Kitt’s purr.
Welcome to Juana’s weird and wild world. It’s a place she arrived at by rejecting fame. (Molina starred on Argentine sketch-comedy TV hit Juana Y Sus Hermanas in the ’90s before turning her back on acting.) It’s a place where having a child didn’t hinder, but rather fostered, a career in music. (She credits her complicated pregnancy, which had her bedridden for months, for giving her the time to rethink her life’s direction and the courage to take the aforementioned musical plunge in 1996.) It’s a place nowhere near archetypal singer/songwriter territory. Molina’s lightly subversive concoction of guitar and electronic ambience pushes the importance of production to the forefront.
Don’t expect any confessions from her words and arpeggiated guitar; in fact, unless you speak Spanish, don’t expect to understand any of her lyrics. And since most of Molina’s listeners live in North America, there’s a shared bond over the language barrier. The bulk of her fans are forced to hear music the way she does.
“Even now that I speak English, when I listen to a song, I can’t pay attention to the lyrics,” she says. “I hear the song as a whole. I never even liked singer/songwriters in my language whose words jumped out of a song. When the words are most important, it rather pisses me off. I’m not interested in messages.”
If that’s the weird, then here’s the wild: Son is based on the sounds of nature. The chirping of crickets, the gurgling of frogs and the howling of pesky neighborhood dogs all figure into Molina’s design. But more than that, Son’s electronic layers (which often sound detuned, like the queasy, dissonant score of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) mimic nature’s imbalance: the way an animal’s calls and responses interlock and come apart as they repeat, sometimes in harmony and sometimes in a melodic clash. Using layers of loops, Molina aims to re-create this random repetition.
“A good loop is something that starts and stops again, like a wheel,” she says. “It makes a whole loop, and it’s the same thing again, but it’s further along. A good loop is something you don’t feel as a loop. It’s something that drives you, that makes you flow.”
Recorded in Molina’s house in Buenos Aires, Son is full of the accidents that define nature’s harmonious chaos. The aforementioned looping method means that key clashes are a constant risk. “When you hear it several times, it becomes a beautiful thing,” says Molina of such dissonance. The songwriting is tempered by the artiness of Molina’s vocals, which recall Björk’s Medúlla; Molina’s voice alternately stands in for keyboards and provides percussion. Both techniques came about by accident.
“We rented a keyboard for a show, and it didn’t work,” she recalls. “So I started to sing what the keyboard should sound like, and it worked. I used that on the album. The rhythmic parts came from just coming up with a rhythm and singing it to not forget it when I was working on a song. Then I went back and liked what I recorded, so I just left it that way and made more of it.”
Son’s design allows it to glide back and forth between the practical and the fanciful. It makes sense, coming from a woman who won’t reveal her age for fear of listener discrimination, who says she’d rather listen to birdcalls than recorded music, who claims her songs play her more often than she plays them. With Son (the title is Spanish for “is,” or more specifically, “they are”), Molina demonstrates that sometimes a labor of love is also a force of nature.
“You can’t blame things for being,” she says. “A storm is. An earthquake is. Happiness is. Beauty is. I am very thankful for these things [that are] without any feelings of guilt. So that’s why I named the record Son, because it is. It’s just a record and nothing’s gonna change it.”