There’s a revolution going on in Mexico almost as profound as the PRI losing the Presidency to Vicente Fox. As rock en español has gained ascendancy with Mexican youth, more traditional music such as bolero, tejano, and mariachi have been pushed to the side. Women are also eschewing their usual T&A roles in the Mexican musical scene, demanding to be taken seriously as artists. Along with such women as Alejandra Guzman, Cecilia Toussaint, Eugenia Leon, and Magos Herrera, singer/songwriter Ely Guerra (who once shaved her head in order to have focus shift from her looks to her music) is blazing a new path for female artists. Her Lotofire was recently released in the States to critical acclaim and is increasing her exposure both at home and abroad. I recently had an opportunity to talk to Guerra about her musical roots, her music, and shaving her hair down to the roots.
Was music a big influence for you growing up?
Yes. Music was the first thing I discovered where I could speak out. It was my way of being able to explain myself.
You’ve said before that you aren’t “fanatical” about music. Why is that?
I’m always scared about music. The record stores are so overwhelming; they’re so big, with so many options. So I love it, but I don’t buy very much of it. My mother’s a model, and my father’s a soccer player, so as a child, we didn’t listen to a lot of music–only Brazilian music, which is very nostalgic and has a melancholy that goes straight to your heart. So, that’s how I see music. I view it more as a learning experience.
What made you want to become a musician?
As a child, I couldn’t really talk to my mother and father. So, at 9, I learned how to play guitar, and, at 10, I started writing my own songs. There were things I needed to say, and I could only say them through music. That’s why lyrics are most important to me. I feel very compromised in my songs, saying things about myself, my inner self, I wouldn’t otherwise say.
Once you shaved your head because you were tired of male critics talking about your sex appeal. Do you feel that your appearance is a hindrance as an artist?
Well, it was very hard for me to shave off my hair because I had very long hair. But I was tired with the way they would talk to me about my image, my look. It was a little bit frustrating. I wanted people to see that I wasn’t only a pretty woman. I don’t even think I’m pretty. My mother and my sisters are very beautiful, and I used to say, “Well, you’re very beautiful, but I play guitar and have a little bit of a personality.”
But after I shaved my head, people started seeing me in a different way. I started seeing myself in a different way. I wanted to share my songs, not my body. It helped me feel comfortable with the idea of being naked, and I became more secure–and more beautiful. Now, in Mexico, those critics finally talk about my music, not my looks.
Is there tremendous pressure for female singers to be “sexy” in Mexico?
No, not now. It’s been changing. People are looking for real people. Ten years ago, women always needed to be sexy. Now it’s more open to the ideas I express in my music. They feel empathy with it. I think they like it that I’m a real person and not perfect, a real musician.
Before you were performing more folksy rock. What made you change directions for Lotofire?
Well, I’ve been growing with the music. It makes me feel happy to hear the differences between the three albums–that I’m writing new songs and that they’re going someplace totally different. I was 20 when I completed my first album. Now, I’m 30, and I’m growing and experiencing different things. Each album records different moments in my life. I wouldn’t say I’ve changed directions, though. I’m developing my own style. I enjoy growing, and I still enjoy every record I’ve made.
What does “Lotofire” mean?
It’s the lotus flower and fire. The flower symbolizes how much I’m growing, and the fire’s for the transformation from one state into another. Both really explain what I was going through while recording the album. I spent about six months in New York with [producer] Andres Levin. He was a big teacher for me, and I really grew around him and his people while I was there. I enjoyed it, enjoyed the work. “Lotofire” really explains the moment we were living during the whole project.
How did your Mexican label treat the album?
They were frustrated with me and didn’t really understand it. They thought they were going to get a “pretty” record, something very commercial. They never came up to New York to hear what we were doing. They felt betrayed and didn’t want to do anything with it. It was a pretty hard moment in my career.
How did your fans respond to the change in your music?
They were great. People are very happy with it. It’s actually still growing. Thanks to them, the album still goes on.
How did it get picked up here in the States?
First, we played in Austin, TX, at the SxSW Festival with over 600 bands from around the world. It was pretty intense, but everybody was very happy with the music and shared a lot of good will. Then, about one and a half years ago, we played in New York, and the press, people, and musicians were incredibly supportive of our music. In Mexico, we have to fight to find our place to be and to play. In the U.S. it is much easier.
So, you find American audiences more receptive?
A little bit, yes. If I’m honest, America is so much more open. They want to hear and know about new things more than back home. In Mexico, that doesn’t really happen. They like things to always be the same. It’s very Catholic, and everyone’s educated in the same way. Most of the time, they are closed to new things and prefer the old things they’re used to. You have to really insist that things be more open.
What role does politics play in your music?
Well, my music is very personal, a way to explain myself. Politics is not really the point, but I do write about things that bother me. Like with the women in Juarez, they’ve been being killed for the past 10 years. I felt that I had to speak out. That may be political, but I don’t think of it in that way. It’s something that bothers me, something that emotionally hits me.
Well, there’s [your song] “Yo No.”
I was thinking about indigenous people, the Tupara Humara. They’re so beautiful, so strong. They have something we don’t have in cities. But their values are our roots. The Chiapanecos [people of Chiapas], they have the eyes of the world. But they’re not the only ones. A lot of communities need attention. “Yo No” was a way for me to say that I’m uncomfortable that Chiapas is the only community people are paying attention to. In that song, I tried to imagine myself as a Tupara Humara, and I said I don’t want anybody around, interfering. Because the government isn’t there to help them. They’re totally against them.
Do you feel that your work is making it easier for Mexican women in the music industry who are different from the norm?
Claro. Yes. I have had a lot of hard, uncommon experiences in the industry. But this might help other women who are trying to do different things. When I play different states in Mexico, women are very enthusiastic. They give me their CDs and are working to get their own contracts. I hope that what I’m doing makes it easier for them.