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Chutes and ladders: Juana Molina

For five albums the actress-cum-musician has been writing, producing and recording everything herself in her studio in Buenos Aires. Her most recent record, WED 21, (Crammed Discs) is her first in half a decade. She slides down HAU on Nov 1.

In 1996, the Argentinean singer and multi-instrumentalist Juana Molina made an abrupt turn from the fame of her comic television career as a star on “Juana y sus hermanas”, pursuing her musical muse.

For five albums, she’s been writing, producing and recording everything herself in her studio in Buenos Aires, layering vocals, keys, guitar and percussion to create a vexing assemblage of mirrors, repetitive structures and sudden twists that simultaneously maintain a wonderful calm and playful beauty. WED 21 (Crammed Discs) is her first album in half a decade; she’ll be sliding down at HAU1 on Friday, Nov 1.

You’ve said you had severe musical stage fright, yet you’ve been on TV and stage since childhood…

But you are not acting. It’s something completely different. I was on television and had my stand-up show for seven years. I was a comedian and when I am making fun of everything and everybody, I am invulnerable. But being a musician, I am exactly the opposite: I become a target. And either you become a big, strong target and arrows don’t hurt you, or you don’t. I got hurt very much in the first years and I healed and I became stronger. Now I am strong enough to stand onstage.

Is that why you erased your face on WED 21’s cover artwork?

Maybe. I am never on the cover of my records. There is either a drawing or a shade or a painting or a distorted image. The previous idea was to be a colourful mummy, and what you see are the ribbons of the mummy when we started to undo it. You know, the mummy was a good idea, but it was little bit too – dead. [Laughs] So we cut it open. I work with this artist on all of my records, and we never know where we end up.

It’s necessary to include the possibility of mistakes. If you don’t let that happen, the work will wind up dead.

Yes, absolutely. The word ‘conceptual art’ always frightens me a little bit. Because it’s all about the mind. And what I try to do is everything but the mind. The mind just interferes with the flow.

The artist Méret Oppenheim says something similar: nothing comes of the intellect. Everything comes of the flow, the in-between.

I don’t think, “Oh, I am going to play a C major and then an A minor.” I really feel that I am guided. I don’t know where it comes from – I am like a medium. Usually I need to dig and to build my own tunnel and then I climb up the – what’s the word? Children climb up…

A slide?

Exactly – I need to climb up-up-up, and then I slide down.

You’re counting a lot in your songs. I do that, too, especially when I’m stressed…

I used to count everything, too! Cars in the street, lights, lines, people I crossed – it was crazy! [Laughs]

And repetition is a major element in your music.

It’s a calming thing. It’s like having a road to travel on: you have this very nice road and that is the repetition and then you have all the landscape changes.

Are you telling stories or are your words more like sounds?

The words come from who-knows-where. I am very lucky when that happens, because the words tell me what the song is going to be about. Sometimes there are no words at all, and that is very problematic. I like words that sound light, simple: speaker, dog, cable. I just put the words together, so I tell a story about the cable. I don’t like it when you hear an important word in a song, because that sticks you in a one-possibility place. Probably that comes from listening to all this English music as a kid, not understanding one word, just sounds. Of course, I try to not be too silly. I don’t want to be embarrassed in every single show. [Laughs]

What’s your work process like?

Everything happens in the studio. Once I write, I record. But what I wanted to achieve with this album was to leave some things behind, to get away from certain sounds. On previous records, every little percussive movement came from my keyboard or my few percussive instruments. Like, the kick drum in my songs has been the e-key of my keyboard since 1996. So I got myself a drum machine and an electric guitar.

When you compose, do you follow patterns or do you see pictures?

I see abstract things. I see curls and lines on a black background. It feels like painting to me. It’s not like I think of something and then record it, but I record while I think of it; it’s already there. I feel like a tourist and a guide at the same time.

It took you five years to make a new record.

Oh, I just travelled a lot and did other things. I didn’t really feel like playing. I always had the feeling that I had already done this and done that. So, last year, I went to New York and got me that guitar. It’s a very simple Gibson SG from 1996. It just has a good vibe. I started to work on the record at the end of last year and I recorded “WED 21” first. And I came back to recording in March. Once I knew I was gonna make the record, I really wanted it to be out this year. I got really excited.

There’s the type of artist who needs silence and space to be inspired and create, and the kind who gets inspired by listening to a lot of different stuff.

First type. Clearly. Anything that’s on, I just tend to turn it off. I am actually very embarrassed when people ask me, “Can you give me your last 10 favourite songs?” And I don’t know what to say, ‘cause I haven’t heard anything in months! It’s embarrassing, because it feels like you are a little bit pretentious: “No, I don’t listen to anything else but me.” But I just get overwhelmed very easily. When I go to hotels, I unplug everything. For example, there are certain bathrooms and you turn on the light and there’s a fan coming on – “deeeeehhhhhhh” – so I have my little tool kit and I intermit the fan and I just put it back together when I leave. These sounds are insane to me. I prefer to be in silence.

What is the live setting going to look like?

Actually, this record is very difficult to play on my own. The structures are a bit different from my previous albums, so I can’t be in control of everything. I am actually travelling with two people. We are all going to use keyboards. It was easier and more fluid to have fewer things. We didn’t want to look like crazy secretaries who try to be in control of everything. We want to be on stage and look like we know what we are doing.

So, why WED 21?

I decided to go with the name of a song that didn’t really mean anything at all. Everybody said, “Are you really going to call the record WED 21? Are you crazy?” And I just said, “Maybe I am crazy.” I don’t care. I just care about music and I don’t want to transmit a message that doesn’t have anything to do with music.

JUANA MOLINA Fri, Nov 1, 20:00 | HAU1, Stresemannstr. 29, Kreuzberg, U-Bhf Hallesches Tor

Originally published in issue #120, November 2013.