Singer Silvana Estrada: ‘The emptiness in music gives me strength’

Silvana Estrada never actually became a musician, she just was. The Mexican singer-songwriter, who broke through to an international audience this year with her solo debut Marchita, grew up between musical notes, with a mother who made violins and a father who made cellos and double basses. “I was surrounded by music, it was part of my life. It was therefore very natural that I started singing and composing, but I never feel like a real musician. I just make music, for myself and for the people around me.”

Not without success. Marchita touches on chamber pop, jazz and folk, is subdued, melancholy, has a certain timelessness and is certainly one of the most beautiful folk albums of the year. The expressive, sometimes solemn and sometimes emotive voice of Estrada (25) and her modest cuatro – a small South American four-string guitar – takes center stage, with no more decoration than some light percussion, finger snaps, an organ and the occasional strings, with which she recalls the sounds of her youth. It rightly earned her a spot among the best albums of the year so far according to NPR, Billboard, Spin and The Guardianplus a big interview in The New York Times and a European tour. On Saturday 9 July she will play in the Tolhuistuin in Amsterdam and on July 16 in the Great Hall of TivoliVredenburg in Utrecht, as support for Andrew Bird.

Silvana Estrada.Photo Jackie Russo

Estrada has already worked with the cream of the crop of alternative Latin pop: Mon Laferte, Jorge Drexler, Julieta Venegas and Natalia Lafourcade, Estrada’s fellow countryman. It’s a warm gulf of musicians with a modern take on their own musical roots, who are doing very well on both coasts of the Atlantic. Estrada, now living in Mexico City, says he notices it too: media are embracing music and streaming services, where popular Latin artists (read: reggaeton) have dominated the listening figures for several years, are making it accessible to a global audience. “There are many factors, but in the end it mainly has to do with what Latin American artists do themselves: we like to embrace our roots, and that touches people more deeply. We are sincere in a way that everyone understands.”

And yet she was close to turning her back on music and taking up volleyball full-time. “Yes, that’s true!” Estrada laughs and claps her hands in delight from behind her Zoom screen in Portugal, where she begins her European tour. “My parents wanted me to go into classical music. They woke me up every day at five to study violin, before school, to have to practice right after school. I thought, what kind of nightmare is this? I much preferred to play volleyball! I started taking lessons and lasted a year, but came back to music anyway.

“They still didn’t understand at first that I wanted to be a singer-songwriter. I said: I’m going to write songs. Just songs. Nonsense, they thought.” But it turned out all right: Her father recently appeared to love her in a video shot for NPR’s Tiny Desk, from the family home in Coatepec. Estrada: “I followed my instinct, and if you work hard and you do everything you do with love, people will understand.”

Estrada grew up in the countryside, a half-hour bus ride from the small town of Coatepec in the Mexican state of Veracruz, in the south of the country. Beautifully set amongst the mountains, rivers and coffee plantations, but with no neighbors or children to play with around. She was therefore happy when she could go to school. “I had a very nice childhood there, but it was a bit isolated. Musically too, because we had no radio or TV at home, only my parents’ records and CDs and what they and other musicians played at our house. Now when I’m at a party where people my age are nostalgic singing along to popular songs from their childhood, I have no idea. Never heard.”

“I followed my instincts, and if you work hard at it and you do everything you do with love, people will understand.”

This now makes her sound the way she sounds: like herself, without wanting to look like anyone. Latin classics such as Soledad Bravo, Violeta Parra and Mercedes Sosa, whom she knows from the past, were of great influence. Just like jazz singers Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday, who led her to study jazz in the somewhat larger Xalapa. There she learned everything about instrumentation and composition, but not in which direction she wanted to go. “I wanted to make modern music, simple and cheerful, but also traditional music. I tried a lot, I participated in all projects. But I missed something. On piano I had trouble writing simple harmonies. The guitar is too wide for my small hands, the jarana [een kleine gitaarachtige, typisch voor Veracruz, red.] didn’t match what I was feeling. But then I discovered the cuatro venezolano

Also read the review of the album Marchita: Silvana Estrada: A New Mexican Indie Star

Glittering hearts appear where her pupils used to be. As soon as Estrada starts talking about that instrument she turns into a girl in love. The small guitar, four nylon strings, popular especially in Venezuela, was her salvation. “I found him in my father’s studio, it was a hot summer and I had nothing to do and that cuatro was hanging there. I had never played it before, but I immediately discovered a really beautiful new chord! Of course I found out later that it was just, I don’t know, a G or a B or something, haha. But it sounded so modern yet very old, and it suited my voice perfectly. That same day I wrote the first song that I was really satisfied with. The cuatro showed me the way.” Laughing: “I stopped eating, I stopped sleeping, I was in love.”

On her first EP, Primeras Canciones, she still performed her music in quite full arrangements. Choirs, synthesizers, strings, drums, everything. Some of those songs are back on Marchita but much more barren, more intimate, smaller and purer. “I always thought my numbers were too empty, so I filled them up quite randomly with everything. After that EP I started touring, just me with my cuatro, and then I discovered that that emptiness is actually vulnerability that gives me and my music strength.”

naive love

Marchita, which means something like withered, is about heartbreak and, even more, losing that first, naive idea of ​​what love is. She sees it as a therapeutic album to understand what that is, that pain, that sadness and loss. “Who did that to me?” She smiles. “Ah, I was eighteen, and at that age it’s the worst thing that can happen, like you’re going to die, it’s never going to be okay. The idea that that can happen to you, that such love passes, that pain, that’s what it’s about.”

Marchita came out in January, but Estrada is already thinking about a new album, she hopes for next year. “I wrote a thousand songs during the pandemic! I can’t wait until this tour is over and I can continue working on that music. But first a special EP will be released at the end of August, with all the happy songs that are not on Marchita fit, because they were too cheerful.”