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Venegas, Julieta

Julieta Venegas

Singer, songwriter, accordionist

Mexican vocalist and songwriter Julieta Venegas has inspired various comparisons with non-Mexican artists, musical and otherwise. According to Ernesto Lechner of Interview, she has been called "Mexico's PJ Harvey." For Tim Padgett of Time International, she is "the Frida Kahlo of rock 'n' roll." "Her music has been compared with that of Tori Amos, Fiona Apple and Bjork in its bold creativity," wrote Fred Shuster of the Los Angeles Daily News. Venegas has worked in styles, principally alternative rock and pop-rock, that have been more popular outside of Mexico than in the singer's home country. Yet beneath these foreign influences, Venegas's music has displayed a characteristically Mexican seriousness—due at least partly to her own acccordion playing. The accordion, she told Padgett, enhanced "my personal way of writing songs. Mexican music has to celebrate the sadness we live with here."

Julieta Venegas Percevault was born on November 24, 1970, in Long Beach, California, but she spent most of her early life in Tijuana, Mexico. One of a pair of twins (her sister Yvonne became a photographer), she has dual Mexican and American citizenship. Venegas started out in music at age eight when her parents signed her up for piano lessons. She picked up musical and cultural influences from both sides of the United States-Mexican border: "It was easier to watch American TV than to watch Mexican TV growing up," she said in a Mas magazine interview appearing on the Bakotopia website. "That's how I learned English." On the Mexican side, she got a solid grounding in classical piano and theory at the Escuela de Música del Noroeste in Tijuana.

Attending high school in that city, Venegas applied her keyboard skills to popular styles, joining a rock band called Grupo Chantaje. That band evolved into Tijuana No!, whose ska-influenced sound made them one of the most successful Mexican alternative rock bands prior to the emergence of Venegas herself. Venegas, in fact, wrote one of the band's major hits, "Pobre de tí" (Poor You). She continued to study music at Southwestern College in San Diego, but soon found she wanted to broaden her musical horizons. So she headed south to Mexico's larger cities.

Venegas did a stint writing music for stage plays in Monterrey and then moved to Mexico City. She quickly made contact with the band Café Tacuba and other progressive musicians in the Mexican capital, and she took up a new instrument that would become an integral part of her sound: the accordion. Although the accordion is characteristic of norteño or northern Mexican regional music, her inspiration was still partly American. "When I started playing it, it wasn't just for norteño music, it was because I loved how Los Lobos and Tom Waits used it," she explained to Shuster. "It's a very organic instrument. There's something magical about the strength of it."

Landing a spot as an accordionist in a band called Lula, Venegas soon started another band of her own, La Milagrosa. Her bandmates, Jorge Fratta and Rafa González, both went on to independent careers, but they paid homage to Venegas's obvious creativity by renaming the band simply Julieta Venegas. In 1996 Venegas was signed as a solo artist to the major RCA/BMG label and went into the studio in Los Angeles to record her debut album, Aquí (Here). Venegas played piano and accordion on the album, whose dark storytelling songs were far from the sexy, romantic norm for Mexican female vocalists.

Venegas toured the United States and Colombia, earning several awards and attracting the attention of filmmakers who wanted to include her moody tunes on soundtracks. She ended up writing the soundtrack music for the critically acclaimed Mexican film Amores Perros (Bad Relationships, often translated as Love's a Bitch). She established and maintained a strong fan base in Spain. Venegas definitively banished any suspicions of a sophomore slump with her 1999 album Bueninvento, featuring some of Venegas's musical idols: Tom Waits, guitarist Joe Gore, REM drummer Lenny Waronker, and Los Lobos saxophonist Steve Berlin. The album earned two Latin Grammy Award nominations, for Best Rock Album and Best Rock Song.

In 2000 Venegas lent her talents to a tribute album in honor of one of the legendary ensembles of norteño music, Los Tigres del Norte. Meanwhile she was working on a change in musical direction. When appeared in 2003, Venegas's slow story songs had been largely replaced by sunny, upbeat pop-rock. The singer denied that she was motivated by personal considerations. "I've written so many songs about being sad and angry and melancholy and never been able to write a song about being happy," she told Jordan Levin of the Miami Herald. "It was more instinctive. I was experimenting. Bueninvento was very difficult for me at the end. It was very complex instrumentally and the feelings were mostly sad. I thought, ‘I need to try something else to feel like I'm not repeating what I've said 20 times.’"

Latin Grammy

Regardless of motivation, was a commercial breakthrough. Recorded in Madrid, Spain, and Buenos Aires, Argentina, the album was produced by Coti Sorokin and Cacharro López, with Sorokin serving as co-writer on some of the songs—the first time Venegas had taken on a songwriting collaborator. The album's infectious guitar-based tunes were spiced with hip-hop and Caribbean rhythms, and Venegas toured widely after the album's release. Hit singles like "Andar Conmigo," "Lento," and "Algo Está Cambiando" propelled to the number four spot on Billboard 's Latin Pop sales chart, and Venegas took home a Latin Grammy for Best Rock Album.

For the Record …

Born on November 24, 1970, in Long Beach, CA; holds dual Mexican and American citizenship; married Álvaro Henriquez (vocalist of band Los Tres; divorced). Education: Studied classical music at La Escuela de Música del Noroeste, Tijuana, Mexico; attended Southwestern College, Chula Vista, CA.

Member, Grupo Chantaje and Tijuana No!; composed music for plays in Mexico City and Monterrey; performed with band Lula; started band La Milagrosa; signed as solo artist to RCA label, 1996; released debut album Aquí; released Bueninvento, 1999; appeared on tribute album to band Los Tigres del Norte, 2000; released commercial breakthrough Sí, 2003; released Limón y Sal, 2006.

Awards: Latin Grammy Awards, Best Rock Album, for Sí, 2004, 2006; Grammy Award, Best Latin Pop Album, for Limón y Sal, 2007; four Latin American MTV Video Music Awards.

Addresses: Record company—Sony BMG Mexico, Blvd. Manuel Avila Camacho, N. 191, Int. 201-202, Col. Los Morales, Polanco, Mexico City, Mexico 11510. Website—Julieta Venegas Official Website: http://www.julietavenegas.net.

Fans of the more somber songs from earlier in Venegas's career were not universally happy about her new approach, but turned Venegas into a major star. One website even featured "La Chica del Acordeón" in a "Shakira vs. Julieta Venegas" comparison, juxtaposing her music and attitudes with those of the Colombian superstar. Venegas's 2006 release Limón y Sal (Lime and Salt) kept her career on an upward trajectory and earned a Grammy for Best Latin Pop Album. Working with the same production team as on Sí, Venegas delivered a slightly more bittersweet collection of songs. "You need limón y sal (lime and salt) to enjoy a drink of tequila," she said. "And love is the same way. We all need the bitterness to appreciate the sweetness and intoxication." Venegas's career as a whole had taken her through a similar sequence of flavors, and by 2007 she had successfully broken the mold for Latin female vocalists. "I think the industry knows more what to do with a sexy girl than a geeky-looking girl," she observed to Levin, but she had blazed a path of her own for others to follow.

Selected discography

Aquí, RCA International, 1997.

Bueninvento, RCA International, 2000.

Sí, RCA International, 2003.

Limón y Sal, Sony, 2006.

Sources

Periodicals

Daily News (Los Angeles), August 26, 2007, p. L5.

Interview, November 2000, p. 50.

Miami Herald, April 13, 2007.

New York Times, June 25, 2006, p. AR27.

Time International, October 15, 2001, p. 54.

Online

"Backstage with Julieta Venegas," Bakotopia, http://www.bakotopia.com/home/ViewPost/17106 (October 4, 2007).

"Bio," Julieta Venegas Official Website, http://www.julietavenegas.net (October 4, 2007).

"Julieta Venegas," All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com (October 4, 2007).

"Julieta Venegas," Ask Men, http://www.askmen.com/women/singer_250/260_julieta_venegas.html (October 4, 2007).

"Shakira vs. Julieta Venegas," http://www.holamun2.com/news/versus-shakira-vs-julieta-venegas (October 4, 2007).

—James M. Manheim

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