Interview: Juana Molina on '80s Synths, David Byrne, and Her Writing Process

Juana Molina had a thriving acting and comedy career in her native Argentina before abandoning it for music. As you'll read in our interview below, she called that previous life "a little mistake." She had gotten a job in television to allow her the time to study music, but as she became successful, she had virtually no time at all to pursue her real passion.

Nonetheless, she gave up those more lucrative gigs to focus on music—trading skit comedy and stand-up for avant-garde folk, the stranger fringes of rock music, and synthesizers. While local critics were initially unimpressed, she found champions amid international critics and in David Byrne, who took her on tour. In the decades since her 1996 debut, Molina has created a body of work bound by no genre or easy categorization.

We got a chance to speak with her at the Ableton Loop conference late last year, where she was performing a 90-minute set of half-composed, half-improvised music. They talked about her introduction to synths, how living abroad shaped her music, and how exactly she managed to forge ahead with her music career.

Juana Molina - "Ferocísimo" live at Ableton Loop 2018

Neal Gustafson: How did you first get into synthesizers?

When I was enjoying my first trip in records as a teenager, I never realized that what I liked the most were synths, because I never analyzed what I was listening to. It was just this thing happening, a whole.

An instrument—the word is already telling you what it is—it is a medium to achieve doing something. I don't like when the music is all separate, and it's all about a bass part and a guitar part and this part or that part. Everything needs to be—to me, in order to be interesting—to give me images and pure music.

So I didn't know that all these things that I had been loving for so many years were made with synths. And then the '80s came and all these terrible, horrible synths that you could see, because there were all these videos that I didn't have when I was a kid. I tried to ignore it. Then I could see and I thought, My God that's terrible. That is why I hated keyboards. I didn't even know the difference between a keyboard, a synth, or whatever.

For many years I avoided having those, but then I met someone who introduced me to this world, and I was like, "How do you do that? Because, in general, when I play any keyboard it sounds like really, really awful." "Well, keyboards have these awful sounds just to show you what they are able to do. Just an example, I can go from this range to that range, and I have this depth," and blah, blah, blah, blah. I said, "Oh my god, I can't believe it." Then I learned to program sounds and get rid of everything you don't like in the preset, and just to form it into anything new.

Justin DeLay: Was there a particular one?

Yes, the Korg 01. That was the one. That's the one I still use.

JD: No kidding. Pretty hard to program, right?

I don't know, because that is the one I learned.

JD: I think other people think that one really requires a lot of expertise to program. That is really interesting.

I learned how to work on that one without having any previous knowledge, so it was a way to program something. And then I discovered—someone lent me Prophet-5 and that was just crazy. I was crazy, crazy, crazy about it. So then I started to use other synths, like the very old Moogs—those sounds are so rich, so pure.

NG: Like the Model Ds and stuff like that?

Even older. Those have a sound that—for instance, Raymond Scott played and created this amazing amount of music. And this guy that I met who introduced me to the synths world, he—without knowing this guy—he made things very similar. So it's really because the instrument more or less tells you what to do with it. Even though I don't play piano—I'm not a keyboard player at all—I enjoy so much these little frequencies and little de-tuned stuff that you can work with, and it drives me immediately to a very beautiful abstract world [more than] any other instrument does.

Raymond Scott - "Ripples," recorded in 1967.

NG: How did the many places that you have lived throughout your life inform your work?

Well, how could I know that? Had I not been there, what would have happened? [Laughs]

NG: But how have those places been influential?

For instance, as a teenager I lived in Paris, and I really think that was a waste of time music-wise, because the music at that time in France—

NG: What years were that?

Late '70s. The music there was just impossible. What saved me there was a radio called Radio France and another one called France Culture. Those two radios had incredible music, and it was the era where you had this—I don't know the name of this—tape recorders that were radio and tape recorders at the same time. You put a cassette in it and press [record].

Juana Molina at the Ciudad Emergente Festival, 2009

So I had hundreds and hundreds of cassettes recorded with that music. Sometimes I was lucky enough to have someone telling me what it was, but most of the time I really don't know what it was. Then, unfortunately, all these cassettes were stolen, so I lost all that music. But it's in me anyway.

So being in France taught me or gave me the chance to discover things that I would have never discovered otherwise, which is music from Africa, pygmy music, and music from the Solomon Islands, Malawi...

Very ethnic but so pretty. So pretty. And also it had that effect of an abstract thing, like almost what a synth can do. Polyrhythms and polyphony in a way where you could—I don't know, like if you had an arpeggio thing, they sing like that naturally without any technology. They sing and they have all of these voices on these beautiful things.

It was really in a completely different world than all my school mates, for instance, that were listening to Queen. I hated Queen. I thought that was the most awful. Now there's all this back, like Queen is even bigger than when I was a kid.

NG: They just came out with the movie and all that.

I don't know if it's because it was out of context or what, or because I was listening to a very, very different kind of music at the time, I found that impossible. Queen was [makes a sound of disgust]. I feel some empathy and some kind of tenderness towards Queen, but it's not something that I would listen to, ever.

JD: How did your acting career come about? And how has it informed the music you make?

It was a little mistake that I made. All I wanted was to have money enough to practice music and to study guitar, and I needed a job that paid well enough so I had many free hours to dedicate to music. So I said, What's that?—TV, that's where I need to work. I knew I had the skill of impersonating different characters. I said, I'm going to use that skill. Then I watched TV for several weeks until I found the right show where I should be in. And it worked. So they hired me.

I had a very meteoric career. As soon as I started working there, two months later I was already working in a different show that was much bigger. Two years later, I was having my own show [Juana y Sus Hermanas]. What I did in order to make music pulled me away from music, because after awhile I did not have one second to play music any more.

Juana Molina - "In the Lassa"

JD: You were crippled by your own success.

Exactly [laughs]. When I got pregnant and I had to stay in bed I said, What am I doing? This is not what I wanted to do. I need to get out of this place right now before it is too late. Even though I was very successful and I made money and everything, I did not want to die without having done what I wanted to do, which was music. So I quit TV and started with old songs that I had recorded before the TV show.

It was very difficult, because media and people wanted me to be on the TV show. They didn't want me to be—it's not that I'm serious, but compared to what I did on TV, I was like a serious thing now. I wasn't funny anymore. And I couldn't deal with that weight. It's not that I said, "Oh, fuck you all, I'm going to be doing this and you can..." I couldn't. I was taking all of that energy on me and I didn't know what to do with it. So I don't blame anybody but me. But it took me a long, long, long time to be able to get rid of those things, those backpacks full of preconcepts and ideas of who I was and what should I do, or why you shouldn't of done this, blah, blah, blah. It took me a long—when I say long, it's like 10 years.

NG: Is there any overlap between those two worlds?

No. I don't think so. I've tried, because besides the TV show I had a stand-up show in the summers, because that was really good money, very fast and easy. I had two shows per night every night during two months in the summer. With that money, I was fine. And then I wanted to—I was already preparing the songs to record my first album when I was doing this stand-up comedy thing—and I started to sing, and when I sang it was this awkward feeling. People didn't know what to do. It wasn't possible to do both things at the same time. Impossible.

I quit playing on that show and made a last song as an ending thing, but I didn't play the songs that I had rehearsed. And I said, OK, I'm going to quit acting for good and do only music. And it was like starting from below zero, because I had to fight against all of these preconcepts that people had about me and then reach level zero and then start again. It was a very hard thing, but I think it was kind of worth it. I would be much richer if I had not quit TV. That's for sure. It would be sad.

NG: As far as visibility for your own musical work and what truly seems like the passion of your career, how has the support of people like David Byrne, who championed some of your work, helped you get to where you want to be?

It helped me a lot in Argentina. That is where it helped me most. For a start, I just want to say that he is one of the most generous musicians that I ever met. Not just with me, but with all of the other musicians. He is a true music lover and he wants to make the world know these musicians he knows, which not many musicians do, honestly. He's incredibly generous. He went on stage before my gig to introduce me to the audience, which is really extraordinary for a big artist like him to do, so that people didn't think that I was a random opening act. People knew he had chosen [me]—he told the story every night. He was amazing.

And, that combined with the Best Album of the Year by the New York Times, [being] on the list. So media in Argentina, they would comment and say, "You must have something, because if your album has been here and David Byrne is calling you, then I might listen to your album." That kind of interview [sighs]. Do you hear yourself when you talk to me? Just lie. You can't say that, because already you have something.

Juana Molina - "Lentísimo halo"

NG: You are not looking for a pity interview.

Yeah. Even though that is bad in a way, it allowed a lot of people that didn't know I was doing music to check me out. From there on, I started to build up the audience in Buenos Aires. At the beginning many people would come and leave, but the ones who stayed were very strong fans and from them I started to spread.

NG: Visibility of your work and everything.

People would say, "I went to this show. It was amazing." And then they brought a friend, and blah, blah, blah. Now I am doing very well in Argentina, but it took me—I have been doing well for the past six, seven years. Maybe some more. I would have never sold out a show before and now I do. But that happens in Argentina and I am quite happy.

NG: What does it mean to you to be a contemporary musician in this world, right now? What do you think your art means? What are trying to surface with the work that you are doing?

We all want to do well in what we do and I think we all would like to be very well-known and have a nice life. But what I wouldn't do is [just] anything in order to get that. I wouldn't change anything in what I do in order to get more success, because I wouldn't be happy playing music that I don't believe in.

The music process for me is so intimate in a way that—I don't know if intimate is the right word. It is when I get to the state where I know I am ready to record, which is when I disappear and my mind is gone and there are no judges, no filters—there is absolutely a hundred-percent connection between I don't know what and the instruments—that's when I know something is good and real. And by real I mean that it is truthful. It's a truth that is happening. Whether It's pretty or ugly, I don't care. It is something that is really happening and it is genuine.

Juana Molina

So when I get to that state, which takes me a little while, maybe a week of warming up, because if I have my mind giving opinions of what I'm doing, everything is going to be bad, or I'm going to hear that mind when I listen to what I did. No, you are not going to do that. No, that is really good. Keep going. When that happens, I just stop [claps her hands] and get a coffee. I don't drink coffee [laughs]. It's just in order to put an image—I just go get something, some air, and go back and start from scratch again.

So, it doesn't matter what it is, like being in this world and doing what I do, because there's nothing else that I can do and there is nothing that will change it, fortunately or unfortunately. Honestly, sometimes I wish I could do different things and sound more like something else or bigger or straighter or mainstreamer or what, but I just can't. It's the same thing as singing in Spanish. In Argentina, the music I do—it doesn't sound like Argentinian music at all. Maybe because I lived in Europe as a kid, maybe because my parents were listening to music that was not from Argentina when I was a kid. I don't know why.

But here I don't sing in English. And people feel a little bit weird when you do not sing in their language. You are very spoiled here in the States and England and the English-speaking countries. We are doing this [interview] in English. I know we are here, but if you came to Argentina we would be doing this interview in English. It's like, it is an imposition of a language that goes all over the world. Every single country, in order to communicate—China with Germany—they speak in English.

Many times in reviews—I don't read reviews any more, but in the beginning—Oh I am going to give her an eight, because I do not understand what she is talking about. Just in case her lyrics are really stupid, she is having an eight. Maybe if he had understood the lyrics I would have had a six or a 10, who knows. So it's a bit unfair, the language thing. But I can't change that either.

I could sing in French, because French became my language, but English is a totally foreign language. If I spend a week with you, I am going to talk like you, within a week. I will totally lose the vocabulary that I last incorporated. I don't even know which words are better than others. Although it's about ideas and not the way you say them, but sometimes it is the way you tell an idea. So, I wish I could sing in English, but I can't.

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