A celebration of innocence and a passion for cello drive drive Dom La Nena's debut
Words and Interview by Laura Studarus
Kicking off a full day of promos before her performance at Festival International de Jazz de Montréal, Brazil-born/Paris-based cellist Dom La Nana starts the interview by apologizing for her English, heavily accented from a childhood spent circling the globe. The caveat is needless—every word is clear as she animatedly recounts the events that lead up to her debut album, Ela.
“I was five-years-old and in a music school in my city,” she explains. The 23-year-old musician leans in, an impish smile playing across her face at the memory. “We traveled to another city to meet another music school. On the bus, I was sitting with the cello teacher. He was very nice. During the meeting with the other school I went to see his classes. When I came back, I said to my parents, ‘He’s my new teacher! I need to play cello!’”
She threw herself into lessons, trading a traditional childhood for scales and lessons. Preternatural pluck still unsatisfied, and enchanted with her hero, British cellist Jacqueline du Pré, the budding instrumentalist took what—to her preteen mind—seemed like a logical step. She found a New York phonebook and called noted cellist Christine Walewska at home. La Nena giggles at the memory, still incredulous that not only did Walewska accept her call, but that it lead to a mentor relationship.
At Walewska’s suggestion, La Nena left school at thirteen, moving to Argentina to advance her studies. Five years later, she relocated again, this time to Paris. There, at eighteen, she felt she had hit a wall. La Nena recounts the time leading up to writing her first album as riddled with uncertainty.
“I didn’t want to be a soloist,” La Nena admits. “I didn’t want to be in an orchestra. I didn’t know where I was going.”
It wasn’t until she was asked to tour as part of legendary actress/singer Jane Birkin’s backing band that La Nena discovered she might have a home in the pop world. Shedding her last name “Pinto” in favor of the more colloquial “La Nena” or “the little one,” La Nena began experimenting with writing her own music. The result was thirteen haunting songs filled with cello loops, Brazilian pop flourishes, and Portuguese lyrics sung in La Nena’s own a girlish whisper.
“On this album, I speak a lot of my childhood,” she says of its nostalgic overtones.
“There is a lot of innocence. Even when I’m on stage, I like to be there, but not to think about it. Premeditate it. I think this is something very present during childhood, too.”
Despite the album’s international gestation, La Nena says that her music, the result of a displaced youth, has received dramatically different receptions from country to country.
“It’s funny, in America for example; people are very curious and very receptive,” she notes. “In France, people are more closed and more serious. It’s funny to try to get these people to have a little more innocence. Sometimes it works, sometimes, no.”
Although still on the road—as she has been for most of the year—La Nena is already working out songs for her next album. No longer able to write in the bubble of anonymity, she’s not exactly sure how it will sound. But after a lifetime’s worth of new experiences, she’s prepared for whatever’s next.
“It’s something I’m curious to see, how I will get this freshness,” she admits. “For the moment, when I write the songs, I get this freshness. If it’s different, it’s just another period.”