Grab a box of tissues and settle in with Mexico’s rising alt-pop star
In Mexico, there’s something of a tradition of singing through your tears. In the 1960s, ranchera singer Chavela Vargas became a national hero for wearing her heart on her sleeve and telling it like it is: life is full of pain, let’s drink.
Although they are generations apart, it’s not too much of a stretch to see singer/songwriter Carla Morrison as an heir to that same tragedy-savoring tradition. But whereas Vargas was known for her masculine, tough-talking, pistol-shooting ways, Morrison has something of a softer touch.
Armed with an acoustic guitar and a voice that could melt a rainbow, 25-year old Carla Morrison is rising to become the latest voice in Mexican alt-pop, following in the footsteps of strong female songwriters like Julieta Venegas and Natalia Lafourcade. Her 2012 full-length Dejenme Llorar (Let Me Cry) has been an independent hit in Mexico. Her previous album, Mientras Tu Dormias (While You Were Sleeping) was nominated for a Latin Grammy for “Best Alternative Album” in 2011. And last week in New York City, she took hope the “Artist Discovery” award at the annual Latin Alternative Music Conference, given each year to a promising up-and-comer.
One of Carla’s first hits was 2010’s “Compartir,” produced by Lafourcade herself, and the video really captures her trademark mood: Carla singing bittersweetly as she walks down the empty train tracks somewhere in the Mexican desert.
It’s a surprise then, to meet the real Carla Morrison. The Baja California native isn’t a weepy sadsack at all; she bubbles with a goofy sense of humor and a contagious energy, occasionally letting out a small laughter explosion when you least expect it. It seems like a contradiction: How can such a happy-seeming person write such heartbreaking songs? Over the course of our conversation, we spoke about that apparent contradiction, the art of sadness, and somehow, the itsy bitsy spider.
Hi Carla – tell me what you’ve been up do these days. What’s new?
I’ve been touring a lot in Europe and all over Mexico, and now we’re here in New York. I’ve been involved with the “Musicos con Yo Soy 132” movement, which is asking the government to count our vote and to understand that we the people are the ones who should choose our president. I was part of the march and some of the stuff going on around that. As an independent artist I try to support that because I think media transparency is really important.
I used to live in Baja California, and I saw how the media would give us the wrong information. Now that I’ve been in Mexico City for 10 months, I see how stuff doesn’t work the way the TV tells you. All my friends back home think I’m trying to cause problems, but we’re just asking that the votes are counted the way they should be in any democracy.
Where in Baja are you from?
I’m from Tecate, like the beer. It’s very close to the border, like 30 minutes from San Diego. I lived six years in Arizona too.
How did you get started as a songwriter?
Well I started writing poetry when I was fourteen, and then I started to make my own songs when I was around eighteen. It’s something that I always liked ever since I was little. I was always infatuated with “itzi bitzi araña,” I used to sing that song all the time, so I was always fascinated by music. And my dad was a big Beach Boy and Patsy Cline fan, which was a big influence on me as well.
So naturally it just came to me and I started to do it. I went to Mason Community College to be music major, but I flunked all my classes. So I just said, “You know what, I’m just going to grab the guitar and see if I can play by myself.” And I did it! [laughs]
So you write all your own songs?
Yeah, all of them.
As far as your songwriting goes, what do you draw inspiration from?
Well I’m always writing about love and broken relationships and about stories that my friends or my family tell me. I try to write about the most common stuff, and I feel like that’s why people like my music. They listen to my lyrics and they say, “Hey, she’s probably going through what I’m going through,” and it’s easy to relate. I try to make it as human as possible.
To me, so many of your songs have this real sadness or bittersweetness to them. Is that the zone you like to write in?
Well, when you are sad and you are lonely, you have the time to grab a paper and write. When you’re happy you just want to hang out. It’s not about me being sad, it’s just about the circumstances.
Who are you main musical influences? What are the artists that inspire you?
Well I’ve been inspired by different people, Ramon Ayala, The Beatles, Patsy Cline (especially Patsy Cline, a lot of Patsy Cline), Ana Gabriel, Morrissey, The Cure. I don’t know, I have a lot of influences…Destiny’s Child, Shakira, they go from thing one to another. I like honest stuff. I go for the most honesty you can find out there.
Do you feel like that’s a challenge today? Because I feel like so much music that’s out there today is so insincere.
I would love to see honesty become popular. And that’s what I love about my fans. I think in Mexico nobody is judging me or wanting me to be this pop-star I’m not. Or be as good looking as the industry wants me to be. It’s just me, and I think that’s what they are relating to, they can say “she looks like my neighbor,” just a normal chick.
Except she doesn’t sing like my neighbor at all!
[laughs] Exactly! Just kidding. [laughs]
Yeah and I try to make that feeling as modern as I can, because I feel like it’s not fair: everybody is thinking, “I’m going to get drunk, I’m all sad, I’m going to listen to some 50s music.” Why aren’t there any artists today to cry to? It’s because we’ve been put under this pressure that if you cry then you’re vulnerable and weak and you are a failure. It’s not like that – it’s part of being a human being and being honest with yourself. So I kind of took that role, like, “if you want to listen to sad music, listen to my music then.” [laughs]
Some 21st century sad music.
When I was down in Mexico City for the Vive Latino festival, I noticed that there was a lot of support for you right now. A lot of people are really excited about what you’re doing. How has it felt to get that kind of reaction?
Well it’s been really great, but overwhelming at the same time because it’s something that I wasn’t expecting. Back home in Tecate, people don’t go crazy for “Carla Morrison” because everybody knows me from forever. And then I move to Mexico City and it’s crazy. If I go to the vet with my dog, the vet knows me, and the taxi driver knows me… it’s like “woah.” It’s weird.
But I try not to pay too much attention to it. I try to think that it’s just something that happens and it’s normal. But it has been really big and that’s great because I’m an independent artist, yet I can live from this. At the same time I don’t have a big label and nobody is pressuring me to do anything I don’t want. It’s been amazing.
Other than that, how has the move been treating you? Do you like Mexico City?
It’s amazing, I love it. I feel like it was always my place, it was about time for me to move there. It’s this big city full of friends. I feel like I’m supposed to be there. It just all fell into place. And there are so many musicians and so much going on culturally. You learn in a month there what you can learn in a year somewhere else.
I guess your new album is relatively recent, but are you working on any new material while you tour?
Yeah I am making new songs. I’m not exactly sure in what direction my new album will go, I don’t know even when I’m going to record it. But I’m making new songs for sure. But I don’t know what’s going to happen [laughs].
Do you enjoy the songwriting process? Because I think for some people the creative process is actually really painful and frustrating.
No, I enjoy it. I think it’s amazing, it’s like creating your own child [laughs].It’s this thing you create but you can’t see or touch, or have a conversation with it. I love that. I think you start to understand parts of your soul that you have inside of you that come out with the song.