Being a comedian requires flying by the seat of your pants, adapting, and pulling brilliance out of what can be an awkward and anxiety-ridden experience. Since the same can be said of musical improvisation, it’s not surprising to learn that, before she made her name as a shape-shifting electronically-enhanced singer-songwriter, Juana Molina was a successful comedian. As the titular star of Juana y Sus Hermanas (“Juana and Her Sisters”), she portrayed a number of characters, including overly sincere singer Judith.
Skilled at entertaining an audience and working on the fly, Juana’s improvisational skills are in full force with her live performances. For her show at Ableton’s recent Loop summit in Los Angeles, Juana – along with multi-instrumentalist Odin Schwartz – played and looped her guitar, keyboard, sampler, and voice. While around half the pieces she played were improvised and the other half rehearsed live versions of studio cuts, every song sounded spontaneous, colorful, and ultimately complete.
Enjoy clips from Juana’s performance in this article, interspersed with her interview, conducted by David Abravanel.
You use looping a lot live. Do you also loop in the studio?
So you play the phrases all over and over live?
Yes, I love doing that because A: I love doing it, and B: the loop sounds more live because it is live. There are nuances and little different things that you can't really tell but there is something that has been played over and over and over again, except for a few exceptions.
For instance, the “Cosoco” loop, that's a song that I made at a soundcheck in Japan. We tried to reproduce that to have a better sound and it didn't work so I said let's just go with this loop. And even if you play exactly the same thing, there is something, like an entity, that belongs to that moment that you can't reproduce. For instance, on Segundo, the song "¿Quién?" – the second track – was/is so poorly recorded. The signal of the track was (this big) while you had all this range, there was hiss all over the place, the sound of the room wasn't right, nothing was right. And when I realized that everything I recorded could be on the record, I said, oh my god, this has such a bad quality, and I redid the track, but it wasn't happening. So I chose to keep that aura instead of the quality of the production. And that's what Segundo is about; a very poorly recorded record but it has something in it that makes it I think my favorite.
It's so funny to hear you say "poorly recorded" because having listened to that album for a while that never would've occurred to me, I always just thought it was very intimate in its sound. And there was other music at the time that was kind of like that – Björk's album Vespertine, To Rococo Rot, and that kind of scene.
Yeah. But when you listen to things from other people you like it or you don't like it, but it's not because of the production. That's why I don't believe in production. And that's why I think I made the right choice to put out a poorly recorded album, because it had something else that was more important than the production of the album itself.
And that is why I don't believe in production. I mean I do believe it really makes what you're doing better, but also not... I once got someone working on my album, and he started to EQ every track, getting rid of most of the frequencies of each instrument. And instead of having a cake where the flour, the eggs, apples and sugar are all mixed up and you have this beautiful cake, I have the eggs on one side, the apples, flour and the sugar separate – and it wasn't a cake anymore, it was just the ingredients. So after that experience I understood that there are kind of some ghost harmonics that happen besides the main note you're playing, that you don't realize are there but they are in combination with the harmonics of the other instruments you're playing, and all that thing becomes the cake.
Your setup at Loop was different from your normal setup – you usually also have a drummer and a bass player?
No, just a drummer. Odin plays keyboards, two keyboards, guitar, bass, he hits sometimes a sampler and he sings. And then the drummer also has an electronic drum machine. So for instance in the song “Paraguaya” he plays the (mouths the rhythm: tum-tum-tum-taka-tum-tum...) that's the drummer part. So the drummer plays that and Odin only plays the keyboard. But in order to have this set we just played a sample of that part, because it's so repetitive that I could have looped it with the keyboard.
I noticed that sometimes the drums were also from your keyboard and were looped.
Yeah. Well because most of the drums, when it's not a drummer, most come from my keyboard. So we also have a project with Odin called "ImproviSet" where he's got this set that he was playing with on Friday, and we did it only once, and we just improvise with a few cues that we have just in case we don't have any ideas. So we say OK let's just start with this little loop, and we improvise on top of it and the whole improvisation is really from scratch. And when we are very inspired tracks, could last between 15-30 minutes. And when we are not, then just 3-4 minutes. It depends on what I feel while we're doing those tracks. So we worked very hard for six days to put this show together that I didn't know how to play, and I was a bit nervous about it. But Odin is a very positive person, he thinks everything is going to be OK – he has this attitude on stage that helps me a lot.
You mentioned before that “Cosoco” is just a percussive word, yes?
So it's almost like scat then?
I think so. My mom when she came to see me for the first time, she said, “what you do is jazz, Juana.” And I said, what? And she, yeah, you're doing jazz, that's jazz. And I thought, what might "jazz" mean then? If what I'm doing is jazz for her who is a very jazz person. I don't know if it was like all the parts that come where I finish the verse or the lyrics and then I go into these more improvised moments and that seems to be jazz for her. Or because the way I sing with no lyrics on all those parts. I never asked her why she said this. I mean I asked her and she said, well, it's just jazz. And I took it as a compliment anyway, and it surprised me that she said such a thing.
Your father's a tango musician, yes? And your mother is an actress?
Yes. And a music lover.
So if they were the first ones to introduce you to music, were they the first ones to get you playing music as well?
Yes, my dad taught me how to play the guitar when I was five, I got a little Spanish guitar when I was five, a nylon string guitar. I didn't have a teacher then - he taught me a few things, and it took me a while to be able to play. Then I realized that I could sing also, but it took me a while to be able to do both things at the same time. Either I opened my mouth and hit a note or I played a note on the guitar. I remember it very well, that time.
And how old were you when you started writing your own music, your own songs?
My sister played the harp when she was maybe 12, so I must have been 13, and we wrote many things together that of course got totally lost – I wish we could have recorded somehow, but we were playing because we were playing all day long and loved what we did. She played the harp and I the guitar and we both sang, but I really have no idea what that sounded like any more. And we were always playing little songs and inventing things except we didn't record any of that.
Were you making music as you also got into comedy?
I was making music, yes, I had written a bunch of songs, all the songs for [debut album] Rara were written for my TV show. So those songs were between seven and 10 years old when I recorded them.
When you perform or do a talk like the one you gave at Loop, it becomes clear that you have this background as a comedian and a performer, you're very lively about that. I've also noticed on your social media sometimes you'll appear in a character like Gladys or something, going back to the Juana y Sus Hermanas characters. Do you like to revisit that?
It's something that was natural in me and I've done it since I was born, I think. So it's not that I do it because I was a comedian but the opposite – I became a comedian because I had that skill. It's not only mine, it's a family thing. And we all do this kind of thing. I'm the only one that took advantage of that skill and turned it into a job and a career. I mean when I talk to someone and I am talking about someone, I would interpret that someone if it comes to me, I mean I can imitate and impersonate that person I'm talking about – it's something that just comes to me naturally.
You mentioned earlier that you thought your first album was a fine album but wasn't really an expression of what you'd wanted it to be as much as Segundo. What made things different?
I think the main difference is that, well, the possibility of having many tracks for a start, but also the fact that I met this guy that introduced me to the keyboard world. I knew it existed, but I never considered it as a possibility even though all the music I loved was made with synths. But again, because I only had the last possible moment with music, which is the music itself, I never analyzed what it was made with or from. So I didn't know all the records I liked, 10 or 15 years earlier than that, had all these synths and keyboards going on.
What records were they that you then went back and revisited?
Well, all the progressive rock had thousands of influences everywhere, but again I wasn't paying attention to how this was done. I don't know, maybe it was a lack of curiosity or it didn't even occur to me to think, “where is this sound coming from?”
Do you look for that now? It's an interesting thing to think about because obviously this whole event is sponsored by Ableton, and part of it is looking behind the scenes at analyzing, like you did in your studio session.
The thing is that when I analyze something it's because it's not having the impact that I like to have with music. It rarely happens now, but when it happens, it makes me feel so full and happy and I feel it's such a rich experience to have again this kind of innocent way of listening to music, which is just the ulterior state of the music which is the music itself. It's like it immediately takes me somewhere where I don't even realize that there are instruments playing. It's just a whole different experience.
Of course I do ask myself, “how do they do this,” with other things that I think are cool or that I could approach somehow in order to change what I do, but as I said earlier as well, I think that even though I could take different paths, trying different instruments or ways to do things, I will always get more or less to the same place.
One thing you said at your workshop was that, when you make mistakes live, people love you more. You have a very joyous and relaxed attitude toward performance, which can be so nerve-racking for so many performers. Did you find that that kind of came to you naturally, or has it been something you've worked on over the years, to kind of be ok with whatever happens live?
I was really tense in the beginning. I suffered a lot for many years thinking that everything that I was doing sucked, and that I wasn't good enough and people didn't like it. I was too conscious about someone moving in the room, someone talking to someone. Or when I played seated venues if there was one empty seat I said, “who's not here?!” and that kind of thought. And as I always talked about shyness and vanity, it's a thing that is constantly present in these past years, is that we are so vain that it's a real interference between whatever you do and the result of what you do.
I might have to admit that I started to have just a drink before going on stage. I usually don't drink, I only drink before going on stage. I started six or seven years ago to sing with this improvisation band [in Buenos Aires] on Tuesdays. So I am like their pet, their favorite invited guest. So whenever I want to go I just call and say, “this Tuesday I am the guest!” They say, OK, OK, and they move everything over and I go the Tuesday I choose to go. And I learned there to just do whatever I wanted because I didn't feel the pressure of being my project or for being responsible for a bad show. No one would blame me. No one.
And there is when I started to become much more relaxed, and then I applied that mood, that state of mind, in my shows. And because I was drinking when I was playing with them, because I thought drinking or smoking is something (yells) THAT I SHOULD NEVER DO BEFORE A SHOW! because then I'm gonna miss everything. But there I just had a hit of a joint or to have a sip of whisky or two or three or just a glass or two, and I thought that everything was more relaxed, and there were no censors judging me or telling me or, what're you doing, and all that kind of thing.
Keep up with Juana Molina on her website