Allow Natalia Lafourcade to Reintroduce Herself

Over a balky wireless connection that seemed to symbolize how fleeting human contact has become, Natalia Lafourcade smiled as she showed off her garden in Xalapa, the capital of the Mexican state of Veracruz. She had emerged from the recording studio she built there, rattling off the trees that surround her home — guayabo, higuera, mulato — as she explained the genesis of her new album, “De Todas las Flores” (“Of All the Flowers”), which bloomed in the aftermath of a romantic split.

“Breakups can be so deep, at the cellular level, that you have to reconstruct your life and reconnect with yourself,” Lafourcade said as she strolled the grounds in a simple black turtleneck. “It’s difficult work, forgiving yourself, forgiving the other person,” she added. “So I went to walk in the mountains, and returned to my garden, a metaphor for a field of emotions and possibilities that had to be explored.”

Lafourcade, the daughter of a Chilean father who plays harpsichord and lute and a Mexican mother who teaches music to children, emerged in the early 2000s as a precocious talent in Mexico’s post-rock en español scene. She made music that straddled rock, pop and bossa nova influences, collaborating with Café Tacvba’s Emmanuel del Real and the singer-songwriters Ximena Sariñana and Julieta Venegas, among many others.

But beginning with “Mujer Divina — Homenaje a Agustín Lara,” in 2012, and later, with two “Musas” albums (in 2017 and 2018) and two “Un Canto por México” releases (in 2020 and 2021), her trajectory took a more serious turn. She focused on interpreting traditional Mexican songs like “La Llorona” and Latin American standards by Agustín Lara, known internationally as one of the great composers and singers of the bolero, as well as by Mexico’s king of ranchera music, Pedro Infante‌, ‌and the revered Venezuelan folklorist Simón Díaz.

The Uruguayan singer Jorge Drexler, who collaborated with Lafourcade on his album “Salvavidas de Hielo,” marveled in an interview about how she captures Lara’s sophisticated harmonic style; it’s difficult to write simple songs, he said, praising a talent she and Lara share.

Lafourcade said that digging back into the past showed her a fresh path forward. “I began to discover Latin American equivalents to Billie Holiday and Etta James, like Violeta Parra and Omara Portuondo, and I became more rebellious and experimental, with a desire to explore my limits,” she explained, settling back inside her writing room. “In your youth, sometimes one is trying to fit into certain circles of friends, and as time passes, you can discover what you really like, and put down roots in the music.”

“De Todas las Flores,” due Friday, is her first album of all-original material since her Grammy-winning 2015 LP, “Hasta la Raíz” (“To the Root”), and yet another twist in the 38-year-old musician’s two-decade-long recording career. “Natalia is connecting to certain ideas that at times come more from the classical world,” said Emilio Dorantes, who, as pianist and arranger, plays a crucial role on “De Todas las Flores.” “Up to now, she hasn’t really revealed who she is.”

For the new album, Lafourcade looked up an old friend, Adán Jodorowsky — a son of the avant-garde filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky — once a neighbor of hers in Mexico City. The younger Jodorowsky, a filmmaker, actor and musician, was equally ambitious about the project. “I wanted her to go beyond countries, beyond nationalities, beyond identity,” he said on the phone from Mexico City. He pushed her to invite edgy, accomplished players like the guitarist Marc Ribot, the bassist Sebastian Steinberg (Soul Coughing, Fiona Apple) and the French percussionist Cyril Atef; they agreed.

To that core, Natalia added another local connection, the 20-year-old Dorantes, who had taken a harpsichord class with her father. She first saw him play at Cauz, a small jazz club in Xalapa. “I asked Natalia, are you sure you want this young guy playing with Marc Ribot and Sebastian Steinberg, and she said, ‘Yes, he’s a genius,’” Jodorowsky said.

Lafourcade and Jodorowsky decided from the beginning to avoid the electronic trappings of contemporary recording, opting to lay down the tracks live on analog tape in a Texas border town near El Paso. “It’s so organic, you can feel the quality of the tape when she sings,” said Jodorowsky, who also decided not to use a click track or metronome to keep the tempo.

“At times pop, or modern, music — not that it’s rigid, but it has very predetermined structures,” mused Lafourcade, pausing as she did many times in our conversation to find the precise thought. She mentioned Miles Davis’s “Kind of Blue” and “Sketches of Spain” as inspirations, music that generated warmth for her during the pandemic.

While Ribot, Steinberg and Atef reflect Lafourcade’s transnational aspirations, her music retains a deeply felt Latin American aesthetic. Ribot’s magisterial playing, with occasional forays into downtown skronk, has been informed by his intimacy with Cuban son and buttressed by previous experiments with his early 2000s band Los Cubanos Postizos and the spirit of the Haitian guitarist Frantz Casseus, his late teacher.

Lafourcade’s artistry is simultaneously rooted in jazz, classical, bolero and the Mexican folkloric genre of son jarocho. She is steeped in nostalgia and melancholy, fulfilling a cinematic vision of putting things back together after they fall apart. Despite her disciplined attention to detail and poetry, her collaborators describe her as a socially adept whirlwind, ready to break loose at any moment. Drexler, who recalled a meeting with her in Las Vegas, insisted that she was “a party animal,” while Jodorowsky said she was not shy about bringing mezcal into the studio: “She’s like a child, a mother, and a sister at the same time.”

Often, Lafourcade’s music is about processing darkness until it sprouts rays of light. Her eyes darted as she spoke, as if trying to capture every detail of memory to describe that process. One of the album’s most affecting songs, “Muerte,” is based on a poem written by the singer-songwriter David Aguilar. It’s performed in a spoken-word style, adhering to the Iberian décima poetry format of 10 lines containing eight syllables each, with the musicians playing a Cuban-bossa hybrid rhythm, then it devolves into something like a New York downtown loft jazz suite.

“I wanted to compose a song about death, to appreciate death because there’s no way to avoid it, and it helps to ease difficult moments of my life to understand that it’s natural,” Lafourcade said. She decided to embrace that darkness as a form of healing after Aguilar visited to listen to the songs she’d written so far and said that they had a very “blue” tone.

Had she drawn a connection between “De Todas las Flores” and another album by a prolific singer-songwriter 50 or so years ago? “Oh, I love Joni Mitchell; I love ‘Blue’!” she said with a gasp. “It’s one of my Top 10. It’s an album that is born from a crevice, it’s true. From the crack, a little flower is born, and then a garden.”

Originally published in The New York Times Oct 25, 2022


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