Juana Molina is one of the most original, imaginative and internationally embraced Argentine musicians recording today. She weaves together propulsive acoustic guitar strumming, clanging percussions, dreamy ambient keyboards and then spreads her ethereal voice over the whole blend. She produces the music on her own, using looping technology to layer the different elements on top of one another, creating whirling, hypnotic and often gorgeous musical tapestries.
David Byrne, National Public Radio in the US, the quintessential tastemaker website Pitchfork and the New York Times have all sung her praises. In recent years she has toured internationally, including a North American tour opening up for indipop darling, Leslie Feist.
When you ask most Argentines for an opinion of her music, however, you are likely to get a response related to her popular sketch comedy show from the ’90s, ‘Juana y Sus Hermanas’. The local tendency to pigeonhole her as a wacky comic actress. Appreciation of the originality of her art has grown in recent years—in concurrence with the rise of her international popularity—but her early dismissal by critics here in Argentina continues to hang over her.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It was this early criticism of her music that freed her to defy expectations on following albums. She could venture beyond influences and plunge ever deeper inside herself—digging out the music that she herself found most pleasing.
Juana grew up in a musical home. Her father, Horacio Molina, is a successful Tango singer and composer who gave Juana her first guitar lessons. Her mother is an actress and music lover who kept a diverse music library and regularly initiated family dances.
Dating back to her first years with the guitar, Juana was always intrigued by playing simple and repetitive melodies. She explains, “The first songs that I wrote were like loops. I would spend weeks playing the same few notes or chords, I would enter a trance. But I didn’t have the confidence necessary to play those by themselves. So I would insert a chorus, verse and bridge to make them resemble traditional song structures.”
Following the military coup here in 1976, the Molina family moved to Paris to flee the ensuing dictatorship. During those formative teenage years in Paris, Juana’s musical palette was vastly expanded. Long before “world music” became a genre of its own (loosely defined as it is), a couple of French radio stations that Juana regularly listened to offered programs featuring music from around the globe: Africa, Asia, India, Pakistan and various Middle Eastern countries. Juana loved the curious, exotic sounds and says, “It all really fascinated me, it seemed like it was from another world.”
She recorded these shows whenever she could, and built up a library of several hundred cassettes. She listened to the tapes constantly. But just weeks after her return to Buenos Aires the tapes were stolen out of a friend’s house. Juana still describes the loss as a “terrible pain”.
The painful loss, however, may also be understood as contributing to Juana’s daring artistic nature. As she developed her own form of expression, she couldn’t go back and study those strange sounds and styles that had interested her so much. She had to venture inwardly to find what was inside of her that had resonated with the unusual sounds that she had heard. They had planted a seed, but she would have to chase them down the rabbit hole herself.
When Juana returned to Argentina she was determined to become independent and to pursue a career in music. Like so many other 20-somethings, Juana’s career aspirations were, “to earn a good salary for working just a few hours.” More committed to making this a reality than most, Juana strategically decided on a career in television as the best means to her end. She studied the TV lineup for a couple of months until she found a program that she decided could use her services.
She brought a homemade audition tape to the studio and was offered a contract the same day. After three years she had her own sketch comedy show. The show was greatly successful here and was syndicated to other Latin American countries as well. Within just a few years she had become one of the most popular comedians in Argentina.
When Juana became pregnant in 1994 she had to suspend the show. She found herself reflecting on her rapid rise to stardom and decided that her success on TV was holding her back from pursuing her music. She decided to cancel the show, even though it was at the height of its popularity; something that many critics would hold against her for years.
Local critics panned her first album, ‘Rara’, released in 1996, as a capricious side project and insisted on grilling her as to why she had changed careers at the peak of her success on TV. She recalls doing interviews for large, feature articles in major newspapers that focused on virtually nothing besides her decision to cancel the show. Radio stations didn’t play her songs, and record stores didn’t carry the album.
Dejected by the criticisms, Juana moved to Los Angeles where some friends had told her that they had heard her on the radio. During her time in LA, she familiarized herself with keyboards, synthesizers and distortion effects. These tools provided her the possibility to try to approximate those mysterious and enchanting sounds she had recorded back in Paris.
When she returned to Buenos Aires, she recorded her second album, appropriately titled Segundo, and incorporated many of the new sonic ingredients she had been experimenting with in LA. Segundo is filled with droning synthesizers and electronic chirps. A barrage of these ambient sounds is dropped onto a chugging rhythm on the track, ‘Mantra Del Bicho Feo’, or “Mantra of the Ugly Bug”.
Juana’s musical arsenal was further enhanced when, in 2002, she discovered the Boss RC-20 Loop Station. The device allowed her to fulfil a demand that she had harboured since her first years with the guitar: namely, allowing those simple repetitive melodies that sent her into a trance to be recorded and continue playing, while she moved on to create more, stacking them on top of one another.
‘Filter Tags’, a gurgling coral reef exploration from Juana’s third album, ‘Tres Cosas’, exemplifies the simple but mesmerizing beauty that she is able to compose using her favourite effects and the looping device.
In 2004, music critic Jon Pareles, writing in The New York Times, included Tres Cosas on his list of the 10 best albums of the year. The high-profile praise changed the tune of many local critics. Some even had the gall to ask her what she thought these foreigners liked about her music. Juana doesn’t hide her indignation for such critics, and when asked about the change of opinion here she said, “One wrote the first good review and then they all followed—as they do.”
As Juana has continued to refine her sound from album to album, the lyrics have progressively been pushed to the back of the mix. On her latest album, ‘Un Día’, released in 2008, half of the tracks do not include lyrics, but rather scat vocal jaunts. She always writes the music first and then tries to find the adequate words to “trace” the melodies with. Juana says that while the music naturally flows from her, finding the right words feels more like work. She explains, “I put so much work into them because they have to fit the melody, be words that I like and not stick out and demand attention. I don’t want them to change the musical structure, or image.”
Her current thinking on where the lyrics fit into the mix is best illustrated by those from the title track of ‘Un Día’, where she sings: “Voy a cantar las cancions sin letra y cada uno podrá imaginar si hablo de amor o desilusión, banalidades o sobre Platón.” This translates to, “I’m going to sing the songs without lyrics and each one can imagine if I’m talking about love, disillusionment, banalities or about Plato.”