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Friday, Nov. 21, 2008

Juana Molina: 'Music overwhelms me'

Special to The Japan Times

On the cover of her latest album, "Un Dia," Juana Molina's face is distorted beyond all recognition; the effect is both intriguing and disturbing.

News photo
Sound off: Juana Molina, who comes to Tokyo this month, enjoys the sound of silence.

"If it's your face (on the album) you would like to be pretty," the singer/songwriter tells me over the phone from her home in Buenos Aires. "But once you have that pretty image, what's next? It's boring."

On all of her five albums, her face is unrecognizable, and this is a little act of rebellion against her past: Molina used to be a famous comic actress in Argentina.

"When I released (second album) 'Segundo' eight years ago, the company said, 'We want you on the cover,' " she recalls. "Because I was kind of well known here, they wanted my face on the record."

She also didn't want to mislead audiences, explaining, "The music you expect from someone who has been on TV is not this. People would have got really disappointed."

So instead of trading on her fame in Argentina, her music slowly gained fans internationally, first becoming popular in Japan.

"Thanks to Mr. Kepel Kimura, who is a distributor of Brazilian music in Tokyo, my records were known there first in the world," she says. "He helped me to be discovered by people. Maybe because (my music) was weird, and Japanese people like weird things."

Fans are probably also responding to her incredible singing voice, which combines an ethereal purity with an earthy huskiness.

Although Molina's records contain a pop sensibility, like her album art, there is always something slightly skewed about her sound. Many songs on her latest album are constructed from several loops, each layer changing imperceptibly; the overall effect is beautiful and hypnotic, rather like staring into a kaleidoscope. She explains that she got some inspiration from listening to bird song.

"Each bird has its own mood and mode," she says. "They use the same scale of notes but always in a different order and a different rhythm; you never know what is going to happen. The melody doesn't always start at the same time as the rhythm. That makes a feeling and impression that the melody is moving."

Though Molina can deliver articulate explanations of how her music works, she maintains that when it comes to composing, she is not at all self-conscious.

"I don't have any preconceptions of what I want to happen," she says. "It's a present moment; my mind is not there, or (not) completely there. I don't even know what I'm doing. It's the best way to be fresh, unpretentious and authentic.

"It takes me a few weeks to get into that state. I record nonsense and write a few things and have a cup of tea. It's like getting into a tunnel. At the beginning, I'm at the door and all of a sudden I'm in that tunnel and everything disappears: the computer, the instruments. Everything becomes abstract and music. When that happens, I'm ready to get a record together and I could be in that state for months."

Molina finds it hard to collaborate. The only time she has managed this was when she made a couple of tracks for 2000's "Segundo" with Argentinian multi-instrumentalist Alejandro Franov. Since then, she's worked completely solo.

"It's very hard to find someone to get into that state together with," she reasons. "It's like finding a husband: You can't get along with any man; it has to be the right man."

When asked about her influences, Molina admits that she rarely listens to music. "I enjoy being in silence. Music overwhelms me. Even if I like music a lot, I need to rest my ears. Also, I enjoy listening to the noises and little things that happen in silence."

She feels that much of her inspiration comes from "the music you listen to when you're a kid without really listening to it. That's what I'm made of. I find myself doing things that I really don't recognize and then make the connection. It might be similar to things my mother used to listen to. It's not necessarily what you like that influences you."

The ability to shut out external influences and concentrate on what her instinct is telling her to do might have developed from the time when, as a teenager, Molina's family fled to Paris after the military coup of 1976.

"At first we just tried to fit into that society, to speak French perfectly," she says. "Once I felt I fitted, and only after that, then I wanted to be different. I discovered a flea market and I wanted to have a dress that nobody else had. I still have some dresses from that time. I keep them because they are a symbol of what I became."

Her confidence in finding her own path has kept increasing over the years, "but it's not just a matter of confidence."

"It's like when you go to somebody's house and find a comfortable chair which you sit in all the time. But then you discover in another room there's another chair that is much more comfortable," she explains. "It's not that it's a better chair, it's just that it's the right chair for you now. Every time, I'm finding a more comfortable place, but I don't know if I've found the final one yet."

Molina's fans are probably hoping she'll remain restless for years to come.

Juana Molina plays at Billboard Live in Roppongi, Tokyo on Nov. 27 and 28 (7 p.m. and 9:30 p.m.; ¥4,800-6,800; [03] 3405-1133).

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