Singer-songwriter Jazmin Esquivel managed to blow me away twice. The first time was when I listened to her debut album Púrpura, a collection of powerful, evocative songs that fall somewhere along the margins of the “folk” genre. It instantly solidified her as a unique voice in the Buenos Aires music scene and made it to our list of favorite local albums of 2018.
The second time was when I caught her set late last year at the Casa Rodolfo Walsh, expecting a continuation of the sound that was captured on her album, and instead being met with a sleek, elegant, and yet often surprisingly raw synthpop / post-punk sound. Over the course of some 30 minutes she held the audience in the palm of her hand, hitting us with a number of exciting new tunes as well as repurposing compositions from Púrpura into something that felt entirely different. Emilyann and I walked out of the show with our mouths agape, knowing that we’d just witnessed something truly special.
Jazmin was kind enough to sit down with us for a chat about Púrpura as well as her new material, the current state of music in Argentina, and how feminism has informed her perspective over the course of the last year. She also put together a Spotify playlist for us, which you can listen to on the right (or, if you’re on mobile, at the very bottom of this post).
It’s been about a year since Púrpura came out. How do you feel about it?
I can’t listen to it. I mean, I like it, I love it a lot. But many of the songs on that album I’ve been playing since I was sixteen or seventeen. At this point in my life, five years feels like an eternity, so some of those songs feel removed from who I am today. It’s like looking at an old picture of yourself and thinking “yes, I remember this day and how I felt when I took this, but it’s not me anymore.” By the time of the official album launch, at Caras y Caretas, which was a wonderful show where everything went great, I remember thinking “okay, this is the end of this era.” Which is the opposite of how things are supposed to be like when you’re releasing an album. But I already had new songs, a new idea for a new sound I wanted to try out, and I was already working on a new approach. I’m currently recording an EP with a wholly different sound. I feel like I’m closing that acoustic, folksy era which I loved so intensely… at least for now. I might revisit it in the future.
We saw your show at Casa Rodolfo Wash and were struck by how different your live setup is compared to your album. Is that sound similar to what we can expect from your new songs?
Yes. Those are the sounds I’m working on. Not based on acoustic guitar, but electric instruments. A different approach. Right now I’m recording three songs which… I’m still not sure if I’ll be releasing them together or separately. And then I’ll start recording the rest of the songs to eventually put together an album. These three songs are brand new. I wanted to break down not just my own sound but the way I thought about songwriting, the way I work on the songs. Many on the songs on Púrpura I performed for five years before I ever got the chance to record them, so they were road-tested. These new songs, by their nature, will have a different life experience, and their final recorded form will be informed by how they’ve been brought into the world.
Is there an artist you’ve been drawing inspiration from? Sitting in the audience — maybe not from the songs themselves, but certainly your demeanor and stage presence, I was sort of reminded of Prince.
I love that! I love Prince. I would not count him as an inspiration for this new work, but I love that. There are a few artists I can point to as inspiration, or from whom I’ve borrowed a few tricks. For example, St. Vincent. I fell in love with her a long time ago, but lately I’ve been really feeling her work. I’ve listened to her albums so much, I know them by heart. Her aesthetic, her guitar sound. Grounded in pop, but with the electric guitar in a central role. This process has also been one of becoming friends with the pop genre. Another one is Gustavo Cerati, whom I’ve always listened to, but has really been getting to me lately. I’ve rediscovered his work. Fuerza Natural is probably the one I’ve been most listening to. I don’t think my music could be described as “sounding like” Gustavo, but there is something about that energy in his songs that is related to the new material I’m working on.
What is your main motivation when writing a song? Are you trying to document a certain feeling, or paint a musical picture?
The songs from Púrpura were all based around trying to create an image. In fact, that was the main point of reference for the album, the pictorial. Landscapes that are linked with emotions and memories that are part of my life, but trying to also convey the enormity of nature. One of the clearest images I have of Púrpura is that of staring down from the top of a mountain, where everything looks so tiny and the concept of time is different. That’s in contrast to what I’m doing now, which is a lot more based on emotion. I’m writing from a different place now. That said, I’m not completely abandoning my old approach — that is still very much a part of me.
Is there any point during the songwriting process where you get the thought “I should write something that is a commercial hit”?
Well, the notion of achieving success is always with me just because it would be so nice to live a comfortable life from music. But it doesn’t make its way into my songwriting process, no. The truth is I wouldn’t really know how to do that, anyway. Maybe there’s an idea that, “well, if I record a reggaeton song instead of a ballad, maybe it’ll be a hit,” but maybe the reggaeton song sucks and the ballad is fantastic! I don’t know. Thinking about it now, it makes some sense that danceable music is more massively popular than other forms, just because there are a lot more practical reasons to play it. More opportunities to listen to it. I guess in that sense, you could say that I’m also shooting to make music that can be played in different situations.
Do you think you ever would record a reggaeton? Is it a music genre you enjoy?
I don’t dislike it. I can’t really connect with it very much, beyond dancing to it. And, for example, I really like Kali Uchis, do you know her? She’s a Colombian singer and she released an album which is pretty fantastic musically, and right in the middle of the album is a reggaeton track. And I mean a full-on reggaeton song. And, in the context of the album, it makes sense. The album “leads” you into that reggaeton sound. It starts off kind of spacey, kind of poppy, then it gets poppier, and then it slowly guides you into that moment when the reggaeton comes on. Conceptually, it’s interesting. I like to play albums in different situations, for example, at gatherings and the such, and seeing people’s reactions. People get super uncomfortable when that reggaeton comes on! They start asking “what are we doing, listening to a reggaeton?” It is so weird. I think it’s fun to cross those boundaries of what a song should be. Make people a little uncomfortable from time to time.
I guess, just speaking from my own experience, I grew up perceiving pop music as “inauthentic” and inherently inferior, and then as an adult I became an enormous pop fan. Earlier you said you had to “become friends with pop” in your new material. Are you torn between making the music that feels natural to you and coming off as “inauthentic”?
I always loved pop, but yes, there is a certain reluctance to surrender completely to it. My new songs are pop, but not the super sweet pop of, say, Britney Spears. Though I do love Britney! But the idea is to create music that maintains a certain depth and intensity while also being fun, danceable and melodic. But pop isn’t a bad thing, and that is a concept I’ve had to fight against. Pop doesn’t have to be shallow. I’ve really been wanting to make music that makes me dance on stage. Music that makes me move my body, and perhaps also the audience’s.
You played a song at the show I saw where a girl came out and performed a freestyle rap, I thought that was so cool.
Yes! That was Eli Miel Monestier. Just today she told me she’s moving to Uruguay, which broke my heart. But yes, I’ve been really enjoying trap music lately. I don’t really make that kind of music, but trap and freestyle, that very millennial energy, I don’t know, it has an allure. I think it’s very interesting. There’s a certain feeling of “I’m just going to lay this all out there,” of baring yourself completely. Being very clear and concise and direct. It can still be poetic, but it has this very appealing, very raw energy. Not being delicate. I love to incorporate that into my songs.
Do you ever feel the inclination to get more overtly political in your lyrics? More “socially-conscious”?
I lived in Constitución before moving here. Very tough neighborhood. I was living there, but I didn’t really know anybody, I didn’t have friends in the neighborhood, and I came from a completely different reality. I’m firmly middle class in my upbringing, so many of the things I saw in Constitución were very foreign to me. The poverty, the crime, the prostitution, kids getting high in the streets, it’s a very different reality than mine, or anything else I ever saw in the city. And that made me want to call attention to it… but I just couldn’t do it. It didn’t come out right. It didn’t feel genuine to my artistic identity, and I felt like I was faking it. I couldn’t find the right dialogue between my music and those lyrics. There are other people who can do it so well. I love Sara Hebe, and Los Espiritus, and they found the way to do it. I tried, I swear, but it came off as so preachy: “there are kids on the street! It’s a bummer! We have to do something!”. What am I saying? It was so forced. But I am deeply appreciative of the fact that there are so many songwriters out there who can explore those themes in their songs in a powerful and genuine way.
This last year has been a big one in terms of waking up to the realities of sexism in Argentina, and the power structures we are all part of. How has feminism affected your outlook in your life as a musician?
In the last year, feminism really opened my eyes. I went to several meetups of female musicians, and we were all singer-songwriters, many of us knew each other from before. And we started discussing these things that we thought we were experiencing by ourselves, but found out were so much larger. Everything from “the sound guy at this venue treats me like an idiot, but he talks to my bass player like he knows what he’s talking about because they’re men,” you know, the small ways in which we are dismissed and mistreated. And also things like the Ley de Cupo, which is a law that attempts to create an equal ground in music festivals, guaranteeing a certain percentage of female representation. There were so many dismayed reactions when this was announced. “Why would we give them the stage if nobody knows them?”, or “but there just aren’t that many female musicians.” This misses the point that a festival stage isn’t just something that is earned, but is also a space that creates awareness and visibility. Playing a big stage like that really moves you up the ladder in a way that playing tiny shows doesn’t. It exposes you to an audience and also makes you reach for another level of professionalism. Finding yourself in a bigger stage and suddenly thinking “whoa, I should use in-ears because I can’t hear the backing tracks.” There are other possibilities, other sounds we can reach for, other production levels. Maybe incorporating visuals, adding new musicians to the band to create a richer and fuller sound, create a team, and also network.
I also dislike when people say “but there are so many women openers!”. Come on. You invite women to play four songs on an acoustic guitar when they have these kickass bands. Let them bring their band! I always want to see more women up front. I tend to really love what they do. It’s going to be inherently different to what a man does by nature of the fact that it’s a different perspective. But that is something we should want, not fear. It opens things up so much. Especially in rock music, where the stereotypical image of the “rocker” is a dude. And suddenly, women are reshaping what a rocker is supposed to be. Thankfully! Because we need more diversity, otherwise it’s all a heterogeneous bore. We want to empower other women to be what they want to be, too; to understand that they can be out there on the stage and lay it all out, not worry about looking pretty, not worry about asking permission. Be whoever it is they want to be on stage. That’s what we should be striving for.
Jazmín Esquivel will be playing Niceto Lado B on February 22. Check out her Bandcamp and Spotify.