The United States of Lila Downs

Singer-songwriter Lila Downs creates music that reflects her Mexican-American heritage.


About Lila Downs

At first glance, it would be easy to misunderstand the exquisite new album by Mexican-American songstress Lila Downs as a collection of traditional boleros. True, Salón Lágrimas y Deseo includes lush readings of such transcendental Mexican classics as Agustín Lara’s “Piensa En Mí” and José Alfredo Jiménez’ “Un Mundo Raro.”

But in typical Lila Downs fashion, the album covers a wide array of musical textures and genres. Going beyond the mournful bolero aesthetic, it is also seeped in political activism and rage at the current state of the world.

“My decision to sing the lyrics of these specific songs – some of which happen to be boleros – is a metaphor for both the love and the lack of love that I see in my homeland, but also in the neighboring country of the North, the United States,” says Lila from her home in Oaxaca, where she has been living with her family for the past two years. “These are strong feelings; they fill me with anger, and are not meant to be taken lightly in the context of boleros as sad romantic songs.”

Inspired by the recent political changes in the U.S. as well as the endemic corruption that continues to plague her beloved Mexico, Lila decided to pour these feelings of revulsion into a new album that – as is often the case in her work – combines her own compositions with evergreen standards from the Latin songbook. The album received the 2017 Latin Grammy for Best Traditional Pop Album.

Musically, Salón Lágrimas y Deseo demonstrates that Lila is one of the most eclectic artists working in the vast field of World music. The songs range from raucous banda sinaloense (“Tus Pencas”) and bouncy cumbia beats (the infectious opening track “Urge”) to the haunting, jazz- inflected mystery of “Seguiré Mi Viaje” and the majestic orchestral vibe of “Un Mundo Raro.” There are also touches of traditional danzón, earthy cubano son, even rock.

Vocally, Lila sounds as regal and defiant as ever, combining the staggering power of her instrument with interludes of spoken word, as in “Envidia,” a smoldering duet with veteran Argentine rock star Andrés Calamaro.

“People think that ‘Envidia’ is about Donald Trump, but in reality it’s more about a social reality that is taking hold all over the world,” she explains. “The song talks about the pride of being Latino, the uncomfortable envy that other, more powerful people feel for us. In the end, these feelings benefit us, I think, because they force those people to make an effort and get to know us better.”

Co-written with husband and longtime musical partner Paul Cohen, “Peligrosa” is the record’s lead single. Recently spotlighted by NPR, the song is a simmering anthem of female empowerment.

“I ended up making an album that is very much feminine in spirit,” she explains. “I’ve grown up in a field dominated by males, many of whom are difficult to deal with. As a result, I learned to become strong and stubborn. I fought those men, but I also learned from the vast knowledge that they have. This album mirrors my point of view; my existence, the specific way in which I ended up experiencing life.”

The ongoing struggle to establish and assert her unique identity has been present in Lila’s life since the very beginning. Born in 1968 to a talented Mixtec singer and a British-American professor from Minnesota, she was able to move freely between both countries and cultures, exploring her passion for music at an early age. Her independently released debut Ofrenda came out in 1994, followed by a string of increasingly ambitious albums. Favoring a stunning wardrobe based on the textiles of Mexico’s indigenous cultures, Lila quickly became a fixture on the international touring circuit. Performing in festivals around the world brought her in touch with like-minded musicians from disparate genres, leading to collaborations with such stars as Caetano Veloso, Mercedes Sosa and Enrique Bunbury.

Salón Lágrimas y Deseo continues with this cosmovision, embracing music as a sophisticated global stew. In addition to Andrés Calamaro, Lila’s guests on this outing include Spanish flamenco singer Diego El Cigala, Mexican indie rocker Carla Morrison, Chilean chanteuse Mon Laferte and Oaxacan group Banda Tierra Mojada.

“The collaborations happened in a very emotional way,” she says. “Destiny played its part, because these artists are very hard to find. They come from different worlds; it is of the essence to step on common musical ground. Diego El Cigala was like a hurricane in the recording studio. Mon Laferte’s label told me that she too busy, but then she called and decided to work with me anyway. The guys from Banda Tierra Mojada are like my brothers. They’re short, dark- skinned and a bit plump – just like myself, because we all eat too many tlayudas,” she laughs, referencing the quintessential Oaxacan delicacy.

You would think that Lila’s tremendous success – both on the critical and commercial front – has transported her to a place of comfort and privilege. But the singer, who will soon start a tour to promote the new album, remains as vigilant and humble as ever.

“I am barefoot as I speak with you,” she concludes in her richly flavored Spanish. “My feet are touching the ground at this moment. I feel very fortunate about my life, but there’s a side of me that still aches with pain and melancholy, the search for truth and the horrible lies that we experience in both our countries. I am still angry. I still have many things to say.”

(from artist's website)