Two years ago, a couple of days before the millennium celebration, Julieta Venegas returned from South America to her native Mexico with a broken heart. After a year of marriage, her husband, Chilean rock star Alvaro Enriquez, had told the singer that he was leaving her for a soap opera starlet.
As soon as she arrived in her hometown of Tijuana, Venegas was commissioned by a film production company to write a song for the soundtrack of "Amores Perros," a two-CD set of tunes included in and inspired by the gritty, independent Mexican film.
The movie's title is a powerful Spanish expression that uses the image of a dog to describe the savage feelings of hurt and abandonment that the wrong kind of love can evoke.
Inspired by the emotional turmoil she was experiencing, Venegas wrote and recorded "Me Van a Matar" in a mere three days. "I was hurt because I had lost a person whom I loved deeply," she says, sitting in the empty dining room of a Beverly Hills hotel during a recent visit to Los Angeles. "I was so taken by the concept of para siempre, of the love that will last until the end of your life."
The movie was a sensation in Mexico, and Venegas' song became its unofficial anthem. Performed with a ferocious sense of vulnerability, it stands not only as the singer's finest moment so far, but also as one of the artistic peaks of the rock en espanol genre.
For Venegas, the song also marks the end of a journey that saw her transformation from ugly duckling to beautiful swan, from cult-band frontwoman to one of Latin rock's most fascinating and talented singer-songwriters.
The metamorphosis began in 1998, when Venegas, then 27, was signed by BMG Latin and released "Aqui," her debut album. If that sparse, contemplative work crept quietly into the Latin rock community, last year's "Bueninvento" burst onto the burgeoning scene with its hummable hooks, sloppy electronica effects and bohemian aesthetic.
Venegas had virtually reinvented herself. "Bueninvento" showcased a complex artist eager to express feelings of anxiety and insecurity in her lyrics, but at the same time displaying a mischievous sense of humor through her irreverent mix of musical influences, from norteno and lounge to new wave and pop.
"As a vocalist, Julieta has an amazing personality," says Anibal Kerpel, who co-produced both of Venegas' albums with rock en espanol guru Gustavo Santaolalla. "She has an unusual way of phrasing, of fracturing sentences, a rhythmic way of delivering her words that is simply spectacular."
The world beyond rock en espanol began to notice the new Venegas. The New Yorker devoted a page to a photo of the smiling singer strolling in Mexico City. "Bueninvento" was nominated for two Latin Grammys, and rock publications started describing her as a Latina version of PJ Harvey or Fiona Apple. But Venegas has no plans to record in English or try a mainstream crossover a la Shakira.
"The validation feels good, of course," she says about the attention she has been getting during the last year. "Especially because I always feel out of place in awards ceremonies and events like that. I get jittery; I start thinking that my hairdo's all wrong, that I don't belong there with all these other people who look so comfortable in the spotlight. I've always been an insecure person."
Venegas does a minimum of mental editing as she converses in Spanish in the quiet dining room. She disguises her shyness with a torrent of jokes and anecdotes, peppered by nervous laughter whenever the subject gets too close for comfort. When she compares her family dynamics to the Addams Family, it's hard not to think of her as Wednesday, the TV show's sharp, reclusive adolescent with the long hair and mischievous grin. When she talks about her art, her intense features make you think of a young, postmodern version of Frida Kahlo.
Venegas says she always felt like an outsider, until the day she discovered music. Growing up with five brothers and sisters in a middle-class Tijuana family defined by the macho attitude of her photographer father, she initially found refuge in books, quickly becoming a voracious reader.
"I was obsessive about it," she says. "There would be family gatherings, and to everybody's chagrin, I would be sitting in a corner, reading. I was very insecure and felt that nobody understood me."
Although she says her father wanted her "to study an honest profession, get married and have children," Venegas convinced him to finance her musical studies. She took up the piano and listened to a variety of styles from both sides of the border. (One of her teachers was Ramon "Bostich" Amezcua, who would later become the godfather of the critically acclaimed Nortec electronica movement.)
"I started to realize that I had a talent for music when I showed up at my piano lessons without studying and my teacher would still praise me for playing so well," Venegas recalls with a laugh. "So I decided that I was going to be a musician from then on. It was like establishing my own identity."
After spending some time with cult ska-punk band Tijuana No!, the singer moved to Mexico City, her home for the last eight years. She was quickly spotted by the rock en espanol band Cafe Tacuba, which took her under its wing, and subsequently by the powerful team of Santaolalla and Kerpel.
Now, after participating in tribute albums devoted to Los Tigres del Norte and Soda Stereo, Venegas has begun composing songs for a third album. Her new music, she says, is less melancholy and strives to reflect a more upbeat view of life.
"I think she has yet to reach her full potential," says Kerpel, who will probably be involved in the new album. "She could become a huge force in Latin music. Even her simplest songs have an enchanting, magical aura about them."
Says Venegas, "Learning to believe in myself has been a very slow process. Musically, believing that I can write and record my own songs. Personally, learning to accept the fact that I can communicate with an audience. I'm skeptical by nature, and I'm always the first one to fall under my own scrutiny."
Ernesto Lechner is a regular contributor to Calendar.