Substance over style

Times Staff Writer

Mexican singer Natalia Lafourcade is looking glum. The petite teenager, nominated for four Latin Grammys, including best new artist, is sitting on a couch at the Santa Monica offices of Sony Discos, leaning forward, looking down. She's surrounded by her band members, including her boyfriend, the bass player, and though she thrives on their company there's a funk in the air.

"Que pasa?" asks Michelle Gonzalez, the singer's personal manager. "Everybody's got a bad vibe."

With that, the unpredictable performer pops up and storms out of the room, lifting her arm in a haughty gesture like a spoiled celebrity diva. "Don't touch me!" she commands, though nobody tried.

Lafourcade's fake histrionics dissolve whatever doldrums existed. The next moment, as the band happily heads to lunch on foot, a playful Lafourcade suddenly leaps toward Gonzalez, pretending to pull her hair in a mock catfight. The women almost wrestle to the ground in Sony's sunny patio while a noontime crowd looks on, unsure whether to be amused or worried.

Lafourcade pretends to cry, then the show is over.

"She's naturally nuts," Gonzalez says in Spanish. "You never know what she's going to do."

That wacky lack of inhibition and a sense of childlike abandon (verging on impulsiveness) infuses the creative spirit of this dimpled and pony-tailed newcomer who has become an unlikely pop music sensation in her native Mexico. Standing just 4-foot-8, Lafourcade, 19, is shaking up an industry that had become as calcified and unimaginative as the country's old political monopoly.

Many of Mexico's top pop artists over the past 30 years have emerged from an exclusive star-making system that values image over substance and discouraged alternatives to the mainstream formula. Lafourcade, who barely combs her hair and wears torn T-shirts inside out, is breaking the mold. Her songs bluntly mention Mexican racism, a virtually taboo topic in pop circles. Her flowery doodles, not her pretty face, adorn her album cover. And her real voice is heard at every performance, not a lip-sync as is customary for Mexican TV shows and music festivals.

"It's refreshing, isn't it?" says David West, a former Wall Street executive based in Mexico City, who heads the singer's management team. "We started to see a reaction in Mexico where people wanted something real. They didn't want the prefabricated Televisa artist any more."

With the release last year of her surprisingly sophisticated debut album, Lafourcade catapulted in popularity, opening shows for superstars like Juanes. She wrote or co-wrote 10 of the 11 new songs on the CD, which has garnered a best rock album nomination, yielded four singles and sold almost 200,000 units in Mexico alone.

The sales are significant for any new act south of the border. But for a quirky novice who used to collect forks and calls her band La Forquetina, that success is a welcome departure for Mexico's pop music industry.

Lafourcade owes a debt to Mexico's previous generation of alternative female vocalists, such as Ely Guerra and Julieta Venegas, whom she calls "my heaviest teacher." Yet the promise of her respected predecessors has faded as their careers have stalled, along with the rock en espanol movement in general.

Lafourcade reminds us that pop music was meant to be occasionally enjoyable, not relentlessly serious. Her legions of screaming young fans get the point. It's no accident that the artist, who does a decent impersonation of Cyndi Lauper, once considered adding to her show a cover version of "Girls Just Want to Have Fun."

For her part, Lafourcade says her success arises from the comfortable musical fit she found with her all-male band, which shows on stage.

"We are what we project in person," she says, "which is more important sometimes than a hit record. A record can make an artist sound in tune or make the music sound pretty. But the real test is performing live, and I think we pass fairly well, because people keep asking to see us play."

A bright debut

Lafourcade and her band made a spirited U.S. debut this month during the otherwise lackluster Latin Alternative Music Conference in Los Angeles.

Like her surname, inherited from French grandparents, Lafourcade's music doesn't sound typically Mexican. The style reflects her wide-ranging tastes -- from Bjork and Fiona Apple to Caetano Veloso and Cafe Tacuba. Her expressive and mature vocals have shades of soul and jazz, and plenty of bossa nova.

On stage, she's delightful to watch, full of punkish spunk and uninhibited joy, like a girl who thinks nobody's watching while she sings and dances in her room. She bounces between hyperactivity and tenderness, now hopping around with arms akimbo, now standing still with eyes closed, singing sincerely about adolescent rebellion, flowering romance or deep family wounds.

Lafourcade clearly doesn't care about show-biz cosmetics. She does on-camera interviews with nary a touch-up and music videos with no attempts to mask the deep scar on her forehead.

In fact, she wears the scar like a badge, reminder of a traumatic turning point in her life. She got it on her sixth birthday when a horse kicked her in the head. The injury and the yearlong recovery, including reconstructive surgery, was the price she paid for trying to ride against her mother's wishes.

The blow left her with dyslexia, bad eyesight and poor retention, causing problems with her schoolwork. So her mother started cultivating her daughter's creative side, with after-school classes in ballet, theater, ceramics, painting and, of course, music.

"No, I don't want them to remove my scar," says Lafourcade, who plays guitar and piano. "Scars are cool. And besides, it's mine. It shows what a terrible little girl I was."

Lafourcade, who grew up in the small town of Cotapec, Veracruz, is the daughter of classical musicians who separated when she was small. Her Chilean father makes harpsichords. Her Mexican mother, a pianist, developed a method to teach music to children, using her daughter as guinea pig.

Lafourcade was singing mariachi music at age 10 and doing Gloria Estefan covers with a bar band at 16. In her early teens, she admits being caught up in that superficial celebrity culture she now skewers in her satirical hit, "En el 2000" ("In the Year 2000"), nominated for song of the year and best rock song.

"My musical tastes were horrendous," says Lafourcade, daintily picking peas out of her soup during lunch with her band and entourage. "I was just listening to whatever was on the radio. I wasn't being nourished musically at all."

Today, she says, she and the band are on a mission to reach more people with their music, a goal that could come closer with the Latin Grammy spotlight.

"There's a moment when you come to a certain point, and if you make the leap you get to the big leagues," she says. "But if you back away, you get stuck. We're getting close to that line and we're ready to jump to the other side."

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