Q&A: Singer Lila Downs on death, chocolate and a new album that riffs on both
It is hard to put the music of Lila Downs into a single category. The Mexican-born singer could fit solidly in the world of folk — frequently singing classic tunes such as “Paloma Negra” (“Black Dove”), an old ballad that dwells on the pain of lost love. But she records original compositions, too: songs about life and death, injustice and joy, infused with a global array of sounds that can hopscotch from South America to Spain to Mexico to Eastern Europe over the course of a single album. She will feature guitars and accordions — along with synthesizers and hip-hop beats.
Downs, the daughter of an American father and a Mixtec mother (an indigenous ethnicity from the state of Oaxaca in southern Mexico), is a bit of a fusion herself. She was born in Mexico and raised in both Oaxaca and Minnesota. She has been a Deadhead as well as a renowned Mexican balladeer known for her wild outfits, wide range and powerful voice, a goose-bump-inducing instrument that can go from playful to grave from one note to the next.
She has more than half a dozen albums to her credit and has performed at the White House and the Academy Awards. (In 2003, she sang “Burn It Blue” with Brazilian singer Caetano Veloso from the Salma Hayek film “Frida.”) She also has three Latin Grammys and a Grammy Award.
In March, the singer released her latest album, “Balas y Chocolate” [“Bullets and Chocolate”] — a bittersweet endeavor that came on the heels of a terminal diagnosis for her husband, Paul Cohen, a fellow musician who regularly collaborates with Downs on stage and in the recording studio. The album became a way of working through the bad news. It also serves as a canvas for Downs to continue to experiment with musical styles and to collaborate with noted Latin American musicians — such as Colombian pop star Juanes and Mexican singer-songwriter Juan Gabriel.
The singer is in Los Angeles this week for a pair of events. On Monday evening, she sang the national anthem at Dodger Stadium. And on Saturday, she performs at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood.
In between sound checks and warmups, she took time to chat about how “Balas y Chocolate” came about, how her 5-year-old son, Benito, helped her christen the new album and what it was like to take a meeting with the president of Bolivia during her recent South American tour.
In August, you performed in Bolivia and met with President Evo Morales. What was it like?
It was very exciting of course. We had been following his story. It’s very interesting to us in parts of what I would call First Nations America, where you’re very conscious of the efforts and the philosophy of native people.
The day before we were supposed to leave, we went to visit Lake Titicaca with the mayor of La Paz. They mentioned to us that [Morales] was interested in meeting with us. They said, “He’s meeting you at six in the morning.” He always meets with his parliamentary group at five in the morning, every day — very rural style. So we got up early, and on our way back to the airport, we went to say hi. He expressed his concern with and happiness for my efforts with the native story.
I think he represents a lot of positive things, certainly for native people. But also for trying to figure out a political system that respects diversity and autonomy, politically speaking. It’s very sad that people in the U.S. just look at him simplistically as a leftist, which I don’t think is the case. He’s an indigenist.
I understand that your 5-year-old son inadvertently helped develop the title song of “Balas y Chocolate.” How did that come about?
In Mexico, we have a special relationship with chocolate because it’s an offering. And this album is an offering to the ancestors. And [my son] Benito has a very intense relationship with chocolate.
I had been investigating a little bit about the origins of chocolate: the history, the archaeological record. I was doing notes all over the house. I was talking to Paul about it. And [Benito would] be like, “Chocolate! Chocolate!” jumping up and down. And so he really inspired the nature of song we composed.
It’s very electronic. It’s kind of simple and very different from the other songs. It’s very upbeat and happy. And this is an album that deals with some pretty dark issues.
Speaking of those dark issues — your husband was diagnosed with a terminal illness right before you began work on it.
Well, he’s alive and well, thankfully. But that definitely was a queue for what happened compositionally. I remember I started writing “Son de Difuntos” [“Song for the Dead”]. It’s kind of an angry song in a folk sense. It’s really interesting how folk teaches you that great lesson. It’s about expressing our innermost fears. And that’s why folk stands today after hundreds of years.
So we’ve been working these songs and singing to her [to death]. And singing to her in a different context. I’ve been singing to her for a while with [songs like] “La Llorona” [“The Crier”], which is a classic folk tune. But this is different. It’s more about being angry and afraid and contesting her. It’s been fun.
That had to be therapeutic.
Definitely. Also for the guys [in the band]. Paul plays with us, so everyone was a little, “What’s going to happen?” So it’s been good for all of us. I can see in them the relationship with music and how we can use it to perfect something within ourselves and express it.
You’re also using the music to deal with questions of violence. The single “La Patria Madrina” [“The Godmother Homeland”], which you did in collaboration with Juanes, takes on the case of the 43 missing students from Ayotzinapa, who disappeared at the hands of police last year. Why take that on?
In part, because of what it symbolizes. It became a movement. I had written the song before [the students were abducted]. So I added a slogan to the song that I saw a parent carrying on a sign: “Vivos se los llevarón. Vivos los queremos.” [“They were taken alive. We want them back alive.”]
Later on, I found out it’s a slogan that’s been used in Argentina and Chile. I didn’t know that at the time. I just thought, what a way to express this loss and to deal with justice. That kind of really nails it for us right now. We feel “C’mon, get with it, institutions and society. We need some answers.”
This has been a galvanizing issue for a lot of Latin American and Mexican artists. The 43 have been mentioned in performances by Café Tacvba, Calle 13 and Nortec Collective. Why was their case important to you?
You have this atrocious event that happens, and you see the parents [of the 43] grieving for them. You think, “How can we help? How can we make an awareness so people can see what is happening?” That was my first reaction.
Then of course you see your leaders. You see the government officials, and you expect them to respond accordingly. You expect them to have the same kind of empathy that you do. And when you see that they don’t, that really outraged me.
That’s what happens. There were many government officials that dealt with it in such a way — it was such a lukewarm reaction. I think that’s what made people so angry.
Violence and corruption and environmental degradation — these are all things you take on in this album.
Sometimes when experiences are so strong, this is how we make sense. Like what’s happening to us in Mexico, there’s so much confusion and anger and hate.
Which makes me think of the U.S. as well. [Laughs.] There’s so much confusion anger and hate. I get very angry when I see Donald Trump. I think it’s just sad. I think hate will bring more hate. I do think there’s a danger in that. And there’s a danger in the media of making it as if it were a joke.
The new album features a wide number of sounds: vintage cumbia, Latin American hip-hop. You even have Klezmer. How did you arrive at Klezmer music? And how do you arrive at such a global array of sounds in a single album?
That’s my husband and different musicians in Klezmer that I love that are important to me. It’s about making the music you love.
And for this album, what we did is a workshop. We took all our guys to Oaxaca. We had a lot of chocolate; we had a lot of mescal and good food and ate at home.
The guys were there with us and we recorded a bunch of tracks and ideas. I had already written several of the pieces, so we tried various things.
I’d never worked that way before. I’m so glad I discovered this communal way of working. Rather than writing by myself and then going in and saying, “OK, I want a trumpet here,” it worked really wonderfully. It’s more organic.
The emotion that we had was very particular in this CD because of what happened to Paul. So the musicians added to it. It captured this moment, and it was very beautiful.
In addition to Juanes, you also roped legendary Mexican singer-songwriter Juan Gabriel for a duet on the album titled “La Farsante.” He’s not an easy get. How did you manage that?
My mom is a super fan. Every time she checks one of my albums, she’s like, “Where is the Juan Gabriel song?” So I did it! Ya cumplí! [I accomplished it.]
He’s very difficult to get. And the label said, “We can’t help you.” I just decided to write to him and he wrote back, and we kept writing little letters to each other, sending some lyrics and some suggestions. At first he didn’t understand and he thought I wanted to be on his album, but then he finally got it. It’s just so sweet. I love him. And I love his story. He’s had a difficult life.
When you meet the big people you admire and love so much, you see that they are kind of vulnerable and human and you want to protect them. That’s my natural reaction. I think the same thing happened when I met [Argentine singer] Mercedes Sosa. Plus, Juan Gabriel was so funny. He said, “You have to take advantage. You have me now, but who knows what might happen tomorrow!” [Laughs.]
Last year, you had a grasshopper named after you, the Liladownsia fraile. How does it feel to be immortalized in the world of insect taxonomy?
Isn’t that crazy? [Laughs.] There is a [scientist] who is very interested in our music. He is Italian. He happened to be investigating this particular grasshopper. I asked him, “Why? I really feel a little strange about this.” And he said, “It’s to bring attention to the species, and it’s good to remind people of nature.” Even though, in Oaxaca we eat grasshoppers, but we don’t eat that particular kind.
Have you met the grasshopper you were named after?
I haven’t yet. It’s in certain areas in Oaxaca. He’s beautiful. He has yellow and red and purple and green — all these colors.
So it seems like it was well named.
Yes! It definitely is.
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