Natalia Lafourcade took the long way home. Raised by classical musicians, she became a top-selling rock ‘n’ roll rebel in Mexico while still a teenager. She then left her career and country behind, only to return to become an international Latin-alternative star. She then did a 180 to an acoustic sound that explored classic Latin American songs and now has released the second of two albums celebrating the folkloric music of where she grew up, Veracruz.
Un Canto por Mexico Vol. 2 follows up on her Grammy-winning Volume 1, which grew out of a fundraising concert to rebuild the Centro de Documentación Del Son Jarocho cultural center in Veracruz that had been badly damaged by an earthquake in 2017. While the pandemic delayed the completion of the construction and the release of the new album, the overall project has become something larger for Lafourcade—a singular experience of connecting with people.
“I wanted to have a piece that would be like the whole community,” Lafourcade said recently. “I think it’s the first album in my career that I have that feeling, and that has to do with the fact that there are many people involved. But not only the musicians in the band or the producer. In this case, we have people from the community where we’re bringing in all these resources….The people from that community had to be part of the album.
“We’re all singing together and playing together and making this huge party and fandango with this music,” continued Lafourcade. “This is powerful. It’s like the earth, just like nature; it has the wind, it has the force of the universe here because there’s so many people involved. You don’t listen to only my voice. It’s many different types of textures and personalities and culture and people there. It’s big, and it’s powerful. So it’s special, it’s different.”
Volume 2 includes both traditional tunes and Lafourcade’s previous songs reimagined with folkloric sounds and orchestral or mariachi-like arrangements. The result is a re-imagining of traditional music. At her best—which is often on this album—Lafourcade and company refine folkloric music, retaining its soulful life-force, with a result that kicks up the dust like a Saturday-night party and is as exquisite as a concert hall performance.
Even more than the first Un Canto album, this one compares and contrasts Lafourcade’s versatile voice with those of other singers, from the sultry yearning of Mon Laferte on a medley of the Chilean-born singer’s hits to a sweet version of the sad Mexican ballad “Luz de Luna” with Aida Cuevas, the “Queen of Ranchera”.
Lafourcade revisits her own wry and wistful “Por que Sufrir (Why suffer)” with Uruguay’s Jorge Drexler in an understated bossa style. She also includes two versions of the song “La Llorona”, which is based on an old folk legend about a woman who kills her children and mourns for them into eternity. The second version features beautiful close harmonies with the lauded Latin-Alternative singer Ely Guerra and up-and-coming songwriter Silvana Estrada.
Of “La Llorona”, which she has covered in several ways over the years, Lafourcade said, “It’s one of those songs that are like, ‘Okay, how are you going to sing me?’ Because you really need to go very deep into your emotions, you really need to connect to something under the ground in order to express the real meaning and the spirit of those songs. So, ‘La Llorana’ for me is one of those ones that taught me how to approach those places, that kind of music that has this mysticism and this energy … it’s like shamanic.”
The Canto por Mexico project, Lafourcade said, was a learning experience in many ways.
“For me, it was new, [converting] the music of other composers into these types of genres that I never tried before”, she said. “We have cumbias, we have boleros, we have ranchero, son jarocho, and norteño. We were really playing around with all these genres… and then, in terms of the project, I am learning to be patient, I am learning to trust to work in big teams, learning a lot about the community also. Because sometimes, you know when you’re working on a project, you say, ‘Look, okay, we’re going to do this for this community, and it’s going to be this way.’ But then you go there, and you realize that it’s not about what you believe they need, but really knowing the context and the place. So, yeah, it’s been a very interesting chapter and cycle of my life.
“I must confess,” she continued, “I feel very proud about this project, but, of course, I have this amount of songs waiting for now for like two years, and they’re still waiting and saying, ‘Hey, when are we going to record?’ So eventually, I am going to settle the time, the correct time, for me to go back to the studio and go back to more like a solo thing. But it’s amazing, this thing with Un Canto. For me, it’s been a crazy moment, full of learning different things by doing this. It’s been really amazing.”
Prior to the Un Canto por Mexico albums, Lafourcade surprised fans with an unexpected collaboration with two older acoustic guitarists, Los Macorinos, who had played with the legendary late Mexican ranchera singer Chavela Vargas. They secluded themselves in a remote house in the woods and recorded two albums that—as unforeseen as they were—still garnered popular and critical praise and awards.
“Playing with Los Macorinos was for me was a huge thing,” Lafourcade said. “It was a project where we were saying, ‘Let’s not put any electronic instruments, let’s only use acoustic instrumentation.’ So that for me was very special because it gave me the chance to see how much I love working that way. It gave me the chance to focus more on a way of making music that I really like, that excites me and moves me.”
“It was something that I wanted to do, it was something that I was passionate about because that’s the music that I love listening to in the house,” Lafourcade said, adding that when she was on tour for Hasta La Raiz, she would listen to it each night in her hotel room.
“I was laying down on my bed, and I was listening to Chavela Vargas music and saying, ‘This is such an amazing piece of music.’ I wished I could do something this complex, but at the same time, simple, because it’s so little instrumentation there, but it’s huge.”
Lafoucade’s detour from contemporary music for the past four albums was not the first time that she interrupted the expected arc of her career. By the time she was 21, she had had two albums go to the number one spot in Mexico and earn platinum and gold status. Her hit “En el 2000” was nominated for Latin Grammys as 2003’s Song of the Year and Rock Song of the Year.
“I was very confused. You know I was very young,” she recalled. “With my first and second albums, it got so big, and it seemed to me that it happened so fast … I didn’t know how to manage the music industry at the time, and all the things that come with the music industry and this universe, you know? So for me, it was too much at a certain point, and I went to Canada, and I said, ‘No more music, no more music. I need to stop and see what is the thing that I really want to do.’”
Lafourcade found herself taking classes and sharing space in an apartment. Ironically, her roommates were in an Afrobeat band, and the couch she slept on doubled as part of their rehearsal space, so she was again surrounded by music.
“I was so in love with that music, and we were listening to Fela Kuti covers,” she recalled. “It was a recovering time, it was a good recovery for me … and there was a moment when I said, ‘Okay, I guess now I can go back to my country and try again’. Try again, my way, my time, my people, my band, my team. And it was very difficult because when I came back, it felt like I had nothing, you know? I spent all my money in Canada, so I had to start again.”
Her first album back was instrumental, but 2009’s Hu Hu Hu had her back at the top of the charts, and Hasta La Raiz in 2015 saw her cement her international success, winning a Grammy and Latin Grammy.
“It’s been a long path, but now I feel fine,” Lafourcade said. “I feel like I have my voice here. I was searching for that for a while. Now that I am seeing this music and I feel it’s so real. It feels congruent, and it has a weight. For me, now it makes sense. It’s real; it’s honest, it’s me. Yeah, so I don’t know where I’m going, but I know that I love doing music, making music, singing. I love this collaboration. I love this writing. So, I might be jumping from different places, but now I really know that this is my place.”