Long before her tearjerking performance in the Coco theme, "Remember Me," Natalia Lafourcade has been the latest in a long line of Mexican singers for whom passion and cultural pride are irrevocably intertwined. Lafourcade's music combines the hope and desire of the soulful Lola Beltrán, the classical melancholy of composer Agustín Lara, and the simplicity and sincerity of ranchera hero José Alfredo Jimenéz – all while remaining firmly within the contemporary pop landscape.
That's not to say that Lafourcade has earned success by following trends. She started out in the late Nineties as a part of a dance-pop girl group Twist, before embarking on a solo career with her 2003 self-titled album, best known for the song "En El 2000" and its lyrics referencing Ricky Martin and Gael García Bernal. After a solid run of indie pop albums (including 2009's masterful Hu Hu Hu), Lafourcade began working with traditional styles, becoming a critical and commercial powerhouse in the process.
Mujer Divina, her 2012 album of Agustín Lara covers, earned her two Latin Grammy awards. She followed that up with Hasta la Raíz, an eclectic collection of originals about heartbreak and romance that earned her an O.G. Grammy in addition to five Latin Grammys. This year, she released Musas Vol. I, a collection of traditional Latin American songs recorded with two veteran Mexican guitarists known as Los Macorinos. The album recently earned her a Latin Grammy nomination for Album of the Year, and her rousing performance of "Tú Sí Sabes Quererme" was one of the highlights of this year's telecast. Recently, Lafourcade performed the theme song to Pixar's Coco, reuniting her (sort of) with Gael García Bernal. In the lead-up to the release of Musas Vol. II, slated for February 9th – and accompanying world tour – Rolling Stone caught up with Lafourcade to discuss her musical evolution and career.
What is the difference between Musas Vol. I and II?
I took many more risks with Vol. II. For example, there is a very traditional Mexican song called "La Llorona" on Vol. II that we decided to record only with the Macorinos' guitars. It's almost seven minutes of only two guitars and vocals. It's something I had never done before. That very naked way of interpreting music to me was a real challenge. Once you hear them both together, you can understand the whole universe of what we were doing – you can feel the spirit of the muses.
Do you have a favorite song from Vol II?
Many of them. "Tus Ojitos" is an incredible and romantic Peruvian waltz; I tried to make it appear that the heart is singing. "La Llorona" is a very Mexican song with many meanings across time. And, of course, "Danza de Gardenias," the song that I wrote, is very special for me – it is the first time that I've performed that kind of music. That song also marks my first opportunity to work with the wit of producer Kiko Campos. I learned so much from him and from the musicians during the performance of that song.
What's the biggest difference in your career between now and where you were a decade ago?
There are many differences. All these years I have been adjusting constantly. I feel more comfortable with my own voice, my music and my style. I feel like I've been adjusting my own universe all of these years. Now I know what I want to sing and what I want to give to my audience. I've been going through this research of the folklore from my country, all of the classic songwriters and composers. I've also performed many collaborations and duets, which have given me the chance to really build my artistry. For example, through working with Los Macorinos, I've found patience, love, humanity, and different ways to listen and speak while looking for understanding with older people. It was hard at moments, but in the end, it was always loving.
You've recorded three albums in the past five years. Two of them have been interpretations of older, traditional songs. Do you feel more comfortable adapting old Mexican pop and folk songs than you did when you were focused on contemporary pop music?
I feel comfortable doing both. For example, there was a personal inspiration for recording Musas. I thought, "OK, I think this time I want to do something more for me. I want to go to the studio and record with Los Macorinos and I want to explore this music that I love." But when I'm on tour and thinking about fans coming to our shows, I like to fit in many styles. So I go back to the modern pop songs that I sang in the past and I still really enjoy playing that music. I still love my early songs and I would never be ashamed of performing them.
Do you still write contemporary pop songs?
I don't really focus on if what I'm writing is pop or not. I just write music and then I try to figure out how to arrange the things that I write. For Musas, I was trying to write songs for Los Macorinos, so I wasn't thinking about a modern pop sound. I don't like making things too complicated when writing songs. I want to write in a very easy language that many people will understand.
When you say that, I immediately think about what is perhaps the biggest song that you've worked on, "Remember Me," from the Coco soundtrack. What was your experience working on that song, knowing that it would be heard across the world for people of all ages?
I feel very proud and honored to be part of one of the best Pixar movies I've ever seen, especially because that movie and that story are about my beautiful country and its wonderful people. I love that people all over the world are able to see and know about Dia de los Muertos, one of the most incredible traditions we have. It made me very happy to know that my voice and recording would be part of the soundtrack so I just put all my heart and love into making it.
What did you think of Coco when you finally saw it?
Coco is a really amazing movie. The research was made with so much respect. I enjoyed the movie because I know about what they are talking about. I am really proud to be part of the film. Representing Mexicans with my voice is one of the best experiences that I had in 2017.
While we're talking about representing your country, the past decade has seen a wave of Latin American musicians who have had huge success both in Spanish and English-speaking countries. Is it something you've thought about, when you're recording Pixar songs or playing at the Grammys?
I have seen that by doing great things, things that you love, things that you put all your heart into, you give a lot of inspiration to others. There are many musicians and artists who have given me that inspiration, even peers like Hello Seahorse! and Carla Morrison.
Do you think of yourself as a pioneer?
In a way, but I was following Julieta Venegas' path and Café Tacvba's path. It's like a chain and we are all holding each other through this story, all through music.