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Alex Anwandter on How Global Right-Wing Backlash Informed Cutting New LP, ‘Latinoamericana’

The Chilean synth-pop artist takes his resistance to the dancefloor in fourth full-length album

Alex Anwandter, center, discusses new LP 'Latinoamericana' with Rolling Stone.

On Alex Anwandter’s critically adored 2016 albumAmiga, the Chilean singer-songwriter played the role of a troubled patriot, confronting issues of sexuality and gender in the context of Chile’s social and political past and present. That same year, he also released his first film, Nunca Vas a Estar Solo (You’ll Never Be Alone) a drama inspired by the case of Daniel Zamudio, a young Chilean man murdered for being gay. “We have a great consciousness in Chile,” Anwandter tells Rolling Stone over the phone. “We’re very intense, very politically aware and very creative and poetic, but this intensity also comes from being isolated. It’s very hard… when this level of loneliness prevails.”

Now living in Los Angeles, Anwandter has broadened his stormy gaze towards all the Americas on a new album titled Latinoamericana. Out now via Nacional Records, the new LP is shadowed by global politics’ recent shift to the right and by the Trump administration in particular. Yet Anwandter is devising new, more intimate ways to delve into matters of sexual and racial discrimination, not to mention the Americas’ legacy of colonialism. “It’s good when politics can feel as personal as a breakup song. It’s a strategy to connect, to create empathy,” he explains.

Latinoamericana isn’t the dancefloor confessional we’re used to hearing from Anwandter; it is mature and ambitious, a cycle of smooth synth-pop laced with references to the late Seventies and early Eighties. It’s danceable as ever, but bleak in mood and weary in tone. Take “No Te Puedes Escapar” — sophisticated art-pop drowned in anxiety like a wigged-out Roxy Music track, or a lost cut from Chile’s Pinochet-era new wave heroes Los Prisioneros. It is cohesive enough to soundtrack a very stylish film set in a dystopian future; but Anwandter’s eyes are fixated on the present, with the occasional glance backward.

Although the subject matter might be heavy, Anwandter’s brooding pop is fortified by sophisticated arrangements with strings and traditional folk instruments — such as the cuica, a Brazilian friction drum, or the Andean charango, a small stringed instrument in the lute family. And there may be some science fiction in the mix after all: Anwandter describes the album as a retro-futuristic vision of Latin American music — music that never was, but should have been. Rolling Stone explored Latinoamericana and other knotty concepts with the musical auteur.

How have your experiences since moving to the U.S. influenced your new album?
Maybe in the sense that I don’t isolate some phenomena that I see in Latin America. It’s what I perceive as a conservative backlash [to progress]. There seemed to have been some sort of consensus that the world was going forward toward something more tolerant and progressive. I think we’re in an era where that is definitely being pushed back and questioned, increasingly more explicitly as well. And being here in the U.S., which is, I would say, one of the stronger focused points of that backlash, has made me think that a seed was planted, or has always been there, and it’s been growing exponentially lately. The album has a mood of being stunned by that, not defeated, but totally shocked and surprised.

Were you yourself stunned by these events?
I think, with Trump in particular, the whole country and the whole world was stunned. He was a joke for a long time and then suddenly, one day, he was the president and the president of the United States has power that exceeds the borders of the country. We in Chile, naturally, know very much about that.

For anyone who might not be up on their recent history, what do you mean by that?
I mean the coup d’etat in 1973 — when [then-president] Salvador Allende was deposed by a new military dictatorship that lasted 13 years, which was sponsored directly by the CIA. Nixon and Kissinger pretty much engineered that. They found some willing conservative in Chile, [who was] the owner of the most important newspaper in Chile to this day. They [ousted] Allende and put in Pinochet.

Chile nowadays is one of the most neoliberal countries in the world and that’s because we have an economic system that was imposed by force by the U.S. and we still have a constitution [written during] the dictatorship. It’s something that happened 45 years ago, but it’s still very much present.

What is it like, coming from a country with a recent history of totalitarianism and watching this backlash take place?
It’s very scary. I don’t know if you’ve read about the situation in Brazil. There’s a candidate [Jair Bolsonaro], he’s leading in the polls for the presidential election. This candidate is like an exponential Trump. He’s homophobic, sexist. He jokes about raping women in the senate. He’s ex-military and unapologetically in favor of the military dictatorship in Brazil. It’s the kind of thing that expands from country to country. If a country like the U.S. elects trump, a country like Brazil elects this guy and that has a lot of effect on people’s lives.

Is the shock you mentioned part of what inspired the single “Locura”?
Definitely. Locura means madness, and the madness I’m talking about is the fact that when you get someone like Trump on the podium and he gets to say what is true or what’s the law and you think differently, suddenly you are the person whose reality is being questioned and that’s a very strange place to be in. Being an artist in a time like that is very strange. There’s something that’s supposed to be celebratory about music and performing, doing concerts, and it’s weird doing that in such a time.

The single “Locura” is sung from the point of view of a woman. Why did you choose to do that?
I like finding new strategies to bring some issues into my music. My last album was very explicit about its politics and about my own ideology. I wanted to keep talking about these issues without making some sort of checklist of social issues. One of the ways I found to dis-align myself with heterosexual men was [by] not singing as a man. I want to contest what being a man is and invite confrontation by betraying them and singing as a woman.

You’ve spoken candidly about being gay and addressed homophobia directly in your music. There are other artists in Chile, from Javiera Mena to Me Llamo Sebastian, who are openly gay — which makes it tempting to imagine there is a scene of insurgent queer pop in Chile. Is that far off base?
It’s almost impossible for people to make a living off music in Chile; there’s no industry for it. So I think the perception that there’s a queer scene something is, I wouldn’t say false or misguided, but it’s very tricky, in the sense that those scenes collapse very quickly because of the lack of an infrastructure for [them] to develop. We have a great consciousness in Chile. We’re very intense, very politically aware and very creative and poetic but this intensity also comes from [feeling] isolated. So, it’s very hard to describe it as a “scene” when this level of loneliness prevails. There are few artists that have been able to support themselves and tour other countries and it’s very hard.

I thought your previous album Amiga was very much about Chile, but with Latinoamericana, you have widened your focus.
I agree completely that Latinoamericana has a broader view. The music itself has broadened its influences. One of the new elements that I incorporated is Brazilian music, because my dad’s from Brazil and I mostly grew up listening to MPB, which is música popular brasileira. I’m talking about Milton Nascimento and Chico Buarque. They were very connected to traditional Brazilian music, but they were trying make music that looked forward and proposed new aesthetics, but that was at the same time very connected to social issues.

Was that musical approach an inspiration for you on this album?
Definitely. People from from other cultures tend to reduce countries like mine or continents like mine to their local folk music. This album disrupts that by not reducing itself to folkloric elements. It’s a retro-futuristic exercise for me musically, somehow picking up music that would have been made in the Seventies but wasn’t — because there was no culture allowed — appreciating traditional elements in music, but also proposing forward-looking stuff.

Chilean culture was very repressed during the dictatorship — but isn’t there also a culture of resistance through music in Chile?
There’s definitely a tradition of resistance, mostly before the dictatorship. [Political folk singer] Victor Jara was killed a few days after the coup d’etat in September 1973, and a lot of that movement died. Then [it would be] a good 10 or more years until a new resistance emerged. I would say around 1984, 1985, when Los Prisioneros started making music again, [they] couldn’t be completely open about their politics. They were censored and they suffered economically. What is very beautiful about [Chilean protest music] is that it goes before Victor Jara, back to Violeta Parra who started [writing songs] in the Forties. It’s a very vast well to drink from. What the dictatorship and [resulting] censorship created was a disconnect between artists and the people, who either weren’t aware, or weren’t interested in that well. What I’m trying to do with Latinoamericana is to start drinking from that well again and see what comes out.

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