In an era where mainstream Latin pop and reggaeton are synonymous, and today’s formula for going viral typically involves dembow-heavy rhythms, Latin alternative music doesn’t guarantee constant chart-toppers. But there are worthy exceptions. Enter Mon Laferte’s indie-pop enigma: a heady, rockabilly-inspired blend that nods to Ritchie Valens’ love songs, classic boleros that match hearts with great Latin American folklorists, and a splash of jazzy cool à la Amy Winehouse. The Chilean-born musician’s unlikely recipe has gained her hundreds of millions of views across YouTube and scored her five Latin Grammy nominations in 2017. She even won the Best Alternative Song award for her single “Amárrame,” featuring Colombian rock star Juanes, with whom she’s currently touring the United States. And on June 3rd, she’s slated to host the 2018 MTV Millennial Awards.
But long before her genre-spanning concoctions reached massive popularity, the 35-year-old singer-songwriter began her journey as a teenager, singing traditional folk covers in local dive bars in her hometown of Viña del Mar. Her mean guitar-shredding prowess combined with her soulful, towering pipes would later place her in Mexico City metal group Mystica Girls. Now armed with five studio solo albums, Laferte continues to stand out, especially within the current crop of Latina performers who’ve succeeded as folk revivalists (Natalia Lafourcade, iLe of Calle 13 fame).
“I think about how collage is the future,” Laferte tells Rolling Stone backstage at Madison Square Garden, where she has just opened for Juanes. As she paints a portrait of an anonymous woman, she sips a glass of wine and says, “We are all a collage, just look at us – [you and I] have old-school tattoos, rings and piercings, and [punk] shoes. I feel that my music is a bit of that, and I would like to take that idea even further – to grab a bit from the past and mix it with something new.”
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Laferte, who moments ago performed for a packed crowd at MSG in sky-high heels, looked as splendid as ever in a more relaxed get-up: some off-white Reeboks, a comfy sheer one-piece that covered her numerous tattoos, and her signature Bettie Page bangs. She discussed her musical evolution and how she’s changing the game in mainstream Latin pop.
You draw influences from rock and indie-pop, but you also draw on vintage boleros in songs like “La Trenza.” Which sound came first for you and what led you to fuse them together?
I first sang folk music – boleros, tangos, nueva canción Chilena – as a cover singer. When I began my own project, I became more interested in other genres like pop and alternative music. What I like to do now is utilize diverse rhythms to tell a story. I feel that music is also a very visual, theatrical thing, and that serves me well for the stage. But I like all types of music. I feel like I can find the beauty in everything.
Is there another musical style that you’d like to explore that you haven’t yet?
I want to make Caribbean rhythms because they’ve always been present in Chile – at least when I was growing up in Viña del Mar with my parents. Son and salsa were always present, but we don’t hold those styles as our own. We know it well and we love it, but it’s not rooted [in Chile]. I’ve been singing since I was a little girl. At age 14 I started playing in bars and on the streets, but [I sang] the songs of others. When I arrived to Mexico, I released my first album of original songs with the help of my friends. I gave away free records and threw house parties to gather funds to finance it, and same with the second album. But I feel like heading [towards the Caribbean music] direction because I’ve already done rock and I was in a metal band.
How did relocating to Mexico help boost your creativity?
Unlike Mexico, Chile is very tiny and it can suddenly feel like a small neighborhood. People are often shy and probably have this fear of being judged. I think Mexico is similar to New York in the sense that you’re either there to do something or “bye bye.” I arrived to Mexico alone, without knowing anyone. I told myself that I would do something, whether it was good or bad, even if only one person likes it. Mexico [City] has something. It has a lot of color and lots of people. The city is noisy, it has everything. You go outside and feel like you’re in a grand city, but at the same time it feels intimate, like when you’re talking to the woman selling street tacos or making juices at the corner stand. They’ll tell me, “Que va a llevar, güerita?” [“What are you ordering today, white girl?”] That makes you feel like you’re in a pueblito [small town]. It helped me feel more relaxed, free, and it opened me.
The Chilean electro-pop scene was peaking around the time you moved to Mexico. Was there ever a scene in your home country for the type of music you wanted to make, or did you feel like you needed to be in Mexico to flourish?
I think I did. Electro-pop was very present in Chile which I enjoy and have friends that make it, but it wasn’t part of my flow. I would ask myself, “What scene do I belong to?” I felt that in Chile, people were closed off [to alternative projects]. Like not everything is black and white. In fact, I actually felt out of place. I didn’t feel completely rocker or folky. I wanted my project to be a mix of different elements within arts, music and performance. There is color, and we can mix them together and create new things.
From your sound to your artistic image and performances, there’s this vintage and modern feel. How do you balance past and present influences?
Today I visited the MoMA for the first time. As I was looking at Picasso’s art, I thought about how when he painted, he was super futuristic. He was ahead of his time and raised the bar. And I thought about how collage is the future. We are all a collage, the city is a collage. I feel that my music is a bit of that, and I would like to take that idea even further – to grab a bit from the past and mix it with something new. I love mixes after all. I’d like to do that in future albums. Today I do that a bit, but I want to take it farther.
How did your collaboration with Juanes come about and what’s it like to work with him?
New York is our third [stop on the tour]. The song collaboration was sort of our labels’ idea. My label was looking for an artist who I could collaborate with, someone who’s cool and a great musician. My label suggested Juanes, and I was like, “I love Juanes!” So then Juanes invited me to his house in Miami. We played music and smoked; we clicked right away. Later, we recorded [“Amárrame”] together, and it’s been great ever since. We have musical chemistry, and his crew is cool too – they’re all very chill.
Your performances are very theatrical and tragic with passionate, dramatic horns. Is your stage persona separate from your personal life or do they relate?
I don’t lie in any of my songs. The words are honest … sometimes too honest. I feel like my performances are a bit like acting, but they comes from a genuine source. They’re real and profound. For example, my costumes are one form for me to enter my persona, and that’s essentially an act. I like putting on my costumes, my long gowns and eyelashes which I don’t use in daily life. All people from time to time wear costumes for certain occasions. So it’s a bit of both. If it was all just an act, it wouldn’t convey that same dramatic weight. What I do is connect with the moment I wrote the song, and that’s something that’s very real.
There’s a rockabilly and pin-up aesthetic to your style. What’s the main inspiration behind your wardrobe choices?
I don’t dress according to the latest fashion. Fashion will pass but your style, your essence, that will remain. I love clothes, and I have a lot of fun with it, but not to the point where clothes become a concern. Let dressing up be fun! For example, my manager Daniel and I, we have a lot of fun shopping together. Just look at his tie [points to his vintage Japanese silk tie]. We go thrift shopping and we enjoy ourselves. Vintage is one of a kind. It’s really fun putting on the gown and gloves before going onstage. But in my daily life, I wear these [points at her Reeboks].
Of your entire repertoire, which song are you currently connecting with the most and why?
Today “Amor Completo” has a lot of meaning for me, which is a song from a previous [2015 self-titled] album. I feel connected with that song because I feel good, I feel in love. It’s a beautiful song, a positive one, but it’s also disorderly in terms of the lyrics. I wrote it for a guy a few years ago. I was madly in love with him, and it was crazy. We wreaked havoc together, and I was lost in passion, especially during those first few months. The lyrics go, “Arrúllame, ahógame, aplástame/Desármame, cómeme, fúmame” [“Cradle me, drown me, squash me/Untie me, eat me, smoke me”]. Well, the boy did smoke weed all day [laughs]. That’s why the song says, “Amor inquieto/Amor drogado/Amor completo” [“Restless love/Drugged love/Complete love”]. I felt open to life, and what I went through then I feel now. That’s why I love that song, because it’s beautiful. It’s about love.
How do you define success? What does that look like for you?
Fame, fortune, and maintaining artistic status are valid yet not valid, because they’re mirages set by the industry. I think success has to do with what you love doing. I’ve been asked, “Before attaining your success, did you ever feel like quitting because of the struggle?” No! I always felt successful because I always did what I love, and I’ve always done what I like. At times I didn’t have enough money to pay rent, but that didn’t matter because I’d play here and there. Success is to do what you really love. I made the decision to each day write better songs, deliver better shows, be better on a personal level, and not just artistically: to be more comprehensive, more empathetic, be a better friend, be more patient, and to not make egoistic decisions. The things that I’m telling you, each day I’m improving them. Sometimes we fail, but we mean to improve. For example, now that I paint in the green room, I’ve never painted eyes as realistic as these [reaches for an oil-based portrait she finished hours before]. From painting so much, I’ve finally accomplished it. That feels good to me, that’s the feeling of success – something that brings you happiness because you worked for it.
This interview was originally conducted in Spanish.