Ximena Sariñana is out of touch. She’s not making Pepsi commercials for international markets, nor is she stoking political debates via Instagram. She’s not making a trendy sound like “Chicano Soul” — in fact, she doesn’t even know what that is. She’s not a Grammy darling, nor someone who rakes in many Pazz & Jop votes among music critics.
That’s not to call her irrelevant, though. Sariñana’s been in the public eye since she was nine years old, when she was cast in a small role in Hasta Morir, a film produced by her father, filmmaker Fernando Sariñana. Since then, she’s rarely ventured far from the Mexican entertainment scene, whether as a judge on Mexico’s Got Talent, or as a celebrity product endorser, or in one of her many film and TV roles. Indeed, her role as a villainous pre-teen in 1997’s Luz Clarita made her a lasting icon in the minds of a generation of Mexican-American women.
But Sariñana’s passion has always laid in her pop music career. A wry, Betty Friedan-esque reflection on womanhood, her Grammy-nominated 2008 debut, Mediocre, is the rare “cult platinum” record: which is not just to say it sold a lot of copies, but more importantly, it created a sizeable fan base devoted to her every move. In 2011, Sariñana made a bid for the English-language market brass ring with her self-titled LP; and while it didn’t exactly set the charts on fire, the album was a bold risk for a Latina pop star, one that endeared her in the hearts of many stateside listeners. Yet 2014’s No Todo Lo Puedes Dar, on the other hand, was a deliberate, almost obtuse piece of alternapop that confirmed that her success was the result of more than just name recognition. She returns this year with the recently released ¿Dónde Bailarán Las Niñas? (translation: Where Will the Girls Dance?) — a collection of introspective songs that doubles as her most eclectic work to date, filled with the sounds of modern Latin pop music, from urbano to soft jazz. The album also features guests from other corners of the Latin pop universe, like Chilean singer-songwriter Francisca Valenzuela, Brazilian pop artist IZA and Mexican R&B vocalist Girl Ultra.
Yet the album isn’t all that’s new in Sariñana’s life. She recently gave birth to her first child, Franca, briefly breaking the Mexican Internet — at least the parts dedicated to celebrity chisme. Between child-rearing and the lead-up to her U.S. tour, beginning this summer, Rolling Stone caught up with Sariñana to discuss her new album and the next phase of her multifaceted career.
How much of this album was influenced by motherhood? Was most of the album conceived (so to speak) even before you knew you were having a child?
I recorded most of the album while pregnant, before Franca was even “in the books.” How motherhood influenced me was how it put me in touch with my feminine side… Too often, girls tend to minimize themselves by falling into society’s clichés for women, because they think that’s how they will succeed in a career as a producer, or engineer, or businessperson, or whatever. Pregnancy helped me connect with myself, which I think extended to my music.
Your audience has always resonated strongly with young adult women. It seems that a large part of ¿Dónde Bailarán Las Niñas? is tailored towards issues that modern women deal with. Was that an intentional theme of the album?
This is my most conceptual album to date because everything, from the title to the artwork to the songs, is meant to guide the listener through a storyline. I wanted it to sound like two parts of a diary from the same night: Side A is like the beginning of the night, when it’s time for the precopeo (what Americans would refer to as “pre-gaming” before a night out). Then you have side B, which is the more introspective side of the record, which evokes the wee hours of the morning, when you’ve let the night take you down a path where you’re self-reflecting, or romantic, or dancing like crazy with your friends. There’s a freedom about night time. It’s why I chose the title ¿Dónde Bailarán Las Niñas?, because there’s still a stigma attached to girls… we need permission to [be] the best version of ourselves or even be whatever it is that we want to be. I want this record to be a soundtrack to that expression of freedom, which I also feel extends to the mystery of the nocturnal — when women can become goddesses of the night.
Is there a song on the album that you feel best represents that feeling of inhibition?
Well, I love “¿Qué Tiene?” because it has a strong, direct message. I found myself getting tired of always playing the “nice” character, you know — that “alternative darling” — and this was a way of playing against that. I was able to remove myself from wondering what others would think and just make something that was fun and enjoyable for myself.
¿Dónde Bailarán Las Niñas? sounds much cleaner than its predecessor, which had a much more indie rock sound, most prominently in its heavy use of reverb and feedback. Was there any specific reason for the move away from that sound?
Well I don’t think I would necessarily call it a switch. I think the natural course of things with No Todo Lo Puedes Dar was to see what I could create when given absolute full control over the music. It was the first album I produced and I had complete creative control. I’m super proud of the final result, which only made me more confident in collaborating and creating with others. My motivation this time around was to make something with people from different musical backgrounds than I’m used to, which made the process a lot more fun that usual.
But in trying to make things lighter and accessible, you’re opening yourself up to criticism that you’re playing it safe. Latin pop has changed a lot in the five years since No Todo Lo Puedes Dar was released. What’s popular today, from Latin trap to indie rock, has a harder edge. Are you worried that audiences may not respond to something this traditionally pop?
I don’t consider myself playing it safe. When you’re a female artist, much less someone making alternative pop music, you’re always open to unfair criticism. I’ve collaborated with reggaeton and R&B artists, and people still found a way to criticize the results. Particularly in Mexico, there’s a bias against pop singers working with reggaeton and trap artists. What’s important to me is experimenting with different sounds and I think that’s actually riskier than trying to make another No Todo lo Puedes Dar or another Mediocre or another English-language album. For example, I was one of the first Latin pop musicians [who worked] with [Colombian producers] Icon Music, and took a chance that we could balance their more urban sound with what I do as an alternative pop singer-songwriter.
As the industry changes, have your goals as a musician changed as you enter the second decade of your music career?
I feel that No Todo lo Puedes Dar made me realize why I went to music school in the first place, and that was because I wanted to make music, and it wasn’t until that album that I realized that actually meant producing my own music. And now that I’ve accomplished that, I feel like it’s opened up entirely new goals and possibilities.
So when I went into making this album, I wanted to focus on expanding my horizons and breaking out beyond my original influences, like Fiona Apple, Julieta Venegas, and Jorge Drexler. I grew up in Mexico, but spent a lot of time learning English and not listening to traditional Mexican music. It made me question if I was even Latin American, and I’ve been trying since then to find that part of myself. I think “La Vida No Es Facil” on my last record was the closest I’ve gotten to reflecting upon my experience and exploring that feeling in music. I admire someone like Natalia Lafourcade, who is able to jump from project to project based on what she’s experiencing at those moments in time. To me, that’s how creative minds work — just jumping from thing-to-thing and not worrying about if the end result will satisfy anyone, but having the confidence to know that it’ll work because it makes sense to yourself and your life story.
Speaking of Natalia Lafourcade, many of your contemporaries have reached the point where they’re no longer the “newer” generation, and indeed are directly influencing many of the breakout artists of today. One thing that distinguishes your career was your honest effort to break the English-language market. Is there anything you’d wish you had done different that might have made the album more successful?
Whatever happened with that album was definitely what I needed to happen in order to keep progressing as an artist. I learned so much from everything about that album, and it made me a better artist in every sense of the word. The amount of writing, production, promotion, and touring behind that record, not to mention the new people that came into my life, was the ultimate learning experience. Whether the timing was right for that album, I can’t say. What I do think is that the windows of opportunity for Spanish-language artists to break out are greater nowadays than 10 years ago, but it’s just amazing everything that’s happening in Latin music, and the number of artists who are succeeding internationally.
Even then, you still do not see many of today’s biggest Latin pop stars performing in English. English language crossover attempts are fairly rare. Do you ever think about the impact that album had on younger artists?
No, I think that artists and fans recognize the risk I took. I mean, I feel very privileged just to have been able to have had that opportunity. It was such a brave and crazy move, especially for a second album, and it hopefully opened up that possibility for others, even in small ways like how Francisca Valenzuela had English-language songs on her last album. Everything that happens in Latin music paves the way for other people to succeed. What I’m really happy to see is younger artists having the freedom to sing in Spanish or English and then put the results out on streaming apps. It’s pretty amazing.
Are there younger artists in particular who you admire for performing in both languages?
Empress Of, for sure, for being able to sing in spanglish. She’s evolved beyond throwing in some Spanish songs on her records, and her ability to sprinkle in phrases in Spanish within her songs in a way that feels so natural. And why not? It’s like we say in Latin America — “Lo bailado nadie te lo quita.” (Or, “You can’t take away what I enjoy doing.”)
I’ve also been collaborating with Girl Ultra, who performed on “No Sé” on my new album. Even after that one track, we fell in love with each other musically and personally. So we wrote a song together for her new album which is amazing. She’s definitely someone with a sound that makes me excited.
Hearing you reference the new wave of Latina artists, and your status as one of the more successful Mexican pop singers of the past 10 years, do you ever think your musical legacy?
It’s funny, nobody really asked me that question until very recently. I think my career is still too young to know what my legacy will be. Not to mention that I’ve released very few albums, so I don’t even think that any one of them is 100% representative of who I am as a musician. I guess ultimately, I hope people think of my music as fun to engage with, either with themselves or with other people.
Do you think that motherhood will inspire you to get back in the studio again fairly soon, or do you envision this leading to some time off? I mean, even Natalia Lafourcade is in semi-retirement…
I’m not sure she will be able to just semi-retire, she loves making music too much. I like to think that I’ll take motherhood day-by-day, and learn to come to terms with however that affects my career. It’s not really something you can plan, but I also like to be flexible with my career as well. That’s why I take so much time in-between albums. Everything today is about immediacy, and audiences expending artists to put out so much material, and that is 100 percent NOT good for the artistic process. You know, something about taking your time just makes your work better.
Ximena Sariñana will kick off her U.S. tour May 25th at Neon Desert Festival in El Paso, TX. ¿Dónde Bailarán Las Niñas? is out now.
Ximena Sariñana Spring/Summer Tour Dates
May 25 – Neon Desert Festival – El Paso, TX
June 15 – Bonnaroo Music Festival – Manchester, TN
June 21-23 – Ruido Fest – Chicago, IL
July 10 – New York, NY