As long as Julieta Venegas can remember, music has been a part of her life. After making her mark in the late '90s as an edgy, alternative artist, the Mexican singer-songwriter set off on a more colorful path — a fusion of ranchera, electronica and sun-dappled pop. In the process, Venegas became a mega-star, winning a Grammy for best Latin pop album with her 2006 smash Limón y Sal.
It all began with her mother singing to her on the way to school.
"She sang a combination of Los Tigres del Norte and cri-cri," the popular Mexican children's songs like 'La Cucaracha,'" says Venegas from her Mexico City home.
Venegas, who will perform at the Latin American Festival on Oct. 13, was raised in Tijuana by arts- and music-loving parents who turned off the TV when their daughter was young. "They wanted to keep me busy after school. I tried painting and ballet, but piano was the one thing I connected to instantly."
A teenaged stint with two bands included penning the hit "Pobre de Ti" for ska artists Tijuana No!, but it wasn't until Venegas moved to Mexico City that she found a community of like-minded, restlessly curious souls.
"Everything made sense to me here," she says of her home for two decades. "In [Mexico City], I discovered who I was and who I wanted to be."
One thing Venegas became was a hot property. Relentless gigging led to a record contract, and by 2000 Venegas had put out two critically acclaimed, alternative rock LPs. Yet, she didn't set out to be experimental and confrontational.
"I never had a master plan. I never conceptualized. To me, the songs are the most important thing," Venegas explains, noting that the songs "definitely changed character over the course of my albums." The 2003 LP Si marked a key change, and it grew out of Venegas' continuing development as a storyteller. "I needed to grow my palette of feelings and how I expressed them."
Venegas explains her shift from edgy angst to Tropicalia-tinged pop en Español. "I knew how to express melancholy and sadness, but now I needed to express happiness." Happiness proved contagious, as Si's string of jaunty, accordion-fueled hits made Venegas a star throughout Latin America.
The 2006 LP Limón y Sal was an even bigger hit. Yet Venegas notes that her mainstream breakthrough was less about turning from her indie roots than a continuation of her intuitive development. "It was something that I'd always done, looking for contrasts, combining drum machines with guitars, or synths with accordions. I just went further in that direction."
The search for contrast continues to inform Venegas' song-craft, a mix of autobiography and imagination. "I try to keep growing and keep telling stories that make sense to me at different points in my life." After becoming a mother in 2010, Venegas' perspective on writing changed once again. "I felt like my radar expanded."
With an infant daughter, concerns about her native country are chief upon her radar screen today.
Her current album Los Momentos touches on the violence currently plaguing Mexico. "A lot of the songs are fueled by the search for peace, by some questions about the future," and, as always, by stories.
According to Venegas, those stories are reflected in the LP Los Momentos — moments. "You live through a lot of lives, different lives, different moments. And everything, every part of your life is a story."