Musician, Singer, Songwriter: Argentina
You don’t have to go far to find a World Cup soccer match on television in New York City. Just look for a group of people on the sidewalk, tightly packed, tensely focused, staring through an open window of a pub. Or a restaurant. Or even the small café in which Argentine musician Juana Molina and I were sitting. That afternoon it was group play: Argentina vs. Greece. And on occasion, as we spoke, she’d glance over to the TV for an update on her national team. But as the camera took a panoramic sweep across the stadium, something other than the score or the action caught her attention. It was a peculiar droning noise in the crowd. She pointed to the screen.
“You know those plastic trumpets? It’s not that. It’s an electronic one. With the real ones you would hear Dvvv! Dvvv! Dvvv! It would be obnoxious and it would be nasty, but it would be them doing it. It’s not. It’s just a button they press, and greeeeeeeee.”
There was a disappointment in her tone. But more than that, I think there was a sort of excitement. Just about the sounds, and about distinguishing the differences. I feel that Juana is listening for something all the time. Anything. A good sound. A bad sound. A real sound. An outstanding sound. And early on it must have influenced her musical development.
“I thought the live show had to be like the albums, so when I started to play on stage on my own I used playbacks with some of the tracks from the records on a CD, but I got immediately very, very, very bored because I was a slave of the CD. The character, the intention, the mood, it was always the same. If I was scared, the CD wasn’t. If I was excited, the CD wasn’t. If I was happy, the CD wasn’t. And I finally realized that while I was playing on the CD I was just dying. Dying on the stage.”
Dying because in her mind there were entire worlds filled with notes, rhythms, tempos, music. She’d sit and play melodies over and over, for hours. Sometimes weeks. For the incredible love of sound.
But oftentimes she was unable to find musicians who shared the same happiness and freedom of her musical imagery. So Juana began searching for something else. A machine to help her. Something that would play a few measures back to her, over and over. In any time signature. In any tempo. A sort of substitute musician.
“Every time I came to New York I asked the shop:
‘Hi, I am looking for a machine able to do this and that.’
‘No, we don’t have that.’
‘Hi, I am looking for a machine able to do this and that.’
‘Er…Yeah, we have one.’
‘Really? how does it work?’
‘Well, you pre-set the tempo…’
Until one day, someone said: ‘we just got this pedal…’
I couldn't believe I had found it—that the dream came true."
Juana, meet the RC-20 looping station. Instant friendship. It was perfect. Now she could sing a melody or play a rhythm, press down on the pedal, and have it loop around as long as she wanted, freeing her to add another layer on top. And then another. And another. All by herself. Finally all that imagery, that entire melodic universe inside of her, could start to bloom.
The resulting music was hugely textured. So much so that if you listened to any of it with your eyes closed you’d be sure it was a band. Five or six or seven people. Drums, synthesizers, guitar, bass, vocals. But go see Juana perform. Oftentimes it’s just Juana and her guitar. Her synthesizer. Her incredible voice. And those pedals and mixers.
“At the beginning people were amazed because they couldn’t understand what I was doing. What? What? Ohh my godddd! And I remember everybody running; after my show was over they all came to watch and to take a picture of my system.”
But it took her a while to figure out how to make that system work. And even after she did create a good setup, sound technicians from one venue to another would simply tell her it was wrong.
“I had to argue! Do you really want me to explain how it works or can you leave me ten minutes and I’ll give you what you need? It took me a year to figure the system out. Leave me alone!”
“And at the same time I was really proud because everybody was kind of in awe because of my effects.”
They were also in awe watching her create the music. It’s the amazing nature of it. The way she’d gradually build the song up and take it down, layer after layer.
And it’s beautiful math. Intimately calculated. Watch as she strums a group of chords on the guitar, carefully steps on the looping pedal, nods her head to catch the tempo, leans over her guitar to play a line on the synthesizer, and then swings across to the microphone to sing the most astonishing melody. How perfect – when she loops that voice and sings a second line, and a third – to have all those Juana Molinas harmonizing so incredibly. Coming together so energetically with all the sounds that she’s layered.
And if you trace back through Juana’s discography, it’s evident that what you hear in her music today only comes from a process of learning; exploration; increased dexterity. Compare, and in each new CD you can hear more and more freedom in her voice and in the effects. It’s especially true in the live versions of her music.
“Some songs, they grow, grow, grow, grow, grow, grow, grow, and then they get to a stage where you can’t move one thing. Anything else would be like trying to refresh it, but it would get worse. Like Salvese Quien Pueda, the live version is totally different. I wish the recorded version was this one. It took me maybe two years of playing it live. I think when that happens you don’t get bored when you’re playing the same song because there’s no other way to play it and you enjoy it always. But some other songs, they change and change and change. Those are the immature songs [laughs].”
It’s been years since Juana began revealing her musical universe. And plenty of other musicians have started to use looping pedals and mixers now. I think it’s fair to say that Juana didn’t invent these pedals, or discover them. But really, from the start Juana’s setup was beautifully elaborate. And from the start she was doing more than anyone else.
More than that, I think what will always set Juana apart is that on any day, at any time, she’s hearing more than anyone else. And because of that awareness she’ll always be ready to catch a new sound, a new rhythm, and create something with it that no one else can.
All stories are copyright of Gregory Koutrouby and A Thousand Stories unless otherwise noted.