Drama Queen

I can't tell anecdotes,” says Julieta Venegas, between bites of a take-out sandwich in an empty hallway at the Latin Alternative Music Conference (LAMC) in New York City this past August. “I'm no good at it,” she continues. “I have to paint situations.” On her celebrated sophomore release, Bueninvento (Goodinvention), the Mexican singer-songwriter presents a portrait gallery of quirky characters whose complaints are set to her own original compositions. Against the backdrop of today's plastic pop divas, Venegas stands out by hiding behind a mask of infectious musical angst.

“I play a lot with the image of Ziggy Stardust,” she explains, “to filter the things that I live.” At first glance any comparison of the low-key beauty born in Long Beach, California, and raised in Tijuana, with the flamboyant androgyne from outer space that David Bowie invented in the early Seventies seems far-fetched. Wearing secondhand chic with a self-effacing smile, Venegas looks less like a suicidal rock star than a south-of-the-border girl next store. That may be precisely the point: David Bowie was not Ziggy Stardust, however dangerously close he felt himself becoming in his glory years. Julieta Venegas is not the lovelorn damsel whose ironic postures of distress often approach parody. “It's always in the first person,” says the singer of her many poses. “I guess I've learned how to appropriate what I'm surrounded by.”

The persona that the 29-year-old is least accustomed to playing is Julieta Venegas, pop star. “I always feel like I'm starting out,” she observes of the push to promote her second release, following the critical acclaim but limited sales of her 1997 debut Aquí (Here). “A lot of people consider [my audience to be] more of a cult following,” she adds. Seeing those loyal fans act out her fabricated personalities along with her was a shock at her early solo shows. “Everything changed for me after the first album,” she remembers. “That must have been at a show in Mexico City a year after the album came out, and then again when I went to Monterrey; I couldn't believe the reaction to the first song, “Oportunidad” (“Opportunity”). I played solo on the piano and they were singing along. The fact that people listen to your album at home ...” the singer trails off, as though the idea of fans buying records and poring over the lyrics is too bizarre for words. The massive sing-along spurred her to get out fresh material. “I played live a lot,” she says with a shrug. “I wanted to do different songs.”

A classically trained pianist who first tasted pop success as a contributor to the band Tijuana No, Venegas kept to the keyboards for most of the arrangements on her first solo disc. On Bueninvento she went for a fuller, edgier sound. “There is still piano,” she points out, “but it's not so much the protagonist.” Instead the keyboards share the sonic stage with loopy accordion lines picked up at some insane circus and haunting guitar riffs that evoke dark desert highways and mournful coyotes.

Although the accordion has an illustrious history in Mexican music, especially in the peppy border genres norteño and tejano, Venegas says her distorted use of the instrument was inspired most directly by the weird soundscapes of another of her anglophone idols, Tom Waits. The Tijuana songstress has a crystal-clear breathy voice that floats far above Waits's gravelly growl, yet the two share a penchant for setting the souls of imaginary people against a fun-house soundtrack.

At the acoustic songwriters-in-the-round showcase sponsored by the LAMC, Venegas opened her set with “Flor” (“Flower”), her fingers landing on the keys with the relaxed precision of a dutiful student of classical style. Her voice intersects with the simple motif repeated on the piano, each growing and diminishing in a shifting dynamic rare in pop music. “I don't need to see how, slowly, you forget about me,” she intones. Venegas has managed to press her formal study of music into service, heightening what never ceases to be a pop sensibility. “I like to experiment with things,” she confesses, adding, “I don't think of myself as elitist, either.” On the recorded version of “Flor,” the dynamics are accentuated by barely scratching guitars that explode suddenly into full throttle.

As the last notes of “Flor” fade away, Venegas straps on her accordion for “Casa Abandonada” (“Abandoned House”). The wackiest song on Bueninvento, “Casa Abandonada” has a jilted woman reporting on her increasingly desperate phone calls to the home of her former lover. Here Venegas's vocals turn petulant over a manic accordion run as she repeats the question: “If he went out, with whom and why?/And if he spoke, with whom and what about?” Venegas takes barely contained delusion up another notch when she next delivers an over-the-top version of schmaltz phenomenon Juan Gabriel's sappy “Always on My Mind” (“Siempre en Mi Mente”). By dragging the vocal delivery, she makes the memory of love lost seem akin to a lobotomy: She is not simply thinking of her lover; he has literally taken over her mind.

The singer recovers from this delusional pose and hands her accordion to an accompanist to take up an acoustic guitar for Bueninvento's first single: “Seria Feliz” (“I Could Be Happy”). The cowboy bounce of the rhythm accentuates the eerie ghost-town feel of the accordion chords. The singer swears things would start looking up if she could just recuperate the sum total of loss in her life: from an absent lover to the respect of her peers to “everything I didn't get because it all ran out because I showed really late.”

Raised on a combination of traditional Mexican music and North American pop, Venegas arrived at Mexican-made rock late, only after moving to that nation's capital seven years ago. Rather than imitate the Anglo- and African-American pop she heard growing up, Venegas lifted elements for her own use, in her native tongue. “It never occurred to me to sing in English,” she says simply. “[Spanish] always came more naturally, even if I did grow up next to the United States and even if we did go to movies and concerts in English. There's a certain temperament. Not just in Tijuana, but in all of Mexico. To not try to be like them, even if you do listen to stuff in the United States. You still listen to rancheras and cumbias. That makes the music more interesting and more rich.” The bicultural performer straddling the musical border may be Venegas's best invention.