Carrie Rodriguez has had a lot going on lately. In October the 37-year-old Austin-based singer-songwriter-fiddler gave birth to her first child. Less than three weeks later her father, the singer-songwriter-guitarist David Rodriguez, passed away. And this month she releases her fifth studio album, Lola, inspired in large part by her great-aunt Eva Garza, a celebrated ranchera singer from San Antonio. Lola, recorded with a skilled band that includes her husband, Luke Jacobs, and the renowned jazz guitarist Bill Frisell, is a change of pace for Rodriguez, a “Spanglish” record that finds her complicating her usual Americana stylings.
Jeff Salamon: This album was inspired by your great-aunt, who died before you were born. Do you remember how you first heard about her?
Carrie Rodriguez: My grandmother had always told me about her, but I don’t think I heard her music until my early twenties, when my grandmother sent me a stack of CDs she had had burned from her old vinyl. My great aunt’s music is really hard to find on CD—I think there’s one compilation you can get. I was living in New York, just starting my singing career, and I put on one of those albums and sat down and listened to the whole thing in tears. My grandmother had always sung my great aunt’s praises, and I had thought maybe she was exaggerating. It was mind blowing to hear that for the first time.
JS: Had you listened to that kind of music growing up?
CR: In Texas, it’s all around you. My mother would take me to the Texas Folklife Festival in San Antonio, where I’d hear mariachi bands, and my father used to sing rancheras as an encore. But it wasn’t part of my daily listening experience.
JS: Did hearing your great-aunt’s music make you want to sing rancheras too?
CR: It’s been a long steeping process. I don’t think it occurred to me to sing that type of music at that point in life. I’m glad I didn’t dip my toes into the water until I’d lived a little. A lot of the material is so heavy, it helps to have been through something.
JS: So how long have you been dabbling—or more than dabbling—in this music?
CR: When I was at Berklee [College of Music], I met my ex-husband, Javier, who’s from Spain. We lived together for ten, eleven years, and that’s how I learned Spanish—it wasn’t because I grew up speaking it. Through him I started listening to not only Mexican music but other Spanish-language music: flamenco and Brazilian music, which is Portuguese, not Spanish. And at one point, about the time of my second solo record, I started throwing a ranchera song into my set, as an encore. It was one that I learned from my great-aunt—“Puñalada Trapera,” which means “The Treacherous Back Stab.” And I remember working on it, asking Javier to help me with my accent a little bit, and I was very shy about singing that.
But there was something about singing that song in front of an audience that would bring out this whole other side of me—it would draw from this different emotional place than when I sang in English. My voice would sound different, without trying. And people at shows, for years, have asked me, “When are you going to make a Spanish record? I love hearing you sing in Spanish.” And it always intimidated me. But I’ve been toying with the idea for a long time—the idea of making a record in Spanish has been percolating for eight years or something. But as I started getting closer and closer to doing something about it, I would imagine making this record and touring, and doing a show all in Spanish, and it just didn’t feel quite right. It was like, well, wait a minute that’s not quite me. And the members of my audience who speak Spanish might really enjoy that, but the ones that don’t, well, that’s a long show to be all in a different language for them. And that’s when I started writing songs that were inspired by these ranchera songs. They had little bits of Spanish in them, and I didn’t worry too much about what was English and what was Spanish and I just let it come out, and I was singing Spanglish songs.
JS: Was anyone telling you not to do this?
CR: No one was telling me anything about it—I’m not on a record label anymore. This project is completely funded by fans and friends, and that gave me all the freedom in the world.
JS: There are a lot of artists and musicians in your family—your great-aunt; your dad; your great-aunt’s son Fabricio, who was a singer of some renown; your mother, who is an artist; your late grandmother, who was a writer. Was it expected of you from an early age to do something creative?
CR: It was certainly encouraged. I won’t say expected. I didn’t have a stage mother—my mother never forced me to practice the violin or anything like that. In fact playing violin was my own idea, when I was five. I begged her to get me a violin. I never really felt pressured except from myself.
JS: So there was creativity all around you?
CR: Yes, and that almost gave me the impression that it was normal to be an artist, which was great.
JS: When did you figure out it wasn’t?
CR: I seriously think it wasn’t until I left home and went to college that I realized what a unique growing-up experience I had.
JS: What possessed a five-year-old to say, “I must have a violin, I must have violin lessons”?
CR: I think it could have been a concert my mom took me to at the Waterloo Ice House. I have a vague memory of being four and seeing Uncle Walt’s Band, a very loved trio, and Champ Hood was playing fiddle. He had a curly Afro, I had a curly Afro. So I remember looking up to him, thinking he was cool, being mesmerized by his fiddle. Or it could have been that I was in elementary school and Bill Dick, who is still a dear family friend, was teaching five year olds Suzuki violin lessons once a week at the school. It was a free pilot program, I think, and he only had funding for one year, but it happened to be a year I was there, and I remember walking down the hall at nap time and going to the bathroom and hearing this squawky violin and just falling in love with that. So maybe it was that. Or maybe it was because I had seen Champ, I don’t know. But I wanted to do it.
JS: Your husband is a musician and he’s all over this record. Do you like having family in the picture musically?
CR: I couldn’t do it any other way, I don’t know how to do it any other way. Luke was very instrumental in helping me get the seeds of these songs a bit more fleshed out, getting the grooves, especially for the ranchera tunes. It’s so wonderful to be able to sit in your living room with a glass of wine in the evening and work on material for an album versus going to some rehearsal room. It’s the sweetest thing in the world. And then all that pedal steel he played on the album, it’s one of my favorite things. I love how it bridges country music and ranchera. It’s so much fun to hear pedal steel on “Perfidia,” for example, a classic Mexican song.
JS: On the new album you and your husband sing a duet on a breakup song. Is it weird singing a breakup song with your husband, who you’re presumably not breaking up with?
CR: No. We both met when we had just gotten out of other relationships—we were going through divorces—so we had a lot to draw on.
JS: Does doing an album with so much Spanish on it carry any risk for you, in terms of the audience you’ve built?
CR: I don’t think so. I know people enjoy hearing me sing in Spanish, or at least they’ve told me that. I think I’m revealing a side of myself that I haven’t quite revealed much of before. That does make me feel a bit vulnerable, but it’s also exciting. I’m excited for my fans to hear more about what it was like when I grew up and my family history.
JS: With this album you’ve hit this sweet spot between Americana, jazz, and Tex-Mexican music. Linda Ronstadt, by contrast, had to separate her Mexican influences from her pop and country music. Do you feel like this is a different time, and people just accept it?
CR: That was my hope. I love that first record Linda Ronstadt did with a mariachi band, it’s beautiful. But as I was working on this album a lot of people would ask me, “Oh, you’re making an album in Spanish, kind of like Linda Ronstadt.” And I’d be like, “Nope, not like that.” The goal with this record was to make something that was true to who I am, which is a half-gringa, half-Chicana, fiddle-playing Rodriguez. When I was first starting out my music career, I didn’t think that hard about what it meant to be a Mexican American fiddle player singing country songs. The longer I’ve done it, the more it’s occurred to me that maybe it is a little unusual. Maybe there aren’t that many other Rodriguezes out there doing this. And if there are, I want to hear more about them and hear them. I had a few different interviewers ask me, “How does it feel to be a Mexican American fiddle player? There aren’t many of you.” And I was like, “Oh yeah, how does it feel?” That’s part of what I was exploring with this record. How do I feel about that? And I think, ”Well, I love country music, I grew up in Texas, and I’m so proud of my Mexican heritage and that music and I feel really proud of how both of those things show up on this record.” That’s what I wanted to do.
JS: Do you have any sense of who your audience is?
CR: So far they are generally a bit older. I think a lot of people heard about me through my collaboration with Chip Taylor [the septuagenarian singer-songwriter best known for “Wild Thing” and “Angel of the Morning”]. Those were older folks, and they stuck with me when I went off on my solo career. If I were to give you a statistic I would say mid-forties to early seventies would be the crowd that comes to see me play. Some Latinas, but predominantly Anglo. But at shows in the last few years I’ve seen a more mixed crowd, a few African Americans. It’s pretty homogenous, as I think Americana is pretty homogenous right now. It’s starting to change, certainly, and I’m hoping to reach a few new people with this record.
JS: You’ve never lived in Nashville, have you?
JS: Does Nashville hold any appeal for you?
CR: No. No. It never has. I love old country music, I’m a big fan of Merle and Willie and Waylon, and there are a few artists today that hearken back to that old country that I like, but wow, what’s coming out of there now, it just confuses me that that connects to people. I really don’t understand. That five people will write a song together and it’s engineered to appeal to this specific demographic— it’s horrible. Really, it’s so bad.
JS: There’s a song on Lola about venues misspelling your name on the marquee, putting an s at the end. “Tell country music where to put the z” is the chorus’s hook. Do you feel like an outsider in the country industry?
CR: I would love to see some more z names in the country music industry. I don’t really understand why there hasn’t been a Latina country star yet. Country music is one of the most popular genres, yet it’s so homogenous. It’s just weird, if you look at the demographics of our country. That’s true even in the small Americana genre that I’m in—I think there are a few Hispanic artists, not too many.
JS: Another song on the album is called “The West Side.” At first I assumed it was going to be about San Antonio’s predominantly Hispanic West Side, where your great-aunt grew up. But it’s not. It’s about your experiences growing up on Austin’s wealthy and largely Anglo west side.
CR: I always felt a little on the outside in my neighborhood. At my elementary school they bussed kids in from the East Side, which was the Hispanic side of town, and it was pretty much low-income kids. The kids from my neighborhood were brutal; they called those kids horrible names, in front of me. They didn’t exactly view me as being Mexican American—they weren’t quite sure about me. So they would call these other kids “wetbacks”—right in front of me! So I had trouble finding my place in elementary school. The kids from the neighborhood didn’t quite accept me as their own, the kids from the east side knew I lived on the wealthy side of town, so they were very leery of me. Then I went to junior high on the east side, and it was the same problem, I was just stuck in the middle. It made for a lot of quiet, alone time and observing.
JS: And practicing violin.
CR: And practicing violin!
JS: It’s a pretty vulnerable song. Was that a tough song for you to write and sing?
CR: It did make me pretty emotional. I think I probably cried at some point when I was singing it back. But it also was very easy to write, strangely enough. Sometimes songs really do write themselves, or it’s almost like you’re channeling it from somewhere else. I think I wrote that song in fifteen minutes. I just sat down and wrote it and then sat back and played it and I was very emotional. I played it for Luke and he was like, “Whoa.” I said, “Is this okay?” And he said, “Carrie, this is the best thing you’ve written. You have to put that on the record, you just have to.”
JS: Did you get anything out of living on the west side of Austin that you might not have gotten elsewhere?
CR: I grew up around a lot of people who had a lot of money and were very unhappy. So many parents in the neighborhood worked 24/7 at jobs they hated. We were one of the poorest families in the neighborhood—my mother was an artist—so I think I learned that doing what you love is more important than having money.
JS: So you were living in New York City from—
CR: Right after 9/11, early 2002, through 2009.
JS: And now you’re back in Austin. What brought you back?
CR: Well, I split up with my ex-husband and I missed my family, especially my grandmother Frances Nail. She was getting up there in years. I knew I had limited time with her, and she was a huge part of my growing up here. I wanted to be near her and my mother and family. And in New York I was on the road so much that I didn’t get to really enjoy being there. And I had to stay on the road all the time to pay rent—it didn’t really make sense to be there.
JS: You’re a new mom. One song on Lola mentions that you once clocked 14,000 miles in a month and a half on the road. As a parent, can you keep up that sort of pace—especially given that your husband tours with you?
CR: We’re not going to put 14,000 miles on the van, no. I’m scheduling a tour that starts in February, and I’m making sure there are days off every two or three days. I’m taking my mother for the first leg of the tour and we’re taking Luke’s mom for the second leg, so we’ll have grandma nannies. I’m talking to people who have done this; I have an idea of how this is going to go, but of course I’m sure it’ll be completely different from what I’m expecting.
JS: You were recording this album pretty far into your pregnancy.
CR: It’s interesting. This was the first album I’ve ever made where I didn’t do one vocal fix. Normally, I sing a song and then later I’ll have to fix a few lines here or there, because I hear a note out of tune or whatever. But for this record, the final take of every single song was the vocal take I did with the band. I think it was something about being pregnant that gave me extra powers of inspiration. I’d have the headphones on and I’d be like [looks down at her belly], “Can you hear that in there?”
JS: How long are you going to wait until getting Cruz involved in music?
CR: Oooh. If he wants to, it’ll be there for him. I have to say, we’re playing him music almost every day. Luke plays him guitar and sings to him when he gets really fussy. It takes one song and he goes from complete meltdown to happy, cooing baby. So I think he likes music, but we’ll see. I would never push it on him, that’s for sure.
JS: You write most of your songs in collaboration. What do your collaborators bring to the table that you need?
CR: They all bring different things. For example, writing with Luke is so different than writing with [Wimberley songwriter] Susan Gibson. Usually when I’m going to write with someone I have a song that’s at least half-formed and I’m stuck. I’ve got a chorus I really like, I know what I want the verses to say, but I can’t quite make the words fit into the puzzle. And that’s when it’s great to take it to somebody who’s hearing it for the first time. Like Susan, for example, when I was working on the song from the new album, “I Dreamed I Was Lola Beltrán,” she just started asking me, “Okay, give me some images—tell me what you’re visualizing this scene with Lola Beltrán [a famous Mexican ranchera singer] and Javier Solis, what do you see?” And I’m like, “Well, I see these black and white photos of my great-aunt and I see this one of her singing on this CBS ribbon microphone.” And then Susan starts writing out these phrases I was saying and puts them together in a way I wouldn’t have thought of and there we have the song finished, whereas I would have labored over it for another three months.
JS: Are your collaborators usually helping you with the words or the music?
CR: Usually the words. I get so stuck on words, maybe because I primarily grew up as an instrumentalist, so the word part is the newest thing for me.
JS: Lola was crowdfunded and self-released, a first for you. How did that happen?
CR: My old record label folded, so I had to either look for a new label or do it myself. I didn’t know what this record would be; I thought it might be all in Spanish, but I wasn’t sure, which made me reluctant to go to a label. So I applied for a couple of grants and didn’t get them. I could have applied for another grant, which would have taken another six months, but I thought, “Dammit, I need to make this record now! I’m pregnant, which means I have a deadline, because I know I’m going to be way too busy once I have this baby.” I looked at crowdfunding websites, but they take a percentage of what you raise. Then Luke said, “Why don’t we do it ourselves? Your fans trust you to use this money for music.” So we made our own website, which was actually fun to do.
JS: And you met your goal.
CR: Yes! I had a lot of intense emotion throughout the fund-raising process, like, “Oh my God, this better be the best record in the world, because these people are giving so much.” And they’re not just giving you their money. They’re giving you their trust.