Raising Brows

The story of folk singer Lila Downs is more complex than you might expect

Photo by Fernando Aceves

Photo by Fernando Aceves

Last November at Mandalay Bay Events Center, Lila Downs dominated the Latin Grammys’ stage with her earth-trembling vocals among a throng of colorfully adorned Mexican folk dancers, not to mention her winning Best Folk Album for 2011’s Pecados y Milagros (Sins and Miracles). NPR has compared her to Woody Guthrie; she’s a songstress weaving past and present, interpreting standards and writing original compositions on more than a dozen albums, including an upcoming project with Carlos Santana. She’ll perform at the House of Blues on September 13, just in time for Noche Del Grito, the holiday celebrating Mexico’s independence from Spain on September 16. Here we talk to the Mexican-born, Minnesota-raised singer about misconceptions, the challenges of cross-cultural collaboration and lessons learned from her time as a Deadhead.

You have a history of beginning your performances with a ritual where you down a shot of mescal. Are you planning to do that here?

We will be performing that song [“Mezcalito”], yeah. It’s a traditional offering to the Mother Earth where we thank her for giving us both miracle and sin.

And in Las Vegas you could get away with an extra shot if you wanted to.

Probably, right? They kind of frown upon me in certain states.

Do fans have a lot of misconceptions about you?

I am a very confusing individual [laughs]. Starting out with my name, I have a very Anglo-American last name and my first name is a bit unusual. Then when people get to know me sometimes they assume that I’m only Mexican-American, but the Indian [Mixtec] part of my personality has become very important in my work and in life; it really centers me. Music is a very important element to teach my own people and also to teach the world about who we are.

You sing in English, Spanish and indigenous languages. Do you make a decision about what language you use for a song or does that come instinctively?

It really depends on the circumstance. Different ethnicities are so interesting to me … I just got done recording a track with two singers: One’s from Spain, her name is La Niña Pastori, and the other is La Soledad, from Argentina. We have been putting an album together, the three of us singing each other’s music. It’s been a challenge singing Andalusian Gypsy music to Argentinian folk music and my own music.

Have there been any memorable hiccups throughout the collaboration?

Oh yeah. We’re all kind of tough ladies, we’re road warriors. Once in a while we look at each other like, “Why did you decide that?” or “Why did you get to say that?” Sometimes we just say things in a particular regionalism. The three of us come from small, provincial places, so it’s complex and simple at the same time. The good thing is not to interpret more than you should. That’s been a great lesson this time around.

In addition to your music career you’re also a mother, but before that you took a break from college to follow the Grateful Dead. If your children grow up and say, “Mom, I want to go follow a band…” what would you say to them?

I’d have to say, “I think it’s very important to drop out sometimes. Then you can objectively look at society and understand it.” Some people do that naturally, but for me it was quite difficult. The Grateful Dead—the whole scene, really—helped me come back to understanding the way we organize as people. Then of course, I found out that everybody is the same [laughs]. Everybody has the same contradictions.