guess I expect Juana Molina to be an extrovert. Or someone who gets out—I’m not sure. It’s the quality of the ambience in her music, as open-ended and bustling and recklessly beautiful as a city street at noon. But quiet. Like when you don’t understand a language, so everything around you feels gauzy or muted. The weird meat in front of you is part of the bargain.
I mean, I’ve been to Buenos Aires, where Juana spent a good portion of her life, and it’s amazing: palm trees cluttering the medians, streets full of people being dragged by bouquets of dogs. And strange—I talked my way into a police department building where they housed medical specimens of criminals: tattooed penises, torsos crisped by fire. Don’t ask me what its purpose was, I couldn’t figure it out. Jorge Luis Borges, who composed some of the most mind-searing parables of the 20th century, said he would walk around Palermo Viejo for inspiration, which is doubly curious because he was as blind as wood. In short, Buenos Aires brings soft magic. But for all my meditated poetics, I’m basically wrong, which is always a great place to start when talking to someone about his or her music: dumb dumb dumb.
“No, I don’t really go out from my house, ever. I live outside of the city in the countryside. I usually stay at home every day. I only go out if I really have to, and then I come back. When I have to visit a friend, it’s a big event.”
Juana has used field recordings in the past—of birds, of dogs barking. She once designed a keyboard patch based on the singing of an Argentine dove: “They have a very sad singing. It’s only in the afternoon when it’s very hot—they do this oo, oo sound [her voice drops steadily]; very out of tune, but very full and beautiful.”
“So you don’t go out and make these recordings?”
“I just have to open my window.”
Her sense of place is abstract, her relations, psychological. When I ask her about touring, she focuses on the most volatile, intimate factor: “Sometimes you have a great venue and great cities, but you’re with someone who ruins your life.”
Her last three albums—Segundo, Tres Cosas, and Son—have plenty of reference points for e-z shelf stocking at your local boutique, but all of them gloss those crucial, inward-looking details. Because Juana sings in Spanish, she’s a world musician; because she has an acoustic guitar, she’s a folksinger; because she has a synthesizer—several! And looping machines!—she’s “folktronica.” She doesn’t like the redux, but she’s not really the shouting type. The avant-garde is colorful and stylish and strident; the details in Juana’s music are often stranger and more transcendent, but they ooze and breathe rather than stab you in the ass, so most people tend to listen for five seconds and wonder if it’s flat and genteel enough to go with their new sofa.
When she mows down my opinions about the sense of environment on her records, she explains, “I hope it comes from me.” Minutes later, she talks about her music like it has its own impenetrable biology: “The sound tells me its behavior and what to do with it.” For a foofy, self-mystifying statement, it’s absolutely on-point; her music’s queerest paradox is that it feels incredibly personal, but like it would grow on its own if she left the room. Plants need watering. Think of it that way.
She carves a thesis: “I am a tour guide and at the same time, the tourist.”
“But,” I ask her, “Where are you touring?”
My inner stipulation is that it looks something like scrambled eggs—soft, busy, without pattern. The kind of texture you overlook only to bliss out in when you venture a stare. “When I find a sound, I know I’ve found it because everything becomes one thing. If I am listening to a guitar, and am looking for a sound for the guitar, I’ll see everything as flat—two different drawings, one on top of the other. Suddenly, I’ll find a sound, and everything becomes 3-D.”
The visual context throws me because her music is so sonically vivid; the way her keyboard patches seem to melt over everything is the aural equivalent of an optical illusion; the amnesiac quality of her song structures—she sounds like she’s always surprising, never repeating—makes them as present as meditations. If I gush at any point, it’s to tell her that everything sounds louder and clearer after listening to her music. It’s the same as her experience of the visual: “When I was a girl, I would take the bus to school. And I would always go the same route. So I always saw the same buildings, the same supermarket, the same trees. But then I realized I would always notice the same details—that balcony, that tree, that roof. But then I’d see a building, and wow! I’d never seen that building before—you know what I mean?” Of course I do. No. 1 reason to wake up in the morning. No. 1 reason in advance of the idea of home.
I am trying to explain to Juana the idea of the uncanny: ostensibly, a supernatural-seeming phenomenon that unsettles you because it’s actually taking place on extremely personal terrain. My game-over example will always be a humanoid robot. Juana thumbs her dictionary.
“Strange in a disturbing way; unsettling?”
“That’s sort of a dark or negative connotation. With your music, I feel like there’s something very uncanny at work, but it’s a very positive, lilting sense of the uncanny. Like, I think your music is uncanny because everything feels almost unbearably close and quiet, but often unfamiliar.”
Later, she explains how Son came to be.
“I started to rearrange and reinvent and rearrange songs from Segundo and Tres Cosas with different sounds and different ideas. But then I realized that I was using up all these new ideas on old songs. So whenever I came back from tour, I would just put myself together and record—it’s a different state because you’ve been playing out every night; very different from being alone in your house forever. So I let myself be in that state and just recorded anything that came to mind with the new ideas. And when I sat down to start thinking about Son, and I listened to all the little recordings I’d done between tours, I knew I already had the record done. I had to separate and arrange things a little, but it was basically done. I couldn’t believe it. I was very happy.”
“So the existence of your own record took you by surprise.”
“It was such a strange feeling!”