Julieta Venegas: ‘People can’t believe that I wrote “Papito give me more” for Bad Bunny’
The Mexican singer talks to EL PAÍS about her new album ‘Tu Historia,’ her decision to leave Sony Music and why she thinks Rosalía is a ‘goddess’
The orange-tinged light of late summer makes everything it touches more beautiful, including the buildings of a Madrid apartment complex. Through a window, in a living room empty after a photo shoot, Julieta Venegas sits down in front of a laptop. She turns on the camera, and she begins to say hello: “Hello Nicaragua, hello Chile, this is great, Puerto Rico…” On the other side of the screen, hundreds of fans from around the planet have tuned into the premiere of the latest music video from Venegas’s new album, Tu Historia. Julieta is one of the most popular figures in Spanish-language music in recent decades. During the minutes of her livestream, her followers make that very clear. Shortly beforehand, during the interview, Venegas reflected on her drive to be constantly seeking something. Throughout her life, she has cultivated that aspect of her restless personality. It led her to leave Tijuana at 21 years of age to try to make a living with music. “I settled in Mexico City and I put up posters in stores because I wanted to form a group. People contacted me, and I went to houses of musicians that I didn’t know to listen to them play. It was crazy, but nothing bad ever happened,” she remembers.
On the contrary: it was her awakening. With time, she achieved her dream. In 2006, Limón y Sal brought her global fame. After a series of accomplishments, including 10 Latin Grammys, seven MTV awards, two Grammies and two Billboard Music Awards, she left her record label, Sony Music, to go independent. “I need to look for uncertainty, because certainty sends me to sleep. I don’t trust places where everyone’s comfortable. And I’m in a moment of my life and career where I don’t want a giant machine to represent me. I don’t want them to tell me what to do. I want to tell myself. It’s more modest, and I haven’t stopped learning,” she says. She has recently collaborated with the directors Ana and Lola Piñero and singers such as Sen Sera and Bad Bunny.
Question. How did the collaboration with Bad Bunny come about?
Answer. In the middle of the pandemic. I was shut at home in slippers when Tainy, the producer, told me that he wanted me to write a response to a song that Benito sang. I love Bad Bunny and I told him to send it to me quickly. It was a dream.
Q. Your 12-year-old daughter must have been excited.
A. She said to me: “did you write sin miedo papito, ven y dame más [don’t worry Papito, come and give me more]?’” “Of course!” I answered. “If he sang me lo siento bebé, [I’m sorry baby] what am I supposed to say?” I have friends who don’t believe that I wrote that.
Q. Has the figure of women in the music world changed much since you started 25 years ago?
A. Fortunately, yes. There’s no longer someone in the door saying who can enter and who can’t. And female composers have grown a ton. They also choose how they want to present themselves. There is still criticism of ones who are really sexy, but it’s great that they present themselves how they want, if it’s them who decides and not someone behind the scenes. Sexiness and feminism aren’t against each other.
Q. And you composed the song Mujeres (or, Women) due to the rise in feminist marches in Latin America.
A. Yes. I started to see those marches in Buenos Aires, where feminism was a launching point for the rest of Latin America, and I was excited to see how they emerged in Mexico. I know what it is to be afraid as a Mexican woman, and the marches do something in our minds. In them, we realize that we are a political force that can make structural changes. Being in the street together is therapeutic because we have fun, we get angry, we cry for all the dead women and we’re there together. When I saw how the press shifted the focus from the most important part, which is the violence that women experience in Mexico, and placed it on the vandalism saying that feminists are aggressive, I wrote the song.
Q. The song says that the women’s movement is unstoppable.
A. Yes. Feminism is unstoppable, but it goes very slowly. All governments should be allying themselves with it because it’s not just for women, but for all of society. It drives me crazy that the Mexican president, López Obrador, who fights with whoever is against him, doesn’t realize that feminism is about building, questioning and changing things.
Q. In your recent videos, you have only worked with female directors.
A. I wanted to avoid the excessive self-confidence of male directors. I need to work from a certain uncertainty. It gives me more space to figure out where I want to go.
Q. By leaving Sony Music and taking an independent path, you’ve also taken on a lot of uncertainty.
A. Yes, because, for example, now I am not going to get to certain spaces anymore. But did I want to be there, or to find my place? If you write songs, you have to have your feet on the ground and know who you are.
Q. Is that why you moved to a neighborhood in Buenos Aires?
A. Sure. I needed to take my daughter to school, go to the grocery store, cook… and there I decided to do a monologue in a theater for 200 people for six months. Every night I was scared before going onstage. I want to do anything that excites me.
Q. Literature is another pillar of your life. You did the podcast Pila de libros (or Pile of Books), you share your reading on GoodReads and you were the last guest editor of Editorial Barret.
A. I’m a songwriter because I became a reader first. Literature changed my life. And because I know that’s possible, I dedicate time to promoting it. In my case, it wasn’t because of one book in particular. I started reading Corín Tellado in the magazine Vanidades when I was seven years old, to know that I could imagine something by reading a few lines seemed incredible to me.
Q. If you look back, what incredible things have happened in your life?
A. The audacity to go live in Mexico City when I was 21. The impulse to stay and not return to Tijuana.
Q. You’ve said that “it’s difficult to get out of childhood unharmed” and that “along with adolescence, it is a phase that defines us.” Was that your case?
A. Yes, because we start to define who we are when we confront our family. I love them, but as a teenager I was really unhappy. I didn’t like living in Tijuana, and I felt like I belonged somewhere else.
Q. And you have a twin sister.
A. Imagine the level of denial! I clearly was part of that family, and I feel really normal thanks to them. My father is a wedding, event photographer. He has always considered himself an artisan, not an artist. Me too.
Q. And what do you feel like you are?
A. I write songs and make music.
Q. In the album Tu Historia, you sing more about heartbreak than in others. What do you attribute that to?
A. Maybe it was because of the pandemia. I’m a theorist of love. Ask me whatever you want. In love stories we tell about our humanity. But on the album there’s a really furious and humorous ranchera. You have to laugh at spite, like when something painful happens to you. My songs always have humor to accept certain things.
Q. The album is called Tu historia or Your Story. Why?
A. I’m in a moment of my life where I don’t want to ignore anything I’ve experienced. Many times I’ve put things aside to keep going, but not anymore. Everything builds you, teaches you and makes you who you are. The important thing is to embrace mistakes. Why suffer for things you’ve already done? You have to accept the person that you’ve been and what you’ve learned from those experiences. It doesn’t make sense to pretend that you haven’t experienced anything.
Q. Do you take that advice?
A. No. I’m really good at giving it and very different at taking it. Often I write songs like advice to myself: first I think about it, I get an idea and then I put it into practice. My songs come out of that reflection.
Q. Has your age ever weighed on you?
A. Only between 19 and 20, because I felt that I’d gotten super old. That hasn’t happened again, and I always think that the best age is the one that I am, because I enjoy changes a lot. Because of the media, we’re used to idealizing youth, but there’s a lot more than that.
Q. You are an icon. Who is an icon for you?
A. Marisa Monte inspires me, as well as young people like Rosalía. She is exceptional, a goddess. The other day, I didn’t feel well before going out to sing and I thought: “May the goddess Rosalía take care of me.” Sometimes I write her on Instagram like, “Te amoooooooo” [I love you].