Silvana Estrada: ‘People care less and less about women being killed, about the violence’

The Mexican singer talks about her career, her evolution, her growth on stage and what her future holds

Silvana Estrada
Silvana Estrada in Madrid in July 2021.SANTI BURGOS
Alonso Martínez

On stage, Silvana Estrada is a storyteller. When she sings, her facial expression provides a clear view of the feelings that lie behind her songs. Her entire body becomes part of the music, from the way she handles a guitar or a cuatro (a typical Venezuelan instrument) to her body’s slight spasms. She perfectly conveys the suffering, the pleasure, the joy and the hope of her lyrics. Stories that anyone can relate to. In this way, the bond between artist and spectator becomes closer. Her performance grabs you and it doesn’t let go until the poem has come to an end. “I pay attention to my people. To my musicians and the audience,” she tells EL PAÍS on a video call as she prepares to embark on a new tour of Europe. “That is nice: going to a concert and someone being aware of you. That the person who is singing to you thinks: ‘I want you to have a good time.’” And she is clear about her job.

For this singer born in the Mexican city of Coatepec, Veracruz, vulnerability and intimacy during her show are a key part of the experience as a performer. Through her passionate storytelling, she manages to make people open up and experience everything the song means. “Not all my songs are sad, but I notice that people cry a lot, and I think it is because usually there is no space where a person can be vulnerable as part of a group.” What she sees is a different kind of intimacy, one that can be achieved on a massive scale. The energy generated by this offers, in her own words, “healing.”

With this way of looking at music, it is no surprise that Estrada performs to sold-out venues, including two recent dates at Mexico City’s Teatro Metropólitan, where she played before an audience eager to experience this energy. And no one is left out. Estrada’s songs are universal because they explore a topic that “we have been singing about for centuries”: love. “I think that love has a lot of political value, especially regarding identity,” she says. This notion fits with the reception and support that the artist has received from feminists and the LGBTQ+ community. In this way, healing can become something more inspiring: “Music has the power to bring hope back to any social struggle,” she says. “There is a whole series of values that are linked to art, which can also be linked to the struggle and to social change. When everything else fails, a song won’t.”

Inspired by these movements, the singer is aware of the social need for music and other types of art. “Today and always, we need contexts and situations that connect us with beauty. Love automatically connects you to the beautiful things in life. I think we are living in a moment, both in Mexico and the world, of so much haste, so much pressure, work, violence, dehumanization… in Mexico, I feel that we are debasing ourselves. Ever since I was a child, I’ve been witnessing a process: people care less and less about women being killed, about the violence,” she says. Then she quotes Chilean singer Violeta Parra, one of her greatest inspirations: “Love takes us back us to the beauty of the world.”

What makes her work great is a combination of music and poetry that goes beyond pop love songs. While the former lets her connect with her audience, the latter is “an inward journey.” A song that is made up of both elements “is the most precious thing I have to offer the world.”

Her journey

Silvana Estrada’s path, just like her way of telling things, has been special. As the daughter of two luthiers and musicians from Cordoba, Veracruz – a place with a long musical tradition – this form of art has been part of her life since she was a child. Son jarocho, a genre native to the state of Veracruz that is related to the Afro-descendant culture of the area and that is usually combined with dance and poetry, has been her longest influence. Since then, she has had a constant sense of exploration, learning about the musical roots or the sounds from other parts of Latin America and the world. She studies enough to integrate it organically into her music; in her own words, she adapts, according to the different artistic needs she might have at certain times.

Her brief academic career took place at the University of Veracruz in Xalapa, where she studied jazz and met acclaimed musician Charlie Hunter, with whom she recorded her first album, Lo Sagrado, in 2017, which attracted the attention of many listeners. That recording revolved more around jazz than what she grew up listening to, and it did not focus on the lyrics of the songs, a part that she now considers essential. “That was a turning point. I care about the lyrics, I want people to understand them, to be moved, not to be impressed by the band.” She recorded another album with Hunter, but she distanced herself from those types of sounds.

Estrada dropped out of college and broke away from jazz to start working on her third album, Marchita. It was during this period, she says, that she found her place. She met her faithful producer, Gustavo Guerrero, who shares her vision of focusing on the voice. He took it upon himself to materialize her ideas. For that album they built “a wooden world, with strings, double bass and the cuatro, all made of wood and organic.” The songs were also recorded in a wooden house, with a focus on space. Listening to the songs, one feels close to the voice and to each instrument; it is like being in the same room where they were performed.

That work earned her a nomination for Best Singer-Songwriter Album and the award for Best New Artist at the 2022 Latin Grammys, which she shared with the nonagenarian artist Ángela Álvarez. After the release, she launched its “appendix,” the EP Abrazo, also produced by Guerrero.

The producer is one of the most important elements for her current music. He is her accomplice in her constant search, with a clear understanding of her creative process. “I understand that a very special sensitivity is necessary to really comprehend where music can go. For me, working with Gustavo symbolizes a path of great respect and exploration, and at the same time I feel that it is a very generous process in which we allow ourselves to try different things.” As in any relationship, communication is paramount: “Our process begins with us sitting down to talk and show each other music, and then, when it’s time to work, it’s all very careful, respectful of the processes and of the musicians.”

Her bond with the musicians that take part on her recordings, as well as those who accompany her on stage, is also key to her role as a storyteller. “Even though the arrangement is built a certain way, we always play with things. It’s important to me because I perform many times a year, so it’s important to play, to have the spark and explore. They let me do it and they play with me.”

What lies ahead

Silvana Estrada is getting ready for a year of releases. Several singles where she explores different sounds will come out, followed by a new album in 2024, which will lean more towards pop. “It is no longer a dark thing. It’s much lighter. They are songs that I made during the pandemic, alone in my house, and they all have humor,” she explains. “They are kind of a search for love, but also to find out what it is that we are all doing here, really.” This approach of a more accessible sound comes from the fact that Marchita’s sound was so unique that it was important to create a separation. “That is my search now,” she says.

The singer is also preparing for a tour of Europe, where she has found many followers, as well as in the United States and Latin America. However, she reflects on her native country. Although she recently sold out two dates at the Teatro Metropólitan, one of the most important venues in Mexico City, with a capacity of 3,165 people, she feels that something is missing. “My dream right now is to be able to tour Mexico. To go to Veracruz, Oaxaca, Chiapas. To do a real, solid tour. It’s my time [...]. I hope that the next few years will be more about making a record that does well, winning an award, making music for a movie, acting. Those things that one dreams about... sometimes they happen, sometimes they don’t.” She pauses. “When they do, it’s quite good.”

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