Taking the High Road with SLV

Feature photo by Carolina Sanchez

Sonically speaking, the landscape of SLV’s 2018 breakthrough Piece of Mind is set to reflect a perfectly blended aura of worldly-folk-hip-hoptronica-rebel-ballads. Lyrically layered en español y ingles, Sandra Lilia Velasquez has bridged a gap where we may just need it the most. It is powerful, yet it is gentle. It is as empowering as it is radical. It is equal parts jam city and dance party essentials with thought-provoking intellectual art and eclectic production to boot.

The activist spirit is alive and well and oozes from every nook and cranny with an uncanny accessibility for such subject matter. She wants to be gracious and wants to be kind, and she was both enough to us, shedding light on her latest solo jewel, artistic inspiration, new music(!), and much much more below in our interview. Please enjoy…

Terry: First of all, a million billion congratulations on the new album. Piece of Mind is a triumph in so many ways (you can read all about how much I love everything about it above). Tell us about your process for creating the album, from inception to completion. 

SLV (Photo by Shervin Lainez)

SLV: Thank you for your kind words! When others can resonate with my art I feel fulfilled. Piece of Mind was supposed to come out a year ago. Then the election happened. Everything changed. What was originally going to be another album of personal & love songs felt irrelevant. Rewind: When I was fronting PISTOLERA, I became known for my socially conscious & political lyrics. In music, once you become known for something, people expect it – they think it’s all you are. So, with SLV I thought I was exploring a more personal side of myself and moving away from politically minded lyrics. I guess not!

I went back to the finished album and deleted all the vocal tracks. The music stayed the same, but I rewrote all the lyrics to reflect my feelings on the current state of things. I started rapping out of nowhere. Maybe that’s what happens when you have a lot to say.

What was some of the inspiration for the album? 
I am trying to merge all the sounds and feels that I like. I grew up in SoCal with west coast hip-hop, rock, and Latin music, but I also love string parts. I’m not sure it’s a cohesive sound just yet, but I’m trying to merge all of the comfort sounds I have inside but make them feel new and of course pair them with uncomfortable feelings that need to be expressed.

You seem to have truly found your voice on this output. Strong, unifying, powerful, creative, rebellious, revolutionary, vulnerable, did I mention strong? How would you yourself describe your own lyrical content?
I have come to accept that having a musical voice is a constant process of self-discovery and there is perhaps no arrival. I thought I had “found my voice” with Pistolera too, but then I grew and I actually felt confused and torn. Am I not who I thought I was? Can I be more than one thing? Part of the message on this new album is embracing and celebrating all of my different sides. This is what the song Barras De Oro is about. I am Chicana, I am a New Yorker, I am a mom, I am the child of immigrants and activists, I am a songwriter but also an entrepreneur.  The struggle for me musically is how to merge all of these things into a cohesive presentation. I say this cautiously: I feel like I’m getting closer to speaking all of my truths. I am also learning to let go of expectation and unearth what actually makes me feel fulfilled.

How has the reception been for the album? How was the West Coast tour? What was your biggest takeaway from the tour?
I just did a short West Coast tour and intentionally booked the shows at non-traditional spaces that were partially artist talk-back sessions. I came with questions for the audience! It was rad. I felt like I got to really connect with people and hear about how they navigate this crazy world. How do you stay informed and engaged but also sane?

I am an independent artist so I do everything myself and didn’t really spend too much energy trying to get reviews. The reception to the live shows we’ve done so far has been positive and engaging.

I think it’s the shortest song on the album, but to me the repetition of “No es facil” and “Yo Soy de Aqui” on the track by that name packs the longest lasting impact. It’s beautiful and evokes truth and emotion in a way few songs can. I swear I had a question in there somewhere, but I just put the song on again and again and got lost in it. I know you re-wrote most, if not all, the songs for Piece of Mind after the election. Was that one of the songs that was re-written post-election or had those sentiments been brewing prior?
Yo Soy De Aqui was written last actually, It was inspired by my fascination with people’s profound sense of home. It’s two-fold. One: my good friend lost contact with her family in Puerto Rico after the hurricane. Her goal was to locate them and get them off the island, of course. But when she finally made contact with them it turned out they didn’t want to leave. That really struck me because we see this in other places: people’s deep connection to their home is so strong that even when it’s really bad they don’t want to leave it. Second: Everything that is going on with immigration in this country is so infuriating. Who gets to draw the lines and decide where people’s homes are is endlessly unjust. I’ve always said: No one gets to choose where they are born. If you were born somewhere shitty you would try to leave too. This notion that somehow there isn’t enough for everyone is a lie. There is plenty of room and resources. Some people are just greedy.

SLV (Photo by Shervin Lainez)

Do you have a favorite song on the album?
I’ve really enjoyed performing Tippy Tap live. Perhaps because I get to come from behind the keyboard and just sing.

Do you have a favorite moment from the tour?
I did three artist talk-back sessions on the tour and all of them were memorable. It’s humbling to be vulnerable with your audience and I think it is for them too. I was honest with all of them and told them I came with more questions than answers. I feel like we helped each other.

What is your favorite song to perform both off of the new album and from your catalog?
There’s actually some new songs I had to write to extend the set for the tour that I’m really enjoying! One is called Greed + Power and the other is called ENERGIA. From this album, I’m really enjoying performing Barras De Oro, High Road, and Tippy Tap.

Seriously though, the album is so good. When Let it Slide comes to its conclusion, the ebbs and flows that exist from song to song perfectly come together, completing one of the best projects we’ll hear all year. Was it a conscious decision to include many different tempos and sounds and sonic atmospheres throughout the project?
You are too kind. Let It Slide was the only song whose lyrics I did NOT change! It’s still a personal song about acceptance and letting go. One thing I heard recently was that our personal failures are actually part of our path to success. They are not a deviation, they are actually stepping stones. This was a mind shift for me. If you can use all of the things that did NOT go your way as opportunities to learn and grow, that is something really valuable that you can share with others. Regarding the sounds and tempos, I’m still old school and think of an album as one body of work that is meant to be listened to from start to finish. I care about vibe!

Tell us about The Decolonization Project and your involvement with that…
A friend of mine in Sacramento put me in touch with several great people in the Sacto area. I indicated I was interested in performing in non-traditional spaces and engaging with the community. She recommended The Decolonization Project. The project itself happens inside the Washington Neighborhood Center which is historic in itself. There was a Brown Berets meeting happening in a different room at the same time as my show. And when we left there was a baile folklorico rehearsal. A real community center! The fact that people would come and sit in a brightly lit raw space to hear me play and talk was really cool!

I wanted to ask you a couple questions about Moona Luna too, a project I was just informed about recently as well. How did you decide you wanted to do a project as such? And what do you think the most important aspect of that project is?
Moona Luna is just Pistolera for kids. It’s the same band and very similar musical style. My former manager noticed that there were always kids dancing in front for Pistolera shows and suggested I make a kids album. So I did and it took off!

Moona luna is really rewarding because we get a lot of opportunities to play for families and youth that don’t otherwise have access to live concerts. I also made the lyrics bilingual to make it educational. Moona Luna is doing a residency in St. Paul next month where we play 10 shows in 5 days. We are also going to perform as Pistolera for a nighttime show.

What was it like working with Meshell Ndegeocello (who produced SLV’s debut EP Dig Deeper)? 
Working with Meshell was really insightful. The main takeaway was learning to leave SPACE in the songs. The demos I took to her and what came out was pretty different. I wish I had more time with her. I need to send her the new album!

How did you get started making music? If you were not making music, what would you be doing? My parents forced me to play piano when I was 5! When I was 15 someone asked me to join their band and the rest is history. I really like being in a band. I love being on tour. I love all of it. It would be helpful to have booking help, but I’ve come to accept the challenges. I would like to find new ways that I can be of service with my music. I have come to learn that life is a giving game. It’s not about getting more fans, more likes, more press, it’s about asking, “how can I be of service in this situation?” In the end, we are here to help each other and to grow.

Who are your Top 10 artists, any medium, any era? 10 artists you just couldn’t live without… Wow. This is hard. I can’t live without Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Manu Chao, Stevie Wonder, Lauren Hill, A Tribe Called Quest, Digable Planets, Bob Marley, Ana Tijoux, Peter Gabriel, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan As Policewoman, Pink Floyd. I know that’s actually 13:)

How has Brooklyn been treating you? What’s your favorite part about being there?
There is truly no city like NYC. The arts & culture, the diversity, the energy. But I’ve been here for 18 years and I ready to go back to California actually! But my daughter is starting middle school next year so I’m here for a while longer. I can’t really complain since I get to leave town pretty often. I miss Chicanos and I don’t like winter!
I don’t know if you’ve noticed, buuuuuuut: You are loved by many in Chicago.? We know we’re on your list, but inquiring minds wonder: When are you coming through for a show?
Chicago has always been good to me! I need to find an anchor gig to get us out there. Please send all recommendations! Colleges, festivals, performing arts centers are good places to look! I want to come before it gets cold. We’ll do workshops, talk backs, we are flex!