The Ponderers – Interview: Vivian Garcia

“With you around

I got just what I need.”

It’s always wonderful to catch a musical act that moves you to the point of feeling something on a deeper level, whether about the music, the moment or yourself. Such is the case when listening to Chicago-based musician, Vivian Garcia, whose powerful command of acoustic guitar, along with her smoky and sultry voice, make the world seem so much better to be in. Her songs are an alluring fusion of Latin rhythms, blues and flamenco with nods to hip hop and electronica. It’s exhilarating, intoxicating and beyond empowering.

We had a chance to ask Garcia a few questions about her experiences in music, her album Cold Bed, her work with other musicians and about a new video released for the song, “Loc@s,” which is a collaboration with Chicago singer-songwriter, Armando Perez (Jugo De Mango, ¡Esso! Afrojam Funkbeat).

Has your Cuban background had an impact on the type of music you’ve chosen to perform?

Yes, it is true, both my parents were born in Cuba, but they did not really listen to Cuban music at home. If anything, when I think about it, my grandmother always had Dean Martin and Nat King Cole in the background. It was not until I got to college that Latin music became a focus for me. I ended up at Northwestern at a time when there were only four percent Latinos so cultural identity became more pronounced in my life. I started listening to music in Spanish. It was a wonderful eye opener for me as far as learning about music from all over the Spanish speaking world.

You have a unique style and it’s great to see it evolve and become more complex the more you perform. Can you explain the process you go through when deciding what elements you’ll include in a song?

I have been a gigging musician since 1999. I first began singing with a group we called Mezcal. Actually, some of the current and past members of El Payo were in that ensemble. I only sang at the time; a mixture of ballads (boleros) and rumba-flamenco Gipsy Kings covers. I had taken some guitar lessons but was nowhere near ready to play and sing until years later. I moved from Chicago to Florida from 2001-2005 continuing to perform the same style of music until my last year there when I joined a party band that played anything from covers of Ozomatli and Yerbabuena to Tower of Power and James Brown. It was the beginning of a new way of singing for me. It was so exciting to perform such a range of styles.

In 2006, after returning to Chicago, I decided to really make a big move musically. I wanted to really learn to accompany myself on guitar so I left my full-time job and took the little I had saved to move to Granada, Spain for three months to study flamenco guitar. Uff… I may have had some good times at night but the day time was intense. Two hours a day of just guitar technique and then returning the next day to learn new material kicked my butt. There was no dearth of tears during that time. While I still don’t perform flamenco puro (it takes a lifetime to master) that experience gave me the boost of confidence in my skills to take to the stage and accompany myself, and even some dancers, for a time.

So, after many years of varying musical experiences, I have finally given myself permission to mix and meld at will. I used to be afraid to sing the blues or flamenco for fear of bastardizing the music of other cultures but I am becoming comfortable in my skin and feel like if it is something that feels authentic internally, that will be outwardly apparent. These days, if something starts off folky or bluesy I don’t shun it, I welcome it and let the music flow through me as diverse as the sounds of this great city. I have to say working with ¡Esso! has stoked the fusion fire even more. I am really excited to be a part of this band and can’t wait to share our upcoming album which has everything from cumbia to house music and all kinds of stuff in between. What an amazing gift it is to work with a group of musicians with such depth and breadth of knowledge of theory and genres.

Tell me about Cold Bed and why it was recorded in another country.

Well, funny story. I moved to Madrid to pursue and M.A. in Spanish literature and ended up focusing on writing an album in English and performing in Irish pubs! I had wanted to live in Spain for an extended period of time since I was 18 and finally, at the ripe young age of 35, I made it happen. I loved my visits to Andalucia a few years prior to study guitar and was enamored with the culture. When I got to Madrid, I did not know a single person. Nope. Not a one and so all of a sudden this dream to live abroad, this amazing beautiful experience also engendered feelings of loneliness and homesickness. I had not been in a relationship in sometime and not having a partner to share with made those feelings that much more magnified. More out of a necessity to grapple with my range of emotions than anything else is where some of these songs were born.

I have always been one who writes in journals but there were feelings and emotions that I could only express melodically. It sort of did not matter lyrically at this point. I needed to sing some melodies and the words just started to flow to match…

Honestly, these days when I play “Cold Bed,” the title track, I can barely remember writing it. I do recall sitting on my couch on a chilly day in the fall (my apartment had no heater) and strumming some chords but I have a hard time recalling, even writing, the lyrics. No joke, I feel like it is just a song that always was.

Some of the other tracks are more memorable. I do recall writing “Your Smile” one day sitting on a park bench in Plaza de España waiting to record with my friend Peter Muller. We met at an open mic and began doing some no/low pressure recording sessions and I had a couple of chords floating in my head and just sort of wrote the verses while watching some people go about their walks. These recording sessions led to a friendship and musical partnership which was instrumental in my feeling brave enough to record my first full length album of original music.

Does the work you do outside music, and what you’ve studied, influenced your songwriting?

Hmm… interesting questions. Well, I try not to think too much about what I studied when I write because if I did I would never share anything! Having pursued degrees in the study of literature in both in English and Spanish, I feel quite embarrassed at the simple and repetitive style of my songs. Though sometimes I realize there are some techniques present that I did not intend to use but which have worked their way into my speech and writing after years of study. I don’t think I will ever be a great story teller like some of the great songwriters, but I am happy just having some heartfelt lyrics to use as a means of emoting and evoking certain sentiments via my voice.

You have a new video for the single “Loc@s,” which includes Armando Perez. What was that experience like and how did you all manage to put out a song and video so quickly?

I met Armando a few years back at a party we were both hired to perform. I was playing with our mutual friend Domenichi Morris, who would eventually join Esso, before moving to California. We got to jam a little that night and that was the beginning of future shows together. We played some shows together at People’s Lounge and a few other venues during my breaks home while I was living in Spain. Pretty much as soon as I returned from Madrid, Armando and I set up a time to catch up and jam and I came to him with some chords and a rhythm and based on that, and our discussions, he began composing lyrics and within a few weeks we had a song! He is an amazing songwriter and composer so this track was quite fun to make.

We both really liked the catchy sound of the track and so did our friend and filmmaker, Alonzo Alcaraz. I sent it to him artist to artist while it was still a work in progress and he liked it so much he asked to include it in a short film he was writing at the time called Lex. He used my song “Cold Bed” in his short Albert and had independently worked with Armando for music on that film as well. It was a no brainer. I asked if he could shoot a video for “Loc@s” in return for using it in the soundtrack and a sweet deal was struck.

Alonzo happens to be close friends with my brother in law, Hector Ivan Garcia, who has a degree in film from Columbia College and he was to be the director for the video. Because we are all friends, and all driven people, we were able to make this video happen quite quickly. Incorporating footage from the actual short film Lex, definitely expedited the process and allowed for the video to also be a trailer of sorts for the second part of Alonzo’s film trilogy.

In the time you’ve grown as a musician in Chicago, how have you seen the music community change, if at all?

I began singing in Chicago in 1999 and moved to Sarasota, Florida, from 2001 to 2005. I again moved, this time to Spain from 2010 to 2013. Because of this transient aspect of my life, it is hard to get a good read on the “scene” as it were, in the city. I feel like each time I return I am starting over though at least I have friends and family here.

I would say that the number of venues to perform world music is shrinking.  It can be tough to get new shows because the places that support live music tend to keep the same bands in rotation.  I don’t think that is specific to Chicago, it is the nature of the business in general.

As far as musicians go, I personally have been lucky to collaborate with people who work in other bands. There is a willingness to share talent. It is out of necessity and I think open mindedness. People know that it is tough to make a living as a full-time musician so you know if you are in a band with someone, more than likely they will need to be working on other projects, too.

Since this will be part of The Ponderers series, can you tell us some of the females (artist or non) that have contributed to your poder de mujer chingona?

Wow, there really are so many women whose journeys inspire me daily. In college, my best friend was Maryam Keshavarz. We both changed quite a bit because of our friendship. I took her to poetry readings and invited her to my experimental theater performances and she opened my eyes to the world of travel. Were it not for meeting her I don’t think I would have envisioned myself being able to make my way to Europe or otherwise. The influence does not stop there. She went on to pursue film and in 2011 I was blessed to accompany her to Valladolid, Spain and Rome, Italy to receive awards for her film Circumstance which also won an  audience award at Sundance. She continues to do great things as a director and screenwriter and her ethic and vision inspire me to push forward in my own artistic endeavors.

I would also definitely have to say my sister. I would not be where I am now without all of the support she has offered in recent years during all of my moves from city to city, out of the country, and leaving full-time work to pursue my music. She is an amazing mom and full time worker who keeps her nuclear and extended family going.

As for vocalists, I am greatly influenced and inspired by the work of Nina Simone, Mercedes Sosa and Lila Downs. There are many others but these women and their voices and visions have played a great role in my own development as a singer.

What can we expect from you musically for the rest of 2014?

Currently, ¡Esso! is recording an album that will be released near the end of 2014, beginning of 2015. I am featured on a few of the tracks and sing chorus on many others. I’ve also been writing a few more folk-blues songs and hope to have a solo album out in 2015. There are a few DJs interested in collaborating with me in the very near future. I don’t want to jump the gun and name anyone yet before we can collaborate, but they are exciting prospects! I hope to continue gigging during the year as a solo act as well as with ¡Esso!  I am excited to be on this musical journey and having gone away for a while has allowed me to return with new experiences and influences under my belt.

Upcoming performances?

Every fourth Thursday of the month at Underground Wonder Bar. (I perform a solo set from 8:00 -10:00 p.m. and then sing with ¡Esso! from 10:00 p.m. – 1:00 a.m.  September 6 – Villapalooza with ¡Esso!

Vivian Garcia on Bandcamp

Vivian Garcia on Facebook

Vivian Garcia on Soundcloud