In conversation with claudia acuña
By Tomas Peña
Born in Santiago and raised in Concepcion, Chile, Acuña began singing Chilean folk/pop, rock, fusion and opera, drawing inspiration from Chilean music pioneers Violeta Parra and Victor Jara. At the age of 15 she discovered her first "outside" musical model: Frank Sinatra. Moving to Santiago in 1991, she immediately gravitated to the local musicians and soon made a name for herself on the jazz scene. Acuña was featured on live radio broadcast while sitting in with visiting musicians Wynton Marsalis, Michel Petrucciani, Joe Lovano and Danilo Perez.
In 1995 Acuña made the move to New York City to fulfill her dreams, where she immediately became a fixture at local jam sessions and stints at various New York haunts, with pianist Harry Whitaker at Arturo's and guitarist Ron Affif at the Zinc Bar and pianist Jason Lindner, her closest collaborator to this day. Acuña was signed to Verve Records in 1999, and recorded her critically acclaimed debut Wind From The South, followed by the much welcomed follow-up, Rhythm Of Life. In 2004, she recorded the beautiful Luna for MaxJazz, where, as noted by the Daily News, "Acuña transforms classics into something provocative and unexpected."
Acuña ‘s latest project, In These Shoes on Zoho, finds her collaborating again with Arturo O’ Farrill, with whom she previously recorded Una Noche Involvidable. Below she discusses this new CD, as well as her career and future plans
Congratulations, I understand that you were recently appointed as the spokesperson for World Vision Chile, an international Christian relief and development organization that delivers humanitarian assistance and operates child-focused development programs.
Being the spokesperson for World Vision Chile is one of my greatest achievements. The organization is dedicated to working with children, families, and their communities worldwide to reach their full potential by tackling the causes of poverty and injustice.
Your last recording was Luna (Max Jazz) back in 2004. What have you been up to since then?
I just signed with Marsalis Music and will be releasing a new recording in January of 2009. The album is mostly in Spanish and consists of bolero’s (ballads), folk music, a tune by Gary McFarland called “Sack Full of Dreams,” a few original compositions and the special guest is (saxophonist) Branford Marsalis.
Congratulations on the release of In These Shoes (Zoho). This recording marks your second collaboration with pianist, Arturo O’ Farrill, the first being Una Noche Involvidable/An Unforgettable Night (Palmetto) in 2005.
It was through that project, which was recorded live at Jazz at Lincoln Center, that the idea for this project came up. It took us a minute to release it but I am glad it’s out. Arturo and I worked really hard on this project.
It sounds like you all had a lot of fun making this recording.
Yes, it was fun! You can hear it in the record. It’s very different from what we usually do. Especially for me, which is why I say it’s not me singing, it’s my alter-ego, Lorena! She’s a crazy girl! (Laughter)
I can see that! The first track (“In My Shoes") reminds me of a tune that Mongo Santamaria and La Lupe did on the recording, Mongo Introduces La Lupe (Milestone, 1993). The tune is called “Besito Pa’ Ti” (“A Little Kiss for You”).
I’m not familiar with that recording. Anyway, it was just fun to connect with the lighter part and go in a lot of different directions. Like Arturo says in his liner-notes: “Ella and Louie, Tito and Celia, why not Arturo and Claudia?” That’s the beautiful thing about collaborating with other artists; you can go in so many directions that you never thought of.
Arturo’s a work horse. I interviewed him a few months ago and I was amazed at his work ethic and his unwavering commitment to the music.
I adore Arturo. It’s been a great gift to be his friend and I am lucky and blessed to work with such a great musician and with someone who is so committed to the Latin community. It has been an honor and I hope it is not the last time that we collaborate on a project.
I noticed a connection between Una Noche Involvidable and In These Shoes. The cover-art on both recordings depicts a pair of shapely legs with spike heels!
Oh my God, that’s true!
Was In These Shoes intended to be a continuation of Una Noche Involvidable?
No, I don’t think so. It’s funny but I never noticed the similarities between the two album covers.
Where did you and Arturo meet?
We met in Cuba.
Do you recall the year?
I remember is that it was before 9/11 and it was at the Cuban jazz festival where they honored Arturo’s father, Chico O’ Farrill.
One of the things that caught my attention about In These Shoes is how much your voice has matured.
Also, your phrasing and articulation are impeccable.
Thank you so much, that means a lot to me. Now that I have been living here for awhile I feel more comfortable in my own skin. Also, I have become more comfortable with the language. Words are powerful in any language, that’s why it’s so important to be articulate. I write songs so I understand what it means to take the time to sit down and write lyrics. Certain things are written in stone and we need to honor that in the best way that we can. Also, articulating things in a certain way makes them mine.
Let’s talk about the wonderful musicians that participated on the project: Arturo O’ Farrill, Pedro “Pedrito” Martinez, Yosvany Terry, Ruben Rodriguez, Michael Phillip Mossman, Dafnis Prieto, and Adam Rogers. Who was responsible for selecting the musicians?
Arturo and I. Arturo had a very clear idea of who he wanted to use and all of those people are friends. Each of them had a beautiful disposition towards the project and they are all amazing musicians in their own right. It was a pleasure and a fun thing to do. Also, it was great singing with Pedrito, he is a great singer. There is one track by Willie Colon and Ruben Blades …
That’s “Dime “(“Tell Me”), a tune that every Latino on the planet should be familiar with.
I was little apprehensive about that tune because it’s a territory that I have never explored. When I told Arturo that I am not a salsa singer, he said, “Honey, we don’t want you to be a salsa singer, we just want you to be you!” In the end it was a lot of fun.
Eddie Palmieri and Brian Lynch did something similar, with the Mexican-American vocalist Lila Downs on The Brian Lynch Eddie Palmieri Project, and it won a Grammy! “Dime” happens to be one of my favorite songs on the album.
While we are it, let’s go through the tracks one-by-one and you tell me your thoughts. How about Dafnis Prieto’s “Vida Sin Miel”?
Some years ago Dafnis gave me two songs. One of them was "Vida Sin Miel." Since Dafnis was involved in the project, I thought it would be a great idea to include it.
“Paciencia” (“Patience”) …
It’s written by a Brazilian composer. We translated the lyrics from Portuguese to English. It speaks about slowing things down and showing patience and appreciation for all things.
“Cuando Cuando” …
There is a beautiful story behind the song. Michael Phillip Mossman brought his beautiful little daughter to the recording studio. At the time she was about 2 ½ or 3 years old and she brought all of this light and energy to the studio. When it was time for me to go in and record I could see her from the recording booth, she was jumping on the couch and dancing and that really inspired me. Whatever beauty and sweetness came from my voice was inspired by her and I thank her for it.
“Agua” (“Water") ….
I love the groove. “Agua.” The theme revolves around being fluid, like water.
“Como dos Amantes” (“Like Two Lovers”) …
That was one of the songs that I was not too thrilled about, but as I sang it I left Claudia in the house and Lorena took over. She had fun acting out the personas that each song brought up.
I like what you did with Van Morrison’s “Moondance” …
I do too. We didn’t try very hard, we just brought this Joropo rhythm from Venezuela and it went so naturally with the lyrics and the vibe, I hope that Mr. Morrison and his fans appreciate what we did with his tune.
(Laughter) It’s a tribute to the West Coast. To be honest it is not one of my favorite songs, but singing with Pedrito was a lot of fun.
“Jibarito” is a classic tune from Batacumbele’s repertoire.
We already talked about “Dime”; the next tune on the list is “La Piye.”
I love that song, especially what we did with the vocalese stuff.
When you look back on your career thus far, what comes to mind?
It makes me want to hug myself and say, congratulations! I have done a lot and I have always tried to do it with a lot of dignity, integrity, passion and love for the music, which is the reason why I have crossed bridges and oceans. My story is typical of many immigrants; what makes my story somewhat different is the fact that I had a very clear vision of why I came. It’s been a great journey, I have met amazing people, amazing musicians, and I have learned a lot and seen the best and worst of humanity …
Welcome to the music business!
Welcome to the world, that’s just the way it is. I love the quote, “Take care of the music and the music will take care of you.” Music saved me; it’s the tool and the energy that keeps pushing me to continue doing what I am doing. There have been many sad moments and even moments where I asked myself, “What the heck am I doing here?” With the way the world is and with the recent shifts in the music business, it hasn’t been easy for anybody, but despite the pain and the disappointments, I like the woman I have become. When I arrived in this country I was part woman and part girl, I was a person who still had a lot to discover. Today I feel comfortable in my own shoes. In the future I hope to become even more comfortable and I hope that I can celebrate the woman, singer and musician that I am. I have dedicated my life to the music and I would do it again if God asked me to die and be reborn tomorrow.
Who are some of the people who inspired you along the way?
It’s been Harry Whittaker, Jason Lindner and so many people that have given me their support. Sometimes a complete stranger will walk up to me and say something that is right on the money. There have been so many people that it would be unfair of me to name just a few. If your senses are open, even walking down the street and breathing can be an inspiration.
What street is that?
Or it could be the opposite, like “Get me out of here!” (Laughter)
I assume that you and Arturo will be touring with the band. Do you have any gigs lined up?
There’s a CD release party in November at Dizzy’s (Jazz at Lincoln Center), but I don’t have the exact date. That’s my favorite room; the people, the vibe, the space the acoustics. We are going to invite people to come down and celebrate this huge effort and put out some good energy and happiness to the world. It would be great to perform with this group at the Heineken Jazz Festival in Puerto Rico.
Before we close, what you are listening to at home, or on your I Pod?
Believe it or not, I have been spending a lot of time in silence; however, I have been listening to my friend Hiram Bullock, who recently passed away, Salif Keita, Ravel and an old recording by Etta Jones called Etta Jones and Strings.
Claudia, it has been a pleasure speaking with you. Good luck with your new endeavor.
It’s been four years since I have made a recording, so it’s great to walk into 2009 with a new recording. 2009 is my year!