The scene at Sound Generation studio in New York's West Village was one of anticipation as Mexican newcomer Ximena Sariñana prepared to make her live American radio debut on public radio mainstay KCRW. A crew from the Santa Monica, Calif., station was on hand, both as the official radio sponsor of the Latin Alternative Music Conference and to spotlight some of the most buzzed-about artists who were showcasing, among them 22-year-old Sariñana. For months, the former telenovela starlet's debut, Mediocre, had been receiving regular airplay on KCRW, and now Nic Harcourt, host of the station's Morning Becomes Eclectic, would introduce Sariñana to their listeners around the nation.
The night before, Sariñana substantiated all the hype when, at the Lower East Side's Bowery Ballroom, she delivered a stunning performance that left the audience enthralled and justified her swift ascent from a little-known Mexico City rock band called Feliz No Cumpleaños to a promising solo career. Even as the band experienced a minor technical problem during the set, Sariñana's coy apology and her quirky, childlike demeanor perfectly demonstrated her appeal: a mix of youthful modesty and spellbinding talent anchored in a powerful voice and an undeniable indie streak. Sariñana is Latin alternative music's latest It Girl, and she has some of the Latin world's most innovative and renowned sound gurus backing her.
Prolific Argentine producer Tweety González, who, along with Uruguayan programmer Juan Campodónico, produced Mediocre, sees Sariñana as the kind of gifted artist that rises above the rest. "She writes songs that are very mature for her age," says González, sitting next to me in the control room as Sariñana and her band huddle to decide on a set list. "Musically she's very cultured; she's very well-educated, musically. And she sings …" González pauses. "She makes me cry. There were days in which she made me cry. There's an innocence in her voice that is not very common."
The story of how Sariñana, a privileged upstart born into Mexico City's artistic upper crust (she's the daughter of film director Fernando Sariñana and screenwriter-producer Carolina Rivera) reflects the way in which musical collaborations are often initiated in today's world. Sariñana contacted González on MySpace and within a week she was on a plane headed for Buenos Aires to meet with him. They worked together on a film soundtrack, and about a year later they embarked on Mediocre.
"This album was an experiment for me in trying to be as honest as possible," says Sariñana, sitting on the hallway floor of the studio, minutes before the live broadcast. "I used to be very afraid to write, because it's something very personal and I didn't like what came out of me. I tried to break with that totally — that's why this album has very intimate songs. I wanted to bring that out, accept it, and love myself in it more each time."
Not only do the lyrics exhibit a remarkable depth for someone her age, they also harbor a keen understanding of composition and melodic structure.
While the nuances and range of her voice echo Edith Piaf and Ella Fitzgerald (a comparison Sariñana has a hard time accepting), she's no throwback to a bygone era of female sirens. Sariñana's vocal underpinnings are edgy and contemporary, and her themes deal with postmodern preoccupations. Mediocre is a deftly crafted alt-pop record, but it's the electronic embellishments, dub effects and jazz trimmings — in the form of loose piano lines, subtle tempo changes and vocal improvisations — that make it unique.
On the cover of Mediocre Sariñana sits on a red velvet chair, dressed in a stuffy navy polka-dot dress, a string of pearls around her neck, needlepoint embroidery in her hand and a blank stare on her face. She's the picture of '50s conformity, the idealized image of the Latin woman, and it's a thread she weaves into "Normal," cooing of having her man's dinner ready and filling his cup.
This facade of normalcy belies a deep-seated pathos in songs that bristle with themes of insecurity and self-acceptance, validation and escapism. It's a world in which love is always unfulfilling, and words are stripped to their essence. "I used to write with a lot of metaphors," Sariñana says, "so I enjoyed experimenting with a more direct side."[email protected]