Mon Laferte wants to give you goose bumps
By Jon Pareles
Chilean songwriter Mon Laferte has a voice for every passion. She can engage the personal and the political; she can coo a romantic ballad or spearhead a hard-rock attack. Her voice can tease, bite, whisper, croon, rasp or rise to a banshee wail. It can, and does, go straight to the heart.
In Latin America, Laferte, 38, has built a career that began with pop cover songs in 2003, moved into hard rock and has since spanned rockabilly, salsa, bolero, ranchera and psychedelia, just for starters. She often performs wearing vintage-style formal dresses with a flower in her hair, while her bare shoulders show off her tattoos.
“Every person is a universe,” Laferte said on a video call, speaking through a translator. “I love to do these different voices because it represents all of my personalities: when I’m fragile, when I’m stronger, when I’m fun, when I’m upset. And that is what I want to do. That is what art is. I want to transmit all of these feelings and have people feel as much as I do. And I want them to get goose bumps when they hear my songs.”
Laferte — her full name is Norma Monserrat Laferte Bustamente — was productive through the pandemic. This year, she has released two very different albums, she is touring North America and she is set to perform today at the Latin Grammys.
She recorded “Seis” (“Six”) in 2020 as the quarantine was beginning in Mexico. Released in April, the album delves into vintage Mexican regional styles — norteño, banda, mariachi — backed largely with acoustic instruments. And on Oct. 29 Laferte released the very distinct “1940 Carmen,” named after the Airbnb in Los Angeles where she recorded it. The new album embraces Southern California folk-pop and includes her first songs in English.
Metallica invited Laferte to contribute to “The Metallica Blacklist,” a benefit album with remakes of the metal band’s songs on the 30th anniversary of “Metallica,” widely known as the Black Album. Her Spanish-language version of “Nothing Else Matters” — the first song she learned on the guitar she got when she was 9 years old — turns it into an Andean-flavored waltz with traditional Chilean instruments.
In 2020, Laferte, who has lived in Mexico for more than a decade, had moved to the rural town of Tepoztlán, where one of Mexico’s most cherished ranchera singers, Chavela Vargas, spent her last years. A documentary about Vargas seized Laferte’s imagination, and during quarantine, she set up a studio at her house, later adding orchestral and brass-band arrangements via remote sessions. Guitarist Sebastián Aracena, who is in Laferte’s touring band, co-produced “Seis” and also played on “1940 Carmen,” which Laferte produced herself.
“With ‘Seis,’ it was March and April of last year,” Aracena said via video call. “We didn’t know what was going to happen. There was no vaccine, no nothing. Mon told me, ‘Can you come to the house for a week and maybe just hang out and see what we can do?’ And I stayed for four months. It was all very natural. It’s so easy because she knows what she wants.”
On “Seis,” Laferte harks back to the volatile drama of Vargas’ performances for songs of her own about women’s power, desire, pain and perseverance, both in relationships and in larger struggles. “Se Va la Vida” (“Life Goes Away”) is about female prisoners in Chile, and in “La Democracia” (“Democracy”), Laferte growls, “Where did it go? Somebody stole it.”
Aracena said, “Her social awareness makes her special. She’s very smart in terms of looking at society and understanding the sociocultural emotion, and her lyrics can really teach you to feel the people’s emotion.”
Laferte has long been outspoken. At the Latin Grammys in 2019, where she won best alternative album for her 2018 release “Norma” — a tour-de-force album that riffled through diverse Latin idioms but was recorded live in the studio in a single day — Laferte protested human-rights violations in Chile by baring her chest on the red carpet to reveal the written words, “In Chile, they torture, rape and kill.”
“Seis” includes “La Mujer” (“The Woman”), a duet with Mexican pop star Gloria Trevi that is nominated for a Latin Grammy as best pop song; they will be performing it together on Thursday. Laferte wrote and performed an earlier version of “La Mujer” when she was going through “a very depressive stage of my life,” she said. But she eventually decided that its clinging, despondent lyrics were “toxic.” Her rewritten version with Trevi spurns the “sad coward” who had tried to control her; it’s about “ending a relationship and about survival instinct,” she said. “It was a healing process. It made it a better song.”
The songs on “1940 Carmen,” reflect a different, more relaxed environment. Much of the music invokes sunny Southern California folk-pop and the guitar reverb of 1950s R&B. In “Placer Hollywood” (“Hollywood Pleasure”), a trilingual song that opens the album, Laferte blithely stretches the word “you” into a 38-note melisma; on tour, she has been playfully testing whether audiences can sing along. The album’s first single, “Algo Es Mejor” (“Something Is Better”), radiates optimism, while “Niña” (“Girl”) is a fond lullaby that promises an unborn child “I have waited for you so long/And I will take care of you.” (After years of trying, she got pregnant, with a child due in March.) But other songs on the album exorcise deep trauma.
The main reason Laferte visited Los Angeles was to get hormone therapy to become pregnant; radiation treatment for thyroid cancer in 2009 had also damaged her ovaries. But the hormone treatments brought massive mood swings. “One day would be very happy with positive emotions, and another day would be angry and depressive,” she said. “I connected with a part of myself I didn’t know about at the time.”
For Laferte, writing lyrics in English was a matter of self-protection, not crossover. On “1940 Carmen,” one of the three songs in English is “A Crying Diamond,” about a poor teenager who wants to be a singer and is sexually exploited by a 40-year-old man. “I will be your savior and I will make you a superstar,” he tells her. Years later, with her dreams gone, she keeps the secret, Laferte sings, because “No one was going to believe a small town girl who went/Out at night with her shiny dress and broken shoes.”
She had tried to write a song about it in Spanish, she said, but couldn’t. “I was going to say something that makes me vulnerable,” she said. “There were a lot of things that I wanted to say but I was ashamed to say in my own language. I feel more courageous doing it in another language. I can have a simple conversation in English, or order a coffee, but I can’t go deeper in English. So I can say a lot of things in the song, but I don’t have to feel it because it’s not in my own language.”
Regardless of language, Laferte’s intensity and commitment are unmistakable. “Every album is a life journal,” she said. “I write what I’m going through.”