Silvana Estrada arrives with a devastating album about heartbreak
By Isabelia Herrera
Silvana Estrada is the kind of artist who speaks like she’s writing poetry in real time.
“When you’re honest with what you’re singing, even after years pass, the DNA of the song continues to soak through your heart,” the Mexican singer-songwriter said in an interview on a frigid January day in New York, chatting in Spanish with her signature instrument, the Venezuelan cuatro, in tow.
Estrada, 24, has spent her short career trying to bottle this kind of affective wisdom. Her first release, “Lo Sagrado,” a collaborative album recorded in 2016 with famed guitarist Charlie Hunter, laced jazzy rhythms with threads of son jarocho, a folk genre from her home state of Veracruz. “Primeras Canciones,” the solo EP that followed, showcased her gift for arresting lyricism backed by collaged synth tones, gentle horns and sparse percussion. She embarked on a sold-out Mexican tour in 2019 and later performed alongside established peers, like Natalia Lafourcade, Mon Laferte and Julieta Venegas.
But “Marchita,” her debut solo album that arrived Friday, easily eclipses her previous releases. It is an intimate, austere record, a tender snapshot of a young woman wrestling with the pain of lost love. Her rolling melismas, the warm melancholy of the cuatro and her imagistic, somber lyrics cascade into torrents of unbridled anguish. Throughout, Estrada submerges herself in misery, often leaving the listener bereft.
“I learned very early on in life how to accept sorrow or anguish,” Estrada said. She grew up in a warm, artistically rich home, but the violence and tragedy of the outside world loomed, both in the melancholy music she grew up listening to, and in her everyday reality.
Estrada hails from a rural town known for its coffee farming called Coatepec, which she described as “a village of mountains and cold weather” filled with “very hardworking, very serious” people. Her parents, also musicians, made a living as luthiers, and artists often flowed through their workshop to commission string instruments. Her family would attend fandangos, jam sessions central to son jarocho, or they would gather around the table and sing traditional Mexican or Venezuelan folk songs. She learned to play the piano, then the violin, then the viola.
Her musical world expanded when she was around 13, after she stumbled across a Billie Holiday compilation. “I began to look for voices that would do things that impressed me a lot,” she said. “That would spark the desire to do that with my voice, too.” She discovered Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald and Betty Carter.
Estrada’s fascination with jazz eventually brought her to the nearby city of Xalapa, where she studied in a university jazz conservatory while she was in high school. At 18, she became a full-time student there. “It was where I learned to use my voice as an instrument,” she said. “I also learned how to be free, because what I like the most about jazz,” she added, “is the opportunity to do something different each time.”
Estrada eventually moved to Xalapa; the commute from Coatepec was too dangerous as drug violence surged in the region. “My teenage years were very difficult because I couldn’t go out or go for a walk alone in the street,” she said. “They kidnapped many girls and many women. And in general, I think the last few years of my life in Mexico have been a little bit about finding safety.”
In 2017, a new vision started to coalesce for Estrada. She traveled to New York and met a new community of musicians, like drummer Antonio Sánchez and Snarky Puppy bandleader Michael League. She still had affection for jazz, but she deeply missed singing in Spanish and performing the folkloric sounds that nourished her in her youth. “Here is where I was able to really look inside myself and realize,” she said, “that my search was more of a search for my roots, for my ancestors.” Upon her return to Mexico, she left school and moved to Mexico City to pursue a solo career.
Almost five years later, Estrada is finally unleashing “Marchita.” Its center is Estrada’s voice, which abstracts her influences into stunning, full-throated drama. She echoes the verve of icons like Chavela Vargas or Mercedes Sosa, whom she listened to as a girl. “When you grow up listening to Chavela Vargas, you realize that sorrow is a vehicle to understand the world,” Estrada said. “You realize that every feeling is part of a full life.”
Vargas, Sosa and others from their generation are often referred to simply as “great Latin American women singers,” or reduced to lovelorn women afflicted by doomed, toxic romances. But much like her forebears, Estrada understands that it is possible to build tenacity from vulnerability, to find power in the desire to be seen and held in your suffering. “The emotional legacy of these women brings us closer to these feelings,” she said.
“The whole album is a journey into the self to attempt to understand sorrow,” she continued. “The foundation is sorrow, but it’s like, ‘What flowers will grow out of sorrow? What can I grow in order to come out of it?’”
Recognizing that songs from that earlier era “don’t always offer good advice,” or even include abusive language, she said she wants her music to move people while sending different messages: “Messages that are much more open, much more feminist, much more egalitarian.”
“Marchita,” which translates to “withered,” is about Estrada’s first love, and the profound grief that accompanied its end. She recorded the album two years ago, and listening back to it now, she hears a sense of naiveté. “Only someone with that kind of innocence could write such solemn things,” she said. “It’s like a mourning of that first idea one has about love.”
Much like her everyday speech, Estrada’s lyrics unfurl with a poetic magnetism that blooms in Spanish. They often echo the romantic textures of Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darío, or perhaps Uruguayan poet and critic Idea Vilariño, both of whom Estrada devoured while writing the album. On “Te Guardo,” she sings, “I have two pending kisses/ One for each cheek/ And a crystal abyss/ For each wound.”
Lines like those immediately drew in pop-rock giant Julieta Venegas. “What she writes is closer to a poetic construction, in the sense that it’s something that can stand on its own,” Venegas said in a phone interview. “It’s not like it’s only accompanying the music.”
Venegas became aware of Estrada through musician David Aguilar, and eventually caught a show of Estrada in Buenos Aires, Argentina. “She has a very intense relationship with words, which I think is so brilliant for such a young songwriter,” Venegas said. “Her songs have elements with a lot of depth — a story of images.”
Gustavo Guerrero, producer of “Marchita,” said “it was a challenge not to take away the power and expression of Silvana’s art.” The songs, melodies and lyrics were so well-written that he ran the risk of “overproducing or over-polishing something that’s already done,” he explained in a phone call. Together, they sought to preserve the minimalist energy of her live performances, in which she commands the stage, accompanied only by her voice, her lyrics and her cuatro.
“I’ve been working on that for a long time now,” Estrada said. “How can I be strong, how can I be persuasive with the minimum? Don’t you think that’s something that can sometimes be very feminine?” she wondered. “I see my mother resolve everything with a little money, a few ingredients, a little bit of everything. That is very strong. Sometimes I think with music it’s the same.”