Interview: Y La Bamba’s Luzelena Mendoza

Y La Bamba comes out of Portland, Oregon, and the boundless, profound creativity of Luzelena Mendoza. Nurtured by parents who immigrated from Mexico, and the communities surrounding her, time saw her bring in an artistic family of seven musicians for the creation of their stunning 2010 album, Lupon. The album is an immersing splendor of folk, both traditional in the States sense but rooted in her family’s heritage. 2011 hopes to bring a new album, and Luz is turning to Kickstarter as a way to raise funds for the recording. Luz was generous and kind enough to chat with us about where her life’s at now and why Kickstarter’s become so important. To pledge and see the options available, click here (the deadline is February 27th).

How’s life been in Portland since Lupon was released for you and the guys in the band?

[Luzelena Mendoza] My life apart from Y La Bamba’s been good. With Y La Bamba, what Lupon has done has opened a lot of doors. Things were already happening before we released our record. We’ve got a really awesome team backing us up. But even before Lupon was released, the momentum was there. A 7-piece band came together from being a 5-piece band. That’s what happened last year, and by the time that we released the record, we had a 7-piece ensemble. Then we just started growing with that. We went on two amazing tours with Typhoon and Horse Feathers, so we now have more touring experience and a lot more exposure. We’ve definitely been blessed. We weren’t expecting any of this. Things have been coming in a way better than we thought. We’re just playing music, keeping it real with the original intent: that we are what we do. Now that I’m growing up, I’m seeing what it’s all starting to mean.

We’re trying to record a new album. We’ve been talking about it the past couple of months. In January, I got back after touring and seeing family and tried to shape ourselves for what’s in store for us this year. The new record, which is tentatively titled Tragos Amargos, is being made right now. We’re trying to get into the studio with Kickstarter. Our project launched a couple of days ago. We’re trying to raise $8,000, but really what we’re trying to raise is $16,000. This past year, even after Lupon, has made us eager. We have a genuine inspiration to record this next album. All these songs that we’ve written this last year are so special, so important, so fierce, that more than ever I feel it’s crucial for us to be sharp and give attention to this.

I’m broke. We’re all broke. But I’ve seen the camaraderie of everyone just trying to do the best they can, like taking the shirts literally of their backs to sell anything to make this record happen. We have a great support team; don’t get me wrong. Portland’s been awesome with people here bringing us on and helping us. That’s been nothing but nurturing. I can say that about Portland– give a shout out to Here.

Also we’re trying to push Kickstarter. We’ve never done anything like that so we’ll see what happens. It’s by faith. Oh my god. It has been a little bit tough too. Because we just want to write. We’re vulnerable, we write, we make music, and then we want to start talking about all these other things. The realities of money can be testing. But we’re persevering and trying to look ahead.

Related then, what drove you to Kickstarter as a way to fund the new album?

I didn’t even know what Kickstarter was a couple months ago. It was brought to my attention that we needed to raise money. We didn’t know how to come up with funds like that, even though we’re playing shows and getting some money, it’s not enough to live on. At the same time, it’s not like: “Rescue us community! We really need to do something about this!” I mean people helped us out even before we had a Kickstarter project, either with financial or verbal support, or just being there for us. We’re both equally sharing something, and it’s awesome for the both of us to be part of it. If people want to help out, it doesn’t matter if it’s $1 or $5 or $300; we are so grateful. Kickstarter is a great vehicle, not just for our band, but many arts and causes.

The community aspect in Portland seems very strong. We saw Nick Jainaout here in Madison and looking into them unveils the incredible community out there.

Nick Jaina’s family. He’s a representative of genuine, heartfelt creativity. He’s been around here for a while now. Even though you would ask yourself, “If Portland’s so broke, the artists, then why are people still doing their music? Why do artists like Nick Jaina travel all the way from Portland?” The love we feel from the community, that is compelling to the artists. That right there is so much more than financial success. That’s why I’m still doing what I’m doing, and why I’ve done this my whole life. But, holy shit, if we didn’t have the community… I admire Nick Jaina for still doing what he does. I believe in his artistry. It moves me to make music.

That can be extremely hard as an artist.

I can sit here and talk to you about many things. But obviously we all know we create our own realities. It seems like most people don’t really understand that—how simple that is. Don’t stop doing what you do because of toxic mental patterns; just because you don’t have money, doesn’t mean you have nothing. I have felt this since I was very young.

Did you ever struggle with ‘should I stop being an artist or should I continue’ because of financial constraints or?

Are you ready for this? [laughs]

I never ever, ever, ever struggled with anything like that ever. That was never in my head space until this past year. This year, we did the Horse Feathers tour, and in the last week of the tour I went to go visit my family. We are a huge Catholic Mexican family. I sort of freaked out when I was there, because everyone’s got babies, and everyone’s got their careers. The artist’s life, they don’t get it. Your family doesn’t have to be from Mexico to create that pressure of the so-called American Dream, and what amount of money you’re supposed to have. My life has always been my life. Maybe I’ve been super self-absorbed as an artist, not really knowing anything else. It’s my air, my spirit, my water, my religion, my everything. Each day I’m trying to plant my heels in the soil and be as grounded as I can. I’m very whimsical, and I’m very emotional, but I feel like I’m keeping it all together.

You’re very passionate about Tragos Amargos and Ramon Ayala…

Ramon Ayala is a famous accordion player. I grew up listening to him because my dad loved him. I’ve never heard anyone play the accordion like he does. “Tragos Amargos” is the song that my dad would sing to me when I was a little girl, and I would sing with him. He would be drunk, passing the bottle around, and I was this little girl singing right there, because I love to sing. I must have been about 8 years old. I’d sing other songs too, but I happen to really, really like that song. For my brothers and I, it’s a family staple. It’s a sad love song about a girl who left this guy, and he’s just singing about how depressed he is and drinking, and how he will be right there, hoping that she returns. That’s all that song is. It’s a memory that fits this album. “Tragos Amargos”; it means “bitter drink,” drinking when you are in a sour state mentally, which I feel like we all can relate to. It’s definitely a reality of mine here and there. We all have our darkness, our mourning. But there’s light right after the darkness.

How does that influence the album?

We’re not going to be like a Ramon Ayala polka band. The influence is on the soul. “Tragos Amargos” is the spirit behind every single song that we have written on the upcoming record. Especially songs like “Como Ratones”, “Viuda Encabronada” and “Michoacan”, which is where both of my parents are from. I think that every single record that I end up making will be a dedication to my family. The first one, Lupon, was for my dad and grandfather. No matter what kind of music I write, it will be inspired by the memories of my childhood, and the music I grew up listening to, even if it doesn’t sound exactly like that. All my emotions and my vulnerability and my growth comes from my Hispanic upbringing.  There are more Spanish songs on this upcoming record than on the last album. I just don’t see that ever dying.  We all deal with our past differently.  You will hear the way I do it in our music. I want everyone to have hier/his own interpretation, but that’s where it comes from.

We can go a little bit lighter. How did you meet Eric? Can you talk about the puppet show?

So I was hanging out with my friend Ocram and was living up east. I had a vision of starting a band, and it started with me playing with Ben Meyercord first. He would just come over to my house, use my interface and all this recording gear that I had. We were singing a lot and, then all of a sudden, I decided, “if I’m going to do anything, I want an accordion.” Now I didn’t know what stylistically I really wanted. I just knew if I had an accordion player in a group, that maybe my dad would take me seriously. I was telling my friend Ocram this one day and he told me his friend Cobb was playing the hurdy gurdy for a cute little puppet show on Belmont. I went, and there was Eric on his accordion. He came over the next day and we played music together. And then he was in the band. Just like that!

You should make that into a short film.

Like the puppet show?

The dream, the talking…

It was so crazy, again the reality I’ve paved for myself. I don’t want to always call them coincidences, but magical things really happen in my life.  I’ve been truly blessed. Maybe that’s a very self-centered thing to say, but I don’t give a fuck. [laughs] But the reality is just that good things are happening.

It’s not self-centered, it’s just things happen like that sometimes coincidentally. It’s bizarre.

Yeah, I just sit there and enjoy it, find humor in it. It’s like the universe just keeps on encouraging my way of thinking. And even the hard things, the dark dark things that happen, are part of it as well. It’s how you choose to see it. Even if I’m crying in a corner and don’t want to talk to anybody, I know it’s going to be cathartic, and there is beauty in that.

Do you want to share about the cat and how your cat helped you when you were ill? Also, what’s a quirky thing that the cat does?

When I was in Ashland 4 years ago, I was just moving around trying to find places to stay because I was sick. I had to quit my job. I shouldn’t have gotten a cat, but I went to the Shop’n Kart with my friend Nate and there was a box of cats, all with six toes on each paw. I saw this white kitty and I just fell in love with her.  I got her because I needed something stronger than I was at the time. I was disintegrating.

I named her Bamba, which means boastful dance. I then moved to Portland, and I’ve had her ever since. She is well behaved, but she does not like getting picked up at all.


[laughs] Yeah! She’s grown up with big dogs. The first dog she lived with was a wolf dog, a husky wolf dog named Nuka, my friend Leora’s dog. The second dog she lived with was a German Shepard. So she’s lived with really big, warrior dogs. When we go on walks with all the dogs that I’ve lived with, she comes along. And the dogs are really, really intrigued and in love with her. And she looks so sassy: “I’ll play with you when I want to play with you. And if I find you annoying, then I don’t really want to play with you, so I’ll just have you stare at me. And if you get in my face, then I’m going to strike you.”

It bugs me that she doesn’t like getting picked up. That’s why I got a cat! She’ll sleep right next to me, she’ll cuddle on top of my belly but she will never ever let me pick her up. That’s the only thing. I always wanted a cat that would hang out over my shoulders, or even go hiking and be a little hunter. Bamba is not that cat. She has her quirks and I have mine.

That is pretty strange that she doesn’t like being held.

Yeah, it pisses me off. [laughs]

Say someone had an evening in Portland, what would you recommend them to do?

I would recommend walking across the bridges. There’s great food, music, and people on either side.

Founder, Editor, Writer, Photographer. (Austin, Texas)

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