Frequency: Juana Molina

HUMAN LOOP GURUARGENTINEAN MUSICIAN AND EX-TV STAR JUANA MOLINA TAPS INTO RHYTHMIC REPETITION
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Photo: Alejandro Ros

An old advertisement for Memorex tape posed the question, “Is it live, or is it Memorex?” Using MOTU Digital Performer to record everything from books, woodblocks and handclaps to cardboard boxes, a gong and her favorite Korg 01/W synth, Argentinean artist Juana Molina makes it hard to tell the difference on her fifth release, Un Día (Domino, 2008).

“Every loop you hear on my record is played, it's not looped,” Molina says from L.A. “So you have the feel of a loop but it is actually played. I enjoy playing loops — I get into some kind of mantric state. I play the loop over and over for hours. The first performance is usually the best; my ideas and intentions are fresh. If I do it too long, some kind of conscious comes up and kills everything. If I missed something, I edit and fix it in Digital Performer. That way the loop sounds more alive. I use loops, but only human loops.”

Still, Molina doesn't want it too human-sounding. “With one loop it was very uneven,” she recalls. “So I took out the sensitivity or velocity feature on the Korg 01/W keyboard and put it at 127. So whether you touch it soft or hard, it speaks with the same volume. But I like it better not to create computer loops because it can sound dead to me.”

Un Día tracks like “Los Hongos De Marosa” and “Dar (Qué Difícil)” recall '70s jazz artists like Weather Report, as well as young-gun savant, Four Tet. Molina's music is both organic, with its warm instrumental textures; and electronic, through her inclusion of barely assisted live-loop machinations. On one song you'll think she's chosen some preset, and on the next you realize she's beating mad hypnotic flow on the Argentinean bombo legüero. Constructed from a hollow tree trunk and covered with the cured skin of goats, cows or sheep, the bombo legüero provides much of Un Día's copious bass bloom.

“Some people told me, ‘You need a drummer to have some rhythm in your music.’ And I was like, ‘What?’ The rhythm was there on my earlier records [Rara, Segundo, Tres Cosas and Son], but it was more subtle than explicit. So I wanted to make it more obvious. And I always wanted to be a drummer. So I became a drummer on Un Día playing the bombo legüero. It has a beautiful low end and all that wood you can knock on or hit on. I chose thick sticks to make the sound duller. If you hit it with thin sticks the sound is too bright. I don't like the high end. I play the skin with mallets to also make it with less attack.

“I record the drum straight, using Digital Performer and my Mac G5 as a recording machine,” she adds. “I don't use any feature from Digital Performer itself to make music, only the EQs. [And] In order to not have a gap between the moment of inspiration and the recording moment, I have everything set up all the time so maybe the quality is not as good as if I had made everything professionally, but at least I have the freshness of the first ideas recorded on a very simple setup.”

Molina's rig includes MOTU 828mk3, Mackie 1604-VLZ3, Clavia Nord Lead 2, Hohner electric bass, Shure SM58 and Neumann TLM 103 microphones, an Aphex preamp, Lexicon MPX 500, Yamaha NS10s and “some homemade, very big wooden speakers.”

As a child, the now 46-year-old Molina fled Argentina with her parents during the military coup of 1976. The family lived in Parisian exile for six years where her tango-singing father taught her guitar. Molina eventually became a TV star back in Argentina, working as a comedic actress in the television shows La Noticia Rebelde and Juana y Sus Hermanas, the SNL of Latin America. Perhaps Molina's attraction to visceral performance art explains her resistance to Digital Performer's many possibilities beyond its basic recording functions.

“I don't know why,” Molina sighs. “If I have found already what I like with the original sound, why try to change it?”