And it’s a reverse-role murder ballad. Did you have any Irish-Gaelic or Appalachian-country murder ballads in mind when you wrote yours?
Yeah, I was thinking about Joan Baez’s [version of] “Barbry Allen.” There’s so many murder ballads that I heard that were old Irish or English and a lot of it was telling the news, like saying this happened in this little village. But then I was thinking of the progression, and now it’s like Eminem, you know? I heard this one song when I was on tour and it was straight up, “I killed my girlfriend because she cheated on me.” It just made me so mad. I was like, “Maybe she cheated on you because you’re a dick, [laughs] you know? Maybe she wasn’t happy. Now you’re gonna killer her? And we all gotta applaud you?” There were so many women in the audience and it felt like we were erased. It felt like “You guys don’t count, and I’m only talking to the dudes here.” It made me think about forgiving and always making women the problem and the reason.
So I wanted to write something about that, these vengeful murder ballads, I’m tired of that shit. You’re talking about me, you’re talking about your daughter, you’re talking about your mother. You’re saying you’re gonna shoot us down, throw us away, because you couldn’t control us? We did something you didn’t like and so we’re gone? No. That’s what folk music is about. It’s about adding your voice, changing and growing.
Who are some other female voices that you’re listening to right now?
I’m always listening to Nina Simone. Like, who’s not listening to Nina Simone right now? We all need her. I’ve been learning about Lydia Mendoza. She was a Mexican-American singer and guitarist. I’ve been listening to Adia Victoria who’s coming out of Nashville and is just fierce, it’s like, “Do not fuck with Adia,” you know? I went on tour with her and it was really amazing. This rapper coming out of New York named Princess Nokia is amazing. I love her. And, of course, Solange. Who’s not listening to Solange? That album was so beautiful, talk about a concept. And, of course, always the Alabama Shakes. There are so many. And in New Orleans, there are so many strong women, and that was really important to me when I starting writing songs. All those women are bosses.
You started out writing poems and now you’re writing songs. Jason Isbell told me they’re “very different disciplines.” Do you agree that poetry and songwriting are distinct crafts?
It’s interesting because I think it’s a geographical thing. For me, I grew up in the Bronx, so whether I was intensely listening to it or associating with it or not, I grew up with hip-hop. Also in Puerto Rican culture is what’s called “the decima,” which I’m not that knowledgeable about, but it’s like hip-hop. People free-styling to this certain rhythm and have a certain amount of syllables. Sort of like folk music, they do it at parties and gatherings and certain things have to rhyme and some people are really good at it because they grew up with it. It’s an island thing, you know? So I grew up with this idea that there is no difference — you’re telling the story of what happened to you, the story of your people, of your neighborhood. So I grew up with this hip-hop idea and then got into slam-poetry. Slam-poetry is so performative and musical. To me there never was a difference. And when I felt inspired, I went out and did my thing. I was never that disciplined [or] academic about it.
So you write from sudden inspiration, like sitting on a German highway in “Crash on a Highway” on Small Town Heroes?
Yeah, mostly that.
Is it a musical rhythm or the words that come to you first?
Usually it’s a melody and sometimes it’s a phrase. For instance, the lyrics for “Rican Beach” and for “Navigator,” the melody wasn’t there, but I was listening to hip-hop a lot. I was listening to J. Cole and Kendrick Lamar, so I was thinking a lot about lyricism and rhythm. I wrote those trying to write my version of rapping with no music but rhythm. Normally I record a little bit, and I keep it, and then one day when I have a lot of time I go back and look through it. Then there are certain songs like “Living in the City” where I just sat with my guitar and wrote like eight pages. I just let myself go off and I edit. That’s what you learn from Dylan and John Lennon demos. Some of these songs sucked, but then they edited them — that’s all you gotta do.
“Living in the City” is amazing. It’s fast, so up-beat, but you talk about a death that reminds me of Moonlight that won Best Picture last night at the Oscars.
And, oh my God, how crazy was that? The big mix-up? I watched it this morning and cried being like, wow, what an extreme change and how gracious and beautiful it was, the surprise. It’s such an example of the whole country, like, “We don’t know what’s going on.” And Warren Beatty’s like, “Please don’t hate me.” Everything’s so crazy about it.
But “Living In the City” was about going back to these characters I knew growing up. Of course, it’s very Velvet Underground-influenced and also Rodriguez.
As in Searching for Sugar Man?
Yes, oh my God, Rodriguez blew my mind when all of a sudden I listened to him. This is what I gotta do. It’s street poetry. It’s the story of the underground and underbelly of Detroit, and then you put some Latin percussion and some strings and make it, just make it weird, throw everything in there.
So what’s your fusion? You start in the subway with a gospel singer, then by from the middle to the end of the record it’s very Latin. Is that Plena?
Yeah, but I don’t know what to call it. We were throwing in all kinds of rhythms. There’s some Brazilian stuff in there, Cuban, and some Puerto Rican. So really it’s bastardized and that’s what I learned salsa was. Salsa was all these young kids in the 1970s, these immigrant kids who wanted to play music and all the old timers were like, “That’s not how you play that, that’s not right.” And the kids were like, “We’re gonna do our thing,” and they made salsa because they threw it all in. When I heard that, I thought, “I can do that” because that’s what I’m always doing.
But it was really [producer] Paul Butler. I came to him with this vision. I sent him this really, really long email. I loved his album with Michael Kiwanuka, and was like, “I got this vision, these are the songs, here’s how I want it to go and here’s the story and this is what everything means.” He was kinda like, “This is crazy. You’re a crazy lady. Okay.” [Laughs] “I’ll meet you because I like your spunk.” So we met, and spent a couple days making demos. It was like Jedi training.
How’d Paul Butler wake you up?
He knew how to push me with love. He knew how to say, “You can do better than this.” He knew how to say, “This sounds pretty, it’s how you always do, but it’s time to be okay with your vocals not sounding pretty all the time. It’s time to make your vocals tell a story and be in command.” Mid-way through the recording we were drinking together and we’d finished work that day and he asked me how I felt. I said I was so grateful to be there in such a beautiful place and beautiful studio. We’d been drinking tequila and he said, “That’s bullshit. Why are you so grateful. Stop being so grateful. You work so hard. You deserve to be here. Stop worrying that if you don’t say you’re grateful, someone’s gonna kick you out of this club.” He was like, “You work hard so own the fact that you’re an artist.” So that really shifted my mentality. It made me stop feeling like I was being interviewed for a job. I was like, “Ew, if I’m not nice enough or thankful enough, they’ll make me go back to the Bronx.”
He forced you to believe in yourself.
Yes, very much. And to believe in my ability to do my thing, this is who I am. You don’t gotta like it. That’s totally fine. Once you do that, then your whole life changes.
Do you have family in Puerto Rico still?
Some distant family, distant cousins. My father’s family came from Ponce and they came in the mid- to late-40s. And my mother’s family came from Salinas.
Should Puerto Rico be the 51st state or have its independence?
I get very nervous telling Puerto Ricans what they should be. What I think needs to happen is that Puerto Ricans need to be given the opportunity to decide for themselves. And right now, how can they move forward as an island when they’re in such a crisis, burdened by this total mishandling of money that was done by their officials. There needs to be a push for Puerto Ricans to remember their history and to support them in their universities and their hospitals. There’s a lot of people getting rich off of Puerto Ricans and it’s a mess right now, but what I hope is that Puerto Rican people, especially the young Puerto Rican people, renew their since of pride and history and remember where they come from, which is from a very strong, independent, and rebellious people. There has been such a push — in my research that I’ve read — to make Puerto Ricans feel like they’re lazy and they’re dumb and that they wouldn’t be able to govern themselves. That’s a very big piece of propaganda that’s spread around.
When you read about people like Julia de Burgos or Pedro Albizu Campos, there has been a very long line of some Puerto Rican people saying, “No. We are not going to accept this.” There was, for example, the Ponce Massacre, where my family is from. That was a gathering of people for independence and they were totally unarmed and there were families from all over the island that came together for independence and they were gunned down. Something like 200 people wounded. That was an example of the U.S. saying, “Make sure those people don’t have too much hope.” These tragedies are so symbolic of “Don’t have hope.” That’s what it is. Same for Standing Rock, “Don’t have hope. Don’t think you can ever govern yourselves.” So I really hope to fight that with some positivity and education.
Your Look Out Mama record is dedicated to your dad, a Marine, who taught you about peace. How so?
And also my brother, who was a New York City police officer for many years. He just retired. And I’m somebody who’s very critical of how police should conduct themselves. I’m critical because it’s a part of being in public service. People are critical of me as an artist. Everybody who is in a kind of public service is going to be critical and be criticized. So with my father and brother, I learned that this is not a game. This is real. Our lives are in danger, were in danger.
My father taught me that war is not something to tweet about because it’s the poor people who end up dying or traumatized for the rest of their lives … and not to throw ourselves willy-nilly into war because we’re the people who are going to suffer from it. He taught me at a very young age that my brother is the one who will have to serve. We could lose him. That I almost lost him and I was almost never born. Also, I watched the long-term effects of war on my father and still do. It made me respect veterans for the sacrifice they make and it makes me very angry when they are used, or their experiences are used, or their names are thrown around, as a reason to cause more war and violence when they’re not protected at home. I learned from my father that those experiences never go away and they affect your family. I’m thankful for that because a lot of people never got to see that from a parent who was open about their war experiences because they were too painful to talk about. But my dad was very open about it, and I appreciate that.
So at the more local level, and with your brother’s experience as a NYPD officer, how do we fix the Blue Lives Matter versus Black Lives Matter problem?
I’ve seen that, especially in New York City, it’s the poorest people going into the service. They want to be a police officer because they want a good job with respect and want to take care of their kids. My brother and me come from humble beginnings. We weren’t dirt poor but we were definitely not rich. So he went into the police force wanting to bring pride to the family. Something that could happen is for us to be more honest about the history of our country when it comes to race relations and violence. A stronger community focus and communities getting together and being able to speak to the police officers who are in their neighborhoods, something like that would help.
I really wish we could be critical of folks in office, like I said, in public service, and not be misunderstood. People are critical because they’re scared for their lives. I know I was scared for my brother’s life many times when he was in the service. When we see these stories of, for example, Tamir Rice, these kids getting hurt and killed by our police officers, it drives me crazy.
How can we not be critical right now? We’re trying to make things better is all we’re trying to do. We’re trying to progress and perfect this union that we’re supposed to have. So I wish it could be seen as what it really is when we’re critical of our police forces, it’s because we desire to be a more perfect union and we’re working for a better society. I hope that makes sense.
But sometimes the best way to get someone to understand another person’s position is through a fictional character like Navita.
Exactly, to make them care for a character who they might not otherwise ever meet in real life because we are so segregated, you know? For a lot of people, I bet I’m the first Puerto Rican person they’ve ever interacted with and they don’t know anything about Puerto Ricans. When you fall in love with a character and their struggle, then suddenly you empathize with them.