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Y La Bamba

Y La Bamba

Photo by Mercy McNab
Photo by Mercy McNab

Unique is a word that is used too commonly, often inappropriately. At the heart of Y La Bamba is Luz Elena Mendoza, and she is truly a spectacular individual talent. There is a spell in her words, a magic in her song. She captivates and enthralls, inducing a swaying of the body and a dancing of the soul. Though her actions are based from her concept of staying true to herself, no audience is immune to her melodies; her hymns don’t lie.

While Mendoza has been performing “since conception,” the pieces of Y La Bamba were arranged in 2007-2008. Two years after that, debut album Lupon achieved early success and recognition, especially since Chris Funk (The Decemberists, Black Prairie) volunteered to produce the album pro-bono. Mendoza would add another fan in alt-rocker Neko Case, who invited Y La Bamba to open two tours in 2011, and appeared on the band’s 2012 follow-up album (produced by Grammy winner Steve Berlin), Court The Storm. Anchored by the beautifully haunting vocals of Mendoza, all of Y La Bamba’s albums have a consistent indie meets alt-latino vibe, including their most recent six-track album, Oh, February (2013).

Luz Elena Mendoza’s two-year hiatus from Y La Bamba wasn’t really time off. She has appeared as an on-stage guest with acts including The Decemberists and has been focusing a considerable amount of energy on her visual art creations and other music projects such as Tiburones. With a renewed sense of focus, Mendoza is turning to Kickstarter to encourage fans and friends to help record the fourth studio album from Y La Bamba, Ojos Del Soul. ELEVEN caught up with Luz Elena to chat about crowdsourcing, artwork, life and influences that make this old soul unequivocally unique.

[Track Premiere via ELEVEN PDX and Hot Bone Records:]

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ELEVEN: Luz, you’ve been playing house shows forever. You played at Mississippi Studios seven or eight years ago back when that was almost more of a house show vibe when the venue was much smaller. What do you like about that more intimate experience?

Luz Elena Mendoza: How do I answer that? I just play whenever it feels good to play, if my friends ask me to play. It doesn’t matter if it’s a house show or somewhere else, it’s like the vibe is good and my friends are there, it’s like, “I’ll do it.” That’s what it’s about. It’s just building community, being able to express yourself on that capacity and have an audience that replenishes the same energy back to you. I feel like it’s: play whenever, wherever. It’s just all good. Doesn’t really matter.

11: Has that always been your attitude towards playing shows?

LM: Totally.

11: What got you into music in the first place? How did this become the outlet in which you choose to express your creativity?

LM: I’ve been picking up instruments since I was a little kid. I played the violin. I played the clarinet. It’s just because it was just part of my makeup, I guess, I don’t know. I grew up listening to Mariachi music and [being] surrounded by Catholicism and my Hispanic roots, and what’s been beyond me. It’s just been something that has been… For me, life is a song. That’s basically the process. The process is just living life and whatever it is I appreciate through the life that I live. Definitely, whatever I create is a reflection of what it is that I’m perceiving daily.

11: When did you realize that you wanted Y La Bamba to be its own project? How did that come together and where do you see it going?

LM: That just evolved naturally. I moved to Portland and I was just playing by myself. Then I started connecting with people that I felt kindred to, and then some members were in and out. It’s just like anything. You meet people, you hang out with people that come in and out of your life, and then the next thing you know you’re totally feeding this baby. We’ve definitely started developing a sound together because that just happens when you have a relationship and when you’re bouncing things off of people; which is a beautiful thing, I think. We need collaboration. For me, it’s good to see and feel what other people are doing, like vibing, it’s communication.

11: You’re a visual artist as well. You’ve done some gallery shows. Is that just all part of the same thing?

LM: I started stenciling my visual art. It really took on when I was on tour in the band. I don’t even know. It just started to happen. I just started drawing and cutting paper. Then I started making big pieces and then I started to… Really, what I do with my day is I wake up, I meditate, have my tea, and then I start my routine without even knowing I have one, but it’s called one. I play my guitar. I play it for five hours and put it down. Then I start making my visual art. Then I do that for five hours and then I stop, and then I go eat, and then I come back and do it again.

For every song that I have been writing through this, (this was after I started touring just a little bit), the songs started to mirror whatever visual art, whatever piece I was making. It’s like it gave me a visual to what it was that I was writing sonically. It was a very cathartic experience. I’ve been doing that for the last four or five years now, just like, straight. I wasn’t doing anything with it. It’s cathartic. Music is cathartic for me. It’s like lessons. It’s like messages in other people’s music. That’s why I feel like I know that I’m just immune to it and do it. It’s the art. It’s part of that.

That’s the other reason why I’m like, “Well, I need to … If I’m doing this and this is part of everything which is a huge representation for who I am as an artist, I should record and actually put some value to what it is that I do.” The money thing has always been a hard thing. I hate asking for money, so I don’t… There’s just so much noise with that world that I’ve just decided to shut that off and create. I’ve been so fortunate and people have been supporting me just by being who I am without having any crazy goal at the end except for it’s just healing and being a human.

Now I did this and have this art show. I have this Kickstarter. That’s me trying to take initiative and put some value into the art that I’ve been making, and allowing myself to do it in a way where I’m smart about it. I didn’t really understand this music industry when I was doing the Y La Bamba when it was a full force. I didn’t know what the fuck was going on. I was just writing the songs. You know what I mean? I had no idea. I had no intention. We definitely weren’t trying to reach a certain level. It was just happening. That’s something that’s really… It’s cool to hear everyone else’s story, but it just is what it is. You know what I’m saying? *laughs*

Photo by Katie Summer
Photo by Katie Summer

11: I think so. With the industry, sometimes even if you’re trying to stay really true to yourself, when you get bands with huge deals, no matter how true they try and stay to it, it starts to read as a little in-authentic or it distorts what can be a pure message sometimes.

LM: The message… no, no, no, no, this is the thing. There is so much noise out there, the music industry and everything. Right? We’re aware of it. If we get presented these certain ideals, we’re going to have a certain opinion. For me, the message and when you write, that’s not distorted. What the consumer and what the noise does to that message, that has been something that is at that point where you recycled or you abused. That’s the problem.

The creator and the artist at their best intentions and all of that, that’s the fucking message. You know what I mean? What exists, the distortion, that is just the world, at its worst. That’s just like being an artist or hustling around and trying to get a job. Even if you’re not playing music or you need to be doing something else, you’re like, fucking hustling.

It’s like, whatever good intention’s behind all of that, the truth and your heart is who you are. It’s who you are, but you can’t help fucking getting into… living in the context of what the music business really looks like. That’s been a really rude awakening for me like, “Wow, this is what’s really going [on].” I still remain true to myself.

I feel like the love and the life of my community, my peers have uplifted me in a place where I feel like that speaks louder than anything else. I’ve heard things… this guy was like, “Oh, so you went solo and that didn’t work out. So now you’re using Y La Bamba brand.” This guy has no idea who I am or anything. He doesn’t even know! *laughs* But that’s the distortion. That’s part of it. That’s part of the noise. That’s part of putting yourself out there and allowing people to have opinions about the situation. You know what I mean?

11: Yeah.

LM: It’s not about that. It’s communication, relationships with one another, with yourself. That’s the art. Because money is a huge figure and survival… obviously a lot of things are convoluted at that point. Things do get distorted, things like the value, what could be really beautiful. The world does that. You know what I mean? There’s a filter that we have, that the world has had that we go through. It’s the law. It’s fucking weird.

11: Let’s look at the other side of it a little bit. Would you describe the experience of when you’re playing a show and you’re lost in the moment, and everything is done with a more pure intent, and you don’t have that noise? It’s just you and the music, and maybe that connection with the audience. What is going through your mind, or body, or soul in that moment?

LM: *Speaking in a loving tone* Nothing, except for just a moment itself.

11: Do you feel joy, or it’s exciting, or nervousness, or it’s nothing and you’re just in the moment like you said?

LM: I will say that in the beginning before I got up on stage or whatever, I’d get really nervous. It’s a lot of energy to put out and a lot of energy to receive. It’s so much energy. I feel like a sensitive person. Before I get up to the stage there’s some communication that’s going to happen. I just have to be present and let everything go. I feel like it’s such a release. I don’t know if it’s happiness or sadness. It’s definitely like being and feeling exactly who I am. It’s just peace.

If I feel nervous and I feel like people are just being shitty and whatever, obviously, I’m real sensitive, I can feel that. I don’t know. You have to allow people to have their own experience at shows, but I usually just let the moment be exactly what it is. I don’t think, or feel, or anything unless people are being shitty, a very obvious distraction.

11: What’s your connection with the city of Portland? What drew you in and kept you here?

LM: The people. Portland’s been really good to me. I’ve grown sooo much and still growing. I feel like I’ve seen so many different waves, people coming in and out, and artists new and old. I feel like, I, as an artist and as the type of person I am, Portland has been a really good home for me. I know that all this, “Rent is going up!” and all this stuff is happening, but the people and the community is priceless for me.

11: Would you say that what’s different about Portland is just the attitude?

LM: I have rapport in Portland. It’s definitely different. I love San Francisco and The Bay a lot and I’ve gone to Denver twice this year. There’s something super similar [about] all those cities to me, but I go where ever the heart feels full, and light. I feel like Portland’s like that. Portland is just such a good community. It’s so good to me, sooo good to me in the ways that I can’t even understand. I’m very grateful. There is this weight there. I feel like a really good weight. I feel like I have a good foundation there. »

– Richard Lime