The Rarity of Alejandra Ribera

By Chrissy Steinbock — Thu, 07/05/2015 - 15:46

The best thing about Ontario Scene isn’t the chance to see the acts you already know and love as much as it’s the discovery of new favourites. This brings me to smoky-voiced songstress Alejandra Ribera who plays with Ron Sexsmith on Saturday night.

Confession: I’ve only started listening to Alejandra since I found her name when flipping through the Scene program some weeks ago but I was captivated by her sound right away. Alejandra’s music is pretty tricky to describe except to say there’s a complexity of influence to the sound like the layers of flavour in a good wine or coffee. When speaking of her influences she mentions artists who defy convention and revel in a creative fearlessness, people like Rufus Wainwright, Bjork, and Jane Siberry. Alejandra writes lyrics in English, French and Spanish, all rich in imagery and imagination. Her songs and the acoustic jazz-tinged arrangements they travel in bear a warmth that invites you to linger over them.

I got in touch with Alejandra over the phone on one of her rare days off to learn more about her work – current projects, influences and inspirations, her writing process and what drives her to make music. She even shared the story behind her best-known song “I want”, which won the 2014 SOCAN songwriting award.

While it’s rare to publish so much of an interview, Alejandra is just so generous in discussing her work, the best way to learn more about it is to hear it in her own words.

Here is an extended excerpt from our talk.

CS: Some artists come up with these mission statements for why they do music and what they hope it does for people. What drives you to make music?

Alejandra Ribera: It feels really good [laughs]. But quite honestly, I’m not even being cheeky, it gives me the best feeling I’ve ever had.

CS: Is there something you hope listeners get out of it?

AR: When we play, it’s our job as musicians to be like an emotional proxy for the audience. You can’t live that kind of intense emotion regularly when you have to be at the “garderie” to pick up your kid at 4pm and stop to buy bread then you have to come home and cook and do stuff like that. The way we live our lives as musicians is having a lot more free time than the average person and the ability to go to places emotionally and explore places that are kind of intense and then when we’re playing live we can have these moments and the audience can come with us and we carry them through that. To me the idea is that it causes a resonance in people and some shift happens and what that shift is up to them. I think our job is to create an environment where there’s an open-ness so we can get things moving and vibrating.

CS: In many of your reviews writers mention that your sound is very hard to describe. Who are some of your major influences?

AR: Jane Siberry, I used to listen to Jane Siberry so much especially when I first started writing songs. Rufus Wainwright definitely. In terms of the sound of my voice I remember being hugely influenced by Odetta. And hmm, Bjork, very much so. People who break the rules, really.

CS: Outside of those artists is there other music you enjoy listening to?

AR: For sure. I listen to Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion like once a week every week for the past fifteen years. Same with the Faure requiem. I listen to a bit of jazz. I also listen to a fair bit of opera too, actually. I’m listening to a lot of Puccini all the time.

CS: How did you start playing music and writing your own songs?

AR: I studied classical music as kid - choir, violin and viola. Then I went to a school when I was 14 where they didn’t have a strings program so I had to learn to play folk guitar and as soon as I started playing guitar I started writing songs.                       

CS: Did you always know you wanted to make a life in or was there a defining moment?

AR: It came later for me because I didn’t really start until I was twenty-five, twenty-six. There was an artist in Toronto called Kevin Quain and I remember going to see him at the Cameron House and watching his show thinking ‘I wanna be that guy, that guy is so cool.’ I think that when I saw what he was doing that made me - because I sort of flirted with it, putting on shows occasionally - but that really inspired me to quit my job and go for it.

CS: What’s your writing process like?  Where do you find inspiration?

AR: My writing process looks like this – I don’t make myself write. I only write when I want to so sometimes three months will go by and I won’t write a song and I don’t freak out about it ‘cause I don’t believe in forcing it. And inspiration wise, travel. Travelling is always the best inspiration for me for songwriting. Being out of my element, out of my comfort zone and in a hyper-vigilant state because I cannot go into auto-pilot, I then observe more detail and that always brings out writing a song.

CS: When I first looked up your music the first song I heard was “I want.” What a pretty powerful piece. How did it come together?

AR: I was in a really bad place.  I had just split from my partner and I didn’t have a home and I didn’t have much of a career. I was so tired from everything that I had been living leading up to that relationship ending and then the end of it. I just didn’t feel like I had any direction and every time I would try to write a song I would start to cry ‘cause everything that was happening in my life that I was trying to write about was too intense. So I called my friend and said ‘what should I do?’ and he said ‘well, if you can’t write about what you’re living, write about what you want to live.’ So that’s how it happened. That song is really about the material things, physical sensations that make us re-open when we are depleted, when we’re shut down on the inside. So the things for me are the power of a song, you know that classical religious music and obviously comrades to share it with, I mean all the parts of the lyrics are just referring to the things that make me feel alive and open me up.

CS: But in the time since are things looking up? At least from the outside things look like they’re going well, the tour with Ron Sexsmith and such.

AR: Yeah, life’s pretty wonderful [laughs]. I’m having a really fun time. I just moved to Paris five months ago so I’m living there now permanently and coming back to Canada to do tours. I just signed with a record label over there so I’m going to put out my record at the end of September in Europe. Yeah, life is pretty sweet.

CS: Life as a musician must be a challenge sometimes though with the demands of touring and recording. How do you stay grounded?

AR: I recently started dancing. I recently started studying with this woman in Paris who worked with Pina Bausch actually with whom I’m learning some really amazing techniques and ways of being in the body and being in the breath. I also meditate and I also have a lot of really, really good friends that I Skype and call, if I’m feeling a little lost or if I’m feeling lonely.

CS: I read that you were discovered during a weekly residency at Toronto’s Cameron House so you spent a while there and then moved to Montreal for the recording of La Boca. The bio on your website also mentioned that you were splitting time between Montreal, Pairs and Malaga, Spain.  How does your environment influence your work?

AR: Hugely! It’s the most important thing to me. If I’m in an industrial space it’s going to change the way that I’m writing a lot. Being in Paris, of course with that architecture, it’s crazy because a lot of my writing comes from visual cues and lyrically it’s really big in imagery so actually me environment determines what the songs are more than anything else.

CS: I see you’ve been touring with Ron Sexsmith lately. How has that been and what’s he like?

AR: Ron’s amazing. I met him years ago when I first started to play and I was playing open mics and I was trying to get over my stage fright and I went to this place called C’est What in Toronto and I played and he was there cause he had friends who were playing and we met and I got to talk to him but I was really nervous, like ‘oh my god, it’s Ron Sexsmith.’ He told me he was about to play Massey Hall for the very first time and he said he was excited, this was like nine years ago. I said ‘wow, I’m going to go to your show.’ I ended up writing him a song called “Songsmith” about him playing at Massey Hall and I wrote him an e-mail and told him and I was like ‘um, you kind of inspired this song and I have this gig at the Cameron House every Tuesday and if you want to come I really want to play it for you.’ He actually came to my gig. It was so nice, blew my mind.

CS: What are you working on these days, what comes next?

AR: I’m in the process of finishing my new record. We have two days off and I booked us to go into the studio to record demos for the next record on one of our two days off. That’s what’s shakin’ there.

CS: Do you have any thoughts about the Ottawa show this Saturday?

AR: I’m super excited to come back to Ottawa because Ottawa was the last gig I had before I moved to France. We played at the NAC and it was so much fun. I really love that space.

Alas, words and stories, even good ones, can only take us so far in describing music. To complete the journey we must seek the live performance and with Alejandra’s recent move to Paris Saturday’s show will be a rare chance to hear her in person.

Ontario Scene presents Alejandra Ribera and Ron Sexsmith
May 9, 2015 7:30pm
NAC Theatre
Buy tickets here

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