Natalia Lafoucade’s sixth album, Hasta la Raíz, casts a spell with deep feeling, and melodies and lyrics that linger in the mind. Elegantly adorned with subtle strings and velvety production, it has the kind of warmth people are always saying they can hear on old vinyl records. Released in March of this year (and in September in the U.S.), the passage of time may well prove it to be the Mexican singer-songwriter’s most profound and enduring statement. For now, the single and title track “Hasta la Raiz” remains ubiquitous on Mexican radio, while the album itself has gone platinum and is up for a Latin Grammy for album of the year, among five other nominations connected to the release.
Over the phone from San Francisco, a few hours before her date at Social Hall, Lafourcade speaks with an air of satisfaction at the way it has been received: “Whenever you release an album you don’t know if the people are going to like it or not. So, it feels great when you see the way they can connect with the songs and lyrics. They feel the music as if it was theirs.” Her happiness is hard-earned. This unmitigated triumph follows a long period of difficulty.
Hasta la Raíz is her first album of original material in seven years, since 2009’s Hu Hu Hu. Before she began work on the album she had gone through a break-up and had been experiencing a songwriting block for some time. She was in a rut. Every song she started sounded to her like something she had done before. To try to end the block she began working with the music of Mexico’s revered singer and songwriter Agustín Lara, eventually recording Mujer Divina, a tribute album to the late singer, and bringing together songwriters like Devendra Banhart and Jorge Drexler to perform on it with her. The album and one of its videos won her two of her three Latin Grammys. It also helped her to start writing again.
“Singing Agustín Lara’s songs and music put me in a very uncomfortable place at first – I thought it was going to be an easy thing to sing his music, but I had to explore very deep inside of me in order to be able to sing his music and his lyrics,” she says. During the three years that she was working on Mujer Divina and then touring with Lara’s songs, she was pushing herself to write songs without judgement, recording them while on tour using voice memos on her phone. “I was trying not to think too much about it. I just wanted to get to the point where I was getting the emotion of what I was feeling into the song,” she recalls.
Around this time, Lafourcade was also delving into the work of many other great songwriters, particularly the classic voices of Latin America: Violeta Parra, Caetano Veloso, Chavela Vargas, Simón Díaz and Mercedes Sosa. She says she was searching for her roots and for her own connection to Mexico and to Latin America, a theme that emerges on many levels on her new album, whose name in Spanish means “down to the root.”
When she finally sat down to record demos, she surprised herself with material that was more direct and emotional than anything she had done before. Some of the album deals with her relationship that ended. “Once I had recorded the songs and I could listen to them, that was the moment I realized how personal it was. I decided not hide the intimacy of the songs and just let them be the way they were coming out,” she remembers. It was cathartic. “It was so amazing, how the process can heal you in a way. Once I finished the album I even cut my hair, because I was having this sensation of, ‘OK, it’s over.’ I finished a cycle in my life. At the very end when we finished the mixing and the mastering process, I was feeling so relieved. I was feeling like, ‘OK, I am empty now,’ because I put all the things that I was feeling into this album, and now I can sing the music and I can share the music,” she says.
The response from fans has been as emotional as the album’s content, perhaps because Lafourcade intentionally offers as much poetry and uplift as she does sadness. “When I saw that it was so personal and it was in a way a sad thing, I wanted to add this happiness to the album so you could say, ‘OK, I am having this heartbroken moment, but still I want to be happy and I want to go on’,” she explains. Though songs like “Nunca es Suficiente” could not be more forlorn, the drive and effervescence of “Mi Lugar Favorito” is not unlike Life Pursuit-era Belle and Sebastian in its treatment of Sixties-era pop inspirations. Stylistically, Hasta la Raíz flows gently from Sixties folk-pop to bossa nova. The smooth arrangements may remind some listeners of French pop auteur Serge Gainsbourg, while some others may be reminded of Violeta Parra’s sensitivity and otherworldliness, Chavela Vargas’s Edith Piaf-like soul, and the gently swinging poetry of Caetano Veloso.
The various threads on Hasta la Raíz converge on the title track, which she wrote with her friend, the singer and songwriter Leonel García. It came out of a conversation about maintaining a sense of connection to where you come from. Lafourcade tells of a process both thoughtful and spontaneous and how, when they went into the studio, things fell into place: “He started playing this huapango riff on the guitar, which is a very traditional sound from Mexico, and then he asked me to go into the room and sing the song, but I scarcely knew it because we had just finished the song at that moment. And I was realizing at the same time what we just did. It was a special moment. It gave me goosebumps. The producer Cachorro López wanted to keep that feeling and that moment, so the voice that you can hear on the album is the same voice that I recorded that day.”
The search for her roots didn’t end with the album’s release. This year, she also realized a dream she had cherished for years by touring Mexico playing only theaters that were at least 100 years old. There are enough such grand old structures in her country to make this possible, though, she says, some of them are better maintained than others. The tour stops were intimate shows that she remembers fondly, particularly the date in Veracruz where she was born. “These places were smaller places than the ones we usually do in Mexico, so the people could get the chance to listen to the music in a different way than they normally do,” she explains. When asked what she’s discovered in her quest, she answers that she found exactly what she was looking for. “I was trying to go to the roots of the identity that I have as a person, and all the things that have built me as a human being, and all the things from Mexico that inspire me. I think the fact of being aware of having that is just a starting point of a new way of making music, or exploring my music. I have many more things to learn from these roots and many things still to explore. So, I think this is just the beginning of this.”
Natalia Lafourcade plays Irving Plaza on October 20.