The band La Santa Cecilia has steadily gained a national profile over the past couple years. Perseverance, Latin Grammy nominations, and mentions on National Public Radio tend to do that to a band. Just this week, the band announced it signed a record deal with Universal Music.
But its roots can be found in the La Placita Olvera, an outdoor market in the oldest part Downtown Los Angeles frequented by both tourists and the local Latino community. It's where band members Pepe Carlos (accordion and requinto) and La Marisoul (lead vocals and jarana) met and grew up honing their crafts.
"It's like we had two lives," La Marisoul explained during an interview at the Gershwin Hotel in New York recently. The quartet, which is named after the patron saint of musicians, was in town to play the world music showcase globalFEST that night and was resting after its soundcheck.
"During the week, we would go to school and we'd listen to like Nirvana and The Ramones and The Doors and we were like really in alternative music and rock and all that. And then during the weekends, I'd put on my Mexican skirt and outfit, and he would wear his guayabera, and we'd be singing boleros and rancheras on Olvera Street."
The pair began performing together at the urging of La Marisoul's dad, and about five years ago they formed La Santa Cecilia, along with percussionist Miguel "Oso" Ramirez, bassist Alex Bendaña and others.
"We had all played in salsa bands and jazz trios and worked as musicians all over the city and we wanted to make our own music and tell our own story and experiment," she said.
These days, Alex, Oso, Pepe, and La Marisoul are the core four of the band but the group's love of experimentation remains. La Santa Cecilia's music-making process is kind of like that of a cook who gets a kick out of a creating magic with one hand in the cupboard and fridge and the other stirring and tasting.
"It's like we get together twice a week to make a little stew and one puts the accordion, or the melody, and Oso messes around with the rhythm, and I'll work the lyrics and sometimes you get something really good y sabroso and a cumbia and sometimes you get something really sad and heartfelt. Sometimes we get things that we don't even get and we're like, 'what is that? We hope people like it.'"
If La Santa's sound had its own recipe, it'd probably be based in the three "B's" (blues, boleros, and bossa), fortified with cumbia, rock, and norteño, and seasoned with pop, ska, R&B, and more. Atop it all is La Marisoul's voice, which reminds of a dulce mexicano, or Mexican candy: capable of being silky and sweet like cajeta but also tangy and spicy like chamoy. The sunny, bicultural eclecticism on the group's two EPs—Noches y Citas and El Valor—would fit right in beside the work of fellow Angeleno acts Ozomatli and Very Be Careful. La Marisoul believes it's that multi-cultural blend that makes the band emblematic of their city and of Latinos in the United States.
"We come here to learn a new language, to work, to share our culture with people, and if we don't know how to do things, and if we don't know the language, we learn it, and if not, we invent something."
"We like to take that--that we're a band from LA and we can do de todo. It's all about diversity," she continued.
Starting with her red hard-shell sticker-spotted suitcase, La Marisoul's things at the Gershwin that afternoon illustrated lots of the mélange of influences that characterizes her and the band's style.
La Marisoul loves dresses and is big fan of 40's and 50's fashion. "I love that a lot of the clothing back then was actually like for real women. Like back then, women were curvy and that was good! I don't shop at malls. I don't shop at stores that have fashion like that's in fashion because everything's for skinny girls, man."
"I just like to find dresses. And if I can, I'll alter them. I'll cut them. I'll add things to them. Like that skirt, that was for Dia de los Muertos, it's like a skirt I got at a thrift store and I bought all of these fake marigolds and we glued them together. I love making stuff. I love tutus and petticoats. I guess I just love to express myself through what I wear."
She also loves to paint her shoes though the first was done by her boyfriend.
Her "Ray Johnson" saddle shoes are a tribute to the visual artist and his pair of "John Cage" shoes.
La Marisoul's accessories pouch carries some of her influences, like la Tin Tan and The Specials, and the all-important red lipstick ("You gotta have red lipstick!").
Her fashion icons and influences include the Mexican performance artist Astrid Hadad, Annie Lennox, and her grandmother, whose glasses she wears. "She was like, Son tuyos." It's funny, I put them on and they just stayed and then everything else."
La Marisoul said she grew up as a tomboy and about seven years ago she had an epiphany.
"One day I'm going to be this old viejita and I'm not going to be able to wear what I want so I might as well just wear whatever the hell I want right now, I just decided one day. I just got tired of thinking that I couldn't be pretty and that I couldn't look feminine because I didn't think I could. And I just said, 'f*ck it man, I'm gonna wear whatever the hell I want. I am gonna show my big arms and wear colors. And if people look and laugh, well forget them. It doesn't matter.'"
"Fashion and magazines and TV tell you what you should look like because your body shape is like this, forget that sh*t. Wear whatever makes you feel comfortable and makes feel good and beautiful. That's my motto."