Over the years, Alex Anwandter has earned high praise as one of the essential voices in Latin American indie pop, and today fans rejoice with the release of Latinoamericana, his third studio solo album (fourth if you count 2011’s eponymous Odisea). The record is a dense and sprawling manifesto on race, gender, sexuality, and politics that unfolds across 11 tracks invoking disco, krautrock, and ambient production to provide a subtle sonic backdrop for an album that is otherwise staggering in its ambition.
Describing Latinoamericana via email, Anwandter reveals the album tittle is “a riff, a theft, of the [folkloric] concept of ‘Americana,’ transplanted to South America.” In many ways, the album is a direct reaction to the world, and specifically South America, turning towards demagogues and authoritarian leaders with the hope of remedying social and economic ills like rising violence, crippling recessions, and racially motivated xenobophia spurred by continent-wide migrations. In other ways, the album seems shaped by Anwandter’s experience as a U.S. resident in the Trump era, a child of Latin America burdened with witnessing a repeating history of oppression, ignorance, and autocracy in both his native and adopted homes.
In an effort to give greater context to Latinoamericana‘s far-reaching implications, Alex Anwandter has joined Remezcla in a track-by-track breakdown of his latest work. If you expect Chile’s prince of political pop to feed you all the answers, you’ve got another thing coming, but hopefully Anwandter’s words will help illuminate his complex ideological and artistic processes.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Most people know the story of La Malinche as the Aztec woman who betrayed her people and allied with Hernán Cortés to survive colonial decimation, but in the context of this song, who is this opening criticism aimed at?
I think people might’ve gotten used to me being ultra-explicit in the meaning of my songs and I placed this rather cryptic attack-on-everyone first on the album to undo that. One thing I set out to do with this song was to shift the classical “evil woman” narrative inherent in the story of La Malinche towards the pervasive, all-knowing, bro-y straight male that actually has ruled our lives for ages. I didn’t have a lack of targets for that, fortunately.
“Locura” is a pretty direct reaction to the rise of far-right and authoritarian leaders worldwide and that tension is palpable in your new music video. How do characters like the woman with cowbell, the carnival dancer, and the charro with a gun all fit within the song’s narrative?
I wanted to choose hyper-clichés of certain countries of South America. The woman with the cowbell is called “Señora Chilena” in the credits ’cause she very much looks like all our aunts or mothers/grandmothers. A woman like that traditionally is thought to have no role in the power plays of politics or history but I think she does, and this is me invoking her in our current dark context. Who elects these clowns but people around/close to us?
Can you tell us about your decision to explore racial dynamics on the title track and whether you felt any conflict approaching the subject as a white man?
I think you’re referring to the fact that I might be “white passing,” which is an entirely different phenomenon and a privilege that stems from racism. Your question also betrays a very “American” (U.S.) way of thinking: always in terms of race. I think in Latin America we pretty much assume we’re all mestizos (except for really embarrassing upper-class people who try to prove their supposed European purity) and think in terms of cultures and identities. This also hides a dangerous denial that racism does exist in Latin America.
“I don’t think queer people will be free to love and exist until they aren’t discriminated by laws, or feel lonely within their families.”
To be completely honest, I also find the assumption very patriarchal as it erases my mother’s entire heritage (or even my father’s mother’s heritage) just because I happened to end up with a German last name. As pretty much everyone in Chile, I have hundreds of years of mestizo heritage behind me, which in no way makes me an “authority” on anything. It just plain and simple makes me “latinoamericano.” The fact that I live with white-passing privilege does not contradict that.
Without erasing the fact that there are perceived hierarchies regarding last names in Latin America (Gonzalez is supposedly “inferior” to Anwandter), we should not forget they are all European names and we are all mestizos (unless you have an indigenous name, of course). At the same time, it would be very simplistic and probably just dead wrong saying Frida Kahlo (whose father was born in Germany) was a white woman or wasn’t latinoamericana.
I find it unhelpful not to be rigorous with these issues. But to try and answer your question, I did try to address the fact that I might pass as white – or the fact that my European last name comes from 19th century immigration, which was quite a long time ago if the purpose is negating the possibility of me being latinoamericano, by the way – and externalized much of the song, which is sung in the second person.
“Vanidad” could be interpreted as commentary on celebrity and having to surrender public life in order to preserve your privacy. Is this something you experience as your career and name recognition continue to rise?
I kept thinking of many of my artistic idols, hiding their sexuality for decades, being world-famous, dying too young, struggling with their aging bodies. It’s a projection of something I didn’t want for myself. I guess my fear hides a level of judgment, and I still love them and respect their privacy but I think it’s sad how the world being an intolerant place converges with someone’s thirst for fame and makes them put their success before their well-being.
“It’s sad how the world being an intolerant place converges with someone’s thirst for fame and makes them put their success before their well-being.”
“Um Girassol Da Cor De Seu Cabelo”
This is one of two Milton Nascimento and Tom Jobim covers featured on Latinoamericana. What was it about these particular artists that you felt resonated with the spirit of the album?
Even though Tom Jobim wrote “Olha Maria,” to answer this question, let’s say I’m covering Chico Buarque when I sing that song. Chico and Milton Nascimento sum up a lot of things I wanted to recreate in Latinoamericana: they were both very embracing of their musical roots, creative and forward-looking as artists, engaged in social issues around them, and regularly sang covers in Spanish. This last fact is something that I was very surprised not to have thought about before: a sense of shared identity existed among artists in Spanish-speaking Latin America and Brazil before the dictatorships. Their struggles were the same back then. I just thought: they still are! Bolsonaro and Macri and Piñera are all the same thing we’re fighting against. I needed to look no further than my childhood and my dad to find that lost connection. I grew up listening to [Milton and Chico] and I’ve loved them before I could even speak. It’s not real if it’s not personal.
What inspired the tragic love story in “Axis Mundi”?
It’s sort of a throwback to my wilder years and how confusing and fun and queer they were – certainly non-binary like the song – and ultimately tragic too, indeed. I saw a lot of people collapse: depression, suicide, AIDS. None of them wanted to conform, all of them were special in their own way, and a lot of them had to pay heavily because of that. It’s weird it’s almost the happiest song on the album; but that’s how I remember them.
“Canción del Muro”
In “Canción del Muro,” though you seem to refer to more psychological barriers and stagnant thought, it’s almost impossible to separate the title from its current Trumpian context. Was that intentional and how do you think living in the U.S. the last few years has affected your music?
This is my Hanna Jaff song. Kidding. I guess this wall in particular is more metaphorical than literally about Trump’s wall – and it speaks about the widening gap between the forces of the world, bending, bound to break. I doubted myself on the obviousness of the image, but my thinking was: are we really supposed to not say anything against something obviously morally wrong just because it’s obvious?
“No Te Puedes Escapar”
“Malinche” has production flairs reminiscent of Odisea while the instrumentation on “No Te Puedes Escapar” has a distinctly Teleradio Donoso feel. Did you factor a sense of nostalgia when composing the music on Latinoamericana?
It’s a bit hard for me to answer this question because it’s not like I’m reborn every time I finish an album. Ten years ago I already liked Motown and Krautrock and ESG (which in my mind kind of sum up “No te puedes escapar”) and, for some reason, the song didn’t come 10 years ago but now. Even though I liked the influences that might add up to the song, I don’t think I had the clarity to execute a concept like that 10 years ago. It’s a darker, more mature song and lyric, I guess.
“Odio A Todo El Mundo”
This song paints a portrait of paranoia and fear of nuclear fallout, yet you would seem to welcome it. Are you being hyperbolic or are you really this disenchanted with the world?
It’s both hyperbolic and real. What I mean is: I don’t have the same intensity of feeling about something all the time, but I’ve certainly had that feeling. Intensely. And I think most people have. I enjoy taking those brief (or not so brief) feelings and making them explode onto a song. I am disenchanted, of course. It’s hard not to be right now. But I wonder if people in Nixon’s era or Reagan’s during the AIDS crisis felt this way too. Hasn’t it always been awful and wonderful at the same time?
Aside from Brazil’s essential inclusion in any Latin American-themed project, why was it so important for you to incorporate two songs fully sung in Portuguese on this album?
Probably cause it’s not hegemonic in Latin America to actually think it’s “essential.” And that says a lot. It’s the same effort as [“Um Girassol da Cor de Seu Cabelo,”] obviously. To dismantle the idea that Brazil is somehow separated from the rest of us. But I didn’t want to talk about it so I just sang a song of theirs I loved.
Much of your solo career has focused on your rejection of the systems that prevent or oppress your right to love freely, making “Finalmente” one of the most cathartic songs on the album. Do you finally feel free to dictate the terms on which you love and exist?
I don’t think queer people will be free to love and exist until they aren’t discriminated by laws, or feel lonely within their families, or feel fear of physical danger to hold hands with someone they like on the street. Still, we must make the effort to live our lives and actually enjoy them and love and be loved in return. This song speaks of my personal effort to do that, more than the state of the world. I don’t fear the effort but I can still get hit for trying to do it. That’s a very particular type of bravery.
Latinoamericana is out now via Nacional Records.