As she sits for an interview at the Finesse Records HQ, a rooftop apartment in Mexico City, Mariana de Miguel (call her Nan) is getting historic about the inspiration for her persona as R&B singer Girl Ultra. She’s pulling her role as the diva in Finesse’s R&B movement into focus.
“The actresses of Mexico’s golden age of film — onstage, my posture – they affect it a lot,” she says. “I watched those movies with my dad and the divas really drew my attention. Especially Silvia Pinal; look her up, you’ll see.”
Pinal is worth the research. She made her movie debut at 18, building a career for herself playing softspoken but dominant bombshells. She was famous for quick, sensual shifts in her face that entranced audiences. In her films, she stopped admirers on the street in their tracks, and caused her amorous victims to make rash decisions in life — even kill, as in the murderous love triangle she inspires in 1955’s Un Extraño en la Escalera.
She starred alongside great golden age actors like Cantinflas, Tin-Tan, and Pedro Infante, the roles growing more risqué when she moved to Spain to take advantage of that country’s more lax censorship laws. Once in Europe, she became director Luis Buñuel’s muse, starring in a trio of his films. Pinal continues acting to this day, now a grand dame of Televisa novelas who also produces her own shows.
It’s tempting to run through Girl Ultra performances in one’s head, mining them for Pinal’s mannerisms. The coyness of a denim jacket worn off the shoulder in a Boiler Room set earlier this month fits the profile, as do the disarming eyelash flutters in the video for “Cruel,” the first song to be debuted from her new EP Boys.
Boys succeeds as the launching pad for an emergent talent. De Miguel’s buttery voice is at home among the soft electro vibrato of Finesse’s beatmakers, husky as her silver screen inspiration in certain moments. Standout tracks include “Mala,” whose classic hip-hop keyboards underscore the singer’s lightly naughty lyrics and “No,” which includes fellow Finesse singer Jesse Baez in his role as the album’s sole guest vocalist. Their voices dart artfully around one another — it’s easy to see the chemistry that has compelled the media to label them best friends only a year after the two met.
“At some point it came to me that there was no R&B in Mexico.”
There is one minor distraction while she talks about Boys and her crew’s determination to make an impact. There’s no way of putting it diplomatically: the potted plants on the roof at Finesse Records‘ Mexico City HQ are dead.
But even these are a sign of the hunger to succeed — no one’s really checking for the horticulture, to be honest. The label’s founder David Oranday (producer Teen Flirt, call him Cheeks) and the artists associated with “la F,” as Finesse is affectionately called, have been working hard this year. And no one, least of all Girl Ultra, is watering.
This is what happens when you start moving a sound that a country is ready to hear – in Finesse’s case, R&B that leans heavily on the genre’s traditional flair for tales of frustrated hearts and amorous invitation. Beats are mapped by Oranday and his impressive stable of producers and singers from throughout Latin America (most from Mexico, with singers from beyond, Baez hailing from Guatemala and Chicago and Santa Bandida from Venezuela.)
A run of Spanish-language covers of Drake and The Weeknd stirred initial interest in the sound, and after a collaborative EP with Spanish R&B-trap crew Broke Niños Make Pesos, appearances by Girl Ultra and Baez at Festival NRMAL, and certain rumors that one of its core members has recently been signed to a major label, Finesse seems like it’s standing on the edge of something big.
Vibes are running high on that afternoon on the roof; Nan even seems positive about the fate of the so-called greenery. “The rainy season is starting now, so they’re starting to come back,” she says. During our interview, Teen Flirt makes a brief cameo from the back room to say hi. You get the feeling that they’re all keeping close tabs on each other.
Girl Ultra’s new reality of Boiler Room appearances and international collaborations was mapped out by a young Nan growing up in Mexico City, and during the four years that her family spent in Tabasco when they moved for her mother’s job.
Not that she had many real life musician role models growing up. “On one side of my family they’re in communications; they’re engineers, oil workers,” she says. “The other side is orthodontists, but they’re closet painters. I have an uncle that does trova, but that’s just for fun.”
But even prior to the moody teenage emo phase that she says helped cement her love of singing — and perhaps prepped her for the bleeding-heart stories that make radio hits in the world of R&B — de Miguel was dreaming of pop stardom to the sounds of Britney, self-administering R&B immersion with Beyoncé. She credits her music-loving father with some level of inspiration, the endless hours she spent with him listening to The Doors and David Bowie.
“I feel like I have to have a really constant work flow.”
When she was 17 and still in high school, a group of her friends formed AFFER, a soft-disco group that featured Nan as vocalist (singing in English) alongside producer Andrés Jaime (aka Wet Baes) and brothers Miguel and Hugo Galicia, who would later go on to form experimental French house duo Tayrell.
A “sabbatical” the four took to focus on AFFER before college expanded into a project that lasted several years, before they eventually splintered to work on separate careers. The artists stay in touch — Wet Baes produced Girl Ultra’s “U Betta,” a loungey, echoing track that showcased Nan’s thirst to stretch her vocal chords in a more soulful direction and helped introduce her to the Finesse crowd.
“At some point it came to me that there was no R&B in Mexico,” Nan says. Despite the success of LA Chicano superstar Miguel, Mexico has “never had a TLC, a Beyoncé – no one had done it all the way,” she reflects.
Once she linked with Teen Flirt and Baez, she had the back-up she needed and the Girl Ultra mission clicked. Nan happily put in the extra work she says it took to compose R&B lyrics in Spanish — the crew saw a need, and were now going for a certain, necessary linguistic shift of the genre, one typified by Girl Ultra’s Spanish-language flip of Drake’s “One Dance.”
“The Spanish language is beautiful,” she says. “Sometimes it’s tough creating a lyric because it’s a complicated language, but it’s precious.”
For Nan, R&B was the perfect medium with which tell the narratives she had in mind. “Each generation has its own focus for love, sexuality — I mean you could say that punk is just as strong in that area,” she says. “But R&B treats it in this way that is really digestible, very easy to listen to. Everyone’s had an R&B song stuck in their head at some point. It’s turned into something universal. Mexico didn’t have any [R&B artists]. So Finesse is dandole esa tirada.”
You could say Finesse has been dandole ever since Teen Flirt founded the brand in 2012, the year he released one of his own EPs in addition to ones by Adrian Be, Future Den, and Javier Estrada. Nowadays, Baez has emerged as one of Finesse’s most exciting new talents, epitomizing the label’s promise. Girl Ultra is often at his side in interviews and concerts, an ascendant singer whose coyness seems appropriately attuned to the poses of the film divas of yesteryear.
Of course, there could be another aspect to this love for Pinal, who parlayed that intense on-screen charisma into a lasting career through decades of labor. Twenty-one-year-old Nan is pursuing her singing career in place of going to college as she had originally planned, which she says gives her motivation to put a full courseload of energy into the studio. “I feel like I have to have a really constant work flow,” she says. It’s a career — there’s no fallback; this is her contribution to her culture and she’s going to make it work like the pro she is.
With these thoughts of the future, the importance of the life of the roof plants fades away. Who cares – when Girl Ultra and her Finesse crew are in the process of grafting an elegant, distinctly Mexican limb onto the R&B family tree.
Girl Ultra’s Boys EP is out now on Finesse Records.