Girl Ultra’s Upcoming Album Is a Love Letter to R&B

Photo by Fernando Cattori

Nan de Miguel, known as Girl Ultra, got to her Knitting Factory show in New York City by driving from Monterrey, Mexico, through a tour stop in Mauston, Wisconsin, and questioning whether it was a good idea to eat boiled eggs sold at gas stations. (She didn’t, thankfully.) This tour is a prelude to her first full-length studio album, which is set to debut in October. Looking at her, listening to her music, and watching her videos, it’d be hard to believe any aspect of her life lacks glamour, sensuality, or intimacy. But prepping for the Supervision tour with fellow Mexican musicians Clubz, the legal aspects proved to be exhausting. Before being able to get on the road, De Miguel and her tourmates had to spend three months and a lot of money in order to get expedited work visas to the United States – a process which initially caused a delay in their U.S. dates.

“All of the political and geographical things, they change the standards for us,” De Miguel says, sitting in the Remezcla offices. “All of these things, like getting our work visas – people don’t understand what it takes for us to get papers in order to play small venues.”

But, the hassles of being a Mexican artist touring in the U.S. have been outshone by everything else. During the tour, she hasn’t traveled with just one band, and instead has been working with different musicians, adapting as she goes. That experience has been thrilling for De Miguel, who says she is learning how to perfect her live sound, and continue experimenting with her show.

De Miguel has also found unexpected sources of joy on the road – she describes the crowd in Wisconsin as incredibly warm, and she was pleasantly surprised by the Latinx community she found there. “I never thought I would like to have a farm,” De Miguel explains. “I want to be a farmer when I’m like 50, probably.”

De Miguel’s performance on Wednesday night marks her second time onstage in New York City, and ahead of the show, she was excited.“There’s just something about New York City, and the Latin community in New York City.”

Her performance at the Knitting Factory proved her anticipation was well worth it – a modest, but incredibly enthusiastic crowd was there to meet her. In the true spirit of an R&B show, one couple spent most of De Miguel’s set with arms draped around each other, mouthing every word to the songs, spending more time looking into each others’ eyes, instead of at the stage – exhibiting the kind of heady, romantic, all consuming love that was the bedrock of songs like Sade’s “By Your Side” and Monica’s “Angel of Mine.” And De Miguel herself showed her comfort with, and command of her take on the genre, gliding and dancing across the stage as she worked through a few new songs from her album, like her song with Cuco, “DameLove,” “Llama” and “Ella Tú Y Yo.” Watching her perform, it was easy to see how De Miguel had pulled from previous iterations of R&B in order to crafft her own version, create her own sound.

Beyond the Supervision tour, De Miguel has plenty of milestones coming this fall. There are 12 more stops, and she’ll be performing in cities like San Antonio, El Paso, and Los Angeles. She’s releasing her first full-length studio album sometime in October, an effort that has taken quite a while to come to completion. The album continues building on the R&B sound she’s trying to carve out for herself and for Mexico City. Since the days of Sin Bandera – a Mexican R&B duo that De Miguel looks to for inspiration – in the early 2000s, Mexico’s R&B scene hasn’t really distinguished itself within the country or abroad.

Photo courtesy of the artist
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“I was going for exploration because we don’t actually have an R&B scene in Mexico,” De Miguel says. “I felt the responsibility of exploring the whole R&B spectrum – trying to explore how that genre will go with my own language.” To make an album that will hopefully cultivate a richer R&B scene in Mexico, De Miguel narrowed in on the specifics, every run, rhythm, and drum was considered carefully, crafted purposely – drawing inspiration from every iteration and era of the genre.

“That’s what you can expect: experimentation, a lot of blends in the drums, trying to get that 808 right,” continues De Miguel. “It took so long and it’s still taking so long – I’ve been taking care of every word I say on the album. It’s just this new empowerment for me as an artist, and as a woman. I feel like I’m just starting to break free, in a personal way, but also as a creative.”

Her love of R&B – one so strong she has re-extended the genre into Mexico – came from a love of music fostered by her father, who played everything from Aretha Franklin to the Pink Floyd. “My dad is a mellow man… and he nurtured my musical spirit,” she says.

“When I got a computer and Limewire and everything, I was like ‘Destiny’s Child! Where is Destiny’s Child?’”

But she didn’t really start developing her own taste in music until her early teens, like so many of us. In the internet age, she was able to discover and fall in love with artists like Beyoncé. “It wasn’t until I started watching Nickelodeon that I started to get familiar,” De Miguel explains. “Then when I got a computer and Limewire and everything, I was like ‘Destiny’s Child! Where is Destiny’s Child?’”

As she’s developed her sound and her style, she’s faced some of the same difficulties that other Spanish language artists have experienced with English speaking audiences: watching her work be reduced to “Latin music,” or lazily thrown into a genre that has nothing to do with her actual sound.

“It’s so mean that we’re wrapped in this little cage that says ‘Latin music.’ It’s not the way it is,” she says. “Every single artist is trying to open up the path to just be another artist in another genre. Not like being caged into one category. Like ‘World Music.’ What does that even mean?”

De Miguel isn’t just trying to build an R&B movement in Mexico or break out from limitations placed on her as a Mexican artist – she’s also trying to establish a stronger foundation for women who are artists. She noted that one of the biggest barriers for women making music in Mexico is the constant sense of “toxic competition.” In De Miguel’s experience, it can often feel like “we support each other until you’re challenging me.” But for her, there’s no need to compete – there’s space for everyone’s success. In an effort to demonstrate this, her upcoming music video for her single “Ruleta” – which is also a tribute to the New Jack Era of the genre – was created with some of De Miguel’s favorite Mexican girl groups.

“When I wrote the song, I wanted something very powerful and feminine to go with it, and I’ve been having a struggle in my head with the female music scene in Mexico. It doesn’t seem to grow for a lot of reasons.”

She’s aware that there is a void within the conversations about the “Latin boom” happening in music now – where it’s possible to also feel like the boxes Latino artists are put in don’t leave space for everyone. She recognizes that it’s exciting for there to be a large and growing audience of people who are not only accepting of, but seeking out Spanish language music. But, as she tours the United States, traveling from venue to venue, she’s also aware that the opportunities for Spanish language artists aren’t equal.

Girl Ultra. GIF by Itzel Alejandra Martinez for Remezcla
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“It’s not just the ‘Latino’ that TV is presenting,” De Miguel says. “There is a big spectrum of Latinos and different opportunities. The most exciting thing is that language is what is bringing us together, it’s just not a barrier anymore.”

With so many different barriers being pushed away, De Miguel is carving out a new space for herself and for Mexico City with her take on R&B music – and keeping the spirit of collaboration and inclusion with other artists at the forefront of her mind.

Check out Girl Ultra’s remaining tour dates:

9/6 – Atlanta, GA – Purgatory
9/8 – Houston, TX – Scout Bar
9/10 – Dallas, TX – Trees
9/11 – San Antonio, TX – Rock Box
9/12 – McAllen, TX – Cine El Rey
9/13 – El Paso, TX – Low Brow Palace
9/15 – Phoenix, AZ – Crescent Ballroom
9/16 – San Diego, CA- Casbah
9/17 – Los Angeles, CA – The Regent
9/18 – San Francisco, CA – Slim’s
9/20 – Tucson, AZ – 191 Toole