“The next song is more Latin. If you’re not into that… Then I don’t give a fuck, that’s what I’m playing.” Onstage at San Francisco’s rustic, aptly-named Mission district nightclub Brick and Mortar, Y La Bamba‘s frontwoman Luz Elena Mendoza shrugs her defiance. The thing is, she does give a fuck; in fact, she needs the audience’s energy to make her songs – particularly the kind of proclamatory Flamenco-folk the band is about to launch into – complete.

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y la bambaEnding the show without an encore, much to the rapt crowd’s dismay, Luz hung out with us in a dark alley behind the stage to tell us that this “argüende,” the energy between musician, listener, and every person in the room, is what lights the fire in her songs. “Or any kind of musical art: salsa, cumbia, mariachi has it, flamenco dancers get that argüende going,” she says, though she is quick to correct our use of the word “performance”: “It’s not performance, it’s the opposite,” she tells us. “It’s the communal energy. The audience has something to say, too. Argüende can’t really be translated well, it’s like asking a painter where his painting comes from, he just does it.”

When we mention that there’s much call-and-response in her songs, she laughs: “It reminds me of being back at home, hearing the rhythm of my parents yelling back and forth to each other. That’s also argüende.” Her onstage demeanor, interestingly, is (aside from the dismissive F-bomb), sort of demure, at least between songs. It’s in the thick of the Spanish-language numbers that she stomps her foot, brandishes an arm in the air with almost religious fervor, and pours the emphatic power of her voice into the audience. ¡Argüende!

The singer-songwriter talks a lot about how the concept of “performing” gets in the way of the music, including the press’ insistence on lauding her striking physicality. The “girl talk” in the alley way rendered Luz endearingly honest, and as we discussed the media’s focus on female artists’ looks, she earnestly described to us the “psychological implications of that shit.” “Not to sound self-righteous, but I don’t even read reviews anymore, I’m very sensitive” she told us. “As a girl, can you imagine how that stuff can be internalized? That’s not what I want to be thinking about when I’m going onstage.” Though if we were to grab a beer with Luz we’d love to chat more about her rebellion against the perceived “hot indie frontwoman” stereotype, she’s actually got much more interesting things to say.

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IT CAN TAKE ME 10 MIN TO WRITE A SONG,
ESPECIALLY IF IT’S ABOUT TURBULENCE OR SPIRITUAL
WARFARE….I HATE WRITING ABOUT LOVE.

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First off, her background is fascinating. A self-proclaimed Chicana, born in San Francisco and raised in Oregon by Mexican parents, Luz grew up in a “traditional Mexican household” where she listened to “mostly Catholic hymns.” It wasn’t until her brother snuck rap music into the house that she discovered future R&B influences like Sisters With Voices, whose recordings she’d sing along with in her room. And this was the extent of her vocal training: “We didn’t have resources for that stuff, voice lessons or whatever. Singing in my room was my training. Mariachi is very operatic, so that helped.”

But her musical identity didn’t begin to form until she heard Nirvana play “The Man Who Sold the World” on MTV’s Unplugged. “It sounds funny, but I think that changed things for me and a lot of other people at the time,” she refers to the transcendent quality of the classic cover. “I didn’t grow up listening to Neil Young or Bob Dylan or anything like that. I mean, my parents’ had their own Neil Young and Bob Dylan.” This lack of American folk rock hasn’t kept Luz from creating her own brand. It’s even the Mariachi touches and natural disregard for trying to sound like a “tradition” that makes Y La Bamba’s music the perfect new American folk: a blend of cultures, a community experience; raw passion for the Internet age and delicate melodies for the riot era.

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The band is a tight one, thanks to the excellent musicians surrounding Luz, and their long history together. They gathered slowly, each hailing from a different part of Oregon, from Ashland to Portland, and their subtle vocal harmonies prove their friendship. “I’ve known Mike the longest,” she says as the percussionist kindly brings her a glass of water, smiles politely our way, and returns into the venue. “We all just kind of look at each other onstage now and know what everyone’s going to do next. We know each other’s musical quirks.”

This aids the spontaneous quality of their performances, and, surely, Luz’s unmethodical composition style: “It can take, like, ten minutes to write a song, especially if it’s about turbulence, or spiritual warfare.” The one thing that’s hard to write about? “I hate writing about love,” she sighs. The latest album’s title, however, comes from an effort to embrace that very difficulty. Court the Storm, she generously offers, is about a “heart-smash” recent breakup.

The set this night was a varied one: the declarative Mariachi, the whispered ukulele folk, and even an impossible-not-to-hum song about freezing one’s ass off in the singer’s birthplace, our very own San Francisco. “I am a fragile dandelion,” she sings acrobatically, and quite ironically. With one eyebrow raised, and one arm about to shoot up, we know what’s about to happen: ¡Argüende!

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Listen to Y La Bamba’s “Bendito” off their latest album Court The Storm. Download the entire album below:

Court the Storm - Y La Bamba