You’re writing songs in both English and Spanish– do you find one language more conducive to songwriting than another?
Elena Lacayo: When I started writing music, I was really conflicted about finding my identity through language. I felt that if I solely chose one or the other I would not be true to myself, so I decided to write in both. While I tend to write more in English, I find it much easier to complete lyrics in Spanish because a lot of times things sound corny in English. In Spanish, ordinary phrases somehow sound more poetic. I also have the added element of having to determine what language the song is going to be in before I start writing lyrics at all. Sometimes the genre or a phrase that comes with the melody determine it but other times, I just have to decide!
You mentioned language as part of your identity. Has your time spent going back and forth between the US and Nicaragua also made an impact on your songwriting or identity?
EL: Oh, most definitely. I was born in New Orleans, Louisiana to parents who had just recently moved to the states, fleeing the Nicaraguan Civil War. We lived in the US for the first years of my life (mostly in Miami), and then returned to the war-torn Nicaragua when I was 8 years old. I then lived there until I decided to go to college in the states and I have been in the US ever since.
Now, even though I have lived in in the US for more than 10 years, I go back to Nicaragua to visit my family 2 or 3 times a year. Every time I go, I play for my relatives and friends down there and feel a greater responsibility to represent my country and culture in my performances and music. When I was growing up, I used to think that Nicaraguan music and tradition was boring and I preferred American music. Now, I think to myself how amazing it was to grow up in such an interesting and unique place, so I am making a greater effort to incorporate Nicaraguan themes into my music. There are not a lot of Nicaraguan artists out there, so I need to make it count.
At what point in your well-traveled life do you remember hearing music, and being moved to sing or play?
EL: So, legend has it that the first thing intelligible thing my parents heard out of my mouth was not a word, but a melody. Allegedly I sang the melody to Johann Stauss’ Blue Danube before I spoke a word. Part of me thinks that story is just a cover-up for them not remembering my first word, but I prefer to think that it’s true. Regardless, it is a testament to how long I’ve been singing. I also grew up in a musical family and my brother played trumpet and french horn. He would play along to orchestral pieces all day long and would practice scales and such, which I think became a form of informal ear training for me. Even though I loved going to his concerts when I was little, I simply refused to take lessons. It wasn’t until I was in middle school that I picked up guitar and piano. There was a period of time when the electricity would go out for four hours in Nicaragua, so I would just sit and secretly figure things out on guitar. I didn’t want anyone to think I was actually learning, because I didn’t want anyone to ask me to play for them.
Have you ever traveled anywhere abroad specifically for the sake of playing or hearing music? What kind of music have you heard abroad, and incorporated into the songs you write?
EL: I have traveled a bit in the US to listen to music, but I haven’t yet bought an international plane ticket to do so. I think the closest I have come was going to Buenos Aires partly because it is the home of two of my favorite artists: Jorge Luis Borges (author), and Gustavo Cerati of Soda Stereo, an epic rock en español band. I really just wanted to see the world that had inspired their work, but I didn’t exactly go to watch a show or meet anyone in particular (even though that would have been awesome). However, I did get to see Cerati in Central Park in New York in the summer of 2006. I got there at 11:30 am (first one in line!) and he didn’t play until around 9pm. I had to sit through three concerts, including a Calle 13 reggaeton show, with no food in 100 degree heat to watch him. I was front and center and it was well worth it. It was awesome.
The new album, Miel Venenosa, actually comes from a song of his called “Fue.” I love that song, but didn’t realize it had the lyric “miel venenosa” in it until I had already decided to name the song and the album. I did a google search for the term to see what else would come up, and the lyrics to that song, which had apparently subconsciously filtered into my brain came up. So, it turns out that I unintentionally referenced one of my musical inspirations in my own work. The mind works in mysterious ways!
What influences are you pulling from for this album? How have you changed as a writer and musician since you first began? How much of those developmental stages can we hear in “Miel Venemosa?”
EL: I would say that the greatest way in which my music-writing has evolved has been the process by which I write. In the beginning, before I had a band I wrote songs with a guitar and notebook. Since I wrote a number of songs before I had a band, the arrangements for them were really left to their discretion when we first formed. More recently however, I have started writing songs on my computer where I can take my time and write multiple parts by myself and be more intentional about the instrumentation and arrangements. There are tracks from both sides of that evolution — songs like “Quizás Sí” and “Last Kiss” were some of the songs I wrote earliest, so those fall into the first category while the title track “Miel Venenosa” and “Tonight,” a jazzy ukulele beach song, fall into the latter category. I am really excited about this new writing process and look forward to exploring it more in my future work.
We originally ran this interview July 31, 2014.