Juana Molina with Savath & Savalas and PREFUSE 73 at Lee's Palace (529 Bloor West), Tuesday (April 20). $15 advance. 416-870-8000, 416-532-1598. Rating: NNNNN
kelly osbourne is living proof that having a music celeb dad is no guarantee the talent gene will get passed down. In fact, considering how many Frank Sinatra Jr. types there have been for every Jeff Buckley, odds seem to be against it. Entrancing Buenos Aires breakout artist Juana Molina is one of those rare exceptions. Just listen to her spellbinding Segundo (Domino) disc and you'll know immediately that she's got it goin' on.
That she happens to be the daughter of celebrated Argentine tango crooner Horacio Molina isn't a big deal for young Juana, who never really got into the whole tango thing. Despite learning to play guitar at age five and sharing a summer home with Brazilian six-string messiahs Vinicius de Moraes and Chico Buarque, she was more interested in pursuing a career as an actor than as a musician.
After seven years on television, she was one of the hottest comedians in the country when she decided to give it all up for music.
Making the transition from TV funny person to serious singer/songwriter would be challenge enough for any seasoned musician. For a relative novice like Molina, her insecurities about sharing private thoughts with the public added an extra degree of difficulty.
"I'd been writing songs and playing them at home," explains Molina from her Buenos Aires home, "but I found it was really hard to take the next step and perform for an audience. For a long time I couldn't do it, which is why it took me years to play my first show.
"When I started performing, I was so self-conscious I couldn't play a song through without stopping again and again to explain what I was trying to do, like 'this chord could've easily been another chord,' and 'here's where I think the melody should change. '"
It's no surprise that Molina's first few shows weren't exactly roof-raisers. Beyond the frustrating stops and starts, the fact that she was so well-known in Argentina as a comedian meant that anyone coming to her gigs expecting non-stop yuks was disappointed. Molina's whispered ruminations over a quietly picked acoustic guitar didn't exactly get them rolling in the aisles.
"Between songs they'd shout, 'Do one of your funny characters now!' Most of them got bored and left. Out of around 100 people, maybe 20 would stay and listen to the end. I was very comfortable with those 20 people. I felt I could play for them."
Making converts 20 people at a time didn't impress anyone at the Argentina office of MCA, which dropped Molina shortly after the 96 release of her slapdash Rara debut, recorded in a week by Gustavo Santaolalla.
Undeterred, she moved to Los Angeles and met up with Petra Haden, who tipped her to the understated genius of Nick Drake. For the next 18 months, Molina painstakingly crafted her mesmerizing Segundo disc, which earned worldwide critical acclaim and a spot on my top 10 discs of 2003.
Her forthcoming Tres Cosas (Domino) disc builds on the spacey samba-folk minimalism of Segundo with looser, more playful, upbeat Eduardo Matteo-inspired songs that suggest Molina has broken out of her shell.
"With Segundo, I was spending most of my days recording at home. It was a very introspective time - all about me. With Tres Cosas, I was travelling all over, playing shows and working with different people. So you could say that Segundo was all about I, Me, Mine, but Tres Cosas was more like umm..."
"... Here, There and Everywhere?"
"Yes!" she roars, "exactly!"
What I find intriguing is that Molina's guitar playing still sounds more Brazilian than anything else, and despite the back-to-the-roots craze at home in Buenos Aires, there's nothing on Tres Cosas that even hints at tango. So much for the Federico Aubele and Gotan Project comparisons.
"It's in vogue right now for musicians in Argentina to say they love tango music," chuckles Molina, "and they all have excuses about why they've never played it until recently. But I don't feel anything at all when I hear tango. Maybe it's my problem, I don't know, but that music just doesn't move me." Former TV comedian's musical make-over