Vega pulls back her red and black plaid jacket to show her trademark tattoos. “That’s my life”, she says pointing to the flowers and lines and words on her shoulders and arms. ”These are the things that are important to me. My mother doesn’t like it, but I like it.” She is relaxing Wednesday afternoon in the offices of the Criteria Agency in Hollywood after taping an interview with a Mexican TV crew. She pointed to the tattoos in response to a question about being a woman building a career in the very masculine world of music in Spain – and now in the United States.
“Women like me who want to have their way, to do their own music, to reach other people, to show the people who we really are – we have many obstacles,” she continues., “but I am the kind of woman who wants to be a pole – successful – because I deserve it, because I work for it.”
Vega, the stage name of Mercedes Mígel Carpio, has been working on it for a long time. Now 39 years old with new 8-month old daughter at home, she has collected two Latin Grammy nominations in a career that went into high gear 15 years ago when her first studio album, India sold 150,000 copies. Two more successful albums followed, along with hit singles, and a Spanish Music Awards nomination as she quickly became one of the leading pop-rock artists in Spain. She started her own independent label, La Madriguera Records, and used it to release her hit album ‘Wolverines’, co-produced in L.A. with the multiple Grammy and Latin Grammy awarded audio engineer and record producer Sebastian Krys.
Thursday night she took another step in that career, showcasing her forthcoming album, La Reina Pez, to an American audience at Hollywood’s legendary Hotel Café. The room was packed with fans who had fallen in love with her through her records but had never seen her live as her tours have largely missed the US. The following night she would also open for the Guatemalan singer Ricardo Arjona at the Microsoft Theater.
The Hotel Café was so full Thursday night at 10:30 pm that the usual cocktail tables in the main room had been replaced with lines of chairs that stretched back to the bar. The standing room was also bursting with devotees, engulfing the sound booth and blocking the green room doors. Excited conversations in Spanish and English echoed around the walls as instruments were moved onstage and connected, mics checked, monitors tested and adjusted. When things were perfect, the lights came on and there she was, holding an acoustic guitar, clad in black pants and a simple black off-the shoulder top that displayed the life story tattoos.
A wave of welcome rose up – both from the fans to Vega and from Vega to the room. She greeted everyone with her shy, honest but mischievous smile, speaking in labored English before asking forgiveness for shifting to Spanish to introduce her guitarist and keyboardist and tell us about the emotion of being here for us. Language didn’t matter; the only possible response to her and the music that followed was unconditional love.
“My goal is for people to like my stories, that people feel that my music is really about them”, she said at the conversation the day before. And that is what she delivered Thursday night…songs for us.
Seven songs — previews of what is coming on the new album, La Reina Pez. Personal stories flowed with the music as she interspersed conversation about her life with her songs. At one point she put aside her beautiful acoustic guitar and picked up a ukulele, and – surprisingly – got very serious as if playing the four-string instrument was more difficult than the six stringer that she had just put in its cradle.
Regardless of the instrument or the song, she was radiant, comfortable in her own tattooed skin, doing what she loved, telling her songstories to an audience that heard them as their stories. The lyrics were penetrating at times, as with the unanswered questions in ”Sally”, and painful at times, as in the sadness of “Despues De Ti”. This from a woman who at twenty-two was told by her record label that her face was too pretty for her to be seen as intelligent or a serious song writer so she should smile and swing her long hair on stage. She responded by shaving her head and eventually starting her own successful record label.
The hair has been back for years and the songwriting on display Thursday night at the Hotel Café was not only intelligent but magical. Her voice progressed smoothly from gentle seduction to high intensity passion in “Despues De Ti”, filling the room with the nostalgic heartache anyone who has loved and lost has felt. Vega’s cinematic range is remarkable. She can create the sonic landscapes of winter emotions – cold, aloneness, nostalgia — in a song like “Despues De Ti”, then shift the mood to high fashion, high style, high passion pain in “Haneke”, and then fast forward in the final song “Sally” to the summer emotions of anthemic rock. She had previewed her flexible range of feelings and styles in her last album, Wolverines, and brought it home at the Hotel Café showcase.
Vega’s words, her performance, her mind and her core are right for the times, especially in the United States. She has lived — and is living — a full life, but is energized, not fatigued, by it. She has seen joy and sadness and can express both for us in the powerful shelter of a lyric. She is not a distraction from life’s fears and tedium, but a priority for its joy and triumph; she entertains from the heart at a time when this country needs to heal its heart. She is honest and genuine – what you see is what you hear. She has no need for artifice; her songstories are más que sufficiente – even if her mother doesn’t like them in tattoos.
by Patrick O’Heffernan.
Host, Music FridayLive!