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Border Girl

It's hard to pinpoint the particular appeal of Julieta Venegas. She's sexy, sure — in a cute kind of way. She's also got a certain artistic rawness — just two albums into her solo career, there's plenty of room for growth, which makes her oddly vulnerable. And there's that voice. Venegas is a wonderful singer, much better than she appears on first listen; and more and more, she's learning to take her vocals just about anywhere she wants. But none of that quite nails it. There's something else.

Julieta Venegas is funny.

It's not a trait that shows up on her albums — not yet, at least. But in person, Venegas has a certain hilarious talent: She can cantinflear without even trying. Officialized by the Royal Spanish Academy, the word is inspired by the ability of the late, great Mexican comic Cantinflas to talk and talk and talk and make no sense at all — a skill that allowed the actor's characters to get out of trouble and bewilder his tormentors. Venegas' cantinfleo has the same effect — asked about a subpar show in New York, the singer smiles and begins to compare the Brooklynites to her adored Mexican crowd, but before long she changes courses, launching into a wonderful, textbook cantinfleo.

"I grew up with a super-effusive crowd," she says. "I mean, well . . . I imagine that here in the U.S., it's the same thing with the Hispanic people. Because Mexico is that type of atmosphere, right? An atmosphere of wow! — of participating in the concert, not just clapping and that's it. It's about Yes, we like it! or We don't like it! or whatever, but they're there. [As an artist], you can't be passive and say, 'And now, this is such-and-such song,' and the people like that and you're all, 'No, well,' yes, good vibes. I mean, I've already, now about ooohhh!, I mean, I say, also, I like being with them. Right?"

Uh, right.

Like Cantinflas, Venegas uses her cantinfleo to deflect unwelcome questions, mostly from American interviewers who seem irresistibly compelled toward ridiculous comparisons to PJ Harvey ("That's a very American thing," says Venegas. "In Mexico or Spain, they never compare me with anybody. I love PJ, but we're different"). Having successfully sidestepped the query about her Brooklyn show, Venegas now extracts a (hollow) promise not to mention the fact that, despite having been raised in Mexico, she was in fact born in Long Beach, California — and that she speaks perfect English, complete with a Valley-girl accent. "Good," says the proud cachanilla, raised in Tijuana.

Venegas is the most enigmatic of a handful of critically acclaimed, if commercially ignored, Latin rockeras, a group that includes fellow Mexican Ely Guerra and Argentina's Erica García. Now, despite a breeze of success brought on last fall by two Latin Grammy nominations, the singer knows full well where she stands.

"Let's face it," she says. "I'm an artist who doesn't sell millions, who's not so commercial and who can't be heard on the radio. But it's great to have a place [in the industry]. Not just for me, but for a lot of artists who are doing interesting things, even though their stuff is not of the best quality in terms of production values."

Venegas may not have had the best production budget on her last album, 2000's Bueninvento ("Goodinvention"), but she can't complain about the production values. Not long after she left her previous band, Tijuana No, in 1996, the singer landed in the hands of Gustavo Santaolalla, Latin alternative's premier producer.

"What I like about Gustavo," says Venegas, "is that, even though he's a star in the industry, he gets in the studio with you and gets into it. Nobody can get him out of there — your album is the only thing he thinks about and talks about, and he's always telling you it's the best thing he's ever done. Having someone with so much experience showing so much enthusiasm for your album . . . well, it feels beautiful."

When they got together in 1998 for Venegas' critically acclaimed solo debut, Aquí, Santaolalla had already produced some of the finest albums in Mexican rock, most notably Maldita Vecindad's 1991 El Circo (ranked 49th on Spin magazine's list of the 90 greatest albums of the '90s) and Café Tacuba's groundbreaking first four albums. But by the time Venegas was ready for Bueninvento, Santaolalla's stature had grown even bigger, and his presence as Julieta's producer this time wasn't a lock.

"At one point he was so busy I didn't know if he would have time for me," says Venegas, who bided her time and kept the pressure on. Santaolalla eventually signed on — but not with a full-time commitment.

"We went through demos and chose the songs together, just like with [Aquí]," says Venegas, "but this time I got in the studio with other people. [Santaolalla] supervised and mixed."

The "other people" Venegas worked with on Bueninvento were veteran producer Joe Chiccarelli (Oingo Boingo, Frank Zappa, Etta James), and Café Tacuba's Emmanuel del Real and Quique Rangel — not a bad team to have to settle for. And the results of their collaboration were magical — Bueninvento is as beautifully crisp as Aquí, but less solemn and more relaxed, more groovy. As a lyricist, Venegas continues to use the first person, though generally as a device to adapt another character's point of view. Musically, the singer concedes she's still improving, still changing.

"I'm still at the stage where every record is different," she says. "I wouldn't mind if it stayed like that throughout my life. I want every record to be a surprise."

Bueninvento managed to maintain Santaolalla's high standard while bringing with it the kind of challenge and surprise found in Café Tacuba's own remarkable albums. Combined with Venegas' growth as a singer-songwriter and her increased input in the studio, it made for one of the best albums of 2000.

"I was the catalyst," says Venegas of her heightened role in the album's creation. "More people were involved, but there was a line to follow. I knew perfectly what I wanted, because I had worked on many demos for several months. We didn't even do preproduction. We just listened to the demos, and decided to record."

Now in the early stages of work on her third album, Venegas sees that artistic growth continuing. "This is the first time I will sit down to compose an album," she says. "I used to record songs in sequence, then decide what to do with them. Now I'm beginning to write thinking about the album, about the balance and tempos I want to have, the types of songs I want to write. Now I'm much more aware of everything."

Bueninvento earned Venegas Latin Grammy nods for Best Rock Solo Vocal Album and Best Rock Song ("Hoy No Quiero," though it could have been any of the album's 14 tracks). In the end, she won neither award, but the experience gave the singer confidence.

"C'mon — if I did it, anyone can," she says. "True, our society — and I can only speak about Mexico — still has the tendency to say that women can't do something like music, that they should concentrate on a [more traditional] career or family. And in the provinces, the attitude is even worse. But I'm a province girl, and I was able to become a musician."

Yeah, there's definitely something appealing about Julieta Venegas.

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Enrique Lopetegui