My Talk with Gina Villalobos about Her New Record, Sola
Originally written for LN Magazine’s May issue
Gina Villalobos is a songwriter already known for her willingness to dwell, unflinchingly, in reality. The Los Angeles resident became one of the most acclaimed artists in the L.A. Americana community with her breakthrough album, Rock N Roll Pony. Legendary BBC disc jockey Bob Harris called it “a contender for album of the year,” while Pop Matters declared her to have “unquestionably the finest voice in the country-rock genre today.” Avoiding the sophomore jinx, Villalobos’ next offering succeeded, as well. Miles Away was released in 2006 to the same critical plaudits as her acclaimed predecessor received. Paste hailed it as”timeless, it combines every element that makes a recording classic.”
Summer of 2009 saw Villalobos releasing Days on Their Side and American Songwriter raved that the songs came “off the speakers like holographic Cracker Jack surprises,” and stated that Villalobos had “taken the Lucinda Williams/Sheryl Crow model to a new level, (and it’s about time somebody did).”
This May finds the artist returning with her fifth studio album, Sola. Villalobos mines even deeper territory holding her heart up in all its vulnerable lucidity. Each song on Sola has lines and melodies that scrape away the layers of denial that get us through the everyday, therefore this album is not for the faint hearted. Like the realist short stories of Raymond Carver, her songs are visceral anthems in which one senses the bottom has fallen out, making visible the seriousness of what’s at stake. The songs affirm that possibility has always existed and, in fact, still exists. This emotional depth is innate to Villalobos: “When I think back on my childhood, it contains some of the best memories of my life, but these memories also coincided with a sadness … there was a sadness to the elation and, looking back as an adult, I think I felt like everything was temporary. Throughout most of my life, it was like I was feeling nostalgic over the things I hadn’t even lost yet.”
In 2011, exhausted and creatively empty, Villalobos took a break from making music. “I was so exhausted from doing the musician thing for 20 years, I literally couldn’t create. I was done, my hunger for it was like a numb finger. I couldn’t write, I couldn’t draw, and I had no imagination or ability to reflect anymore. All I could do was the most important thing to me, take care of Amy,” she said. (Villalobos and her partner wed earlier this year). But the impulse (opposed to the hunger), to create was still there so, Villalobos enrolled in a music program at Los Angeles Community College. “I liked the immediacy of its rewards. It gave me instant gratification, and eventually the impulse to create turned into a viscous hunger that I had been purposely ignoring. I found myself looking up from a deep, dark well and, from this well, is where the songs on the new record came from.”
In January of 2012 Villalobos began working on her 5th studio album, Sola. She assembled a group of talented and accomplished musicians to bring her songs to life. In addition to her vocals and acoustic guitar she enlisted Josh Grange to play electric guitar (KD Lang, Dwight Yoakam); Eric Heywood on pedal steel (Son Volt, Ray LaMontagne); Kevin Haaland on guitar; Ian Walker on upright bass (KG Lang, The Ditty Bops) and Quinn on drums (Tracy Chapman, Daft Punk). Working with such excellent musicians helped Villalobos guide the composition of the songs. “When working in the studio, I constantly have the question in the back of my mind: ‘What would nine out of ten players play?’ and then I always make sure to steer the musicians as far away from that as possible.” She says, “ The key is finding musicians that get excited about doing something different, even if, at first, they have a hard time seeing my vision for a certain song.”
“Sometimes songs need candlelight, and sometimes they need a lone tumbleweed blowing across them. It’s about setting up mood and attitude. I like painting a different scene when it comes to the arrangement and creation of parts. It’s a fine line, though. I am not going for an Avant-garde sound, I’m just looking for different ways to ignite the engines of the songs, the engines that move them forward into their finished form, like developing a character in a movie.”
The song “Hold on to Rockets” is an example of Villalobos’ effort to create a sound like nothing else out there. The twang and old-school pop of the melody is like a 1993 Sheryl Crow crashing into the apocalyptic bombast of Guided by Voices, delivered in the context of Villalobos’ voice – a voice rich in nuances, tone and color. She lays it plain the ways we self sabotage and cross our own paths with jinxes, and the song is a spell to break this.
In “Come Undone”, grief is the baseline in which all forward movement takes place. The song is a romantic two-step in slow time to Heywood’s pedal steel that feels like a heartbreak ballad at first then builds to a swooning fugue state. A surprising celebration of knowing that only a run over heart is capable of holding the mysteries of mature love.
In “Wandering By” Villalobos effortlessly evokes imagery and mystery, with eloquence without pretension:
God is sucking up, so fortify me some air
Figure it out, figure it out
And I’ll run my luck as fast as I can
to silhouette lands, to silhouette lands.
The album and songs are already garnering praise, with Van Toffler of MTV declaring “Come Undone” a killer song and the music blog, Rootstime extolling “The long wait is more than adequately rewarded by the very high quality of each track on her new album “Sola”…all seven songs are gems, starting with the opening track.”
There is a raw energy on Sola that doesn’t come from technology or technique. “I dream about making good work.” states Villalobos, “ I’m inspired by interactions, touching things, smelling things, and just opening my eyes. It’s involuntary and then you get these urges to be creative, to write. Having a creative urge as an artist is actually painful sometimes. Writing songs satisfies the urge.”