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Exclusive Interview

   Alejandra Ribera

    by Lisa McDonald

    Live Music Head

    March 2010

A Canadian artist with Scottish and Argentinean roots, singer/songstress Alejandra Ribera was raised in Toronto’s gay community. As a child, Ms Ribera began her musical education by studying the violin, viola and choral music and extended her education by sneaking into seedy piano bars and neighbourhood cabarets. Later, by attending vocal jazz classes at York University, Ribera further developed her voice into the eclectic instrument it is today. Now in her twenties and having performed for radio, folk festivals and many bars and clubs, Alejandra Ribera is well on her way as a seasoned live performer. With a guitar strapped across a long elegant evening dress, many paid witness to Ms Ribera’s breathtaking performances in the intimacy of Toronto’s Cameron House, where, alongside a four-piece of Humber College jazz program graduates, she played a weekly year-long run in 2009. Sources of inspiration come to Alejandra by way of Edith Piaf, Jane Siberry, Odetta, Ani Difranco, Joan Armatrading, Bette Midler, Rufus Wainwright and Toronto’s own Kevin Quain; influences which can certainly be heard on her debut cd, Navigator/Navigateher, including a delicious version of Cielito Lindo, a popular Mexican folk standard sung in Spanish. After a double shot sell out in January, Alejandra Ribera will return to Hugh’s Room for another show on March 13, 2010. And a word to the wise... catch this beautiful talent in a small performance space such as this, now, while you still can.

Growing up, what music were you first exposed to and what were some of your earliest influences? Did radio play a part and if so, what were you hearing? When did you first become a musician and song writer?

Growing up, I used to get a drive to school with my mother which was about a half hour away and we always listened to CBC Radio 2, back when it was primarily classical programming and jazz in the evenings. I attended a lot of classical concerts, primarily choral and had a really hard time getting my head around pop music. I was probably the least hip person at school musically. When other kids were spending hours listening to Pearl Jam and Nirvana, I was obsessing over the Faure Requiem, Nina Simone and Miles Davis. I studied strings and sang in a choir, so I was tremendously influenced by the music I was learning to play; everything from Bach to Benjamin Britten, became both my internal and external soundtrack. And in listening to the recordings of various pieces, I was able to bring myself into the head space of performing them, rather like an athlete who runs the match in their mind before performing on the track. I attended a school one year that didn't offer a classical program and so I learned to play folk guitar. I didn't become a songwriter until I was 14 or so. I traveled to South America to visit my grandparents only to find that in the time since I had last seen them they had both begun to suffer from dementia and refused to let me out of the house. I escaped to the roof top where I could look out at the Andes and the lemon trees in other people’s gardens. I suppose it was just as much for fun as to not go crazy from the isolation, but this is when I began writing songs. I only lasted a month before I cut my trip short and came home.

Listening to Navigator/Navigateher, this recording could easily be filed under the genre of world music. Do you travel a lot? And if so, is travelling to other countries inspiring for you as a song writer?

I've always felt more comfortable as an outsider because I assume the position of the observer. I'm fascinated by the way people choose to live. I've always preferred to be in countries other than my own because it heightens my awareness of all my senses immediately and without the aid of intensive meditation or mind-altering drugs. It also makes me aware of the systems and patterns I take for granted and assume are universal. For example, the way that you cue for the bus is really particular to the city you’re in and if you don't understand how one city's system works, you can find yourself hanging about for hours and wasting loads of time, which is my other favourite thing about traveling; time changes value when you leave your home. There are a million and one reasons why it's a complete laugh to get lost when you're on a journey and just mill about in no particular direction, something we rarely do in a place we’re already familiar with. I think if traveling inspires me to write songs in any one particular way, it's that my mentality shifts and somewhere subconsciously I give myself the permission to waste time noodling and scribbling poems on scraps of paper. I've never really bought into that “writing about other cultures and countries” style of music. It's never really appealed to me.

Two of your favourite performers are Bette Midler and Rufus Wainwright. I'm an enormous fan of Rufus' father, Loudon, and I'm nuts about Bette’s performance in the 1979 film, The Rose. Is there something about these two performers that has influenced your artistry?

What inspires me is partially what I’ve learned from watching them over the years. Many people see success and acceptance as an opportunity to relax and settle into a false sense of security. What I love about singers like Bette Midler and Rufus Wainwright is that every show is different and for every tour it seems they up the ante. That spirit of auditioning seems to be present in every show they play. It's like the first time and they never stop fighting to win over a new audience and convince an old one there’s still reasons to come out again. I think it reflects an incredible dedication to their craft, as well as a work ethic that I venerate.

The first time I saw you in performance, the opener was the Olivia Newton John song, Let’s Get Physical. I was immediately brought back to the 80s and I loved your version of the song because your arrangement is completely different than the original. What possessed you to cover it?

I’d been invited to perform a couple of songs at a local burlesque and drag king show. The first couple of times I played, I had to follow 45 minutes of gorgeous, sultry girls taking their clothes off. It's probably the worst sort of act to follow as a singer, armed with only a guitar. So finally, I changed the terms and said if I was to be the musical interlude, I wanted to be accompanying one of the dancers in their routine. In an attempt to find a cheeky rendition that translated well enough to vocals and acoustic guitar, we stumbled across this song and it took on a whole new life. The first time we did it, we built the act around girl guides getting it off with their guide leader. It went over quite well and in the mean time added new colour to my cover repertoire.

When reading your reviews, I see the name Tom Waits has been used. I’m an enormous fan of Waits and can see how people may think of him when trying to describe you but, are you a fan of Waits and if so, why?

I've never fully understood the comparison between my work and his. I suppose the self-deprecating nature we both draw on comes from the same current. I certainly am a fan of Tom Waits. I think he is one of my favourite lyricists by far.

On the 40th anniversary of the Beatles Abbey Road album last September, you joined the Art of Time Ensemble’s live rendition of the album to perform I Want You (She’s so Heavy) at Harbourfront Centre. It just so happens this song is my favourite song on the album. Can you tell me how you became involved in this event and what the experience was like, not only performing a song from such a highly regarded album, but also performing with some of Toronto’s most respected jazz musicians?

In a word, frightening. I still joke that attending rehearsal with the Art of Time Ensemble is one of the better natural laxatives known to man. Andrew Burashko has created such an incredible series with the Art of Time Ensemble and we're so lucky to have it in our city. The arrangements in that program were so interesting because each of them managed to honour the original spirit of the songs whilst infusing them with new breath, which to me as a vocalist says, "you have room to play and reinterpret, no one expects you to get up there and mimic John Lennon". I was so lucky when meeting with Rob Carli (who wrote the arrangement for I Want You) to find that his instincts around the arrangement really clicked with what I had imagined to be the atmosphere of the song. I heard it as Hamlet; at first delicate and devoted to love but then it unravels into something quite obsessive and grotesque.

In January, a scheduled show at Hugh's Room quickly sold out where another date was added to meet the demand. I was there on the first night and your performance was outstanding. What was it like for you, playing for a capacity crowd at Hugh’s?

I was both shocked and delighted that both nights sold out. After nearly a year of struggling to fill the jug at the Cameron House, I felt truly blessed. But I have a history of stage fright and went through what I’m now used to experiencing as my "lead up to gig-nerves". I wake up like a shot around 4:30 am and then go for a long walk. By the
afternoon I manage to pass out for a nap and recharge my batteries. It reminds me of the symptoms I associate with having a crush on someone - can't eat, can't sleep, generally feeling butterflies in my stomach all the time. It's exhausting and exhilarating all at once. What helps is the confidence in technique that I've built over the past year playing weekly at the Cameron - it's one of the few things no one can take away from me.

There was a CBC truck parked out front of Hugh’s Room. Does this mean the shows will be appearing on television or radio, and if so, when?

Yes, CBC Radio 2 recorded my January 17th show at Hugh's Room and it will be broadcast on March 19th as part of their Next! series on Canada Live. It will also be available online at Concerts on Demand anytime thereafter.

Besides the return engagement to Hugh’s Room on March 13th, what are your plans for 2010? Is there a new recording in the works, or a tour?

I am definitely looking forward to recording a new album this year. I am currently looking to find the right producer to work with. I love being a student and really feel ready to learn about the material from a different perspective than my own. There are times in your career where you need to work from a solitary place and other times you are ready for a collaborative vibe. I am in the latter space. There aren't any official tours planned at the moment, but stay posted. I'll be performing for the first time at a number of exciting festivals this summer and I suspect by then there will be loads more stories to tell.

Alejandra Ribera official website

Alejandra Ribera Myspace

Alejandra Ribera on Facebook

Hugh’s Room

Photos courtesy of Alejandra Ribera’s websites.


About Lisa McDonald: “I’m a city girl. A vegetarian who enjoys yoga, pilates, and cycles to keep active but live music is my real passion. All things music really, and I’ve been known to write about it. I value a strong work ethic and good manners, but what really turns me on is confidence and experience.”

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