Chilean songwriter Mon Laferte has a voice for all passions. It can engage the personnel and the politician; she can coo a romantic ballad or lead a hard-rock attack. Its voice can tease, bite, whisper, hum, grate, or rise to a banshee cry. It can and does go straight to the heart.
In Latin America, Laferte, 38, built a career that began with pop covers in 2003, turned to hard rock and has since covered rockabilly, salsa, bolero, ranchera and psychedelia, just to start. She often performs wearing vintage style evening dresses with a flower in her hair, while her bare shoulders show off her tattoos.
“Each person is a universe,” Laferte said on a video call, speaking through a translator. “I like doing these different voices because they represent all my personalities: when I’m fragile, when I’m stronger, when I’m having fun, when I’m upset. And that’s what I want to do. This is art. I want to convey all of these feelings and that people feel as much as I do. And I want them to have goosebumps when they hear my songs.
Laferte – her full name is Norma Monserrat Laferte Bustamente – has been productive during the pandemic. This year, she released two very different albums, she is touring North America and she will be performing at the Latin Grammys on Thursday.
She recorded “Seis” (“Six”) in 2020 as quarantine began in Mexico. Released in April, the album delves into vintage Mexican regional styles – norteño, banda, mariachi – supported largely by acoustic instruments. And on October 29, Laferte released the very distinct “1940 Carmen”, named after the Los Angeles Airbnb where she recorded it. The new album embraces Southern California folk-pop and includes her first songs in English.
Metallica invited Laferte to contribute to “The Metallica Blacklist”, a benefit album with remakes of the metal band’s songs on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of “Metallica”, widely known as Black Album. Her Spanish version of “Nothing Else Matters” – the first song she learned on the guitar that she had at the age of 9 – turns it into an Andean-flavored waltz with traditional Chilean instruments.
In 2020, Laferte, who has lived in Mexico for over a decade, moved to the rural town of Tepoztlán, where one of Mexico’s most beloved ranchera singers, Chavela Vargas, spent her final years. A documentary about Vargas caught Laferte’s imagination, and during her forties she set up a studio in her home, later adding orchestral and marching band arrangements via remote sessions. Guitarist Sebastián Aracena, who is part of Laferte’s touring group, co-produced “Seis” and also performed on “1940 Carmen”, which Laferte herself produced.
“With ‘Seis’ it was in March and April of last year,” Aracena said via a video call. “We didn’t know what was going to happen. There was no vaccine, no nothing. Mon said to me, ‘Can you come home for a week and maybe just hang out and see what we can do?’ And I stayed for four months. It was all very natural. It’s so easy because she knows what she wants.
On “Seis,” Laferte looks back at the volatile drama of Vargas’ performances for his own songs about the power, desire, pain, and persistence of women, both in relationships and in larger struggles. “Se Va la Vida” (“Life goes away”) is about women detained in Chile, and in “La Democracia” (“Democracy”), Laferte growls: “Where did it go? Someone stole it.
Aracena said: “Her social conscience makes her special. She is very smart at looking at society and understanding socio-cultural emotion, and her words can really teach you to feel the emotion of people.
Laferte has long been frank. At the Latin Grammys in 2019, where she won the award for Best Alternative Album for her 2018 release “Norma” – a tour de force album that crossed various Latin idioms but was recorded live in the studio in one day – Laferte protested human- rights violations in Chile when he bared his chest on the red carpet to reveal the written words: “In Chile they torture, rape and kill.
“Seis” includes “La Mujer” (“The Woman”), a duet with Mexican pop star Gloria Trevi who is nominated for a Latin Grammy as Best Pop Song; they will play it together on Thursday. Laferte wrote and performed an earlier version of “La Mujer” as she was going through “a very depressive stage in my life,” she said. But she ultimately decided her catchy, downcast lyrics were “toxic.” Her version, rewritten with Trevi, despises the “sad coward” who had tried to control her; it’s about “ending a relationship and a survival instinct,” she said. “It was a healing process. It made it a better song.
The songs of “1940 Carmen” reflect a different and more relaxed environment. Much of the music evokes sunny Southern California folk-pop and 1950s R&B guitar reverberation. In “Placer Hollywood” (“Hollywood Pleasure”), the trilingual song that opens the album, Laferte stretches cheerfully the word “you” in a melism of 38 notes; on tour, she playfully tested whether the audience could sing. The album’s first single, “Algo Es Mejor” (“Something Is Better”), radiates optimism, while “Niña” (“Girl”) is a sweet lullaby that promises an unborn “Je t ‘ waited so long / And I’ll take care of you. (After years of trying, she got pregnant, with a baby expected in March.) But other songs on the album exorcise deep trauma.
The main reason Laferte visited Los Angeles was to take hormone therapy to get pregnant; radiation therapy for thyroid cancer in 2009 also damaged her ovaries. But the hormonal treatments caused massive mood swings. “One day would be very happy with positive emotions, and another day would be angry and depressed,” she said. “I connected with a part of myself that I didn’t know at the time.”
For Laferte, writing lyrics in English was about self-protection, not about crossing over. On “1940 Carmen” one of the three songs in English is “A Crying Diamond”, about a poor teenager who wants to be a singer and who is sexually exploited by a 40 year old man. “I will be your savior and I will make you a superstar,” he told her. Years later, her dreams gone, she keeps it a secret, sings Laferte, because “No one was going to believe a girl from a small town who went out at night with her shiny dress and her shoes broken.”
She had tried to write a song about it in Spanish, she said, but couldn’t. “I was going to say something that makes me vulnerable,” she said. “There were a lot of things I wanted to say but I was ashamed to say it in my own language. I feel more courageous to do it in another language. I can have a simple conversation in English, or order a coffee, but I cannot go deeper into English. So I can say a lot of things in the song, but I don’t have to feel it because it’s not in my own language.
Whatever the language, Laferte’s intensity and commitment are undeniable. “Each album is a journal of life,” she said. “I write what I live.