She played a telenovela villain at age 11 and wrote a song for vampires (see the Twilight soundtrack). That’s fun trivia but, seriously, this Grammy nominated singer composes introspective pop songs that got big-time producer Greg Kurstin and TV On The Radio’s David Andrew Sitek on her new record. Now she’s cutely referred to as the Mexican Sia, but you should know her by name, even if it challenges your tongue: Ximena Sariñana. This interview by Daiana Feuer.
Performing professionally from such a young age, did you miss out on the period of naivety known as childhood?
I was very oblivious to a lot of stuff. The things that I remember from that time, from acting, I remember playing around more than working. I used to run around the sets of the soap opera when I was 10. I would grab clothing hooks and make them into a device and put a piece of big tape on the hook and then I would use the hook to roll the tape around and I pretended that was my puppy. Of course I was around all kinds of crazy people, but that’s not necessarily what I remember. How I perceived all that as a kid … I do remember things I understood very well, very young.
The only not screwed-up child actor!
I know! It really depends on your family and how they treat it. My dad is a filmmaker and my mom is a screenwriter. They knew everyone in the business. My mom was very adamant about not quitting her job or abandoning my brothers because I wanted to do acting. She wasn’t going to be a kid actor mom and hang around set all the time. She was very strict about that. This was my hobby and my choice, but I had to get good grades and assume the responsibility. I was super okay with that. The co-star in one of my soap operas—her mom was always there. She was very pushy, it wouldn’t matter if [the daughter] was hungry or tired. The mom was always like, ‘Come on baby, one more take.’ I remember looking at that and being like, that was wrong. You shouldn’t be forced to work as a kid. You’re a kid, you’re supposed to be a kid. You do it because you love it, not because your family depends on it. There were things I understood about life that made me more emotionally mature than my peers. But my parents were so strict about keeping things normal and keeping things real.
Have your goals changed over the years?
It all changes as I progress. As you achieve your goals, your goals grow and become something else. When I was a kid I just wanted to be a performer. I didn’t know as much about songwriting. I liked singing and I was good at it. But I didn’t know that people could write their own songs. I never wondered where the songs came from! To me, the voice was an instrument and that’s what I knew how to do. I was naive. But then when I was 15 I started to discover bands, and people like Fiona Apple and Björk. I was like, ‘Oh, OK, people write songs, I gotta do that.’ I am happy with everything I have achieved on stage and off stage, but I am still finding new challenges and things I want to do. When I first started my newest record, I really wanted to write and play as much as I can. The last record I only sang. This time, I got better at piano, which I love. And that was great, to be able to do that. But now after playing a year and a half behind the piano, I want to move around stage. I want to be more active on stage than I am.
As a singer of ballads and introspective pop, do you think people expect you to have answers to their problems?
I don’t know if they expect answers, but it feels really great to provide some sort of form of identification with people. That’s the most rewarding part of being a musician. Aside from all the personal rewards when you feel like you’re growing as an artist or a person. I really appreciate when people tell me that they feel what I’m talking about. And that’s great and really, really cool when that happens. In Mexico, people’s relationship to artists is very connected and passionate. Mexican fans are like no other fans on the planet, they’re super passionate about everything! That’s very good and very bad sometimes. I wouldn’t say they expect me to answer or solve their problems, they do expect a certain—like they own me and I own them. It’s really tight, very passionate. If you find them in the street and you can be on the phone and you might be crying—and this has happened to me—and they’ll come right up. And they’ll get mad at you when you don’t comply. They’re very demanding and at the same time they are very passionate.
Do you consider yourself trilingual—a speaker of Spanish, English and music?
I think music is a language in the sense that it’s a lot about the feeling that it evokes. How certain notes, the relationship between notes changes your feeling. I’m very susceptible to music changes and every musician is. I wouldn’t call it a language per se, because I am not that knowledgeable about it. Though I admire how people can use it the way I can use English or Spanish. For me it’s more a textural or feeling thing. I don’t understand it that much. I still have a relationship with it where I don’t always plan what comes out of me. It’s a very two-way relationship. It’s not like I can say I want to make this, use these chords, use this tonality. I just sit down at a piano and play around, I get stuck. Its more like a very mysterious thing to me. It’s very creative sometimes because you have to be constantly thinking, problem-solving, making different arrangements for songs.
Do you ever wish music was more just your hobby or passion, rather than your job?
Sometimes it can be tiring, like everything. There’s parts of your job that are going to be fun sometimes, not so fun other times. I have never really had much of a distinction between work and hobby/passion because I worked all my life. I started doing movies and acting when I was a little girl. I went to music school after high school. I was always working at the same time that I was going to school. So really my work was actually like school. It’s like a job and like a hobby. I never took a conscious decision to make this my living and this is my business plan. It sort of just happened—because I stopped having to go to high school!
Is there anything you want to do that you haven’t done before?
I would love to go into the production side of music. I would love to write a screenplay. I love stories and structure; I read a lot of screenplays. My favorite part of the musical writing process is the lyrics. I just love it the most so I see myself writing. I don’t know if I see myself being a performing musician all my life. My dad did his first feature film when he was in his thirties. I am still very young; I still have a lot to discover about life. Maybe one of those turns is a career change.
Have you embraced electronics?
I love playing with sound and instruments, with sound in general. Especially for this electronic record, I love adding electronic components to my music. I love gadgets and toys and stuff like that. I always try to explore. It keeps it interesting, more fun than just piano and singing. It’s fun when you add production elements to it. When I do solo stuff—duet or trio—it’s super fun to find a way to do beats, and play the piano, and sing at the same time, and figure out ways to create more atmospherics or differentiate between lines of sound. I’m no Imogen Heap. I’m not that good at it. But I have learned so much out of wanting to be like that. On stage, I know so much more that I had no idea. I know about programming and sequences, creating parts for other instruments …
It’s still unusual for a woman to know these things, isn’t it?
I know, it’s weird. I guess it’s normal that people think that way. If you go to a music school, the vocal department, 80 percent is women. It’s nothing to be mad about the cliché. In a way, it is sort of true. But nowadays there is more and more women doing amazing stuff. Now more than ever, especially younger generations of girls are doing amazing stuff and know about engineering and music production. As a girl that does music, it’s your responsibility to promote that sort of stuff.
Stuck in a man’s world?
For sure. But now less than ever. I always have another girl in the band. It’s always more fun to have a girl around. You need them sometimes. And now I know so many more girl musicians. Now it’s not as much of a thing. There’s definitely more men all over the place. My lawyer, my manager, my business manager, and most of the people that work with me are women, actually.
You’re not wearing a bikini in the video for ‘Different.’
Because I cant! Maybe if I looked like Lady Gaga or Beyonce I would flaunt it, I would. I keep it under wraps.
So what got you ready to put on a swimsuit for that?
It all started with the choreographer, Michael Rooney—he did ‘Weapon Of Choice’ [Fatboy Slim] and Björk’s ‘It’s Oh So Quiet’ and the dance sequence in 500 Days of Summer. That sort of got us all going.
Is it important to not be defined as one type of artist or performer? From dramatic ballads to dancing in a pool?
I did jazz, I did pop, I did indie rock. I am not very good at being in just one place and saying who I am and this is my life identity. It’s a part of my personality. I don’t feel like I belong to a certain group of people or movement. I have always been very much on my own type of learning experience. I like to move around and explore as a person and an artist. I try to be very open to things and not judge certain things and maybe judge other things a lot. There’s artists that you’re like, ‘Oh, this artist would never do this or that.’ When I was dancing in the video for the song ‘Different,’ people were like, ‘I would never expect you to dance. Your previous record was so ballady and it was about how horrible everything is and now you are in a pool setting doing choreography.’ But yeah, it’s been my dream to dance since a kid! The most fun I have ever had in a video was doing that. As long as you stay true to yourself and you’re doing it for reasons that make sense to you, I say go ahead.