Interviewed By: Nida Masiulis
Elena Lacayo, frontwoman of D.C.’s bilingual folk rock band Elena & Los Fulanos, has never doubted the importance of music in her life. “I cannot not make music,” she confesses, “It’s the way I experience the world. It’s the way I process it. It’s a way to stay sane.” And yet, like the majority of us, she has had to relegate her creative pursuits to the sidelines in the name of making rent, paying bills, and hanging on to the most cherished thing—a sense of financial security.
From all practical standpoints, Lacayo had been doing very well in the years since graduating college. She had a high-profile job with a non-profit working on immigrant issues; her work was important and she was good at it. Had she wanted to climb this particular ladder to the top, there’s no doubt she could have done so handily. Feeling that itch to advance things forward, Lacayo went ahead and applied to several social work graduate programs (and was accepted), but had to—very literally—face the music when she couldn’t bring herself to enroll in any of them.
“I was overwhelmed by the idea that [choosing grad school] would mean I would continue to not have time to spend on what I felt was really calling me—music…So I jumped.” And by “jumped” she quit her job and left the country to travel for several months. “When I came back to D.C. to no job, it was great! I spent all day gardening, cleaning out my basement (which is now my practice space and home studio), and writing music.” If Lacayo ever doubted her decision, or allowed her nerves to get the best of her in the process, she doesn’t betray it a bit. Even in the uncertainty of it all, she talks of this new chapter in her life with indisputable optimism: “I guess I’m still falling and not sure where I’m going to land. It sounds terrifying, but it has actually turned out to be really liberating.”
Lacayo’s stoic calm might be, at least to some degree, attributable to her experiences growing up. This isn’t the first time she has said goodbye to a familiar way of life and launched herself head-first into uncharted waters. Lacayo was born in the U.S. (in New Orleans) to a family of Nicaraguan civil war refugees. From New Orleans, they relocated to Miami and then, when Lacayo was eight years old, returned to Nicaragua. She came back to the States on her own to attend college in Indiana, and has been living in D.C. since graduation. Her family still lives in Nicaragua, so Lacayo returns often to visit.
“People like me [who are bilingual and bicultural] live in a grey area in between,” Lacayo explains. “While we can fit into both worlds, we don’t feel completely at home in either one. At least I don’t.” This burden of uprootedness comes with its own benefits, though. It allows a person to view and experience a culture, at once, through the eyes of a native and a stranger. As Lacayo puts it, “You instinctively learn not just to translate words, but also to translate worlds, cultures, humor, points of view, etc.” She continues, “When I started writing music, I was really torn by the feeling that I needed to choose one language to sing. Then I just decided that I could do both because, at the end of the day, that’s who I really am.”
When asked whether she specifically sets out to write each song in English or Spanish, Lacayo says that her creative process is much more free-flowing—often a series of chords or a particular melody will pop into her head, with words (and a language) already attached. She expands on this idea, saying, “I tend to write more in English, but writing lyrics in Spanish is somehow a lot easier. I usually pour over my English lyrics, I spend hours agonizing over them. With Spanish, it’s just easier to say something and have it sound poetic. With English, you face a greater risk of sounding corny, [and since] I mostly write about relationships, that’s a particularly large risk.”
One might wonder, are there any barriers to making bilingual music in the D.C. area? Lacayo is emphatic that there are not. She views making bilingual music the same way she views bilingualism in her own life—as an enrichment, never as a constraint. “If being bilingual has ever been a factor in D.C., it has been a positive one” she asserts, continuing, “I think it tends to peak people’s interest in having us play when they hear we are bilingual. It has a certain appeal. Our world is becoming smaller and there is an increasingly greater interest in cultural exchange and understanding. I’d like to think that [our band’s] music can contribute to this exchange.”
Even Lacayo’s own band mates—the fulanos of Elena & Los Fulanos—are participants in this cultural exchange. Though Danny Cervantes (violin and vocals) is Mexican-American, plays in several Mariachi groups, and is the founding member of the Latin folk music group Los Gallos Negros, the other three fulanos, Matthew Mellon (bass), Andrew Graber (drums), and Craig Keenan (guitar and vocals), picked up Spanish through either school, work experience, or travel. Outside of the band, Keenan is a solo singer-songwriter, and Graber is part of the punk outfit Southern Problems. And Lacayo’s musical influences prove to be just as varied as the makeup of her own band. On the Spanish side of things, she cites Soda Stereo frontman Gustavo Cerati and Julieta Venegas as major influences. On the English side, female musical powerhouses of the likes of Fiona Apple, Neko Case, and St. Vincent make the list.
So now that the 9-to-5 has been ditched, the basement studio prepped, and the rehearsals scheduled, I inquisitively asked Lacayo what the band’s plans are going forward. In her typical even-handed fashion Lacayo replies, “We’re trying not to put too much pressure on ourselves to have certain kinds of output,” but adds that the general plan is to “keep writing and performing as much as we can.” And rightly so-as she reassuringly notes, “Whether I decided to keep [my music] to myself or share it with the world. For now, I’ve decided to share.”
Elena & Los Fulanos have posted a track titled “Gone” to their SoundCloud page and will be selling a short CD at their upcoming gig at the Black Cat on December 4th, supporting Mark Eitzel. Find the band on their Facebook and Twitter handle (@elenaMusical).