Lila Downs’ music is a lot like her upbringing: threads of seemingly unrelated cultures woven into an exotic, ever-shifting hybrid. She’s done everything from studying anthropology to dropping out of school to follow the Grateful Dead. She was a DIY artist and coffeehouse singer smitten with Mexican rancheras, John Coltrane and Whitney Houston who released her music on cassette in the ‘90s. Now she headlines theaters and arenas around the world, and sings with an opera-worthy voice in multiple languages.
On the phone from her apartment in New York, Downs converses about her life with the sounds of her nearly 2-year-old son providing a playful backdrop. Her latest album, “Pecados y Milagros” (Sins and Miracles), is typically wide-ranging, touching on everything from the traditional ballads she learned as a child from her Mexican-born singer-mother to the jazz, classical and rock references she gleaned from her British-American college professor father.
“I was born in Mexico (in the late ‘60s), but later studied classical music in Minnesota, surrounded by Nordic people and Germans, and I related to North American music and a particular time – the ‘60s and ‘70s and people like Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, Carlos Santana,” she says. “I learned from my father about jazz, and he played a lot of opera, Bach, Coltrane, Miles Davis. My mother came from a poor background; she spoke only native Mixtec language before she moved to Mexico City to work as a singer. She introduced me to ranchera music: ‘These are your roots. This is where you and I come from.’
“But I couldn’t relate to that when I was younger. There was so much discrimination against Mexicans (in America) when I was growing up. As a child, I realized I made people uncomfortable just by being Mexican. People would leave the room. You learn how to smooth that out so that people don’t feel uncomfortable, and I pushed that out of my life for a while.”
She struggled to integrate her past until she dropped out of college in the late ‘80s and took two years off to travel around the country with the Grateful Dead’s entourage of Deadheads.
“I knew what was happening around the Dead was not the way everyone else was doing things in mainstream society,” she says. “I was looking for some answers about my own life. I was very disenchanted with some elements of following the Grateful Dead, but I was very taken with other things that coincided with my Indian culture: the collective conscience, the truly democratic way they had of doing things. I learned this was my upbringing as well. I learned to love myself for who I am.”
Returning to college, “I discovered this whole artistic world in Mexico through writing a thesis about weaving, and realized that women who do this create their vision of life in their very particular language. That opened my soul to art and the idea of what I could do to profoundly make people reflect. I went back to singing and started composing stuff. I became familiar with the whole immigrant situation. In (her home region of) Oaxaca, there were Mixtec people trying to get to the U.S., and one of them died trying to cross. The father brought his son’s body home and asked me to translate the death certificate for him. He wanted to know, ‘How did my son die?’ I started writing these narrative songs, similar to the type of songs Johnny Cash once wrote that told a story about a people’s experience.”
She and her future husband, saxophonist Paul Cohen, released a series of cassettes in the ‘90s while they developed their sound and honed their stage show in the Philadelphia club scene. “We were working at the clubs for a few years before we became aware of the whole music industry,” she says. “That permitted us to develop in a beautiful way. When we did finally meet some producers, the criticisms were always, ‘It’s too eclectic.’ ‘Your records are too different one song to the next.’ But it was the way we did things. My husband was also a circus clown in Philly, so we were into making the shows fun. One minute, we’d have this dramatic crying about tequila and the blues, and then it was ‘Get up and move out of your seats.’ ”
Downs broke through to international success in the last decade by sticking to her wide-ranging vision. “Pecados y Milagros” balances wrenching songs of grief with more hopeful perspectives tinged by hip-hop and rockabilly.
“The U.S. thinks of us Mexicans as these strangers with a strange language coming to take over their country,” she says. “They think of all Latin Americans that way. We should look to history. We are native American and in Mexico these native American languages are still spoken by millions. There are a lot of things about our history that North American audiences don’t know, that even Mexicans don’t know. That is my hope for my music, that in some ways it will touch people’s thirst for knowledge.”
Lila Downs: 7 p.m. Saturday at Congress Theater, 2135 N. Milwaukee Av., $20 and $50; ticketfly.com.Copyright © 2015, RedEye