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Imagine Tina Fey chucking everything to become a one-woman Stereolab and you begin to grasp the unusual career arc of Juana Molina. Back in the early '90s, in her native Argentina, she wrote and starred in her own hit TV sketch-comedy series, Juana y Sus Hermanas (Juana and her Sisters). She was still in her twenties and nearly as famous as her parents, tango player Horacio Molina and actress Chunchuna Villafañe.
But in 1996 she left television to begin performing solo on acoustic guitar and computer, creating a kind of Brazilian-influenced ("Uruguayan," she says) avant-garde bubble music. Last year's Tres Cosas (Domino), her third album, has been compared to everything from Brian Eno to Señor Coconut. (I hear the Balinese- and aviary-influenced synth atmospherics of Wisconsin jazz grande dame Joan Wildman, myself.)
Molina spent her adolescence in Paris with her mother and then-stepfather, filmmaker Pino Solanas, riding out Argentina's '76-'83 military dictatorship. Speaking over the phone recently from Buenos Aires, she remembers her bizarre childhood, and the media reaction to her new music.
City Pages:Did you perform much as a kid?
Juana Molina: I'm not a shy person at all, but I was very shy with music. I think this is because it's something that I felt so deep inside. I felt naked if I had to sing or play in front of anyone. I could do that in front of my sister or my father, but that was it.
CP:What was it like growing up around famous performers?
Molina: It's like being a doctor's child. You see your father taking care of people all the time, and it's what feeds you. You don't really realize the difference between your parents and somebody else's parents. You think your parents are the regular ones.
My mother has a music disease: She can't live without music. I think that is why I can't live with music. I just like silence most of the time. She wakes up and puts on records. I was fed with lots of records growing up.
She was the beauty of Argentina for a long time, so being the daughter of the beauty, I was so proud.
CP:Did she influence you to become an actress?
Molina: Absolutely not. My father's family were very histrionic people. My grandmother was older than her brothers, and she was allowed to go to the movies, not them. She came back home and sat everyone in the living room, and told the whole movie, acting each part. All of my cousins, and my sister and I, were that way, too. We used to impersonate the commercials they have on TV. It had to be perfect or you were out of the game.
I just did that at home for years and years, and one day, I decided to find a job that allowed me to get nice money without having to work too much. I thought TV could do that. And I started to watch, trying to find the show that I could fit in. When I found that, I went to see them, and they took me. It wasn't an audition. I had a tape, a home video, with five or six characters. I started to act in their show, and I ended by having my own show three years later.
CP:Is the person on the show you, or is that person a character?
Molina: I would say "me" is the music, and the acting is always someone else.
CP:Do you remember when you decided to quit?
Molina: Yeah, all of a sudden I got pregnant and I had to stay in bed for a couple months, and I had the chance to think about what I was doing. I realized that I was in my own trap, because I had wanted to be able to have money to make my own music, but I had such success acting that I lost the time to do it. I said, "What am I doing here? This is not what I wanted to do. I'm going to go back to music before it's too late."
CP:I imagine that, from a popular actress, the press expected less experimental music. Were people surprised by what you played?
Molina: The media was totally against my new choice, so people didn't get the chance to listen to me. The press didn't review the records. I had a show where a lot of people came because they knew my name. By the end, 80 percent of the people had gone, but 20 percent stayed. From those that stayed, I started to build a new audience.
CP:What was your family's reaction?
Molina: They were afraid I would lose everything, which I did. I had to start again with all these preconceptions. But we have a saying here, "to die with your boots on." I'd rather die fighting than totally bored and forgotten.
CP:You've started over many times.
Molina: Well, I was 12 when we left Argentina, and 19 when we came back. I have a song called "Vaca que Cambia de Querencia" on Secundo, which means if you change a pregnant cow from its home, then she doesn't deliver on time. She's always late. It comes from a book that, to me, is our major book, Martín Fierro. It's the feeling that everything you start over again, you lose time, and you are always delayed. I've been delayed many times.