When Mexican-born Lila Downs shared the spotlight with Brazil’s Caetano Veloso to perform “Burn It Blue” during the 2003 Oscars, it was the first time that wide audiences had the chance to listen to her. However, she was already a familiar voice to many – a music business veteran. “We had been working really hard six or seven years, and then we had this offer to participate in Frida, and that kind of put our name in the scene, so that was very helpful,” she says via phone from Oaxaca, Mexico. While the exposure was welcome, Downs is quick to note that it didn’t change her style, venues, or sense of purpose. The main creative force behind Down’s music is her songwriting partner, co-producer and husband Paul Cohen. “Paul and I have different ideas of how we compose. For me, it’s really important to start with a melody and a rhythm that I like, and then I start working on lyrics,” she says. “I might have kind of an abstract idea of the subject that I want to do that’s a little more based on something more spiritual, and then when I come together with Paul, he comes up with different harmonic options.”
On her latest disc Shake Away (Manhattan), Downs experiments with a different approach by featuring guests including Mercedes Sosa and Mexican folksinger Gilberto Gutierrez. “I guess that we had the idea to invite more musicians for the songs – we thought that maybe this way we could open up relationships with the countries where these musicians are from,” she explains. “I love to visit new places, and fortunately Mercedes was able to do it, and of course La Mari from Spain as well, and it was interesting, because it’s like you become a little closer to their style and to the way that they compose.”
As she tours in support of Shake Away, she also looks into what is next - perhaps a project with Spanish producer Javier Limon. “I love doing standards – maybe we’ll do our own take on them. It would have to be something very acoustic, maybe with a trumpet, guitar and acoustic bass,” she says. “We have a producer friend that always tells me ‘Lila, you should do standards in English and Spanish, something that not many people can do.’ I love the idea, but it’s gotta work musically – you can have wonderful ideas for projects, but when you make it happen, the sound’s not right.”
Reflecting on her success and subsequent globe-trotting, Downs is, above all, grateful. “Yes, we’ve been very fortunate. This year we’re working quite a bit, you know. We love to learn about other cultures and be influenced by the music – I think Spain has been a definite influence.
I think that traveling is a challenge for us at this point. You know, we really enjoy being here in Oaxaca and having a chance of being in one place – it’s something that musicians look forward to because our lives are so much just from a suitcase. You know, that is part of the beauty of this life as well – you gotta accept certain things as blessings.”