When Mexican vocalist Ximena Sariñana (hi-MEN-a sa-rin-YAH-na) released her debut solo album, Mediocre, in 2008, Rolling Stone gave it four stars and praised it as “one of the strongest debuts from a female singer-songwriter since Norah Jones’ Come Away With Me.” Recording the Spanish-language album was a natural step for Sariñana, who had risen to fame in her homeland as a child actress and had fronted a successful indie band for four years. “In Mexico, people believed in me as an artist,” says the fully bilingual 25-year-old. So when she began thinking about recording an album in English she was confronted with a tough decision: “Either stay in my country, where everyone knows who I am, or start from scratch and convince people that I’m worth it.” She chose the latter.
The result is a collection of songs that showcase her deep, striking voice, smart, thoughtful lyrics and offbeat personality. “I think of albums as Polaroid pictures of who I was at that given moment,” says Sariñana. “All the songs are a bit dark. They capture a sort of general doom that I try to compensate with humor,” she says. The lead single, “Different,” opens with a playful whistle but is really an apology to listeners “about maybe not expressing myself clearly because of my different nationality,” while “Bringing Us Down” was inspired by the poem “Candles” by Greek poet Constantine P. Cavafy and deals with growing older and looking back at the fading past. The album not only reflects Sariñana’s wise-beyond-her years demeanor, but also the kind of sonic growth and experimentation expected from a risk-taker.
“Everything was about forcing myself out of my comfort zone,” says the singer, having leapt beyond her usual stripped down, mellow arrangements and into more daring musical territory. “I wanted quicker, bigger sounding songs and more bass and electronic instruments,” says Sariñana, who plays the piano throughout. “I needed to be able to move to it on stage.”
To help accomplish this, she enlisted producers Greg Kurstin (Lily Allen, Devo, The Bird and the Bee), Dave Sitek (TV on the Radio, Yeah Yeah Yeahs) and Natalia Lafourcade. Recorded in Los Angeles, the songs are indeed snapshots; vignettes of events and emotions ornamented by lush arrangements and lightened by occasional whimsy. “Common Ground” is exalted with bells and space drums and “Wrong Miracle” includes circuit-bent children’s toys and footsteps on gravel. “Echo Park,” one of the last songs recorded, was built around a Casio drum machine and the need for a little comic relief. “I wanted to write something that was going to make me laugh. I didn’t want to go too deep or serious like I usually do,” says Sariñana. “I decided to make fun of how girls, especially in my world, always fall for guys in a band.”
“Tu Y Yo” (You and Me) is the only song on the album sung entirely in Spanish. “My mother language and the country where I live in is such an important part of who I am,” says Sariñana, who was born in Guadalajara and raised partly in LA before moving to Mexico City.
Raised in a highly creative family—her mother is a screenwriter and her father is a film director and producer—instilled a love of the arts in her early on. “I was four years old when I started acting,” says Sariñana, a natural-born entertainer who became a household name in Mexico by appearing in 11 films (among them box office hit Amar Te Duele and film festival winner Dos Abrazos) as well as three prime time telenovelas.
An early discovery of jazz greats like Ella Fitzgerald ignited her love of music, and at age 15 she began studying at Mexico’s Academia de Musica Fermatta. At 17, she honed her vocal skills during a five-week program at Boston’s renowned Berklee College of Music and then began fronting a jazz-funk fusion band called Feliz No Cumpleaños (Happy Un-Birthday), which “made a bit of noise in the underground,” as she puts it. She also brought together her loves of film and music on occasion, co-writing and singing three songs on the Amar Te Duele soundtrack (which stayed on the Top 10 Soundtracks list in Mexico for 10 years) and acting as music supervisor for several films.
By the time Mediocre was released, Ximena’s status as a artist was already cemented; the record debuted at number one in Mexico and went platinum soon after. Mediocre reached #10 on the Billboard Latin Pop Chart, #38 on the Billboard Latin Album Chart and Ximena was the only Latin artist in Itunes Best 10 Albums of 2008. She won the Best New Artist Award in the Premios MTV Latinoamerica 2008 (Latin MTV Awards) and received three Latin Grammy Nominations for Best New Artist, Best Alternative Song and Producer of the Year. Mediocre also received a Grammy nomination for Best Latin Rock or Alternative Album.
Despite her successes, Sariñana has no expectations when it comes to her English-language debut. “It’s my first record to a lot of people. I just hope listeners can hear the honesty in the album,” she says. “I titled it after myself because my name keeps it close to me and who I am as an artist and a person.” It’s a name many will come to recognize soon enough.