On the surface, Y La Bamba founder Luz Elena Mendoza seems to have everything under control, which is more than most of us can say. This becomes doubly admirable when reading up on the Portland-based musician’s past. It seems her life hasn’t been a total bed of roses—the California-raised musician may or may not have ended up in Portland as part of a quest to find inner peace.
Raised in a strict Catholic household, Mendoza has hinted that she didn’t always get along with her father, and not just because he didn’t understand her chosen career path. There have also been struggles with her faith, with past interviews suggesting that a stint as a missionary in India left her questioning things she’d been raised to believe.
When she picks up her cellphone in Portlandia, however, the singer couldn’t sound more at ease. Asked how things are going, she replies brightly with, “I’m really great. I’m sitting outside today in the sun.”
When talk turns to what she’s been up to, Mendoza notes that she’s spent good chunks of this year touring with her band but isn’t yet in Coldplay’s income bracket. This doesn’t faze her, even though she could be forgiven for getting down, considering that reviews for the group’s latest, Court the Storm, have pretty much been universal raves.
“I work two to three days a week, so I’m not making a lot of money,” Mendoza says. “I make sacrifices so that I can go on tour and play shows. But it’s all good. I need to follow my heart.”
So where does the darkness come in? It’s definitely there on Court the Storm, the title of which implies that it’s sometimes best not to run from turbulent times.
There’s no shortage of interesting things going on over the album’s 11 tracks, a number of which are sung entirely in Spanish. Mendoza and her backing six musicians mesh Evita-style torch balladry and freak-folk in “Moral Panic”, dip into the authentic Americana song book for “Houghson Boys”, and throw an old-fashioned horn-blasted fiesta in the en español “Viuda Encabronada”.
As beautiful as Court the Storm is musically, Mendoza has no qualms about embracing the dark side of life in her lyrics. The album’s title track, for example, has her singing, “It’s so hard to force them curls in my smile/’Cause of what my mind’s been diggin’ in.”
Ask the singer about her arrival in Portland and whether she had issues she was determined to work out, and she replies noncommittally with “Portland has been a magical place. It’s been good the whole time.”
Attempts to delve deeper aren’t any more successful. When pushed to break down lines like “Who’s a girl that sings like she’s wounded?” Mendoza deflects with “That song is about a specific person and a specific time, and I really just want to move on from it.”
Perhaps worried that she’s being perceived as being difficult (which she isn’t), she continues with: “Seriously, dude—I’m a really open person. And I need to be less open. I feel like I’m throwing all this stuff into my songs. And then people ask me questions, but I’m trying to hold onto a space of my own, to have time to breathe and reflect on what I’ve been through. Things get documented, and then they are out there, and that’s how it is. You know what I mean?”
Well, not really. But still, it’s hard to argue that Mendoza isn’t in control of where she’s at publicly, even if you know there are all sorts of dark clouds roiling beneath the surface.
Y La Bamba plays the Media Club on Friday (October 26).