Cuban-American Chicagoan Vivian Garcia has been playing music for over 15 years—at first singing in cover bands, then learning Spanish guitar and singing rumba flamenca, and bolero classics; she’s now a full-blown singer-songwriter performing her own music, and guest starring with established bands, in both English and Español. She has one full-length record (Cold Bed), and is currently planning an EP of new music. I met Vivian in 2012 when we were both living in Madrid, Spain, during a period of intense artistic growth for her. We caught up recently to talk about what life’s like back in the U.S., about how she’s made it this far in music, and about where she sees herself going from here.
HL: What was it like getting your music going again when you moved back to Chicago?
VG: Coming back was interesting because I had always maintained contacts here—even though I was living in Spain for 3 years, I would return during Christmas each year, and for summers. So I had played a lot of shows in Chicago despite living away.
When I got back I started working with some musicians who I had worked with before leaving, but still it’s tough—it’s in some ways like starting from zero. A lot of the venues I had played at previously were being occupied by house bands who were my friends, and I didn’t want to take their work, so I had to really hustle to find new venues. I’ve been playing with Esso Afrojam Funkbeat, and also playing my own shows. It was funny: living abroad you kind of develop this caché in the music world—it’s like, “Vivian Garcia, back from Spain for One Week Only!” and then when you move back permanently, it’s like, “Vivian Garcia…again.”
HL: Haha, right. So with Esso, are you writing with them, or mainly performing their songs?
VG: I contributed to about 4 songs on the new album that has not come out yet – and actually we have a version of [my song] Cold Bed, with the full band, which is fun. I’m also about to perform as a guest vocalist in a rock band. They’re called Kelroy, and they’re recording an album this weekend, which I’ll be the guest on. It’s an almost all Latino rock band, but their songs are all in English.
The other thing is that I’m now getting to know some amazing female singer-songwriters. The support that I’ve gotten from these heavy-hitting female musicians has really been lovely, and has been opening doors to wider audiences.
HL: I can imagine a rock band complimenting your voice, as long as they weren’t trying to compete with your sound, which is so powerful.
VG: It is pretty loud! I’m trying to be part of it without trying to change the nature of what they do, ‘cause my sound is more soul.
HL: Let’s shift gears for a minute and talk about your upbringing—your parents were both Cuban, right?
VG: Yeah, but we didn’t speak Spanish at home—they spoke to each other, but to the kids it was all English. I didn’t start studying and really speaking Spanish until I was 20 years old. In the 1960s, when they came over, it was all about trying to assimilate to North American culture, so they wouldn’t listen to their old records or speak to us in their language.
HL: Did you see yourself as Latina as a kid, or did you think about it?
VG: I definitely considered myself bicultural, in the sense that our household, with my mother and grandmother, was full of Cuban food and things, but there was an emphasis on fitting in—it was a process of acculturating to the values of the new country, while holding on in some ways to Cuban culture. It wasn’t until I got to college [Northwestern] that I started really valuing my identity as Latina.
The university was only 4% Latino at that time, and it was there that I realized that there was so much more I wanted to learn about my heritage. When I came home from school full of excitement about Latin music, I think it allowed my mother to start playing her old records again, and to begin to reclaim a lot of parts of her identity that she had pushed aside when she came to the U.S.
HL: Are you writing many songs now?
VG: Yes, I’m trying for a grant with the Illinois Arts Council. Also, my 40th birthday is coming up, and I’ve been considering making a Kickstarter account to raise the money for a second album—an EP, probably 6 songs. Since I write and produce my own music, and run my own show, it would be incredibly helpful.
The big idea is that I want this new album to incorporate some of the guitar players and people I’ve met in my travels over the years, and have more Spanish language songs. I have 2 songs completed in Spanish so far—so maybe for the record 2 Spanish, 2 English, and 2 bilingual. Long term, I’d like to form my own band and play SXSW one day.
HL: Fantastic. Well thanks so much, Vivian, and I wish for all the best for you and your music!