Maria The Mexican is a Movie in the Park veteran! BTW, now is a good time to get all of our great outdoor movies onto your schedule! Each movie features a performance from one of our Listen local artists.
Maria the Mexican's music is a mix of traditional mariachi roots and contemporary blues-rock delivered in English and Spanish. Led by sisters Teresa and Maria Elena Cuevas on vocals and bandleader and guitarist Garrett Nordstrom, Maria the Mexican carries the legacy of Teresa's and Maria's grandmother, Maria Teresa Alonzo Cuevas, the leader of the first all-female mariachi band in the 1970s. As her granddaughter states, "she taught us how to perform professionally, stand up straight and sing out." We are happy to share an interview with Maria Cuevas about her heritage, the band's creative process and her book and music recommendations.
Introduce yourselves. Where do you live and work?
Maria The Mexican is organized around Maria Cuevas (myself) and Tess Cuevas (sisters). I am long time KC resident but have recently relocated to Lawrence. Tess lives in Topeka. We both have day jobs right now. I am a yoga instructor at Om Tree Shala in Lawrence and Tess is a stylist at Salon 808 in Topeka.
Tell us about your latest album South of the Border Moonlight. Where was it recorded? What were some challenges you faced recording this album?
The record was initially tracked in Omaha at ARC studios by Ben Brodin. Ben has engineered and played on albums by Pete Yorn, Bright Eyes, First Aid Kit, Big Harp. Most the rhythm tracks were cut there (bass, drums, rhythm guitars, most vocals). We used several studios to do overdubs like strings, horns guitars and organs (Weights and Measures, Electric Lovernland, Element, Awestruck——all in KC. But we did some at Lane Gibson studios in Burlington, VT. (The record was mixed there), Charles Eller Studios in San Pancho, Mexico, and Off the Wall Studios in Nashville ("One Eye" and "South of the Border Moonlight" drums.)
Garrett produced the record so the challenges are really his responsibility. He arranges it so we need only focus on our performances. Typically bands face the challenges of a high quality audio recording, getting a great drum sound, making sure all the instruments are in tune, the songs are at the right tempo, in the right key, have the right instrumentation, are mixed well...on and on and on. The choices are limitless. All those things are important of course but he has been able to allow our group to get some quality studio time without a bunch a challenges. He helps make sure we have musicians we can count on ready to get busy. Also he helps to control the environment so the musicians feel like they have a place to express themselves within the context of our music.
What is the songwriting process like in Maria the Mexican? Over what period of time did the songs take shape for the new album?
The record was primarily written and arranged as a collaboration between Garrett Nordstrom (MTM's bandleader and rhythm guitarist) and I. Two of the songs were co-written by with friends of ours, Jason Mayberry from Portland and Gary Lind from Omaha. The process was a steady progression between Garrett and I in 2015.
We would typically kick the songs around for awhile in rehearsals, make some kind of demo and then work more on the vocal melodies and lyrics. At some point early in that process we'd bring Tess in and begin writing the harmonies. Also we come to some conclusion about which one of us is going to take the lead voice. Sometimes Tess’ voice might be more suited for the tune but sometimes it is mine. It is usually evident from the start.
Then we’d introduce them to the band. We were making changes to some of the arrangements during the sessions based on feedback from the players. We have a very open collaboration process and some great musicians who always have something to add. Sometimes it might be a chord change or a different feel. Sometimes it’s a different beat or change to the melody line.
Garrett had the song "One Eye" for awhile. Jason Mayberry co wrote the lyrics. We thought it fit in with our minor-melancholy motif so we worked on it for awhile and came up with an arrangement we like.
It took several months to get "The Citadel." I introduced Garrett to an traditional Mexican church song and he modulated the chords and melodies and came up with that one. We had the first verse in 10 minutes but we kept refining the verse/chorus/bridge parts.
"South of the Border Moonlight" was a song Garrett wrote but we changed the key to fit our voices and completely re-wrote the lyrics together.
The song "Of Burning Flame" was called "Full of Flame" but sometime after we thought the song was completely finished garret walked into the room exclaiming,”We have a new title for this song!”
We were trying alternate lyrics, melodies and backup harmonies as we were recording them.
Both of you are granddaughters of Teresa Cuevas, who led the pioneering all-female mariachi band Teresa Cuevas. Talk about the cross-generational musical lineage connecting Teresa Cuevas and Maria the Mexican.
Our grandmother’s name was Maria Teresa. I am Maria so it’s easy to assume the band is named after me but it is also named after her. We chose the name so that we could confront the prejudice that comes with being called Mexican, or calling someone a Mexican. Mexicans are not ashamed of being called Mexicans. Our Mexican heritage has proud ancient roots with a history of incredible scientific, cultural, artistic and technological accomplishments. Of course our musical lineage is part of that.
We learned music from our grandmother. She was the one that encouraged us to play music. Encouraged is a stretch because we were more honestly selected by her and our parents to be mariachi musicians. The cross generational lineage is evident in the music that we play. Some of our songs our a type of roots rock but we are still performing traditional Mexican ballads, boleros, and huapangos. We are tied to the Mexican community and traditions. She is the matriarch of our ethnicity. We are Latinas. Our grandmother helped to found one of the first all female mariachi groups in the country but she was also one of the first people to write that music down. Before her day the music was just passed on…it wasn’t a genre where musicians read music from stands to perform. It was done around a circle. And…it was often passed down within a family so if your father, mother or grandmother played those songs it was likely you would learn how to play them. We have all of her handwritten music on file and we have had to rent storage to keep it all. We have 20 banker’s boxes full of mariachi music.
Maria the Mexican carries the legacy of our grandmother’s music and our grandmother’s influence is with us everything we step on the stage or get in a recording booth. She taught us how to perform professionally, stand up straight and sing out.
What makes Kansas City a great place for music? Who are you currently raving about?
That’s an incredible question because what makes KC a great place for music for musicians and for the audience can sometimes be different
Knuckleheads makes KC a great place for music. Frank Hicks and his staff have developed a series of pro stages where musicians can showcase their talent to a diverse audience. It is a venue where musicians can focus on their act and leave the promotion to the club. The Knuckleheads staff really understands and accepts that it is really the promoter’s responsibility to promote so the musicians can relax a bit because they know that Frank is doing his job. Some clubs leave the promotion to the bands. It works out sometimes, sometimes not.
We released our record at Knuckleheads. To help promote that show we met Frank at the club and he drove us down to KCUR and introduced us to Chuck Haddix. We spun some of our tracks on the "Fish Fry" and Frank drove us home. How many other “bar owners” are arranging radio interviews and serving as a chauffeur and making introductions? Speaking of the "Fish Fry", Chuck Haddix makes KC a great place for music.
Obviously there are other clubs that care about the local musicians. The record bar have made a big contribution to the science for musicians.
The jazz guys would be hurting if were not for Jon Scott and the Green Lady Lounge. That guy has built something for the jazz community. JPG Scott and Frank Hicks -- KC owes those guys.
The staff at The Bridge 90.9 is a reason why KC is a great place for music. They have dedicated themselves to putting local acts on the air, side by side with the national acts and the famous acts. There is nothing more encouraging for bands than to have a 100,000 watt FM station willing to play your tunes. That is a huge leap forward. It’s feels great when the local recording sounds as good as something that is popping nationally.
We definitely need to include Rhonda Lyne and Sondra Freeman at the Midwest Music Foundation.
Right now the MMF gives health care grants to area musicians when they have health care emergencies and are underfunded. If a musician breaks their arm and has trouble paying rent, MMF is there. If their insurance fails to cover expense, MMF can grant up to 2K. MMF is like Aflac for musicians. KC has a strong organization looking out for them. Rhonda and Sondra are the backbone behind the organization.
MMF also puts on the midcoast takeover during SXSW. MMF takes 60 band to Austin for the showcase. Rhonda and Sondra are mostly responsible for giving KC area musician the opportunity to showcase their talent on a national stage.
For the fans (we are fans too):
KC is a great place for music because there is a deep well of talent. There are a bunch of great bands with diverse sounds. It is a tremendous asset for our community and it seems as if more and more people are making live music a cornerstone of their social lives. To be a great place for music means there has to be large appreciative and engaged audiences. It's great when any band can play in front of a large audience. It’s even better when a large audience is a given because people just go out to see music…maybe it really didn’t matter who was playing because the place is going to be packed anyway? In our opinion, the audiences are growing.
We really like the new Heidi Gluck record. The song “The Wolf” is very charged. Ken Lovern’s Organ Jazz Trio is incredible. It’s instrumental, but wow. They are the cornerstone of the Green Lady. Chad Rex is about to drop a new record, the first one in 10 years and it’s going to be incredible. The Lawrence band SUNU is really groovy. The stuff that Julia Haille and Tim Braun are doing with the BUHS is pretty great. Hermon is in that band
100 Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
American Pastoral by Philip Roth
Autobiography of a Yogi by Yogananda
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Heale Hurston
Rear View Mirror by Townes van Zandt
Anything by Javier Solis (mexican crooner)
Solstis by Leon Lerregui solstis. (new mexican indie)
Love and Hate by Micheal Kiwanuka.
"Everybody Loves the Sunshine" by Roy Ayers
Dejenme Llorar by Carla Morrison (from phoenix but has set up shop from mexico city)