Nov. 10 2010 10:54 AM

Lila Downs has an exquisite voice and unique heritage

Lila Downs

When Lila Downs takes the stage, her audience has to catch its breath. She’s an arresting sight. With her onyx-black braids, sharp cheekbones and vibrant garb, she looks like she just stepped out of a Frida Kahlo painting.

“I realized early on that I could be a beautiful singer,” explains Downs, one of Mexico’s most fascinating musical exports. “But that’s not enough for me.”

Downs, 43, the daughter of a Mixtec mother and Scottish- American father, is referring to her unusual voice. It’s throaty and thick, exotic but also elastic, bending easily around everything from ancestral Mesoamerican songs to jazz standards.

It’s imperfect, but exquisite.

The surface beauty of Downs’ voice gives way to something far more complex—not tortured, exactly, but mysterious and deeply human. “I write songs about issues that concern me,” she says. “That’s what I look for in music and art and literature.”

Her music, rooted in traditional Mexican ranchera with a global fusion feel, is rich with emotion and empathy. When she was a girl growing up in Oaxaca, Downs first learned of the hard plight of Mexican migrants—a subject that shows up in her songs. “I was watching my mother’s store when a man came in and asked me to translate a death certificate of someone who died trying to cross the border,” she recalls.

Later, as a young teen, she lived with her father—a professor of art and cinema—in southern California for several years before returning to Oaxaca after high school. Once back, she discovered that her unusual heritage was hardly a cause for celebration among locals.

“I felt split,” she says. “Especially since my father was Anglo-American and my mother is native Indian, as well as being Mexican. In Mexico there is a lot of discrimination against being native. I was so different than everybody else. Part of the whole story that I have is trying to find myself.”

When she was 16, she suffered an awful loss. Her father died of a heart attack in front of her during a visit to Oaxaca, leaving her to grapple with grief and anger. She rebelled against her mother and fled to Minnesota, her father’s home state, where she studied voice and anthropology, with a particular emphasis on the Mixtec people.

“That really helped me sort things out and put them in a historical perspective and put them in context,” she says.

While anthropology proved enlightening, music was an obvious career choice for Downs, whose mother had been a cabaret singer for a spell.

“I loved to sing when I was very young,” she says. “[My mother] said when I was 7, I’d sing around the house constantly. My father was an artist, so there would always be people over. They’d invite me to play at quinceañeras. Later, I’d play with mariachis.”

Her father also listened to jazz—John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk. “I have a deep sense of love for that music,” Downs says. “I met my husband [saxophonist Paul Cohen] and started to perform in clubs and wanted to do standards. I wondered, What will people think about a Mexican singer doing jazz? It didn’t make much sense—and still doesn’t!” “But,” she continues, “that’s the freedom of music. It’s really about having the openness and strength and seeing it as freedom to find where the language takes you—and about being truthful with emotions and expressing anger or love or whatever you’re going through.”

Fittingly, Downs found a much wider audience after appearing in the 2002 film Frida, both in a cameo and on the soundtrack. Her music has a similar feel to Kahlo’s work, revealing a wide breadth of cultural and personal pain and passion.

When Downs performs, it almost seems theatrical, like she’s playing a character. “Sometimes people in North America perceive that,” she counters. “It may be a Latin American thing. We’re much more dramatic about interpretation. If we don’t really feel a piece, we’re not taken seriously.”

This sense of drama rules her latest release, Lila Downs y La Misteriosa en Paris—Live a FIP. “We wanted to do a live recording for so long,” she explains. “We recorded so many times and were never happy. Then National Radio France offered to do a recording. There are audience favorites played in a very different way than 10 years ago.”

At her show at House of Blues this week, she’ll include songs from her upcoming Sins and Miracles, an album inspired by the paintings done on retablos and altar votives. She’s also working on a musical version of Like Water for Chocolate.

Downs, who splits her time between New York and Mexico, says she’s particularly looking forward to playing San Diego.

“The border audience is very loving,” she explains.

“They’re open about playing with genres and to stories that might be frowned upon in other places. The border feels like coming home.”

Lila Downs plays at House of Blues on Thursday, Nov. 11.