Talking about success
Interview by Catalina Restrepo Leongómez
Catalina Restrepo: I remember very well one of our conversations in which you were talking about your personal definition of success. I remember you were saying that it is usually understood as “being the best, the most recognized, or the most famous.” You mentioned that for you, success isn’t defined by that, but rather by the possibility of having many experiences and reinventing yourself. To begin, why don’t you tell me a little of how you got started in music?
Claudia Fernández: Yeah, a hundred percent I believe in that definition of success. From when I was a kid I was interested in music. I studied piano and violin at the conservatory from when I was 9 years old to when I was 12. I was at the Escuela Superior de Música y Danza in Monterrey. By the time I was 13 years old, I left the conservatory. I kind of took it as something that my parents had send me to study. I guess at that age, you don’t even know what’s up, who you are, or anything really… By the time I was 18 I had totally forgotten I liked making music. I had focus on my career in political science and law. But, it was a world of problems, all negative things. Years after the conservatory, which was only classical music, I found myself wondering “why am I not making rock? That’s what I really like.” The first time I played an electric guitar I said “this is really me.”
At around that same time, I started studying sound engineering and music production. I would see up close the life of people who were already very successful in the music business. I was always thinking: “That’s good you are doing great!” Yet, I started realizing that was not the side of music I wanted to pursue. To become and idol and having to live the life behind of that fame. It wasn’t at all what I wanted. You know? I couldn’t imagine touring for 250 days a year, playing the same songs for 30 years. That would have never been success for me.
It was really cool for me to realize that, while I was still so young. I knew I didn’t want to go on that road. I mean, I am always going to be a musician; for me it’s a language that I speak and that I can’t stop because a part of me would die. However, those years were very complicated. I would constantly question if the music was just a hobby. I couldn’t figure out what to do with my career. When I was 25 many people would ask “What happened to your music? You never made it?” hahaha, I really thought I was doing well, I had a blast jamming with friends here and there, I didn’t have a band and I didn’t have a record. But, that is the success that I am talking about, I think it has to be very personal.
CR: You were able to let go of a very ingrained idea in the collective imaginary that assumes “If you are famous, you are doing well.” That is hard. Did you meet someone of had an experience that frighten you? How did you realize, “No, it’s not that way?”
CF: Look, at some time I was really immersed in metal. I was invited to New York to attend the recordings of a record by a band called Anthrax, it’s a very famous metal band. I really liked them since I was a kid. I loved them and the environment at the studio was super soft, they weren’t heavy dudes, really wasn’t scared by the environment. In fact, what I noticed was a sort of boredom within people who had been doing the same thing for years. I have seen it over time, with many friends, not only musicians, but also artists. You know how it is… it happens to every kind of artist. They start doing really well in one format and they become fearful of experimentation. I was really inspired by a story of Robert Rauschenberg that I read in the book Off The Wall, from Calvin Tomkins. He tells the story of how when Rauschenberg was representing the United States at the Venice Biennale as a painter, he called his assistant and asked for all his materials to be thrown away so he couldn’t repeat himself. Anyone at that point would think “I am at the top of my career, I should follow the formula…,” but, to him it was the total opposite. A lot of people are afraid to lose admiration and risk to lose the commercial value of their art. My rule is always the same: “If my mind is thinking about what someone else is thinking about me, I am wrong, I am already not living the life I want.”
CR: You got your start in metal, but were you working for Anthrax or were you just a friend?
CF: I met them when I was studying sound engineering. We became good friends. They invited me to their studio and gave me the opportunity to learn to record. It was a summer while they were recording in their studio in NY. To be honest, back then, it definitely was my dream to be in a metal band and I was learning a lot watching them record their music. But, I also lived it so close and I was going to their shows, and it was hours and hours of sound check and waiting for the show, over and over again. I could see how someone who does that same thing for so long can get tired of it. At that time they had already been famous and they were now opening for younger bands. I could also see what a big achievement it was to survive the rollercoaster of creative lives. They are doing really well now, you never know, sometimes there’s a revival!
That made me decide I didn’t want a career that was determined by what people want or not. Even though, of course I get it that some people really enjoy that type of success. At the end, I am the only one who needs to love what I do.
I have a Neophiliac personality, my real passion is for new things and reinventions. When I see the compromise you have to take to do one thing only, I feel a little suffocated. Another thing I recognize about my personality, is that I differ on the opinion that you have to conclude everything you start. Many times I have friends that wonder how I have survived not feeling bad about starting many projects that never conclude. But I think, “If I make a record with my friends and no one but us listens it, is that perceived as an inconclusive project? If you can’t hear it on Apple Music or Spotify, does it mean is not part of my experience?” I really realized I was fine being respected by 5 people that I admired rather than half the world I didn’t care for.
CR: For someone who doesn’t think like you, not concluding something can be perceived as a failure, this can generate a very strong anxiety. I have a friend that says, people used to want 15 min of fame, now they want fame in 15 minutes. Was there a time in your life when you felt frustrated when you didn’t conclude your projects?
CF: I have felt frustrated in a lot of projects. I feel like frustration is part of the process. Obviously I can’t claim that I don’t care about my career of or that I have always been happy with what I do. Not at all.
A paradox I experienced in my life was that at some point I became a DJ. I had a really good vinyl collection and I was a sound engineer. Some friends invited me to play in their club. From that club there came many artists who are very recognized now, like Rebolledo. There were people from all over the world coming to play. Artists I really liked like Kid Loco. My boss was actually Rob Garza, from the band Thievery Corporation. But, back then I was super frustrated as a musician. It was an opportunity that any DJ would have wanted, but to me it was extremely frustrating because I kept feeling that I hadn’t achieved anything as a musician. I was just playing records for people to dance to. I felt admired as a DJ, but when the set was over I would become sad that I wasn’t making any music.
CR: Would that be what is traditionally considered a job, something someone would do in their office and not fulfilled, but it gives them money to survive?
CF: It was a job, but, with the perspective of time I am super grateful to have had it. It allowed me to live so many experiences. I was only a DJ there, never before or after. It was a place in Playa del Carmen called La Santanera. In Playa and Tulum there are still many things happening, but I was never a part of that afterwards. Of course that moment opened so many doors that I didn’t imagine. It also opened my mind to say “OK, not really doing what I want, but I get it.” Sometimes it doesn’t matter what you are doing, to me success isn’t linear at all, there is always time to do what you want. That opportunity taught me to enjoy what came my way, cause you never know what door can be opened.
CR: If you could do a year to year review. What was the chain of events that led you from project to project? I am asking so I can see the variety of the music genres you have been involved with. From punk to orchestras.
CF: It all started in Monterrey. I was playing guitar with many friends, learning. For me, in Monterrey there was only one alternative music scene which was about everything that wasn’t mainstream. We would play metal, rock, pop, but I never get very far with any of those bands. I didn’t last very long making music in Monterrey. By the time I was 19-20, I was already gone. However, I am still friends with many local musicians. I left and I moved to London, where I really focused on learning to record.
Many engineers experience that. They start as musicians and then they start learning to engineer and stop making music. That was what happened with me, there were a few years where I just worked in learning sound engineering and production. I realized it gave me great pleasure, almost as good as if I was making the music. I love working with musicians and I love the ambient of recording studios. I like watching musicians record and look at the way in which they communicate with themselves.
Just after I lived in London, my DJ era started when I moved to Playa del Carmen. Right after that I moved to Vancouver, Canada, where I started my punk band.
Something I realized through those years was that, even though I was never treated badly as a woman, I found it extremely hard to thrive as a female engineer and musician in México. The first time I played a show in México, was with my project from Germany. I recently went to a show of the Avanzada Regia, that’s the name given to the musical movement of the 90s in Monterrey. There were no female performers, not one! I remember how difficult it was back then to be a women involved in the music scene. The bands were mainly guys and you would go to the studio and everyone there was a man.
When I moved to London, it was a little different, there were more women in the scene and I worked with a few. I had a project with a Japanese drummer, Chi Fukami, she is the drummer for a band I really like called The Go Team. It was there when I started really liking collaborating with women. I had never had that chance.
That was in London and by the time I got to Vancouver, I was like “Wow!” There is so much talent in that town. Canada is very advanced in themes like gender. It really doesn’t matter there if you are a women or a men, everyone plays and does whatever they want. The girls were super punk, and they played amazingly well, there are very good musicians. For such a small place, they have many people that are extremely talented in many areas, music, art, food, etc. the level is very high. There I met some of the best collaborators I have ever had. Men too, of course, but I was really focused about working with women.
CR: What was the name of your punk band?
CF: Joyce Collingwood. That band went through a few formations. I mainly wrote the music with the other guitar player, Twitch. At around that time I started realizing women had it really though. You get married or have a baby, tour life gets complicated. Even though we all helped each other, we hired a nanny once, so we were able to record. On the contrary, most men musicians can just say “I gotta go on tour, it’s my job.” The careers of women gets sacrificed more often. But, it’s an incredible environment to work with women and support each other. However, anyone can have a time when they wanna focus on being moms, and that’s really cool too, it’s another career in itself.
I worked with Joyce Collingwood for many years. It was really fun. We never gave up. We were always playing shows, we even played a show in a maximum security prison! We relocated to Los Angeles and we stayed because we were doing really well. We played with bands like Trash Talk and White Lung. We had many producers interested in recording with us. But, we had to leave and the band started to disintegrate.
This taught me a lot, you can work super hard in a project and there can always be an external situation that unravels everything and you realize you can’t tour and the project is unsustainable.
After Joyce Collingwood disintegrated I started working with two girls. Dandi Wind and Marta McKeever. It was two or three more years of work in a project called Primitiva. This was a really fun band. Dandi and I used to be roommates in Vancouver, so we were making music all the time. Our house used to be called The Witch Castle. I remember being in Monterrey visiting my family and I had to go back to Vancouver to finish recording with Primitiva and start rehearsing for a tour. Dandi, who was my main collaborator called me to tell me she was pregnant. I selfishly asked, “Are you sure you want to have the baby?” (I had all the recordings ready!) and well… I adore her son, I adore her and we have kept collaborating forever. I just made a jingle for her new kids’ clothing brand, Friendship Unlimited. Everyone has their priorities.
At that time I was left bandless, some friends invited me to be their tour manager in Europe (I had zero experience tour managing). They asked me if I wouldn’t mind doing that, they even suggested that I came up with a solo project so I could open for them. But, I couldn’t really think about composing any music at that time. I was healing the past ruptures of my bands. So we moved to Berlin for a summer and we organized their European tour. We would drive everywhere, Paris, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Budapest, etc. That band is called Animal Bodies. The best thing that happened to me while on tour with them, was to move to Berlin and not think about my music. That summer I met Khan, who is one of my best friends and who I have ended making so much music with.
It was a great lesson, to not close any doors. Even though I didn’t have a band and I was just a tour manager, it didn’t matter. I was still involved in a world that I love.
CR: Which genre was Animal Bodies?
CF: It is a very fun duo. Electronic music played live. Natasha was the guitar player, she sang and played guitar in a very impressive style, along with Sam, who is an incredible synth player. Without defining them it is a kind of post-punk, darkwave, techno band. While I was on tour with them I met many musicians and promoters, many people who have been very important in what I do today. You really close all the doors when you say “OK, I didn’t make it as a musician, I am gonna do something unrelated.” For starters I met Khan, we became very good friends and I ended up working in his project. It was an ensemble comprised by Latin-American and German musicians. It is called Mondmaschine. All the musicians were taken to record in a house in Malinalco, a town close to México City. After our recording sessions we played at a Festival called Nrml. I played alongside with band I really admire, like Swans. What I mean is, I could have stayed working with my punk band and I would not have played in that festivals in like 10 years. All of this happened within two years or so. This kind of experience opens your eyes; it makes you see that it doesn’t matter if something didn’t work out. If you feel frustrated because you can’t reach “success,” there is always something else.
CR: There it is, the notion of economical retribution. Where you able to live economically with what you were doing?
CF: In fact, at that time, and having worked a whole lot on things that could support my music (because even though you can become a professional musician, sometimes you have to do a lot of other things to keep you afloat). Mondmaschine had funds from The Goethe Institute (a great institute that nourishes creativity all around the world). My plane ticket, my food, my expenses and my salary as a musician was being paid for. To go from underground punk to suddenly have all your expenses paid for to fly to Berlin to play at The Haus der Kulturen der Welt (House of World Cultures) felt like magic!
CR: Can we say this was a type of work. In the measure that they are paying you to do labor. But, did it feel like work?
CF: Not at all! In that moment I experienced a creative explosion. Khan was looking for musicians throughout Latin-America to collaborate with German musicians. He went to Guatemala, Costa Rica, Panama and México. Khan and I had met before, but he created this puzzle and invited me as a bass player (even though, I really didn’t play bass back then!).
Everyone else in the band never met before. The Latin-American musicians that joined were Julian Bonequi, a Mexican percussionist, Ronald Bustamante, a guitar player from Costa Rica, Mabe Fratti, cello player from Guatemala and Ingmar Herrera, a saxophonist from Panama. Later on we were joined by guest musicians that I had admired for many years, such as Hans Joachin Irmler from the legendary band, Faust and by Gudrun Gut, from Malaria.
We organized all of this with Khan and two electronic musicians. Gebruder Teichmann, Teichmann Brothers. At that time we all gathered in Malinalco. Santi Rodriguez, engineer for Nrml Fest and Mutek Festival, created a recording studio in a cabin. We had only two weeks to come up with a record and a live set. We all came from very different musical styles, by day three, we were all super connected. Of course there was some drama... all our egos became apparent: “I want this,” “I want something else” it was like a Reality Show hahaha. By the end, it never felt like work. It was such a different experience, not your average “Let’s rehearse on Tuesdays band,” we became a family.
After that I returned to Vancouver and did a few projects over there. I kept recording as Primitiva, which ended up being a collective project in which I have collaborated with many musicians. It was around that time that I was finally going to tour with Primitiva that my dad got sick. We had booked 10 dates in the US opening for a band called MU and almost 25 cities across Europe opening for a band called Koban. My family is so important to me, I had to move back to Monterrey.
Starting from zero has always given me a lot of satisfaction. I mean, instead of giving up, every failed project has pushed me to collaborate with more musicians. Now I have a house in Monterrey and I kept thinking “Who would wanna come here and work with me?” I paused for almost two years. I really didn’t make any music throughout that time. I was a hundred percent devoted to my family. But, step by step, I started opening myself to other projects. Some friends would invite me over to their cities to collaborate in their work. My great friend, Domitille Camus, who has been supporting me, and so many other artists, in so many different projects, invited me on one of those trips, and through her I met Dabbs Anderson, who I am currently working with.
Dabbs is an artist from Alabama. I had always been fascinated by blues and country music, but I had never explored the genre as a musician. Dabbs is one of the people that knows the musical history of Alabama and the Mississippi Delta, she entertains me with stories of the blues and country masters. We met at a Nicolas Jaar show in New York and it was love at first sight. I don’t remember much from that night… but she says I told her “You are the best dressed and the drunkest at this party, let’s start a band together!” Since then we have been collaborating for almost a year. The project has almost took a life of its own. Each of us have worked hard to create the space to see each other and record. Our main recordings happened over the summer in Colorado. Dabbs had an artist residency in a self-sustainable cabin called Steeprock. While we were traveling in Berlin Dabbs and Khan met and the three of us said “Let’s do this project together!” And right now the three of us are working in an album. Our super good friend Omar Gongora, from Kinky has been recording drums and percussions with us and our engineer Santi Rodriguez has been recording our music, they are like the two other bandmates.
CR: In a different subject, above all covering the themes of art and music, personal security becomes a determining factor in terms of work. What I mean is, many people think they don’t sing well, or the lack abilities, they become frustrated before getting somewhere and they give up on their dreams. Sometimes they don’t want to sacrifice the security of a monthly salary. Sometimes they just don’t feel they can achieve a professional level. What do you think about this?
CF: I feel like that all the time. I have a hard time feeling that I am a professional artist or musician, but I get over myself. I believe it’s key to educate people with more passion. This “apparent” security comes from the educational systems that educate through a very rigid scheme. There are many other systems that are more modern like the Waldorf or Montessori schools, they educate kids with more freedom. I come from a very traditional education, very rigid. You have patriarchy, capitalism and pre-established standards of success and therefore judgment. When you see a person you immediately are trained to label their personality and assume if they are successful or not. We have to fight against all these installed ideas.
My parents never really understood what I wanted to do with my life. I never thought they were very proud, yet they supported me. But, it’s understandable, people living within creativity worlds experience a lot of intangibility. You are always between projects and you live as if you have a ghost job. You never produce anything daily, you are not on a payroll. To be independent requires and independent mindset.
It is true thou, magical stories exist everywhere, like you were saying earlier. All of a sudden we see someone that no one believed in, who is doing so well. There are plenty of those stories. I believe that ultimately it boils down to how long you can hold. I recognize this passion within myself since I was very young. It has helped me so much to understand that I have no other option but to live what flows through me. There is no formula and in the end I don’t believe there should be.
CR: We have talked amongst ourselves about a technique or an idea that I find very valuable: Change your audience. I was very glad we talked about it, because it has nothing to do with that feeling you relate to work. The feeling in which you think that maybe you could be successful doing something, but all of a sudden, no one understands your idea or you aren’t recognized for it.
CF: To be honest, I don’t remember where I found that concept. I know I read it somewhere and I use it a lot! It talked about having an idea about something that you want to achieve, but you grew up or live in a conservative society. It is very hard to remove oneself from that conservatism. This audience that has been with you since childhood is gonna tell you “No! Don’t do it, you won’t make any money!” or “That’s foolish!” Each of us have to change our mental audience, if you want to do something that sticks out of the established parameters, you have to interchange your mental audience. You have to summon a different mental audience that understands and supports your idea.
CR: Maybe you don’t have a fixed income that provides you with stability, but there is a capital —one that personally I find very valuable— and it has to do with a network of collaboration. This becomes really evident when you help a lot of people, maybe organizing a tour for them, or collaborating here and there. Somehow they end up inviting you into their house, sometimes even flying you somewhere. Obviously you aren’t spending any money, yet you are having an experience that is absolutely nourishing.
CF: A hundred percent. In fact, these types of experiences you could never buy with money. You can’t buy a real friendship, let alone a creative collaboration with someone. That intellectual and creative wealth conforms an invisible, and intangible language, that we have talked about before. That language materializes in success.
Many people have helped me achieve my dreams, they make my life so fun. My friends put me up in their houses, they lend me their instruments and studios. My two best friends in LA, Gladys Tamez and Oliver Wilson, had let me play at their bars, and have even designed accessories for me to wear on my shows. You can really feel that net of collaboration. Artists understand that we need each other to achieve our ideas. Especially when we know we have no financial support. But, we always have to be open to collaborating, and between us we can drive our projects further.
CR: When we talked about education, when they teach you to say or do something in the way that it has always been done, within the same structure of a square box, they deny you your imagination. Great advances have been made because someone thought how to solve a problem in a different way. To mention an example that, I just thought of, they say “You can’t make a rib with a part of a liver.” A doctor may not the best cardiologist, but they have knowledge about other tissues, may achieve the opposite and prove them wrong by finding a solution. That doctor uses his or hers imagination, and even amongst the most exact science and practice that finding becomes important. Therefore, effectively, success might lay on the fact that you leave the cookie-cutter, established mold. Why do we focus so much, as a society, in perfecting these molds?
CF: In this subject we come back to the theme of work, or at least work as we generally know it. Even though I don’t have a job, the days I work in my music I might stay 16 hours in my studio. You can’t deny that is a job. However they say, if it doesn’t feel like work it means you are living your passion. I think this should be taught to us in school, since we are kids. A kid is born with a wealth of information, they are born with virtues and ideas. What traditional schooling does is to deny that nature and to send kids on a path of learning pre-established ideas. They remove the creativity and the imagination, that side gets lost.
CR: I think that’s the point. Education is the key. Thank you so much for this interview, thank you so much for your words, Clau.