Sandra Lilia Velasquez grew up in San Diego, but it wasn’t until she moved to Brooklyn in her late teens that she formed Pistolera, a popular Spanish-language band that honored the sounds of her youth. After three critically acclaimed albums with Pistolera, Velasquez has gone solo and changed her moniker to SLV. And with her new Meshell Ndegeocello-produced EP, Dig Deeper, the singer/songwriter has redefined herself as an artist.
Not only is she both singing and writing in English, SLV is making music without any restrictions – self-imposed or otherwise. SoundDiego recently spoke with the lovely chanteuse, who will be performing at Voz Alta in Barrio Logan on Friday night.
Scott McDonald: Hi. How are you?
Music. Community. Culture.
Sandra Lilia Velasquez: Great. Thanks.
SM: How has the change from band to solo been?
SLV: I’m really excited to bring these songs out, but I’m also a little nervous because it’s so different than what I’ve done over the years with Pistolera. People definitely have an idea that I only play a certain kind of music. So I’m excited to break that mold and show them where I’m at now.
SM: You’ve switched languages in the new music. Easy transition?
SLV: When I started Pistolera, there were a few different reasons I decided to only sing in Spanish. It was the first time that I was leading my own band and singing songs that I wrote myself. I was tremendously shy, and singing in Spanish was a way for me to mask the songs a bit. I knew the majority of people I’d be singing for wouldn’t understand what I was saying. And there was nostalgia there as well. The whole reason I started Pistolera was based on my move from San Diego to New York and the tremendous culture shock I experienced. I grew up with Mexicans and Mexican-Americans. Spanish and Spanglish were all around. And not just Spanish, but Mexican Spanish. It was all Chicano culture with other first-generation kids whose parents were Mexican. We were listening to Led Zeppelin with our parents' music in the background all the time. There were just so many people like me growing up, and then I moved to New York and there was no one. I just longed for the sound of living on the border. Had I stayed in California, I probably would have started a rock band. Pistolera was about bringing a border sound to Brooklyn.
SM: Has the songwriting process stayed the same?
SLV: It’s actually been very liberating. I feel like I can really write in English with confidence now, and it’s made me a better lyricist. These days, I just speak it more than I do Spanish.
SM: Does that also fall in line with titling your EP Dig Deeper?
SLV: Totally -- it took me a long time to come to terms with the fact that maybe I’m not just a Latin songwriter who only does dance music, it’s OK to grow. And I think it’s really easy to get addicted to giving people what they want all the time. With the first two Pistolera albums -- and both are very similar and dance-driven -- we were always selling a lot of CDs and signing autographs, so I thought, “Well, this is what I do well, so I’m just going to keep doing this.” But then I started slowly feeling like if I was doing it all for other people, why was I doing it? And that’s why the third Pistolera album was so different and had a bunch of slow songs on it. And I was really worried about that, actually, but it ended up getting a lot of praise for being different. It was really encouraging and it was at that point I realized that people were far more open-minded than I had given them credit for. I was ready to grow, and people were ready to grow with me. It took me that year to really just follow the music and let it come out how it comes out. It took me that long to realize that I didn’t need to define it before it even happened.
SM: And as a result, you end up working with someone like Meshell Ndegeocello.
SLV: Exactly. It just reinforced the idea of following the music even further. If you listen to her albums from the '90s, they sound nothing like her albums now. She almost changes with each album, and that was really encouraging. But she also taught me something else -- I had heard it before, but you have to write at least 40 songs to get 10 good ones. When I was a new songwriter, I’d get so attached to my songs and think every one was good. Now, I can plainly say that not every song I write is good, nor does it need to be recorded [laughs]. And I can say that now and actually mean it, and not feel bad. You just need to mine for the good ones and only take those ones with you. Since working with Meshell, my songwriting partner and I have just been writing like mad.
SM: And how is that going?
SLV: Incredibly -- we’ve even grown since we made the EP. I think the sound we have now is already different from those songs. The band is currently a trio with a laptop. We’ve just grown so much but also learned a lot from the experiences we’ve had and recording with someone like Meshell. And there is an electronic element, but it’s not an intrusive one. We’ve recorded strings, and we sample them. But I think we really just want it to be a show, not just us getting up there and playing a few songs. And I think that’s what it is at this point: It’s a show. It has some unique moments, and it has a really nice flow.
SM: What’s next?
SLV: Converse has a recording studio here in Brooklyn, Rubber Tracks. We just recorded three songs at the studio and will probably release them as their own session. We also just released a video through USA Today, and by the time we get to San Diego, we’ll be releasing another live video. I think that one will be more indicative of the direction the band is going. We’re playing these shows to try to see what we really like playing live. But we’re not taking any breaks and plan on going full-steam ahead.