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Silvana Estrada finds strength amid heartache in the music of ‘Marchita’

“Marchita” (“Withered”), her breakthrough disc released in January, finds Mexican singer-songwriter Silvana Estrada in the full bloom of romantic loss.

With titles such as “Te Guardo” (“I Keep You”) and “Tristeza” (“Sadness”), Estrada, who’s 24, admits “Marchita” is “all about heartache and longing. … I needed to make this album,” she said. Though she was “invested in the journey of coming to terms” with her first heartbreak, she chose to concentrate instead on how anguish can lead to emotional growth.

“For me, this album, like maybe all albums, is an attempt to understand the inner world. That world gives you the strength to fight or to leave — you need something that keeps you [grounded],” said Estrada from a stop on her first headlining tour, which winds up March 2 at Schubas. “Music has the power to give you a connection with reality and with other people — that’s so important. Where I grew up, it was very isolated, and music was a way of connecting to community.”

The daughter of two luthiers, Estrada grew up along Mexico’s Gulf Coast, in the state of Veracruz, the birthplace of son jarocho, one of Mexico’s many defining folk genres. But her first musical interests were jazz and Baroque choral music. That kaleidoscopic mix is ​​reflected on “Marchita,” which calls “steeped in tradition but far from traditional.”

“I come from a folkloric aesthetic, but I also have many roots in the world,” she said of her style, which she describes as “musica de raíz” (roots music).

Recorded in Mexico City over four days, “Marchita” is Estrada’s third release and her first for New York-based indie Glassnote Records (home to British folk rockers Mumford & Sons). Her producer and musical director Gustavo Guerrero, who also has worked with Mexican singer-songwriter and kindred spirit Natalia Lafourcade, assembled a mostly acoustic ensemble of keyboards, strings, already and unusual percussion (glockenspiel), as well as guitars and bass.

Silvana Estrada.  Photo by Sol Talamantes

“Music has the power to give you a connection with reality and with other people — that’s so important. Where I grew up, it was very isolated, and music was a way of connecting to community,” says Mexican singer-songwriter Silvana Estrada.
Sol Talamantes

Central to the mix is ​​the Venezuelan cuatro, a four-string guitar, which Estrada has adopted as her signature instrument. “It was all about harmony, especially jazz harmony,” she said. “It was magical that I got to know the cuatro. A regular guitar was too big, and my hands were too small. I needed something different. I started to play it, and I fell deeply in love. The tuning [of the cuatro] is so special. It sounds unique — modern but also folkloric. My mind was blown away.”

The cuatro stays in the spotlight on this tour, which marks just her second visit to Chicago. “It’s a beautiful city. I love the energy, but I don’t love the cold,” she said with a laugh. “I’m looking forward to walking along the streets and seeing the great architecture.”

Coincidentally, the tour ends on Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, which often is celebrated with the words: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust, you shall return.” That passage, especially when rendered in Spanish (“Acuérdate que eres polvo y al polvo volverás”), would seem to reflect the spirit of “Marchita.”

“I don’t know much about the Bible or religion in general, but those words remind me of the album, and the message that love is like a flower, a beautiful gift, and how it can die,” she said. “And how every flower must die in order to let other flowers grow.”

With such statements, Estrada displays a wisdom beyond her years, but she insists she’s “deeply normal.” Her songs and her conversation may indicate that she knows “what I’m doing, but in my normal life, it’s not the case,” she said. “I love to talk and say what I think. I spend a lot of time thinking about these things.” Though she admits she has “a facility with words,” she, like most people, believes she’s “pretty bad” at the game of life.

It’s a life that has generated a lot of introspection, especially for someone who’s so young — along with anguish, as indicated by the last lines of “Tristeza”: “I beg you once again: Sadness, leave me alone.”

As for how someone can know such sorrow so early in life, she said, “Well, I don’t know, really. I guess it depends on how your sensitivity works. I have a special interest in understanding the beauty of things that happen to be not so beautiful. I’m interested in finding the light inside dark things.”

In concert, Estrada feels “like I’m a happy person in general. I don’t know why I’m attracted to dark feelings. But in those dark places, you’re able to understand how feelings work and find the light, the joy. Every feeling is part of a full life.”

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