By Marco Vera
A musical hybrid like Juan Cirerol could only originate from a place as fascinating and flawed as the Imperial Valley/Mexicali borderland. This melting pot in the desert, this dusty musical swap meet and bewitching collage of styles and subcultures is where Cirerol spent his beer-drenched 120 degree days in search of his signature sound. Cirerol's music is a violent clash of regional Mexican music and punk attitude, a 12-string microcosm of all that embodies the rage and love of border living. It's as if he went to the desert at midnight and traded his soul for a 12-string in order to serenade misfit, wandering souls through its crossroads.
Or at least that's the kind of admiration he draws from his loyal fan base, which has multiplied from a regional, then national context, and now into an international, devoted following. Currently coming off a South American tour, Cirerol conveys an experience beyond his 24 years of existence. Mexicali's finest recent musical export´s live show takes no prisoners. Harmonica and 12-string in hand, Juan conquers the stage with more authority than most full piece bands do. All of this respect and connection with his audience is due to Juan crafting this crossbred sound all his own. But coming into his own was never easy.
Cirerol started off playing in punk bands. A talented multi-instrumentalist from the get-go, he started an inspired 2-piece named Oysters with him screaming and beating away on drums, and then went on to form Cancer Bullet, a revolving door outfit where his killer bass lines lead the group in battle cry. In a time where most of these keyboard driven bands in Mexicali were seeking an American connection by singing in English and playing music that was heavily influenced by the all ages scene developing in downtown Los Angeles, Cirerol stayed true to the scene in Mexico. When riddled with band unreliability, he forged on to create his own sound. At first guided by influence, Cirerol developed his experimentation into a solidified, humorous reflection of his border upbringing in incredible quick time, touching not only on themes of excess, but evolving into an outcast balladeer brandishing sensibility and lyricism.
One of his main influences was his grandpa, Luis. "I used to look at that guy, the way he dressed and asked myself, 'What's up with that guy?' I used to enjoy the music he listened to but would never admit to it because I was a punk," states Cirerol. He picked up on aspects of Mexican regional music and channeled the essence of the corrido, a popular Mexican folk songwriting form which speaks of the people's troubles. He started playing gigs on his own and promptly received invitations to tour the Mexican Pacific Northwest. Despite this newfound recognition, Cirerol would play outside taco shops or posh coffeehouses for money when he came back home. Not one to renounce this nomadic musical quest, Cirerol never held a "proper" job. Instead, he constantly kept writing and touring independently until hollering out into a national consciousness. Like so many of the greats he looked up to, Cirerol needed to travel and grow. With plenty of songs under his belt buckle, and once blessed with his grandpa's motto to him, "Just keep lying and everyone will believe you," Cirerol was ready to make the big jump and established himself in Mexico City.
Cirerol recorded and released his first record, Ofrenda al Mictlan, while in Mexico City with the help of visual artist Txema Novelo, released through the city's Vale Vergas Discos. The debut album immediately struck a chord with thousands of Mexican listeners who, like Cirerol, grew up loving the music and themes he touches upon. Whether talking about a beautiful chola (La Chola), about stealing money from his mom and taking pills (Clonazepam Blues), middle class bittersweet heartache (Crema Dulce, Clase Media), or issuing a Mexicali excessive heat warning (Hace Mucho Calor), the album includes what are now considered classics in the Mexican rock 'n' roll canon, such as the laid back pot smoking anthem Toque y Rol. Staying true to the people and to his independent ethics, the whole record is available for download on the Vale Vergas Discos site.
Still, Cirerol remains centered:
"One thing I've learned in travelling throughout Mexico is that one is here in this life to serve this life, the order of things. I've never been stranded or cheated when I'm touring. I focus my music towards those who can relate to it. I'm going to do this until I die."
As he began touring nationally and getting press, the inevitable comparisons and categorizations arrived: "The Mexican Johnny Cash," "The Mexican Bob Dylan," "The Norteño Rockdrigo González." Cirerol declares, "I don't care what they call me. As long as I'm getting paid they can call me Joan of Arc if they want." Cirerol is also sincere when asked which music inspired him to make the move from punk rock to his own unique style, seeing no difference between the music that he made before and now; "I always find it fun to have to reaffirm that I never changed my style, but there really were artists who potentialized it, in order of importance: My grandfather, Johnny Cash, Los Relampagos del Norte, Cornelio Reyna and Los Cadetes de Linares."
His singular style of music can only make the recently converted and engaged listener wonder what his process and inspiration for writing these tunes may be:
"When I'm dedicated to writing a song full on and without interruptions," he says "the first things I surround myself with are the elements I like to have on hand when I'm composing: cigarettes, beer, water, different size guitar picks and good music. I always have loads of fun when I'm writing and I start to imagine what the composition would sound like onstage. Believe me, I don't do much besides play the guitar or write. I don't even party that much lately."
Cirerol's attention and professionalization have made him mature in his writing. "What I've written about lately is inspired by corners, in general. Corners, oversight, dust, things like that."
Cirerol's sound and image are particularly striking due to his use of the 12-string guitar:
"I can't remember which night, I was at my mom's house in Mexicali, and I saw, one after the other, some Leadbelly videos -- after hearing a burnt disc of his entire discography a friend gave to me -- and later, I saw some videos from Miguel y Miguel and Tigrillo Palma. I analyzed them a lot and discovered something which might not have been of much importance to other musicians; they all used a 12-string guitar, a Texas style guitar, and upon seeing all of those similitudes, that type of guitar called my attention, which to me was gigantic, but it let me know almost immediately that it had more power in its low frequencies. So after dreaming about it so much, I found a dusty 12-string in an artisan workshop in Guadalajara, on Lopez Cotilla street, corner with Benito Juarez, and I bought it for 1200 pesos."
Cirerol has progressed from being an attitude driven performer who could stay up and play all night (he used to claim, to people's disbelief, that he had written over 200 songs) to being a musician who seems to be at a point where his songwriting has taken center stage:
"This thing about songwriting has become absolute gossip to me," he says, "sometimes I try to write a song like I used to and I can't anymore. I think the constant factor within my songwriting is the joy in making short, strong pieces. I like to fantasize about myself and about the world; songwriting helps me forget my fears, or all of those things which make me feel weak in front of others, things like that.
There are times when I can't remember whether I had a song or not. Recently, I tallied them up and left a saved list on my computer (that's what I bought it for) including all of the songs I could remember and I almost arrived at 200 songs. It truly is easy for me to remember all my songs, since it's the only thing I think about in my life and the only thing I work on and dedicate more than 100% of my time to."
His new record, Haciendo Leña, out in 2012, was not slated for the sophomore jinx. Its fuller sound and increased flow make it essential listening for those interested in the border troubadour's witty and passionate take on life. It is available for listening in its entirety on his SoundCloud page, once again displaying his independent, selfless spirit. Cirerol has garnered plenty of well-deserved praise and received lots of proposals for collaborations, the most singular coupling being a soundtrack collaboration with film composer Michael Nyman. "I don't understand show business that well, but there's a lot of people I love in it," affirms Cirerol.
Cirerol's amazing live shows keep him going, having graced important stages in Latin America such as the Vive Latino and NRML festival stages, and having finally traveled Stateside to play important cities such as New York and Los Angeles. "I've done some shows where people just turn absolutely crazy. And they're supporting a crazy person. It's very inspiring to be onstage. It makes life have meaning, to give people something."
Check out Juan Cirerol's Facebook for the latest news and updates on his upcoming homecoming shows in Mexicali and Imperial Valley.
Top image: Juan Cirerol.
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