Mon Laferte's Cathartic Folk-Rock Is the Product of an Extraordinary Life

The Chilean singer-songwriter writes visceral songs drenched in mezcal and heartbreak, and it's made her one of the biggest stars in Latin music.

Aug 27 2021, 4:43pm

Mon Laferte was just nine years old when she first felt magic. Not the Criss Angel “Mindfreak” sort of magic that requires a lot of eyeliner and a plexiglass coffin, but the kind that seems destined by the universe and changes the way you see the world. It plants a seed inside the gut that’ll grow and grow until it’s bigger than you; it tells you sharply that your life will never be the same. For the Chilean singer-songwriter, it happened at a school singing competition, on a cold night in her hometown of Viña del Mar. 

Advertisement

The moment was so life-changing that she remembers even the most minute details: She was nine years old, and she stepped onto the stage wearing a blouse and shorts that her grandmother had picked out for her. The bright lights blinded her as she looked out onto a crowd of schoolmates, families, and teachers. “That whole experience of being on the stage, with the lights, with the live band playing, with the cold, the people—I felt like the top cymbal from a drum kit,” she tells me. 

That night, she sang into the crisp air, and nothing has been the same.

“I decided at that age that I wanted to do this always,” she tells me over Zoom, her signature tattooed arms covered by a silver blouse and her fiery orange hair tied up in a knot. “To step on stage and live for that adrenaline. For me, it’s a very special kind of magic to sing to someone.”

Laferte, born Norma Monserrat Bustamante Laferte, has performed on much bigger stages since then. The 38-year-old singer-songwriter has become one of the biggest stars in Latin music, a folk-rock alt goddess known for expelling raw emotion and guttural heartache on  her 2017 album La Trenza, which earned her five Latin Grammys, and on 2018’s Norma, which won her another Latin Grammy for Best Alternative Music Album. Both albums have gone platinum multiple times over in Latin America, leading to a 2019 Coachella performance and cementing Laferte as a force in the alternative Latin scene. Hits like “Amárrame,” “Tu falta de querer” and “Antes de ti” established her as one of the most exciting voices in in Latin pop rock and rock en Español, following a lineage of  artists like Pies Descalzos and Dónde Están Los Ladrones?-era Shakira, Julieta Venegas, Café Tacvba, Tijuana No!, Los Tres, and Los Aterciopelados. 

Just as her star was rising, Laferte broke the internet when at the 2019 Latin Grammys she walked the red carpet wearing a green hankerchief—the international symbol of abortion rights—and lowered her black top, exposing her bare breasts with a message scrawled upon her chest: En Chile torturan violan y matan. In Chile they torture rape and kill. The message—a protest of police brutality in her home country—tipped the world off to another thing about Laferte: She’s not afraid to speak loudly against injustice. Over the years, both in song and in the streets, she has protested for women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, and other social justice causes in Latin America, as well as against gender-based violence, domestic abuse, and corruption.

Advertisement

She says that being an outspoken advocate for marginalized people is something that’s followed her entire life—not just as an artist who got her start singing in the streets of Viña del Mar, but also as a woman navigating the male-dominated spaces of rock. “For me, I think being on stage is a revolutionary act, even if I didn't realize it,” she says. “I had to work twice as hard to get there. If I have to say something, I will say it.”

Then, in 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic cast the world into turmoil, Laferte retreated to her home in Tepoztlán, a small town in Morelos about an hour and a half south of Mexico City where she's lived for the past two years. Surrounded by the area’s desolate and lush landscapes, she began work on her aptly titled sixth album, SEIS, building a body of songs that drew on traditional genres within Latin music, and especially ones prevalent in her adopted country of Mexico, including música regional (mariachi, banda, ranchera), cumbia, corrido tumbado, and bolero. Basically, the shit Latinx parents, tías, and tíos—and you too, perhaps—drunk wail at the function around 1 am. 

Mon Laferte performing for her fans. Credit: Jesus de Nazareth

The project that resulted, which came out in April of this year, felt ripped straight out of the chest, with Laferte unloading melancholic expressions of heartache (“Amado mío”), the ardor of love and heartbreak (“Se me va quemar el corazón”), the corruption that plagues governments (“La democracia”), the injustices of womanhood (“La mujer”), and, on one song, the force contained within women (“Esta morra no se vende”). “They all make me cry,” she says of every song on SEIS. Yes, she is a Taurus.

The album was a gut-stomping triumph in Latin America. Over in the U.S., it received countless accolades, not just from the Latin-centric publications but also from the mainstream press, which by and large ignores Latinx musical megastars until it no longer can. Relentless Latinx music journos in the U.S. and Latin America have been putting Laferte and other Latinx artists on for years. Bear in mind, Bad Bunny made the cover of Rolling Stoneonly after becoming the biggest global music superstar. 

Advertisement

On the eve of a third major North American tour, her time to shine on an even larger scale is here; the unlikely story of how she got here, with its near-cinematic twist and turns, is nothing short of extraordinary. 

***

Laferte grew up surrounded by women grinding to get by, and it made a lasting impression on her own work ethic. She and her little sister were raised by their mother and grandmother in the countryside, 76 miles northwest from Santiago, the capital of Chile. Her mother worked odd jobs; her grandmother, whom she describes as a Cancer with a heart that would often burst with emotion, filled in as a caretaker. 

“Our lives were very hard,” she says. “We didn’t have many things. Everything cost us.” Laferte and her mother had a strained relationship. “I blamed her for many things,” she says. “Now, I see her differently as an adult. She's a woman who has had her successes and mistakes in life.” 

Still, there was always music playing at home. She remembers hearing Edith Piaf’s voice wafting through their family home; her mother telling her about the legendary Chilean folk singer and artist Violeta Parra; her grandmother playing boleros. After that fateful school concert, Laferte got her first singing gig at 13, performing covers of popular Latin artists for a senator. She soon began traveling every day to Valparaiso, a nearby city known as Chile’s cultural capital, to perform on the street with a friend. “She would play the guitar since I was not that good,” she says with a laugh. 

For five years, she continued busking in the streets and playing every gig she could get: performing at bars, at children’s parties, at a drag queen circus where she’d perform songs by Thalía. It was grueling work, but Laferte was driven to make something of the talent she was given. “I realized that I had something special with my voice, that it could open a lot of doors by the way people reacted so positively towards it,” she says. “I thought, Well, I have to work really hard to make this happen. It’s a matter of survival.”

As a teen, Laferte would travel to Santiago, hoping to land her big break. Financing the pursuit of her dreams, however, was a struggle. “It was a big deal to invest in those trips,” she says. “It felt like a movie, where I knocked on thousands of doors.” Then, in 2003, a door finally opened: After successfully auditioning for the televised Chilean singing competition series Rojo: Fama contrafama, a 19-year-old Laferte, then known as Monserrat Bustamante, became an overnight sensation.  

Advertisement

Singing classic románticas by icons like Ana Gabriel and Luis Miguel, she became a fan favorite, winning over audiences with her sense of humor and booming, malleable voice. (In a kind of on-air party trick, she was able to effortlessly alter it to imitate famous singers.) While she didn’t win, she became a star in Chile, starring in a spin-off series and film of Rojo.

Looking back, Laferte says that covering songs from her youth, songs that are standards in Latin America, gave her an understanding of how music impacted her identity as a person and as an artist. “I started having a connection with my sense of self through songs,” she says. But it also made her want to make her own music, to sing her own stories. For that to happen, she knew she had to make the hard decision of leaving behind her growing celebrity in Chile and starting fresh. 

In 2007, she decided to pack up her life and move to Mexico. “[In Chile], I was singing music by other artists,” she says. “To be on TV was a big deal at that time, but I wasn’t developing as an artist in the way I wanted.”

When she arrived in Mexico City, she followed the same path she had back in Chile: singing on the streets; working in bars singing covers of The Cranberries, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and James Brown. She traveled six hours by bus every week to get to a bar in Veracruz, where she sang Friday and Saturday nights. “I was 24 years old when I arrived here,” she says. “I know what it’s like to be all alone in a big city, a country you don’t know.”

Advertisement

Her move also gave her the chance to reinvent herself, departing from the good girl image that she felt she had to conform to while performing on Rojo. By the end of the aughts, she had evolved into a raven-haired punk with a vintage edge similar to Amy Winehouse, raspily wailing and collecting an arm’s worth of tattoos. By then, the music industry had changed. Social media platforms like MySpace and SoundCloud were empowering artists to distribute their music without the gatekeeping of a major label, and she started recording music at home and self-releasing it online. “For me, that was the biggest blessing,” she says. “Without social media, I wouldn’t have been able to make a living from my music.” 

Mon Laferte crowdsurfing. Hell yeah. Credit: Jesus de Nazareth

Still, those early days alone in Mexico City were extremely hard. Laferte’s career came to an abrupt stop in 2009 after she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. “​​It was one of the saddest and hardest moments of my life,” she posted on Facebook in 2017. Without my family close, everything was harder.” Her surgeries left her completely immobile on her right side, and after three months, despite not being fully healed, she went back to performing. “Someone had to pay the rent and for medicine,” she wrote. The experience led her to change her stage name from Monserrat Bustamante to Mon Laferte as a symbol of a new beginning.

In 2011, she released her first album under that name, Desechable, a collection of hard-charging pop rock in the vein of Garbage. Prouder of that record than anything she’d recorded before, she’d head out to local parks or the metro to play and give away copies. “I didn’t know what else to do with it,” she told VICE LATAM in 2015. “That’s where I made my first fans. On the metro and on social media.” 

Advertisement

The next few years saw her building a name for herself in Mexico’s indie scene and having fun along the way: She made music that crossed genres, like folklorico and ska. She fronted a metal band called Mystica Girls for three years. When her third self-released album, Volume 1, landed her a deal with a label, it meant she was finally able to pay rent off her music, while accessing studios and engineers that could help her make whatever she could dream up. 

Thus followed her critically lauded 2017 album La Trenza, multiple Grammys, and tours, then another critically lauded album in 2018’s Norma, which led to the green handkerchief moment in 2019. By the time that the pandemic hit, she was ready to retreat to the countryside and begin work on SEIS, an amalgam of the music she grew up with and the place where she is now, both literally and sonically.

SEIS was largely inspired by ranchera icon Chavela Vargas, the Costa Rican singer who repatriated to Mexico at age 17, eventually spending her final years in Tepoztlán until her death in 2012. It’s there that Laferte has also set down roots, and, after watching a documentary on Vargas, she was drawn to create something spiritually connected to her. As such, the  album includes features from a number of iconic Mexican artists, including Gloria Trevi, Alejandro Fernández, and La Arrolladora Banda El Limón de Rene Camacho. As with Vargas’ music, it feels like it should be accompanied by a large pour of mezcal and a broken heart. It gives you chills, requiring no knowledge of Spanish to communicate its emotion. It is a romance language, after all. 

On “Se me va quemar el corazón,” she sings about a “carnicero emocional,” an emotional butcher who leaves her so devastated that everyone tells her she’s lost weight. But whoever that person is who broke her heart gets what’s coming to them on “Aunque te mueras por volver,” a sweeping, Bond-esque ballad in which she tells her lover that it’s too late. “Entenderás / Que ya no hay vuelta atrás / No has podido olvidarme / Pero ya te solté,” she sings. You’ll understand / There’s no going back / You haven’t been able to forget me / but I already let you go.

Hearing these stories of love and melancholy—here and in so much of her work—I felt compelled to ask Laferte about her experience with heartbreak. “I am and I’ve been a woman who surrenders to love,” says Laferte. “I didn't know anything about being careful with love, to take it slow. I have lived all over and traveled. I didn't have much of a formal education; I went through it in life. So when I meet someone, I fall deeply in love. And there’s consequences to that—to live without brakes. Now I have started to take things slow, but I've always been a hopeless romantic.” 

Advertisement

Stylistically, SEIS is her most classic work to date, melding Laferte’s punk rock sensibilities with elements of músical regional—sounds that will hold a special nostalgia for Latinx fans, as both the music of our parents and the music of our rebellious youth. Her brashness and grit as a singer lends itself beautifully to the heart-swelling romance of mariachi violins and plucked guitars. 

Laferte has never feared experimentation. But also, like many Latinx alternative kids, she’s always been surrounded by a cacophony of genres and artists, new and old, from the U.S. and Latin America. Juan Gabriel, Rocío Durcal, Trevi, Los Panchos, Nirvana, Beyoncé, Shakira, Björk, and Alanis Morrissette are all artists she counts as inspirations; their stories and their music have left an indelible mark—not just on the album but on the artist she has become. “They taught me that I can do whatever I want without caring about how I’m being perceived, or where I’m from,” she says. “I feel like I'm a blend of all these musical influences. This music showed me that I’m not weird.”

***

Life in a pandemic has meant that Laferte has been severely lacking the adrenaline that performing for an audience provides. But she’ll soon feel that intoxicating rush again: On September 14, she’ll embark on a 24-city tour that kicks off in Seattle, and she’s once again feeling like her nine-year-old self: nervous and excited. Adding to those emotions is another bit of exciting news: Laferte is pregnant, which she announced on social media on August 17.

Advertisement

“After a year of trying, at last!” she wrote. “A year of hormones. I’m barely 10 weeks along and am scared of losing them, but I couldn’t hold it anymore,” she wrote. “I feel different, my hair is ugly, and my weight is a rollercoaster, but what’s most important is that I’M HAPPY. I will be a mother.”

As she prepares for motherhood, he is also preparing to bring SEIS to life on stage. “It’s been a challenge to create a set,” she says over Zoom. “To feel like I have to play the last album, but since it’s been so long since I’ve done a concert, I want to do more songs. For me, the concerts would last for five hours.” 

Mon Laferte sings to a packed house. Credit: Jesus de Nazareth

Until then, she’s surrounded by the comforts of home, which comes with more of that magic Laferte knows so well. Tepoztlán is designated a pueblo mágico by the Mexican government for holding special cultural, historical, and even mystical qualities. “They say Tepoztlán is magical and that there have been UFO sightings here,” she tells me. “I do feel that special kind of energy, like magic. I can’t explain it but it’s true.” 

As we speak, she sits as a table surrounded by her paintings (she’s also a visual artist, and opened an art gallery in Tepoztlán in 2020); knick-knacks; her cat, Eulalio; and her dog, Nina, who both make special appearances during our call, walking with an unconcerned saunter in front of the camera. Sometimes, Nina barks so incessantly that she has to be hushed.

The barking of beloved dogs forms an integral part of the symphony of life in Mexico. Hearing it immediately transports me to the family ranches I’ve spent years of my life at back home in Mexico. During our call, we get disconnected a couple times because of the town’s faulty internet service, but Laferte chalks that up to part of Tepoztlán’s charm: You are forced to disconnect, even in the most literal sense. 

“Life in the countryside has a different rhythm,” she adds. “I can take the time to observe the butterflies. I understand the growth of the trees—when they are bearing fruits, flowers.”

As the next phase of her career and her life begins, Laferte is standing solidly on her feet, feeling the rich soil beneath them and the wear of a long road beaten. It’s been an improbable journey at every turn, and she has an astounding way of synthesizing how each step along the way has led her here.

“I look at my past with a lot of tenderness and respect,” she says. “I always thought I would have a career where I could sing my songs, travel all over the world performing. That was the story in my head, and I always worked towards it. But when it starts to actually happen… I don't know. I surpassed myself with the commitment, responsibility and the work. Then it hits you: ‘Hey, what you wanted is happening. And now you have to do it well.’” She continues: “When I have to make decisions in life, I think of myself as an elderly woman. I think to myself, What would my 85-year-old self would say? What a wonderful and badass life.”

But she’s far from done. There’s that tour, motherhood, and even more music to come. That album, due out at an undisclosed date in the future, was recorded in Los Angeles during lockdown. Just as SEIS was written with the magical energy of Tepoztlán, the next record, she says, will be imbued with the “atmosphere and energy” of L.A. “The beautiful enormous city eats me alive,” she says. “I feel such melancholy with all the lights, sun. It puts me in a special mood. From that change of space, something new came out.” 

Talking to Laferte, it seems like she has lived 20 lifetimes. She feels that way too—like a chavaruca, someone older who has a tendency to act young. And she’s ok with that. She intends on living each day in alignment with her truth, remaining outspoken, and continuing to seek out the exhilaration that comes with performing for people. I tell her that her live performances often give me goosebumps, and she says she gets them too.

“I’m going to keep doing that,” she says, “because it’s magic.”

Alex Zaragoza is a senior staff writer at VICE.





Tagged:

New music, Mon Laferte, Rock en español, emerging artists

More
like this
I Was an Amateur Judge at France's First Fondue Championship
The DEA’s Elite Police Unit in Mexico Was Actually Dirty as Hell
Glorified Electric Golf Carts For All
Some of the Best Photographers in the World Are Changing the Way Travel Photos Look
Hashtag United FC: Is a YouTube Channel Turned Club the Future of Football?
There Aren’t Enough Batteries in the World to Power Our Huge Cars
A Missouri Senate Candidate Is Attacking a Trans Swimmer in Pennsylvania
Government Invests $5M to Turn the Rust Belt Into the Lithium Belt