Her career is having a moment – again

Boston Globe, July 31, 2011

NEW YORK – As a pre-teen, Ximena Sarinana played willful child characters in telenovelas, Mexico’s ultra-popular soap operas. As a teenager she went on to complex roles in feature films. In her late teens she fronted a jazz and funk band, and she even spent a semester at Berklee College of Music. At 22 she was playing festivals and headlining major venues behind the whimsically titled “Mediocre,” her 2008 Grammy and Latin Grammy-nominated solo album of moody, inventive rock.

Now all of 25, Sarinana is starting over. Again.

The budding pop star (who dropped out of Berklee to promote “Mediocre”) with the earnest following back home is back on the grind as an opening act, touring the US as the appetizer in a three-act bill, limited to a half-hour set before ceding the stage to Danish singer Oh Land and the headliner, Sia.

The tour visits Boston’s House of Blues this evening. The other night at Webster Hall in New York, Sarinana made the most of her assignment, winning over the room with a mix of songs in Spanish from “Mediocre” and new songs from her English-language debut, which is simply titled “Ximena Sarinana” and is set for release Tuesday.

Bopping about behind keyboard and laptop, assisted only by her brother Sebastian on another keyboard, she chatted with the crowd – she is bilingual – and talked about each song, exuding genuine simplicity even as she delivered songs that, beneath attractive pop hooks, are harmonically complex and refreshingly varied in spirit – from electro-nerd to pensive singer-songwriter to cosmopolitan chanteuse.

Earlier that day, feet up on a sofa in her record label’s offices, wearing the same straightforward outfit she would sport later onstage, with a blue skirt, simple red top and a pair of Toms, Sarinana said she didn’t experience being the opener as a demotion.

“My role is to keep it short, simple and be the first one of three,” she said. “It’s good, it’s fun because you get to meet people; you have to look at it that way. Everybody has to start somewhere.”

And her new album is in many ways a start. It’s all in English, except the dreamy ballad “Tu y Yo,” produced by her friend, singer Natalia Lafourcade. It was made in Los Angeles with top industry talent and is aimed at the US market.

It’s a change from “Mediocre” in other ways too. Sarinana’s voice sounds more assured here and less tempted by ornamentation. And from the jaunty whistling line that opens the first track, “Different,” the new record is a much more lively affair.

“After a while you just get bored of playing midtempo to slow songs,” Sarinana said. “I wanted more upbeat music, and I wanted to explore and play more instruments. Those were the things I knew about this record. Everything else just happened.”

Out of the producers her label suggested, Sarinana clicked instantly with Greg Kurstin, an industry veteran who’s worked extensively with Lily Allen among others. Though he hadn’t heard of her before, Kurstin said the connection was mutual.

“I thought she was great,” he said. “The songs she was writing were harmonically really interesting. She writes in a very honest way, and plays what she likes. She’s very natural, it’s like she’s playing in your living room. And when I met her, she was so nice.”

One shared affinity was their love for jazz, which Sarinana has studied seriously. She cites Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday as models, and was posting jazz interpretations on YouTube before she became a pop singer.

“Jazz is the genre that I analyze the the most,” she said. “It’s hard for me to shake it off. I’m always looking for the unconventional chord progression. I try to spice it up a little with strange chords.”

As for lyrics, writing in English comes easily to Sarinana. In fact, having spent early childhood in Los Angeles and then attended British schools in Mexico City, she wrote in English first, switching to Spanish because she played in a band with musicians who didn’t speak English.

It made sense to make “Mediocre” in Spanish, she said. “It was time to do my solo record and start my career there, it was kind of the logical step. And Spanish is such a pretty language, and it’s my language in the end.”

But writing in English was just as natural – a fact that shows in the new record’s lack of any crossover awkwardness. As fluent in American culture as in the language, Sarinana crafts quirky, affecting songs that feel honest and smart, and even takes a knowing dig at self-important LA hipsters on “Echo Park.”

“I built this whole story about falling in love with people for superficial reasons – the classic hipster guy,” she said. She hastened to point out that Mexico City hipsters can be just as tedious as their LA or New York counterparts.

Sarinana said she hoped to continue working in both languages and maybe, at some point, take up acting again. “I don’t even know what I’m doing after October!” she said. “Maybe it’s because I’m young, but I’ve never planned much ahead.”

In the meantime she’s enjoying her dual identity taking shape. She said she might get some backlash from Mexican fans or critics for going American, but that did not worry her much. “I’m really proud of this record and I was proud of the first one,” she said. “I think talent rises above the ashes, and everything passes.”

She snapped her fingers. “It’s pop culture,” she said. “It goes just like that.”