Chilean critics and fans like to speak of an artist’s propuesta: her proposal, her voice, her point of view. Plenty of artists don’t have a propuesta of their own, of course, just a carbon-copied version of someone else’s. Not so with the Chilean vocalist, composer, producer, and all-around kickass babe Mon Laferte. With “La Trenza” (“The Braid”), her fifth studio album, she has arrived at the most vibrant, colorful, expansive version of her propuesta to date.
The album has a lot in common with Laferte’s two previous efforts: “Tornasol” (2013) and “Mon Lafarte, Vol. 1” (2015). It revels in its voracious musical curiosity, unafraid to reach into the past for neglected styles and rhythms to dust off and play with. It weaves, braid-like, two dominant strands of Laferte’s attitude to art and life: her infectious liveliness and her empathy for those pushed aside by the harsh realities of the world, the lonely, the left behind, the broken. If anything, it expands on its predecessors in scope and ambition. If the reception of its first released single, “Amárrame” (“Tie Me Up”), featuring the Colombian superstar Juanes, is any indication, “La Trenza” will be remembered as Laferte’s true coming out party.
Born in Viña del Mar, Norma Monserrat Bustamante Laferte was raised by her mother and grandmother in very humble circumstances. Her musical talent showed early, and she began composing her own songs at age nine. In 2003 she was selected as a contestant on the American Idol-style TV show, Rojo Fama Contrafama. Although she didn’t win the competition, her powerful vocals and charisma onstage earned her a large following among the show’s audience. Monserrat was cast in the show’s film follow-up too, and her first studio album – “La Chica de Rojo” – relied on the visibility she earned there.
Looking to expand her musical horizons, she moved to Mexico City in 2007, which earned her some resentment from Chilean fans. While working on her second album, she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer and was unable to work for an extended period. The experience of her disease and recovery fed into her musical persona. In 2011 she released her second album “Desechable” (“Disposable”), under the stage name Mon Laferte. The record was infused with rage and took full advantage of her vocal talents, positioning her as a hard rocker with a nostalgic streak. But when “Tornasol” appeared two years later, Laferte had mellowed and continued to evolve musically. Thereafter she would dump out her anger as the lead singer of the all-female heavy metal band Mystica Girls.
Her solo work is inspired by pop, punk, jazz, reggae, and ska; by Chilean icons such as Violeta Parra and Palmenia Pizarro; and by the great Mexican singer Chavela Vargas. The underlying music is often of Latin American origin, though she is also partial to bluesy romantic pop. The songs of “La Trenza” offer highlights of the region’s musical history: the title song is an old fashioned bolero, “Cielito de Abril” (“April Sky”) boasts the run-on vocals and scratchy guitar licks of Chilean nueva canción, the irresistible “Amárrame” makes the best of its Cumbia foundation. Attentive listeners will catch the four-four beat of Peruvian waltz, and perhaps here and there a hint of tango.
With her pale skin, black hair, pouty lips, and tattooed arms, Laferte also invites comparison to two of her role models: Katy Perry and Amy Winehouse. She shares with Perry an ebullient performance style, a frank but playful sexual persona, and a knowing humor in both her lyrics and her music. The groovy, ska-infused “No Te Fumes Mi Marihuana” (“Don’t Smoke My Pot”) opens with a scratchy gramophone prelude featuring a trombone, a piano, and a choir straight out of Catholic mass. The unexpected instrumentation throughout the record and the ironic use of old-fashioned rhythms for comic effect are pure Perry.
Laferte has also embraced Winehouse’s tough persona and her openness about substance abuse and mental illness. In “Mi Buen Amor” (“My Good Love”), she is hounded by a former lover who wants one last go at it for old times’ sake. “After all/ I had to go through”, she retorts, “the therapy/ the fake love.” In “Primaveral” (“Spring Time”), she warns her beloved of her “bipolarity” and “instability.”
Yet another clear influence is Lady Gaga, whose eye for oddity and embrace for the freak in us all Laferte has adopted. Most of the singles in “La Trenza” are love songs, but almost all remind us that in love and life nothing is ever simple, or free of pain. The invitation, “I want to see your perversion,” in the S&M tinged “Amárrame,” recalls Gaga’s “I want your ugly, I want your disease” call in “Bad Romance.” In the lovely, “Yo Te Qui” (“I Love You”, but with the last syllable cut off), she exposes her insecurities for all to see: “The moon overshadows me/ and even though I’m not the prettiest/ my love for you kills me”. In “Ana” she pleads with another woman “don’t run away from me!”. In “Pa’ Dónde Se Fue” she yearns for her missing father.
But don’t let any of this turn you off, because above all Mon Laferte wants to make us smile, dance, and help us face the bad times with strength and confidence and more than a little bit of style. Even the less memorable songs, like the pop ballad “Flaco”, brim with inventive whimsy. The cameos by male peers such as Juanes or the soulful Enrique Burburry serve only to emphasize Laferte’s vision and control. She emphatically refuses to be overshadowed. “La Trenza”, after all, is her propuesta.