Born a California girl on November 24, 1970, Julieta Venegas grew up in the tequila-laced border town of Tijuana, the only one of five children who dedicated herself to music. At only 8 years of age, Julieta was hopping between voice lessons, music theory classes and piano and cello lessons, whether in the elite Escuela de Msica del Noroeste, or in Southwestern College in San Diego.
She got her first band experience as a teenager in the group Chantaje, which evolved into Tijuana No!, a ska-punk combo that Julieta soon quit, since the predictability of the sound bored her.
Yet before flying solo, Julieta wrote “Pobre de Ti,” a song that put the band on the Mexican music map and Julieta on everyone’s “to watch” list. Writing music for plays that were featured on Monterrey’s biggest stages attested to Venegas’ precocious feel for sound.
But Julieta got tired of sleepy beachside towns and took to the world’s biggest city, Mexico City, where she met soon-to-be megastars Caf Tacuba, a band that pushed her into her own stardom, which came slowly. At first she became an accordion player for the band Lula, then her fame picked up amid La Milagrosa, a trio with heavy hitters Jorge Fratta and Rafa Gonzlez. With a knowing nod to the real power in the band, the group renamed itself simply Julieta Venegas.
1996 thrust Venegas’ into mainstream pop when she signed with BMG Ariola records and kited over to L.A. to record her debut album, Aqu, in which she sang and played piano and the accordion. Julieta is not one to forget her roots and influences; almost everyone she had worked with in the past took part in the album.
What went around definitely came around. Songs like “Cmo S” and “De Mis Pasos” showed a singer’s maturity and intimacy with sound. Julieta’s narrative lyrics, with an almost documentary quality, told stories packed with meaning. A tour of Mexico with a few stops in the U.S. propagated her name further, later earning her a Nuestro Rock award for Best New Album of 1997, and an MTV VMA award for Best Female Performance for the “Cmo S” video.
Festivals as far away as Colombia showcased Venegas and artists across the ocean in Spain scrambled to get her unique style on their own records. Even movie directors asked her to compose their soundtracks, the most luminous being Alejandro Gonzlez Irritu’s Amores Perros (2000).
Julieta’s Mexican and overseas fans were hankering for more, which they got in 1999, with her second album, Bueninvento. The star power behind her this time was even more dazzling. Engineer Joe Chiccarelli roped in Tom Waits’ guitarist Joe Gore, REM drummer Lenny Waronker, and Los Lobos sax man Steve Berlin.
Bueninvento was launched to deafening praises for the album’s carefully-studied melodies, unabashed emotion, and play-it-again addictiveness. The Latin Grammys gave her two nods, nominating her for Best Rock Album and Best Rock Song (“Hoy No Quiero”).
With a part in 2000’s massively important tribute album to Los Tigres del Norte, Venegas buttressed her place in Latin pop rock, and spent the next three years touring and collaborating all over the Spanish-speaking world.
Julieta changed direction radically with her third album S, a move that pleased many and angered some. Gone was the gloomy accordion-laced slow rock. Julieta went cheery with ear-friendly pop tunes that appealed to a larger crowd. She says in this album she found happiness by learning too look at the bright side of things. Those who craved her dreary black lipstick croons didn’t buy it.
But whether she’s a sell-out or it’s an evolved product, S won three Latin Grammys, for Best Solo Artist, Best Artist from Mexico and Artist of the Year. Despite her detractors, Venegas’ music has been likened to the bold progressive stylings of PJ Harvey, Fiona Apple and Bjork, taking rock en espaol one step further.
Julieta currently lives in Mexico City and has a boyfriend.