Maria Elena Cuevas and her sister Tess Cuevas form the nucleus of Maria The Mexican, alongside Maria's husband, Garrett Nordstrom. Fusing elements of Americana with traditional Mexican sounds (and instrumentation), the group sings songs in both English and Spanish, arriving at a musical combination that celebrates family and heritage while moving into unfamiliar musical territory as well.
Maria The Mexican performs at Barleycorn's on Saturday, September 29 at 7 p.m.
Maria herself recently spoke with about her musical history and the future of her musical project.
Your family history is closely tied to music.
My grandmother started one of the first all-female mariachi bands in the country in the early ‘70s. They were based in Topeka. They played around town and were able to travel but they were also struck by tragedy. They were involved in the Hyatt skywalk collapse, which happened in Kansas City in 1981. She was the only surviving member of the band following the accident. The band was actually on the skywalk when that happened. It took her some time to recover, it was obviously very tragic. But she decided she wasn't going to stop. She was a very driven woman and she thought she'd begin to teach her family the music. I had several cousins in the band before me but my sister and I were the ones that took off with it. I started playing the vihuela at the age of 11. My sister, who is three years older than me, started playing the violin, which my grandmother played as well.
She basically taught us mariachi music. We played with Mariachi Estrella for about 10 years. My sister and I were in our early 20s and my grandmother really couldn't keep up anymore although she played violin until the last few months of her entire life. She died in 2012 but did actually get to hear our new band before she went on.
At some point you teamed up with Garrett Nordstrom, who is now your husband. What was that transition like for you?
It was actually pretty dramatic. But in a good way. Mariachi music is very straight and there's some common themes in terms of melody and harmonies and percussion. To go from playing mariachi to more contemporary music was certainly difficult. But it works both ways. When we teach some of our guys the mariachi music, they say, "Oh! This is so hard!" But rock ‘n' roll was hard for us when we started learning that as well.
It's been fun to experiment, pulling in this mariachi influence into our music that's been influenced by other genres that we enjoy and that we celebrate. While I was growing up with mariachi music, my father enjoyed classic rock like Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix. We always had Santana on and it's funny how much those artists have inspired the music we put out today. It's really a reflection of our experiences as Mexican-American women.
Garrett writes the material for you. What is the process like?
Initially, my sister and I would present a mariachi song and we would see how that was translated into the rock ‘n' roll band. Garrett has been a musician his entire life. He had the Garrett Nordstrom Situation which was an alt R&B band. There were a lot of influences: jazz, funk, rock ‘n' roll, soul, R&B. We started singing some of his music from a woman's perspective.
Now, it's a little more of a collaboration. Sometimes he and I work from songs he's started and we finish the lyrics together or, recently, we started writing music in Spanish. He's responsible for putting the vision together. I never thought I would play in a rock band but he really encouraged my sister and I.
You and your sister must be close after spending so much time together.
For sure. My sister is my best friend. Growing up playing music together has made us really close but we also come from a really strong family. A lot of people meet our family and are surprised at how thick we run. That's also just part of our culture, aside from my mom and dad my grandmother was a huge part of my upbringing. There's such a level of comfort in singing with my sister. When we're on stage, we feel each other's energy.
She has taken a step back because she has a young son. She'll be at the show in Wichita but I have taken a little more of the lead role. That's also a process. I've learned to step up and to be more of the front woman. We might fight over the set list or what we're wearing, but we're so close that we get over things very quickly.
I think that Spanish language music is appealing even if you don't speak the language.
Absolutely. I think the rhythmic aspect is also really big. People can feel it. Mariachi music is so passionate. You can feel when somebody's singing about heartache or love or a loss.