Chicago Latin-fusion group A Flor de Piel has been keeping very busy at home during the Covid-19 pandemic. Esthetic Lens contributor Thomas Comerford caught up with the family band in an interview by way of Zoom in late June.
Then I came across a “DIY” article that said don’t ever expect it to be perfect — it will never be perfect; just do it, and you will learn as you go along.
EL: I’ve been very inspired to see you take on livestreaming your music since the Illinois “Stay-at-Home” order went into effect — and amazed to see that you’re doing it almost every day. Can you talk about your decision to work in that format and how it’s been going?
Marisol: As soon as we heard we had to stay home, we were scared and very nervous — we didn’t know what was going to happen. A lot of the shows we had scheduled fell through. We also were scheduled to travel to different parts of the country, and we were really excited, as we’d toured before, but those opportunities were starting to happen more and more. We were disappointed. Personally, I was going into a depression, and I told myself we have to find a way to keep going and making music.
Renato and I had always talked about doing livestream or just recording videos and putting them out there. So we were excited to use this moment to jump in, but also scared because we were looking for it to be perfect. Then I came across a “DIY” article that said don’t ever expect it to be perfect — it will never be perfect; just do it, and you will learn as you go along.
So on April 1 — we love that we started that day because we felt like fools who didn’t know what we were doing — we launched our first livestream show. It was a big ol’ hot mess: the cameras weren’t working, the sound was terrible, and the silences between the songs were difficult to deal with. I felt a lot of pressure to jump in trying to find something cute or funny to say.
But it was amazing as well. We kept at it, and it became something to look forward to every day at the end of the day. We would go through our daily routines, and as 5 o’clock approached, we’d get excited for our pre-show practice. That’s when we come up with the set list, jokes, things to say. Even with the practice, we are spontaneous and go off the plan. I think the practice is more for me, and Sofi and Renato are so nice and go along with it. I am more of the planner — the person who needs to organize, who needs a visual or a map to follow, but we always go off of it.
Here we are weeks later …
Renato: Months later!
Marisol: It’s interesting, because even Shmoe, our dog, got involved. At first we felt we needed to be professional like how we approach a stage show. It’s morphed into something where we’re welcoming people into our home, and they get a to see a glimpse of our private lives. And Shmoe has become our little mascot — and she knows! Every day at 5 o’clock, she jumps on my chair and hangs out.
EL: Yeah, I think I saw the show where Shmoe — maybe the first occurrence of Shmoe stealing your seat. (laughter)
Renato: She thinks she’s the alpha dog in the pack.
Marisol: She definitely feels like she runs the show, back there watching and directing. She’ll walk away if there’s a song she doesn’t like, and then she’ll come back if she hears something she likes.
EL: Was your plan to livestream every day when you started?
Renato: When we started, we didn’t think we were going to do it on a daily basis. For the first show, we started planning a week in advance, practicing a set list, deciding on attire. It was our first live stream and we were trying to make it like a concert on a stage. After that, we thought “we can’t do this every time — it’s too much!” We have to do it more naturally. “Let’s sit down!” (laughter) We’ve missed a couple days here or there, for holidays, or step away for other reasons …
“Hey, this is what happened, and we’re playing this song. And if you want us to play a song that will help you mourn or feel better, let us know.”
Marisol: We’ve lost some friends to the virus …
EL: Oh! I’m so sorry.
Marisol: Thank you. It was good to have this livestream show. We did take the time away from personal tragedies happening to friends and family members. The show really helped us come back, and we tuned the show according to how we were feeling that day, playing music according to our emotions. We shared those emotions, telling our viewers, “Hey, this is what happened, and we’re playing this song. And if you want us to play a song that will help you mourn or feel better, let us know.” We interact, and our audience is so responsive to that. I think it’s because we’re being very open and honest and forthcoming.
Renato: The show has become therapeutic for us. We’ve gotten feedback from viewers that it’s helped them forget about all the stuff that’s going on. A good distraction but a good way to enjoy the beauty that life still has to offer — the beauty of music.
Marisol: Viewers have started to come back regularly, even every day. They enjoy the interaction. On social media, off the livestream, some of them share personal moments, things they’re going through, or make requests … “Hey I’m having a birthday!” or “ I’m having a rough time right now, can you play this song for me this afternoon?”
Renato: Or graduations. We came up with a graduation song.
Marisol: There aren’t many Spanish-language or bilingual songs specifically about graduation. We came up with our own. We made it funny … we just want to hear that one name and leave. “Vamanos! Let’s go! I want to go party! I’m done.”
We love traditional music, but also all kinds of music. We’ll do the music that makes us feel good and in the hopes that whoever is watching feels good.
EL: Music is personal expression, but it’s also a kind of social glue that is part of a social experience and community. One thing I really loved about your record release show last fall was how many people you brought into the show — so it was a variety show, with an emcee and bands playing different kinds of music. Can you talk about your approach?
Renato: Yeah, first of all, that show you came to — thank you for coming — the mastermind behind that whole idea was Marisol. She’s organized events for other people as well. She has a good eye, good vision for what she would like to present to audiences. Part of the motivation was to showcase collaborators, like the Mariachi Sirenas (an all-female Mariachi ensemble who played on “Señor Presidente”), and a dancer (Cari Da Rage) who also brought her dance students — she was the dancer/choreographer for our music video for “Quiero.” It was all tied into the new songs we were releasing. So, it felt more like a community celebrating, and we wanted to feature that community.
Music is very collaborative. You can write a song yourself and perform it yourself. I feel it’s a lot more rich when you share the whole process from making it, developing the idea, and performing it with other people. I’m looking forward to us recording “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” (We played this song together at a Hideout matinee show in September 2019.) It’s a lot more fun — the more, the merrier. That’s also why for our livestreams, we wanted to include more music, like requests, that people might recognize and trigger a good feeling or a good memory. We love traditional music, but also all kinds of music. We’ll do the music that makes us feel good and in the hopes that whoever is watching feels good.
EL: I’ve seen you, I think, three times, including the show we did together (at the Hideout). And the sets you put together have always intrigued me with how varied they are with different idioms. And since I’m admittedly born and raised in rock ’n’ roll, pretty much, I was pleasantly surprised to see you break out that Janis Joplin song on a livestream or that we did the Clash song together. It seems you cover a lot of ground too, with the kind of music that you interpret from varied Spanish-language folk origins — like that Colombian song “La Gota Fria” (made famous by Carlos Vives in the early 90s). Can you talk about your approach there?
Renato: Yeah, he’s an artist that draws a lot from traditional folk music and adds his own twists to it. He’ll take traditional music or original contemporary music. A lot of people have mentioned to us that they like we don’t stay in one genre or style. That might be because, when I play, I cannot pick one favorite style.
Marisol: You couldn’t even pick one instrument. (laughter)
Renato: I grew up in Mexico, and growing up I loved music and was so curious about different instruments. “How do you play that instrument? And how do you play that one?” It was a challenge to myself with instruments to learn about each one. That translates to the music that we play. We enjoy all kinds of music. What do we call the music we perform on stage? We came to the term “fusion.” Everybody does that, but we like to fuse everything with everything. At the release show, we did Ray Charles and Screaming Jay Hawkins. Marisol’s voice complements the range of material really well. She knows a lot of music. Also, Sofia comes with her own taste — all these songs that we might not know if she wasn’t involved.
EL: It would be cool to hear more about the origins of your group. Obviously, you’re a family. Renato, you told me you came to Chicago from Mexico as a teenager. And, Marisol, I saw that you’re born and raised in Chicago. Can you talk about the group came to be?
Renato: When we started dating, I was already playing music. I started playing music professionally right out of high school. Marisol and I met in our teens at a festival as audience members. I didn’t even know she could sing — she hid that from me. One day, I heard her hum a tune, and said “Wait a minute … you can sing?!” A few years later we got married, and our daughter, Sofia, was born in 2006. The group that I was playing with was traveling a lot, but I couldn’t be away any longer because of our newborn. So I quit that band and focused on playing locally. So in 2007, I think it was your idea (pointing to Marisol). (laughter) “We should start our own band.” I knew she could sing, and she started playing the jarana (a small ukelele). We recruited some friends and started. And that same year, we were asked to be the band for a play in the Chicago Latino Theatre Festival at the Goodman Theatre. And we would bring “La Bravita” (Sofia) to all the rehearsals. So she was not an active member, but she was always there.
EL: The kids hear everything, don’t they? (laughter)
Renato: Before she could say words or started walking she was singing and humming melodies. It’s in her blood. As she grew up, she became more and more active. So we are the core. Now with the quarantine, we are the group. We are still in touch with our bandmates, but we’re the ones on the front lines. That’s how we started.
In our culture there’s still a stigma to be in therapy or to talk about feelings. I thought that there must be other people feeling this way. One of the goals for music that I write is that I heal and help others heal.
EL: I was listening to some of your newer releases, like the new single “Mental Lockdown” (out 6/19) and I remember when “Windy City Love” (Featuring Lester Rey) came out last year. I found those to be influenced by the sounds of contemporary R&B as much as or more so than the more traditional folk music that you also work from. Can you talk about the making of that new song?
Marisol: I was going into a depression at the beginning of the quarantine. I was shutting down. Music, books and writing have saved my life in the past and still do to this very day. I was mourning the loss of the life I knew, so I took up a pencil and started writing. I was a little embarrassed to share those feeling. In our culture there’s still a stigma to be in therapy or to talk about feelings. I thought that there must be other people feeling this way. One of the goals for music that I write is that I heal and help others heal.
I started with some verses, and I knew that I wanted to incorporate a style of music that Sofia is into — lo-fi music. To me, it sounds like a blend between older jazz and blues forms and more contemporary R&B sounds. It sounds familiar and comfortable to me. For her it’s brand new. I brought Sofia into the songwriting to help her understand what I’m feeling and be part of the process. And I wanted her — and young people — to understand how important it is to share feelings and not feel alone. I see young people sharing a lot on social media, but it often seems focused on what’s happening on the outside. So I wanted the song to show that we are all together in this and are bonded by the emotions we feel as humans.
The verses came out. I was in a mental lockdown, feeling scared. And when I feel and think, it happens in two languages at the same time. The feelings come in a rush in Spanglish. So I really wanted to highlight that also. So many facets and layers going on in this song — it’s hard to break down! So La Bravita (Sofia) came in, and she loves hip-hop, rap and lofi …
We did everything in this house. We recorded the music upstairs and then shot the music video in the backyard.
Sofia: Ok, so, everything felt crazy at the beginning of the quarantine. I don’t even remember what I was doing at the time. La Brava (Marisol) called me in and said “Hey, you want to help me with this song?” She showed me what she had, and it seemed very raw and emotional. And awesome! We talked about what approach to take — should it be more angry or more soft in tone? I think it ended up being a combination of the two. Based on what she already had, I made a rap. We did everything in this house. We recorded the music upstairs and then shot the music video in the backyard. We sent it to Tuffy (producer, mixer, and collaborator Charles Kim). He added some bells and whistles and mixed it and mastered it —
EL: Literally, bells and whistles? (laughter)
Sofia: Almost! I was amazed the whole time that we could do something like this.
EL: Renato, did you play on the song?
Renato: A little bit! (laughter) We had always talked of incorporating more electronic music making as part of our sound — mixing it with our sound. My background of course is acoustic instruments. I always thought one day I would dabble with electronic ones. But Sofia thought we should make a push to do it now. They brought in the idea, the melody, the music and chords. We arranged and recorded it together on all electronic instruments. Then it went to Tuffy, who is our producer and has mixed almost all of our songs. We enjoy working with him — he has a great ear and gets our vision. Once we had the song put together, it sounded a little too homemade, so we looked to him to take what we did and polish it and give it the final touch it needed. We are happy with the results!
EL: What’s next for A Flor de Piel?
Marisol: We are currently working on a children’s book — a couple actually. We’re hoping to put one out before the end of July — it’s just about done. It’s a bilingual children’s book. I’m a 2nd-grade teacher, and Renato is a music teacher. I see the need for bilingual books out there — some of the books I have in my classroom I’m not too happy with. I’m in the trenches, let me write! I see there aren’t many bilingual children’s books with music in them. There are some, but I’m not satisfied with them. I wrote the story, and Bravita did the illustrations. It’s called “Sana, Sana” (Heal, Heal). It’s a traditional nursery rhyme that parents sing to their kids in Spanish when they get a little boo-boo. Bravita said, “Wait this song is about a little frog that cuts off its tail? It’s kinda weird!” “Yes, it is! Let’s run with it!” We’ll publish that online first. We also came up with an original song — music for the nursery rhyme.
And we also have another book that we hope to turn into a fundraiser. We watch NOVA on channel 11 (WTTW) — we love that channel! I learned about the pangolin, and I didn’t know it was endangered. I want to teach my students about it, and hopefully we can use the book to raise money toward saving the pangolin.
Also, we’re still writing a lot of bilingual music. I’m trying to make Spanglish okay — like in “Mental Lockdown.” We send our music out to places like blogs or reviewers, and a lot of people — a lot — say, “I don’t like the Spanglish. You need to pick Spanish or English.” And I will not! I refuse to do that! Spanglish is part of my identity and many, many other people, too. The new songs are going to continue to use that and make it okay.
But I don’t find it frustrating. I find it a challenge. “You told me no? You watch me!”
I do miss performing live in person. But I don’t think the pandemic has reached its peak. I don’t want to encourage people to take risks and get sick by coming to see us.
EL: So you will be continuing the livestream every day or almost every day going forward?
Renato: Yes! That’s the plan. Now that we’re into it. We enjoy the interaction and how we feel after it. It serves many purposes. We keep performing and keep in contact with our followers and community. And we keep making music! Even if we’re not creating new originals every day — we might do cover songs one day and other covers the next.
Marisol mentioned that our performances in a live setting were canceled. But soon after we started the livestream, we started getting booked to do virtual shows. We’ve been playing for birthdays and other events. We did an online festival “Mole de Mayo.” Our friend from California, LOUDA, was scheduled to do a livestream show via the Subterranean website on June 14, and she invited us to join her for that, but it is being rescheduled, so we are waiting to hear about the new date.
Marisol: Because of the livestream, we’ve been getting more gigs in that format. We’re starting to meet so many people around the world. We’ve met people in the UK, South America — and even Australia where we played at a wedding — who will book us to perform.
Renato: I do miss performing live in person. But I don’t think the pandemic has reached its peak. I don’t want to encourage people to take risks and get sick by coming to see us. I have my mariachi group and other bands, but I’ve been turning down shows for those groups too. I know it’s important to get back to normal, but I want to be careful. Like the song says, we are social beings, but under the circumstances, we have to think carefully about doing this in the most responsible way we can.
A Flor de Piel was founded in April 2007 by Grammy® and Latin Grammy® nominee multi-instrumentalist Renato Ceron, and frontwoman, author, teacher, musician, and entrepreneur Marisol Ceron. The group’s diverse repertoire includes both traditional music from Latin America and the U.S.A. as well as original compositions. The group has developed different shows for audiences of all ages and backgrounds, including concerts, fandangos (dance parties), children shows for schools and festivals, and workshops for musicians and dancers at all levels. A Flor de Piel’s music and diverse repertoire reflect its members’ rich cultural heritage as well as their fresh and creative ways to make the “old sound new.” Its multi-generational membership as well as its ability to switch from one style of music to another with ease appeals to audiences of all ages and musical tastes.