Maria and Tess Cuevas test their roots on the latest Maria the Mexican album
At first listen, hearing songs sung in English and Spanish on Maria the Mexican’s new album, South of the Border Moonlight, might make you feel as though the group is suffering a bit of an identity crisis. In fact, the opposite is true for sisters Maria and Tess Cuevas.
The granddaughters of Teresa Cuevas, a member of Topeka’s Estrella Mariachi, the groundbreaking all-female mariachi group, Maria and Tess are Mexican-American. They grew up with one foot in two cultures. Their music has always reflected this, both onstage — when the sisters work in traditional mariachi tunes alongside their original roots-rock songs — and on record. But South of the Border Moonlight is the first album that features an original song in Spanish, and the first release that they say truly captures them as artists.
Ahead of Maria the Mexican’s album-release show Friday at Knuckleheads, I called the sisters to chat about how the album came together and how they’re carrying on their grandmother’s legacy.
The Pitch: It’s been three years since your last album, Moon-Colored Jade. Tell me about how South of the Border Moonlight shows growth or is different.
Maria Cuevas: This is our second album, so it certainly was a bit easier to make. The first album was a brand-new experience, and we were kind of getting used to being in the studio and getting used to recording ourselves. This album is a little more authentic, in terms of our sound, and we feel like it’s a representation of how you see us live. It’s a little more roots-oriented, and the first record was a little more in the pop genre. This has more of what we were originally looking for — that melancholy flair of driving through the desert.
Tess Cuevas: I agree with all that, and I feel like the first album there were songs that were poppy and there were traditional [mariachi] songs in Spanish. This is more of a mixture. There are some songs that might not be in Spanish, but you get that Spanish flair in the music. So it’s a good combination of both.
You have a strong connection to your heritage through your grandmother. Tell me about your vision for merging your heritage with your music.
Tess: When we started out, we certainly wanted to combine what we know musically, which was a lot of mariachi and Spanish music, with what Garrett [Nordstrom, the group’s guitarist and contributing songwriter] did, which was rock and roll and blues. That’s what we set out to do. For us, mainly, we want to make sure that we’re sticking close to where we came from — that’s where the name of the band comes from and where our musical inspiration comes from.
Maria: I think that the first and foremost goal is to carry on the mariachi tradition that our grandmother wanted us to do. We always try to include a traditional Spanish song on the album or in a show, but it’s always been an interpretation of them. Now, for instance, we have “Que Yo Te Sigo” on this record.
I would definitely say that song is a game changer, because it’s our first Spanish song that’s not traditional — it’s not a Mariachi song. It’s an original Spanish song. It’s one that Garrett had been doing for a while and had in his back pocket. We recorded it in English first, and then went back and re-recorded it in Spanish.
Tess: Originally, while we were plumbing that song, we were singing it in English, and one day Garrett decided to change it to Spanish, and we literally rewrote some of the lyrics in the studio. But it seems to be the one that people like the most. We’re excited and surprised by that one being the shining star of the album.
Maria: Garrett helped us transform it. It was a rock-and-roll song, and the vibe changes when you change the language, you know, from English to Spanish. We didn’t really know how it would be received, but it’s kind of emerging as one of the singles of the album, which is surprising, but I’m happy that people are into that Spanish song. It kind of opens up another outlet to begin to think about writing more of our own music in Spanish. We feel like that’s a reflection of who we are, because we’re Mexican-American, and we grew up with our grandmother being in a mariachi band. That’s just who we are.
You guys have a special relationship with Knuckleheads. Tell me about how that venue ties into the story of Maria the Mexican.
Tess: We got started when I was living in Chicago and Maria was living in Lawrence. She’d already met Garrett through work, and they’d made a musical connection. And I contacted them, and I was like, “The restaurant I’m working at is looking for a band to play a four-hour mariachi set,” and so Maria quickly gave Garrett a lesson in mariachi music, and that sparked his desire to mix what he did with what we do. I moved back to Kansas City shortly after that [in 2011], and I was living with Maria and we were just figuring out what our band would look like.
At that point, we didn’t know what we were going to do with the band. We were just getting our feet wet, and we met Frank [Hicks, Knuckleheads owner], through Garrett, and I started doing part-time work for Frank. One day, he was like, “We’re doing a show on Cinco de Mayo — would you like to play it?” And we were like, “That sounds amazing!” But that was our first gig, literally, as Maria the Mexican, and that was four years ago. So Frank’s always had faith in us, and we’ve had such great experiences at Knuckleheads. We’ve opened for Los Lobos a couple times when they’ve come through town, and once our grandmother was there and actually got to see what we were doing, and that was really wonderful for us.