It’s 7:30PM on April 18 when my Lyft rolls up to Dorchester Art Project. The door is nondescript and the sign is obscured so I have to take a minute to make sure I’m being dropped off in the right place. I head upstairs to meet up with Marina Espinet, aka Cherry. The Art Project is a fun little venue I had never been to before. Although the performance space can be a little cramped, there’s plenty of room in the gallery so you can take a breather if or when you need to. I spend some time chatting with the other acts on the bill, Luna Mariposa, awksymoron, and Savio. Unfortunately I couldn’t stay for much of the show, so I only saw Savio perform a lovely set, but awksymoron practicing left a strong impression on me. When Cherry finishes putting on her wig for the performance, we duck into the office to chat a bit. I covered Cherry’s Blanquita album just two weeks ago. The New York singer is currently on a bi-coastal US tour, solo with tracks. I felt very privileged to get to spend time with her.
Lizi von Teig: Thanks for sitting down with me
Cherry: Of course
L: I love the new album
C: Thank you
L: Heritage is a big part of it and I was wondering what drew you to your roots there to put that into the album
C: I felt like I was doing a lot of connecting between my own experience and that of my dad’s which is, yknow, recounted to me as, like, a fun story but also as a cautionary tale. And I think one of the biggest things I was looking at was how different generations of Latinos embrace their Latinness in different ways. So I kind of feel like a lot of it got sparked when I asked for a name plate for Christmas and my dad was basically like “why are you trying to channel the ghetto so bad when I spent my whole life trying to get away from it.” So, kind of exploring my own heritage and the beauty in being Latin, and the beauty in being Puerto Rican, and the beauty in being a New Yorker, whether you grew up in Brooklyn like me or grew up in Harlem like my dad, and, always searching for this acceptance of all because being raised in a very Americanized neighborhood, even tho I wasn’t fully Americanized cause I was raised with a lot of Brazilian aspects on my mom’s side. But I feel like my Puerto Rican heritage was withheld from me because my dad wasn’t too in touch with that side of himself, or at least he didn’t show it very much. Growing up I’ve always been fascinated with where that whole side of me comes from and realizing that I am a Latin person through and through, just in the blood, and just exploring that and finding parts of that to adopt and what parts of it to let go.
L: Thank you. Do you feel Latin music in addition to the lyrics that worked themselves in, do you feel Latin music influenced the music [on Blanquita]
L: How so?
C: Well I think Latin music especially Reggaeton beats are making a huge surge in pop music right now. Everyone’s kinda playing with them and I definitely knew I wanted to have at least one song with a Reggeaton beat. The strum sounds good. [note: strum may not be what she said, the volume dropped on the recording right there] I never thought to put that piano clave on “Pretty Blue Car,” on the chorus, that was completely Itamar, who played keys and I was like “wait, that sounds great, it’s like the song was made for that part” and I don’t know if I did it necessarily on purpose but it’s just a part of me y’know?
L: What techniques did you take from Latin music, is what I’m trying to ask, to apply to the album?
C: The rhythms for sure, like the reggaeton beat in “Pretty Blue Car” and then the part of “Blanquita.” And then on “Mama” I really wanted that horn section to sound almost like a Mariachi band. I’m not Mexican but I always thought that sound was really cool.
L: And Eric Clapton wasn’t black.
C: There you go.
L: If you respect where it came from it’s not a problem.
C: Exactly. Yeah. And as long as you don’t claim to have invented it.
L: Yeah, cough cough Jimmy Page cough cough.
C: And I wanted to have a part where I’m almost rapping in Spanish but my vocabulary doesn’t extend that far and I felt like I incorporated that part into the little bridge part of “Blanquita.” I also think the really really hot horns that I like to get that really makes the shit pop, makes it lively, I feel like it’s just salsa.
L: Beat poetry is a really big part on both this album and your last album. What draws you to beat poetry and makes you feel so compelled by it.
C: I’m a writer first and foremost. I’d always sing as a kid, but my first profession of choice when I was a kid was to be a writer. I’d write novels. And I feel like every piece of work that I make has to tell a story from start to finish. If the lyrics lack something I need to fill it in with more words and move the plot along. In Blanquita especially. Like A Lady was a poem i wrote in high school.
L: Which one?
C: It was one singular poem.
L: Oh, every part of that is excerpts from the same poem? [Note: every other track on Like A Lady is titled with a Roman numeral and a spoken word piece. Check it out here.
C: Pretty much. It was called “13 Ways of Looking at the Female Orgasm.” It was an assignment that was “13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” and we had to remix it somehow. Thank you Mr Sokaloff for 12th grade Creative Writing.
L: How did he feel about your version of that assignment
C: I don’t remember exactly but Mr Sokoloff– It was the end of the year. I had Senioritis out the wazoo and he was pretty much done with my shit at that point. I was like that annoying kid in class who was like “but wait… blah blah blah,” and he’s like, “fuck you.”
[Intermission, as awksymoron takes a surprise picture of Cherry and I, featured above]
C: It was one of the last assignments of the year, I remember that. And I did it 10 minutes before class, as I did most of my homework in high school. I just kind of threw it together and I don’t remember his reaction to it. But we would get at it, like, all year. We’d just butt heads and fight. [awksymoron, who went to high school with Cherry, says something off mic about Mr Sokoloff] Yeah, he loved me too, but like, he edited my poem once which is pretty fucked up. He published it and edited it without my permission which is fucked up and I will never forgive him for that. Mr Sokoloff, if you’re reading this. Garrett Sokoloff.
C: Poetry has always been a huge part of me as I write to, I dunno, to kind of figure out my own thoughts. I think I was also super inspired by To Pimp A Butterfly and Kendrick Lamar. When I heard that album I was like “I know I need to have like, theatrical–” It’s almost more like theater than beat poetry. Verbal theater, if that makes sense. I don’t know.
L: It’s audio only theater.
C: Audio only theater, yeah. I don’t make music, I make audio only theater.
L: Drifting away from content and into your background, where do you feel you learned the skills you used to make Blanquita, like musical skills?
C: Oh, musical skills
L: Yeah, I’m not talking about, like, the executive function and that sort of stuff that goes outside the music that goes into making the album. I’m just asking, like, where did you get your chops?
C: In terms of like writing, honestly school. I’m not even gonna front on that one. Like, SUNY Purchase [State University of New York in Purchase, New York] did give me a lot of tools. I think my writing–by just continuously writing and going to the–I remember Rebecca Haviland, my masterclass professor at SUNY Purchase told me just write on keys, even if you’re not gonna play on keys just write on keys. So I wrote every song on that album on keys at first. Besides “Spice” which I wrote on guitar which is actually really funny. I think I just started trusting my intuition and the skills I learned in school whether it be like theory class or just jamming out with the other jazz cats at Purchase and, analyzing other songs and using other songs as like technique references and groove references and also I couldn’t have done anything without David. David is like my MD I guess, and basically I take any kind of skeleton of a song and–by skeleton I mean like my melodies and my lyrics, they’re always done by me, and kind of a bare bones arrangement and I’ll take it to him and ask how do you flesh this out? How do you make it more musical? And he’ll just always know exactly what I want and make it sound exactly how I want. God bless him. David Millen. Yeah. You mean musical skills, yeah.
L: Yeah, I’m not asking you how you learned to assemble a studio and stuff like that, yeah.
C: A lot of listening, too. I listen to a lot of like Haitus Kaiyote.
L: What’s an artist that people might not expect you to listen to based on your music but you love?
C: I love Carly Rae Jepsen so much. I love Carly Rae Jepsen so much. [high five] But I don’t know if you can tell that from my music.
L: You can kinda tell. It’s not like listening to–I’m talking about like listening to Bruce Springsteen and finding out he likes NWA. He does listen to Public Enemy, actually.
C: I listen to a lot of stuff but I feel like it’s kind of obvious cause my shit’s such a hodgepodge of genres.
L: If you to genre–I have to explain what your music is to people all the time and I don’t know what words to use, how would you describe your music?
C: I have a new catchphrase for it every time somebody asks me.
L: What’s your catchphrase right now?
C: I think it’s like musical theater neo-soul or like, theatrical neo-soul, experimental soul, or, soul rock. I like to throw the theater in there because my shit is unbelievably theatrical.
L: What I love about your music, Blanquita especially, is that it has like, an emotional art even tho it doesn’t have a narrative arc, so like, there’s no characters who are progressing through the album lyrically, but each song fits into the album as a piece of the album as opposed to just a song on a compilation.
C: I’m glad.
L: That’s something I really love in albums, and like–
C: I feel like I grow, like, the character of me, whoever that is, grows throughout the album, or at least, I hope someone could think that.
L: The character in “Happy” is definitely more mature than the entire rest of the album. I’m not sure if there’s like a linear progression there, where the character is going on a journey, but there’s definitely some development.
C: Yeah, I like to think so, cause it was kind of reflective of a specific period of time… What was the question again?
L: I don’t know, that’s not the point. One last question, and then we’ll call it a day, what was your first paid gig? As a musician.
C: As a musician… I’ll say my first memorable one. Webster Hall, 2016? Webster Hall 2016. I played with Ginger and the Snaps when they were still a thing…
L: I’m sure most of my readers don’t know who they are now, so…
C: Yeah, they were just some kids that went to my high school and they always brought out a huge crowd. It was a great time. We made a lot of fucking money that night. And I remember leaving, cause I never even think to ask for money at the end of a gig, at least I didn’t at that time, and I got a call from Cornelia, who is the frontperson for Ginger and the Snaps and she was like “Hey, wait come back I have to pay you!” and I was like “Pay me?” But yeah, we made a lot of fucking money that night, and at the end of the day that’s really nice. I don’t think I’ve ever made that much money at a gig. Here’s hoping again someday.
Elizabeth von Teig is a musician and author living in Brighton, Massachusetts. Her expertise is classic rock, folk punk, and the blues.