At age 17, Mariana de Miguel told her parents she was going to pursue music full-time. She started a band fresh out of high school, then found her footing in Mexico’s R&B scene, embryonic at the time. “My main goal with this genre and what I’m doing is to open up the path for other artists to really create the unseen,” she says, sitting atop a yellow satin cloth at Maria Hernandez Park in Brooklyn. She’s processing the past few years out loud, the night before her NYC tour stop at the Knitting Factory.
The 23-year-old behind Girl Ultra took time to sway across stages around the country this summer to psych herself—and all of you—up for the release of her debut album Nuevos Aires (which translates to New Airs), due this fall. Her playful new single “Ruleta” is the album’s second teaser, following the flirty yet agitated “Ella, Tu, y Yo,” a song about tortured memories of an all too familiar infidelity. With these preludes, de Miguel expands on the sound she established on her EPs Adios and Boys, cementing herself as an R&B reina. We talked about her upcoming work, how her collaboration with Cuco happened, and making room for Mexican artists on the rise.
JEZEBEL: We change so much in our 20s. It’s a strange time! And I imagine, even more so if you’re going through that evolution on stage, publicly, and clearly transmitting that through your music. How do you approach music writing during all that?
GIRL ULTRA: Okay, well, it definitely has a personal perspective. Everything I do as a composer and also as a visual artist, everything is related to something that happened to me or a friend, or my interpretation of emotions and things, but change is a big part of my project. The first artist that made me want to be an artist was David Bowie and I always see him as a phase artist… He has different phases. He even has a song called “Changes.” And I’ve always seen myself like that. Girl Ultra is not always gonna be Girl Ultra. The real creator is Mariana de Miguel, and Girl Ultra is just the vessel. So I’m really inspired by changing.
Like Bowie, your fashion sense is unique and expressive. How did you pinpoint what and who you wanted Girl Ultra to be? And how do you separate the two in your personal life?
Definitely—they’re two different people, completely. But, they compliment each other, Girl Ultra and Mariana. Mariana is like the observer, the one that collects all the info, and Girl Ultra is the one that pushes it out, that transmits the message. But in terms of my personal brand and everything I feel like I’m attracted to, pieces that make me feel something, I really like vintage clothing because of that. Each specific piece gives me an energy. For example, colors [are] what inspire me to dress the way I dress. For shows, it’s like, today’s gonna be purple! I don’t know why, but it’s gonna be purple. And I just grab every fucking purple item in my wardrobe and I see what I can do with that.
Lovely. So, why R&B? It’s not something that’s really been deeply explored in Spanish, at least not in our generation, because you and I definitely grew up listening to iterations of it. We probably just didn’t realize that’s what it was at the time.
Well, I grew up listening to it as you say, without knowing it was R&B. But we actually have a lot of R&B infiltrations in our pop music. Like there was this duo called Sin Banderas, and they definitely made R&B. They had R&B progressions and melodies and there was not an R&B path for Latin American or Mexican projects—it was just “pop music.” And, right now, I feel like labelling things in this information era where everything’s so fast and nobody cares about anything, is helpful right now. I’ve been seeing this emerging scene of R&B growing up in the [Spanish] language, which is what I want. The music is there. We now recognize what R&B sounds like, but in Mexico there was no reference to that. There was this prejudice of how a Latina woman should sound and look. They thought I was [making] trap music. They said, “She’s the shittiest trapper.”
And I was like, dude, I don’t fucking do trap. I’m not even close to trap, you know? So I feel like it’s time to open up that spectrum for [Latinxs], for the Spanish language [speaking] community, because we already have the melodies—like, an R&B song stuck in our head and we don’t even know. I feel like R&B is a gut-feeling genre, and that’s why it’s growing up so fast. Because it’s very digestible.
So you think specificity and categorizing yourself in a specific genre as an artist is important right now?
Yeah, in this era. Right now, yeah.
How do you approach and prepare for live performances?
It’s a huge deal. I’ve been trying to put a band together that I feel comfortable with, because I feel like the maximum representation of the music that I play and do should be live. The more musicians that I can have the better. So I’ve been trying to introduce my past releases that were more electronic, more 808-ish, to this live, big show. That’s my main goal. Working that organic sound and finding the perfect blend for the snare and for the kick and all of these samples, like orchestral hits.
Where are you at in life right now, and how will we see that bleed through in the upcoming work?
Okay, so right now it’s confusing. [laughs] ’Cause, 20s. You know. So right now, I’m just perceiving myself as a woman and letting go of a lot of prejudices I had about life, about relationships. This album is more about me and what I do. I try to find the approach of this not only lyrically, but generally as the R&B album Mexico has never had. I don’t want to call it an “imaginary goal” because it’s very cocky to say, “Oh, the whole of R&B [is represented] in my album.” No, but it did help me find this whole universe of Mexican music from the ’80s and ’90s, and, I don’t know, I just felt a new female force emerge in me and I feel like the fiercest ’80s tia that could exist.
On the opposite end of that, I feel like in the past we’ve gotten this sad girl vibe from you. I read this Helado Negro tweet that said something like “sad music makes me happy,” and I really related to it, and think that’s part of the reason why people have drawn to some of your work in the past. Will this new album skew away from that?
When I started making this album, it was a very bright time for me—as a creative, as a persona, as a human being. It was like, oh! Like a stride of brightness. I was writing like crazy and making music with my friends. And it’s not finished yet, but by the end of this album a lot of things [will have] changed. I reconnected with a lot of people. I love connections. And there were like seven tracks as a base. The first few I made when I was at my highest, in my zone. And then everything started changing and the last few are more mellow, more instrumental. So I just put everything together last week to see and say, ok! This is gonna be the album, no more songs. I won’t write anymore, and I can see the transitions that I made in this year.
Do you find it difficult to perform songs you created during painful times of your life? Do you ever regret it?
I don’t regret it because you learn from everything. There are some songs from specific moments that I already healed from that I can find new meanings and interpretations for. But as a performer and as an artist you need to understand that you’re the vessel. Those are the pros and cons of being an artist. You just gotta… como le dicen “ponle limon a la herida.” [put lemon on the wound] every time to revive that feeling. But I don’t regret anything in my life. There are some songs that are very hard for me. And they’re not heartbreak songs; they’re songs I made for my friends or particular nostalgia in some songs, but… time heals everything.
On “Duele,” you say, “dame tiempo para darme cuenta quien soy” (which translates to give me time to figure out who I am). Tell me a little bit about what that means for you.
That song is about a relationship I had with someone who was older than me. He wanted me to keep at his pace and he already went through the things I was going through. So he wanted me to go faster in the way I think and not get attached to things. It was nothing bad, but he wanted me to get out of the loop, and sometimes when you’re 23 you’re just in it. You just gotta go through it and learn from your mistakes, and this person didn’t want me to. I needed to [make] my mistakes.
Right, that’s fair. And “Dame Love” is another one I want to talk about. I saw it on a couple of of Song of Summer list predictions, and I wrote a little bit about it myself. Can you tell me about how that collaboration with Cuco came to be?
With Cuco, we met at this festival two years ago in Ceremonia in Mexico City. We were playing at the same time, different stages. A friend of mine introduced me to him and we were texting and became good friends. That song made us friends. We would exchange music, and when I was going to L.A., he said, “Let’s make a song.” So we booked a studio in West Hollywood—I think it was West Hollywood. We got in, and…
Was it a one-shot deal?
Yeah, and it was very good for us to challenge each other. I told him, “Dude, you can do your verse completely in Spanish.” That was something that he hadn’t done before (in a long time), and I actually didn’t have a full verse in English so we [swapped]—he did a full verse in Spanish and I in English, and then we mixed it up in the chorus. It was great writing together, and seeing that merge. It flows very naturally. It’s the song that I wanted to hear when I’m with someone and smoking a joint. I wanted to make a song for that. So...
Yeah, and I forget that Cuco is quite young as well, so it’s good that you guys have each other to push one another creatively. And I’m sure that, outside of that, you’ve inspired other younger artists to take risks. How do you feel like the music scene has changed, not just in Mexico but in the rest of Latin America since you started?
It’s been growing exponentially, and I’m thrilled about all these new projects coming through. Specifically for my city and my country. It’s unimaginable. All the new projects from kids who are 17 years old. There’s this huge scene growing in Monterrey, for example. An R&B scene. A lot of trap scenes. I just want to have enough money to help other artists, because I feel like that’s the only way things happen. If you grow a community and everybody helps each other. And I think that’s what’s yet to grow—this brotherhood. But, I feel—from my perspective—that we need to grow that sisterhood.
I feel like female artists are always in this public dilemma of who’s better? And they start with the, This is the new blahblahblah,” and I feel like we need to get rid of that. And it starts with us, female artists, trying not to be in competition. For the new video for “Ruleta,” I invited five of my favorite growing artists in Mexico. There’s a girl that has a punk band. A girl that has a dream pop band. A girl that does trap, R&B shit. We just all came together as a girl gang that steals my grandma’s jewelry, and it was so amazing to have all women on set. The music scene is male dominant, and in Mexico it’s double. So when you happen to be on a stage or in a production with mostly women, it’s so fucking refreshing. I just want that to happen more often.