Let the music be your guide: Sandra Lilia Velasquez on songwriting and success
I was fifteen when I wrote my first song. It was on the piano. There were no lyrics. I wasn’t a singer back then. I wrote it because I wanted to. It started with a melody and I just kept adding to it. I had no illusions about what writing the song would or could lead to back then. I just felt like it. When I saw others’ reactions to my song, which back then was my immediate family and friends, it encouraged me to write some more.
Then one day, after hearing me play around on the piano at a friends house, someone asked me if I would play in their band. That was twenty-one years ago. The rest is history. I became addicted to writing songs, to performing live, to trying to crack the code of the mysterious and seemingly magical thing that is songwriting. Years later, I’m still trying to crack the code!
I moved to New York the day after graduating from music school in Los Angeles and have lived here in New York for a dozen years now. I founded the Latin band Pistolera, recorded three studio albums and was invited to tour all over the country and abroad.
Pistolera was praised for fusing Mexican music and indie rock – something that was missing from the New York musical landscape which was exactly why I founded it in 2005!
After having lived in California for over twenty years and having been surrounded by my Mexican culture, my move to New York was culturally startling. Of course there was a Mexican community here in New York. But where were my Mexican-American community, my fellow Chicanos? Music was the tool to bring my so-cal-border-town existence here to Brooklyn. I wrote the songs because I felt like it and because I had to. By following my inner musical compass, Pistolera played Central Park SummerStage, Town Hall, The Montreal Jazz Festival, The Antwerp Summer Music Festival, and many, many more.
Last year I won the Grand Prize in the John Lennon Songwriting Contest’s Latin Category for my song “Nueva York.” Talk about encouraging!
But let me back track for a moment. As adults we are forced into the financial reality that is the world. Many artists struggle with finding ways to monetize their art. How can I do what I love and make money at the same time? People ask you what you do and really mean, “what do you do for money?” But back when I was writing that song on my parents’ living room piano, no one was offering me money. Not one bit of the desire to create had anything to do with what would happen AFTER I wrote the song. I wrote it because something inside me compelled me to do it. This is what I have to constantly remind myself. The press reviews, the tours, the CD sales – they are all great. But I did not start doing this because of them. And whenever I find myself getting caught up in ‘how will this album sell,’ or ‘what will the reviewer say,’ I have to consciously take a step back and make sure that I like the work.
If you do not make the music you want to make, it becomes another day job.
Jimi Hendrix didn’t pick up the guitar because he wanted to become famous and have posters of himself hanging on people’s walls. He did it because he was obsessed with playing the guitar.
Last year I found myself with a new batch of songs that did not fit in with the style I had created for Pistolera. Wasn’t that who I was, I thought? How can one write such different style songs? It took me a while to come to terms with the fact that these new songs warranted a new project. It was time to go solo.
I had the great fortune of having ten-time Grammy nominee and legendary bassist Meshell Ndegeocello produce my solo EP as well as play bass on the recording, which is called “Dig Deeper.” Had you told me ten years ago that this would be happening, I would never have believed you. But I really believe that following my inner musical compass is what brought me here. I now feel comfortable enough to say: I am a songwriter. That is why I was put on this earth. Anything other than the pursuit of creating a great song is an empty one. Gigs and money come and go. They do not define me.
A wise agent once told me: Keep at it. Every overnight success is ten years in the making.
But really, it’s the first part that is most important. The journey of being an artist is a lifelong one. You never get “there,” because “there” is a moving target.
Just follow the inner musical compass and the rest will fall into place.
Editor’s Note: Sandra Velasquez is a founding member and songwriter for the Brooklyn-based band, Pistolera, which has released three full length albums. The critically acclaimed band fuses an indie rock sensibility with traditional Mexican folk forms. Pistolera has played Central Park SummerStage, Town Hall, The Montreal Jazz Festival, and many more, as well as appearing on NPR’s “Tiny Desk Concerts.” Velasquez won the 2012 John Lennon Songwriting Contest in the Latin Category for her song “Nueva York.” Her solo EP, entitles “Dig Deeper,” produced by ten-time Grammy nominee and legendary bassist Meshell Ndegeocello, was released in February 2013. She has also released a children’s album under the name “Moona Luna.” Click here for tracks from “Dig Deeper,” or to sample all of her tracks available by Getty Images – Music, click here.