Emerging folk-singer/songwriter Sofía Valdés is the granddaughter of renowned Cuban singer/songwriter/Hollywood film performer, Miguelito Valdés, “El Babalou” and tamborera Silvia de Grasse. This summer, independent journalist Sara Harris skyped with Ms. Valdés from her family’s penthouse apartment in Panamá City with a view of the bahía over the City’s private marina, guitar in hand. This excerpt of their conversation in (English and Spanish) ranges from musings on artistic life as the daughter of an internationally renowned musical family to the sharp transition between the landscapes of Northwest Michigan -where Ms. Valdés studies, and Panamá City -where she was born and raised and spends her summers. At seventeen, Ms. Valdés is just coming into her own and has a distinctly fresh, honest, and open approach to her music.
SH: You write and sing in English mostly, but I get the sense that your personal influences come from experiences closer to home…
SV: I guess that here in Panamá, my influence comes from musicians, but mainly it comes from the people around me. Growing up in Central America, being a musician isn’t really something you would consider doing as a career. It’s more of a hobby, not like a job. You usually would not study to be a musician, but you’d study to be a doctor or a lawyer, or something like that. Growing up I was always told that I couldn’t be a singer who makes a living off of music or art. But that’s what I wanted to do. I was so mad people kept telling me that, so I began to study more and more, and that’s where my main drive and inspiration come from.
SH: But your songs are really uplifting and almost wistful. They don’t feel like they are addressing what you’re told you “can’t” do in life but rather what the future may hold and they feel rootedness in a sense of place…
SV: In Panamá as a whole, the beaches are so beautiful. Everytime I come back to the beach, I want to cry. I love it, and I have written so many songs about being on the beach growing up with my friends, and about so much that has happened in specific places around the country where there is so much nature and so much water. And in Michigan, the part that is inspiring is being away from home and realizing how much I love Panamá and how much I love everything about back home.
SH: Do you see the lake from your school at Interlochen Center for the Arts?
SV: We are right on Lake Michigan. And the wind is rough and cold and in your face when you walk. Even in June it’s chilly. And the people who live there wear shorts!
SH: How does the climate in Michigan influence the mood of your music?
SV: Michigan doesn’t inspire me to write music, but it reminds of how much I miss home. I am in northern Michigan, so I am up there with trees and nature and gets it’s really cold and really dry. It feels pretty sad in the winter, so that makes it easy to write songs. Because you’re alone.
SH: But that makes sense, since you are so far away from family, it can get nostalgic, I imagine.
SV: Yes. I go to a boarding school. I left home when I was sixteen. So It’s not like I just left home or had to leave, but more like I went off to college early. If you don’t go to classes, nobody tells you anything. You have to do your laundry, cook for yourself, wake up on time. You have to grow up a little bit faster. So once I was there, I was was more independent and had more of my own thoughts. It made me understand more about what I wanted to do as a musician and as a person.
SH: Did your family push you toward studying abroad?
SV: No! So what happened is that I always had this plan. I told my mom that I needed to leave home at sixteen. That was my goal in life. If I could manage to leave at sixteen, that meant I was able to convince the people around me that I was capable to do what I wanted. Who’s going to let their sixteen-year-old leave unless they really trust in you and believe in you? So that was my plan, to convince everyone around me that I was capable of living on my own.
SH: Interlochen is is a prestigious school, and competitive. What work did you submit when you applied?
SV: Yes! I have built so many new relationships with talented people, and I am learning so much there. I sent three of my songs- Song to My Eight-Year-Old Self, another was Atlantic Ocean, and they last was Flower. But, since I’ve been at school there, I’ve learned how to write way better. I’ve stopped singing those songs and focus on my new stuff.
SH: I like the Song To My Eight-Year-Old Self. Why did you write it?
SV: That song is about me talking to my younger self. Growing up, I have gone through a lot, family-wise. In school, I did have friends, but I was always the weird kid, kind of. So I summarized my childhood and was telling myself to be strong in the face of whatever happens. I just wrote it for myself. I have changed schools a lot. By tenth grade, I could not handle conventional school. I was just playing music and I while did care about the academics, I could not connect with them. I started an arts school in Panama, and from there left to boarding school (in Michigan).
SH: How old were you when you started to create your own music?
SV: I started playing guitar when I little- eight or nine years old. I enjoyed it a lot, but I didn’t take lessons or play formally. I just played around and sang Shakira songs and had fun with it. When I was twelve I realized I wanted to continue, and when I was fourteen or fifteen, I decided to become serious when it come to instrumentations. I am still not the best, but I am focussed, and now I’m concentrating on being a lyricist. I started playing piano this year, too.
SH: Your grandparents are part of such a strong tradition of Cuban music and stage performance. Were they excited about your decision to commit to studying your family’s art?
SV: I never had the chance to meet my abuelos. My aunts and my uncles were very close to them, so they tell me all the stories. They were heads of Sony and A&R at various record companies in Latin America. My family has always been in the industry, and they have always told me to follow the tradition. I am the only one of my generation to keep the music going. My family motivates me to keep going, and I guess I could do it here in Panamá, but I really want to write in English. So I went to study music composition in English so that I can perform in a more universal way and have more people listening to my songs.
SH: What are you working on now?
SV: I am writing as much as possible so that I can record all at once. I have recorded most recently four songs that I put on a stream on Soundcloud.
SH: So who do you bounce your new work off of?
SV: My teachers, and my classmates. In my class we are 24 students. We play concerts. And one teacher in particular, Courtney, is a really good songwriter who tears my work apart! She has ideas for changing this, this, and this. And it doesn’t necessarily make the song better, but it makes my process better.
SH: Is your curriculum mostly about the creative process, or is there more?
SV: We all sit together and learn how to be better managers of our own music in a business setting, because the industry can be very sneaky and backstabbing!
SH: What are you be doing in Panamá City this summer?
SV: I’m be touring clubs here with my group and singing covers and my new songs. Here, people think I am lot older than I am, so I just make it work. I sing, they pay me, and I leave. You know what it’s like here, no one is going to ask for I.D., I am seventeen, but I can sing in bars, and it’s fine.
SH: What’s it like when you go back to school and are working in a group where most of the students won’t have had that kind of exposure?
SV: We have performance lab where we have to sing covers, and everyone gets to critique you on your approach. I’ve done it so many times, and hear so many critiques upon critiques that I’m not phased by it anymore. I can sing anywhere. I’m not scared of it. I’m a dramatic performer, I am not a hyped-up performer. I am just there, being me. My face is straight, or sad, but not on purpose. It’s just how I am.
SH: What kind of relationship did you have with your grandparent’s music when you were growing up?
SV: When I was little, the beach wasn’t (as touristic) as it is today. Every time we’d go down to the beach, they’d be playing grandpa or grandma’s recordings and if we came across musicians, we’d introduce ourselves; my dad, “Juanito Pérez” and I would say “Sofía Váldes”, and they knew by my last name who my grandpa and grandma were, and they would say, “¡Ay, Miguelito Valdés!” and they ask me if I sing like el Babalú too, and then start reminiscing about my grandparents. And honestly, I would feel a pressure that I should be as good as they were.
SH: Do you approach your own work with that in mind?
SV: Well, their music is salsa, charanga, son, and I usually listen to music like Kanye West. It would feel a bit like I am disappointing people when compared to my abuelo, to tell you the truth. To be compared to him was an honor. My abuelo was Cuban, and he played the best of Cuban music, and even though I could, I don’t really even play Panamanian music, so, it’s hard for me to answer people with those kinds of expectations.
SH: But still, it must be kind of fun to come from that legacy when you’re out and about and they start playing Babalú.
SV: Yeah, everybody knows that song when we are at a party and it’s one or two and everyone is drunk and they put on the salsa and everyone goes crazy, and it’s usually my grandpa! And I dance to it, and only friends know it’s my grandpa or grandma. But musically, they don’t really influence me just because I am a very stubborn person and growing up everyone wanted me to write songs in Spanish. And I do, and I can, but that’s not where I am at right now. And I get good feedback from people on my music. People like my music, especially in Panamá. They turn on the radio and hear Justin Bieber and Taylor Swift, and then it’s Shakira. We have our own culture, but we are always watching what Americans are doing.
SH: What do you listen to, given the choice?
SV: We didn’t have Spotify growing up. I later on discovered YouTube when I was like eleven or twelve, but before that, we would listen to music in my dad’s car. He’d play rock; The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, Fleetwood Mac (Stevie Nicks was a big thing), Jimi Hendrix. Then later, it was Sarah McLaughlin, John Lee Hooker, Seal (on the CD player). And if we heard the radio it was Katy Perry. So hot-and-cold. I thought, “this is it?” When I was twelve, my brother told me I should look for more music online. That’s when I got into a fight with the radio. It was like a trick to think it was the only music! Now, I look for young people on YouTube who you have never heard of, trying to make their own music. You can really feel and hear the effort they put into the process. I really like it. It’s my favorite.
SH: What do you listen to when you are away at school in Michigan?
SV: Everyone at school knows a lot about music. I started out listening to Frank Sinatra and Diana Ross and the Supremes with my friends. I was kind of angry at the music of now, I just did not like it. I didn’t want to like it. But then, we decided to give it a chance, try it out. And now we are obsessed with Frank Ocean, Childish Gambino, Zella Day. But in terms of lyrics, I am still drawn to folk music and old school music.
SH: Do you think being back at home affects your writing?
SV: Yeah, I’m different when I am here … or maybe not. Maybe I am the same no matter where I am. But, I feel like there, I accomplish something, at school, and here it’s like I am just waiting for something to happen. I guess because there I am so alone; not depressing-alone; but more like being on my own, alone. While here, I have to say, “Mom, I am going to eat all the cookies,” or “Hey, I am going out with my friends.”
SH: So last question: what comes next, this coming year?
SV: Well, this summer, I am playing as many gigs as I can. I just turned seventeen, so I am in my senior year. I want to learn as much as possible and write as much material as I can. And come next year, 2018, I do want to go to university, but I am so young, and I should take that chance and do everything I have wanted to do for the longest time. And when I feel ready, I will apply to college. I am young, but I do know what I want to do with music. So I can go for it. I want to go to L.A. and try it out. I love traveling and meeting new cultures and new people. I love waking up in new places. It’s how I imagine what being on tour would be like. I feel like it’s very hard, what I want to do as a career. If you are there at the right time in the right place, and you work hard, you just might be able to rely on luck. Really. I believe that.
Sofía Valdés is a senior studying music at the Interlochen Center for the Arts.
Sara Harris is a radio journalist and environmental urbanist in Los Angeles.