Let It Out
Let It Out
A Q&A with Gina Chavez
By Geoff Gehman
Gina Chavez was a beam of light long before the 2018 release of her EP “Lightbeam.” In 2013-16 the singing, composing, guitar-playing, video-starring band leader won nine Austin Music Awards for her infectious Latin-American blend of R&B, rock and folkloric soul. As a U.S. State Department cultural ambassador the Austin native made spectators sing, dance and yell in Middle Eastern and Asian countries where public displays of ecstasy are usually foreign. Inspired by a teaching mission in a dangerous city in El Salvador, she and her wife, Jodi Granado, started a college fund for bright, strong women threatened by poverty and gangs.
These experiences helped give Chavez the freedom to be more free with her music. To make “Lightbeam” she took extra time to write about being a devoted humanitarian and Catholic married to a woman who is one of her role models. In the process she created her most intimate, expansive collection of songs. In “Heaven Knows,” a slice of sublimely snaking soul, she declares her love, admiration and gratitude for Granado, a public school teacher and coach. In “Let It Out,” a cleansing chunk of Latin funk, she encourages everyone to “shake the devil” from their shoes and other articles of clothing.
Chavez and her band members will spotlight “Lightbeam” on Oct. 3 at the Mauch Chunk Opera House. Jim Thorpe listeners will get a streaming, seamless marriage of ballads and body shakers united by Chavez’s springy, slinky, spooning vocals. In the email conversation below she discusses an anthem triggered by wet Saudi fans, the global power of empowering women and her affection for a 10-string, ukulele-like instrument usually made from an armadillo.
Q: Can you remember the first song you couldn’t forget, the one that wormed its way into your ears, heart and soul?
A: I used to love hearing “You Can’t Hurry Love” by The Supremes on the radio. I remember when I was about eight, I would sing it softly for friends and hope people would think I had a good voice!
Q: Who was/is your musical mentor/role model/hero and what is the best lesson she or he gave you?
A: My wife is a public school teacher and a coach. It’s really inspiring to watch how she treats each day with those kids as holy ground. Seeing her do that despite all the obstacles she faces in public school has inspired me to treat the stage as holy ground. Not only are we performing in these beautiful spaces, but people are giving us their most valued treasure–their time–and I don’t ever want to take that for granted. That couple hours together is sacred and it’s beautiful what happens when you see your work as holy, something to be treasured.
Q: You’ve said that making “Lightbeam” was a liberating experience, thanks in part to giving yourself extra time and room to write and reflect, which helped yield songs that are more candid and soulful. Has the honesty of ‘Heaven Knows” helped skeptical loved ones accept you as a faithful Catholic married to a woman, particularly a woman “who calls me to my best self”?
A: I love sharing the story of “Heaven Knows” from stage. I hope it’s bringing people a new way to see themselves or someone in their lives; to realize there are many of us who grew up in the Christian tradition, who are living out our hearts as best as we can. I love my faith and I love my wife. It’s possible and beautiful to love both.
Q: Why did you decide to write “Lightbeam” songs with a Gibson hollow body and how did the guitar switch change your writing?
A: I wrote most of the songs on any guitar lying around the house, whether that was my dad’s 1954 Martin or my old tour work-horse, the Ovation. But in the studio, I found the Gibson hollow body and flat-wound strings gave me that modern vintage sound. Just enough rhythmic crunch with a bed of buttery mids, sexy lows and sweet sustain. Yum!
Q: Is Jodi one of your song consultants? Do you test your songs on her before you test them on musicians and listeners?
A: Haha. I’m gonna start calling her a song consultant now! I definitely play them for her. She’s got better taste in music than I do, so she definitely knows a good song when she hears one. She’s great at helping me suss out the parts that need work and the ones that slam.
Q: I’m fascinated by the way that songs zag when you expect them to zig after they’re released to the world. Has one of your songs taken a surprisingly unexpected journey to weddings, funerals and other rites of passage?
A: I’m guessing you mean where we play these songs and for what types of occasions? If so, we’ve definitely had the chance to play these songs in unexpected places. The one that pops up is when we performed “Siete-D” in Registan Square in Samarkand, Uzbekistan with gorgeous 14-century stone madrasas [educational institutions] as our backdrop and thousands of Uzbeks as our audience. It was wild! But the wildest audience was in Amman, Jordan, where we had hundreds of Jordanians out of their theater seats, shouting “Yella! Yella!” where we usually have audiences scream “Sube!” They LOVED that song haha.
Q: Is there a Latin idiom that you’re yearning to explore in depth, perhaps on your next album?
A: Interesting question … I do love the Spanish language. Singing in Spanish feels like I access another part of my soul and I love it. The phrase that comes to mind at the moment: “La que manda.” [i.e., “The one who commands”]
Q: What event/episode from your State Department ambassadorial travels still makes you shake your head in gratitude and wonder?
A: I’ll never forget the night we played in Saudi Arabia. We were in an open courtyard of the U.S. Embassy performing for thousands of Saudi youth. A young man came up and told me he knew all the words to my songs and then passed me a note about his tragic experiences being gay in Riyadh. We were a small acoustic trio performing in front of a huge American flag when it started to rain, but instead of running for cover, the young Saudi men and women embraced the freedom of dancing in the rain to our music–they screamed for more! I wrote a song called “Let It Out” for them and all the beautiful people around the world who, just like us, want to be themselves and be celebrated for who they are.
Q: How much has been raised for the Ninas Arriba College Fund; how many young ladies have received financial aid, and do you have a favorite story about how incredibly far one of those young ladies has come from poverty to opportunity?
A: To date, we have raised nearly $80,000 and put four young women through college! Each of them–Xiomara, Marta, Vanesa, Rosmery–have also worked a paid internship after college funded by Ninas Arriba. Our first graduate, Xiomara, was hired full time by Glasswing International after the health insurance through her paid internship saved the lives of her and her second daughter. They have come so far all because of this fierce young woman’s courage to go after her college dream!
This year we accepted our fifth student, Norma, who had to put off her education to help support her family of nine. At 23 years old she is in the second semester of her freshman year at one of the best private Catholic universities in El Salvador, La Universidad Centroamericana Jose Canas, and loving her major, multimedia productions!
Q: How would you and Jodi like to expand/improve Ninas Arriba? Exchanges with similar American programs? Musical lessons for free? Benefit concerts in El Salvador featuring you and special guests?
A: We are planning another tour in El Salvador to help raise funds and awareness for Ninas Arriba. We just started our second cohort of young women and hope to not only expand to accept more students in El Salvador, but also accept young women in countries throughout Latin America. We believe that educating women in developing nations is one of the greatest needs of our time. It truly uplifts families, communities and entire nations!
Q: Why did you and Jodi like staying with those Salvadoran nuns during your 2009 teaching mission? Do you plan to write a song about your stay with them?
A: Oh the nuns! It was a wild time, each of them with their own little quirks. We had a great time treating them to little presents like the occasional beer, or introducing them to the wonders of pepper haha. There are many more songs left to write about our adventures in El Salvador!
Q: So, Gina, what tops your Bucket List? Musicians have told me everything from traveling the world to world peace.
A: I want to take my wife to Japan! That, and performing to a packed house at Red Rocks in Denver are at the top of my bucket list!
Q: And what tops your Fuckit List? Musicians have told me everything from ending oppressive religions to assassinating all snakes.
A; Haha. As a cradle Catholic who used to pick fights with people about abortion—(I know, I know, I am ashamed)–I say FUCKIT to all the people who say they are pro-life and yet are the first ones to cut social programs that support young women. In the name of Christ, they cut off women’s access to health care, food and living assistance, housing, etc, and it infuriates me! Life is ALL life, no matter what zip code or gender or economic status. If you’re not adopting children and sitting with women who are in the unfortunate position to be considering an abortion, then … fuckit.
And worst of all, if you’re voting on that one issue, I implore you to look at the results of what happens in your community/state/country when you vote for someone who is “pro-life.” Do the number of abortions decrease? Are women healthier? Are children better taken care of? Are you and your church members truly meeting people where they are and ministering to them as Christ did? If so, please tell me about it!
Q: I’m typing in Bethlehem, a half hour from Nazareth, the historic home of Martin Guitar, which leads me to ask: Whatever happened to that 1954 Martin your dad lent you, the one that started you on your stringed instrument odyssey?
A: It’s hanging out in my new house, waiting for me to get home and write some more jams!
Q: You have a charango made of wood. Would you like to have one made of armadillo, a more traditional material in El Salvador?
A: I shall take in any charangos–all shapes and sizes and animales! I have loved that tiny little instrument with a big punch ever since I first heard it in Buenos Aires, Argentina
Gina Chavez: The Scoop
Her ancestry is Mexican and Swiss-German.
Her early music heroes were Michael Jackson, Lyle Lovett and Little Richard.
She was a college exchange student in Argentina when she discovered the national folk music and dance known as chacarera.
She met her wife, Jodi Granado, at the University of Texas at Austin’s Catholic Center.
She’s won 11 Austin Music Awards for everything from Latin traditional to Latin rock, activist/educator to performer of the year.
In 2015 she and her band members performed a Tiny Desk Concert for NPR’s “All Songs Considered.”
She won the grand prize in the 2014 John Lennon Songwriting Contest for “Siete-D,” named for an adventurous bus in a Salvadoran city where gang violence shuts down public transportation
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown. He’d like to add an armadillo charango to his Martin backpacker guitar. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.