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One-woman band branches out

Juana Molina adds musicians to her sonic collages onstage

The Argentine singer-songwriter records her albums alone, with a guitar, keyboard, and two loop machines, and normally performs solo as well. The Argentine singer-songwriter records her albums alone, with a guitar, keyboard, and two loop machines, and normally performs solo as well.
By Sarah Tomlinson
Globe Correspondent / February 20, 2009
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LOS ANGELES - The rapt crowd at the Troubadour watches Juana Molina's every move on Tuesday night, almost as if she were a magician performing sleights of hand. They sway to the bossa nova-flavored rhythms of her lush, giddy indie rock songs and sing along to the Spanish lyrics.

Wearing a black skirt and tank top, the wiry Argentine singer-songwriter has the poise of a music teacher on recital day - albeit one with a ferocious core. It is remarkable how effortlessly Molina unleashes so much music - a sonic collage of guitar, keyboard, and voice she creates with the help of two loop machines. The sound is even fuller now that she's being backed by a band for the first time.

The drummer and bassist are part of the tour in support of Molina's fourth album, "Un Dia," which comes to the Brattle Theatre on Thursday. And she's beginning to see the advantages of being part of a band.

"The dynamics are more controllable when you play with more people," Molina says over a cup of Earl Gray and a pastry before the show. "Because I can just build things all of the sudden, or have more impact with certain sounds."

Molina, 47, estimates it would require more than a dozen musicians and four singers to play her songs as they are recorded - just her, the instruments, and the loop machine in her home studio in Buenos Aires - and she fears such a large band would actually give the audience a less intense experience, lacking the synergy that can occur between a few tightly focused musicians. No two performances are exactly alike anyway, she says, so she strives to create something more ephemeral and, ultimately, more true when she performs. "What I really try to do is to keep the spirit of the songs," she says. "Some things on the record are things that I don't know how I did. Maybe a better musician would just repeat it exactly. But sometimes I can't. Sometimes it's a combination of a late finger, and another one that was ahead."

Molina didn't record "Un Dia," which follows three critically lauded releases - her 2003 debut, "Segundo"; 2004's "Tres Cosas"; and 2006's "Son" - with the idea of performing the songs with a band. Rather, she approached the songwriting process just as she has all her music since giving up a career as a television star to pursue her first love. She worked on the material slowly, over time, letting ideas blossom and mature. "Some songs grow," she says. "Some songs die. You need to let them go for a bit."

Once it came time to tour, though, she decided she wanted to do something different and invited two musicians to join her.

As a songwriter, Molina is both a practical craftsman and an openhearted dreamer. For longtime fan Andy Cabic of San Francisco-based indie rock band Vetiver, which often swapped songs with Molina when they toured Europe in 2007, it is this mix of intelligence and emotion that gives her songs power. "She has it all," he says by phone amid preparations for a European tour. "I know that she is very conscious of the rationale and reason behind her approach. But when you're in the middle of hearing it all, it's very fluid and full of feeling."

Molina's songs come to fruition in a deeply personal way. And although she is thrilled to be playing shows with other musicians, she does not expect to bring collaborators into her songwriting and recording process anytime soon. "It's better in the way that I have no witnesses, so I am totally free," she says. "I don't avoid doing things that I could regret, because there's no one there. And, if I don't like them, I just get rid of them, and no one will know, ever, about them."

JUANA MOLINA At the Brattle Theatre with Faces on Film Feb. 26 at 8:30 p.m. Tickets to the all-ages show are $18 at 617-876-4275 or www.worldmusic.org.

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