Nella returns to her roots on new covers album, ‘En Otra Vida’

by Marty Lipp
nella interview

NELLA

Parker Press Park in Woodbridge will seem like a balmy Caribbean island when singer Nella brings her silky voice and lilting music to its summer series of concerts, July 10.

Born Marianella Rojas on the Venezuelan island of Margarita, Nella attended The Berklee College of Music in Boston. In 2019, after releasing her debut album Voy, she won a Latin Grammy as Best New Artist. On her third and latest album, En Otra Vida (In Another Life), she reimagines Latin American songs that she grew up with, and that were written by women.

She says she decided to do all cover songs after an “existential crisis.”

“I think we all go through something like that,” she says, “which is this moment where you start questioning why you do what you do. Why did I start singing? I was struggling to write again, to compose music again. So I just wanted to go back to the roots.”

She began to think about the music she was surrounded with, growing up. “I have no musicians in my family, but everybody’s very musical,” she says.

As a young girl, she would come home and sing along with her favorite pop stars, hoping to one day be the next Christina Aguilera.

At Berklee, she met Javier Limón, a well-known producer from Spain. Limón heard her sing an old Venezuelan folk song and recognized something unique about her. They both had an affinity for flamenco, although Nella’s singing was not as raw as voices associated with flamenco (but still filled with emotion). Limón began writing songs for her and produced her music. That collaboration also led to her singing for the Javier Bardem/Penélope Cruz film “Everybody Knows,” which debuted at the Cannes Film Festival in 2018.

The cover of Nella’s “En Otra Vida” album.

For a singer whose music was very personal (her most popular single is “Me Llaman Nella,” which translates to “They Call Me Nella”), her new album represents a shift in perspective.

“I call this album, like, a very needed therapy for me, to be honest,” she says, noting that as she reexamined her journey, “I found all of these beautiful songs that I used to listen to because of my family while I was growing up. And I found a little connection between a few of them: that they were written by women.”

To extend the theme, Nella reached out to several female singers to accompany her.

“The collaborations were very natural for me,” she says. “I wanted to invite artists, women, that were on the same path that I am, doing whatever they wanted to do, being kind of shameless and not caring about trends or trying to imitate anything. I felt like I was walking a path with them holding my hand. It was like the cherry on top of the ice cream.”

For the album, Nella began to look at old songs from before she was born, such as “Alma Mia,” by the groundbreaking Mexican composer María Grever or, “Como La Cigarra (Like the Cicada)” a song of political resistance popularized by the iconic Argentine singer Mercedes Sosa.

“It’s a celebration of life,” she said of the Sosa classic, which was banned by the Argentine government. “It is an anthem, a very strong lyric that, at the end, is about survival.

“And there wasn’t a better person to sing the song with than Paula Arenas from Colombia. A very, very passionate person and a very spiritual and beautiful person who sang this with heart and her throat open.”

NELLA

In addition, Nella looked at songs that were popular during her teen years.

She chose Shakira’s “Te Espero Sentada (I’ll Wait for you Sitting),” redoing it with an electronic, funky feel (listen below). It is from Shakira’s breakthrough album, 1995’s Pies Descalzos.

“I would say the song was the least famous in the album, but I remember when I was little it was my favorite because it was so weird,” Nella says. “The original has nothing to do with what I did. (I imagined it would be) like this groovy song in the album. I really wanted a song that will make you move your shoulders.”

Though Nella said the electronic sound of En Otra Vida represents “the sound that I’m embracing right now,” she will be reimagining the songs in a different way for her Woodbridge show, which will just be guitar and her voice.

“The voice, for me, is the most beautiful instrument a musician can have,” she says. “Of course, playing any instrument is always going to be amazing, but there’s nothing like the voice, that you can actually say words, you can communicate messages and that’s why the lyrics are so important in my albums and in every song that I choose.

“I love my music to be like a little bridge for people that says things that they cannot say.”

Nella previously performed in Woodbridge in 2021.

The cover of Nella’s debut album, “Voy.”

“I guess they liked it, because they invited me again,” she says with a laugh. “And I was so happy to get that invitation, so how can I really say no? I tend to play more theaters and closed spaces, so having something like this … I appreciate it so much, also with beautiful weather, hopefully.”

The process for En Otra Vida, she says, unlocked her creativity. She is already working on original songs for a new album.

“It just really gave me back all of the motivation that I needed,” she says.

While the next album is still a ways off, Nella says she is thinking of including stories from her own life. Her Venezuelan roots, she says, are always there.

“I don’t imagine myself right now making a folkloric, very traditional album,” she says. “Maybe I will when I’m older or something like that. But right now, I’m a mix of all of these things. I think maybe lyrically is where you will hear more about this place that I come from, because you know I have to talk about it.”

Nella will perform at the Woodbridge Wednesdays free concert series at Parker Press Park, July 10 at 7:30 p.m., with The Honey Dewdrops opening. Visit woodbridgeartsnj.org.

For more on Nella, visit nellarojas.com.

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