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After her partner's death, Lila Downs records 'La Sánchez,' her most personal album

Grammy award winner Lila Downs is known to sing about love, loss and her tricultural identity. But her latest album, <em>La Sánchez</em>, is her most personal yet.
Chino Lemus
Grammy award winner Lila Downs is known to sing about love, loss and her tricultural identity. But her latest album, La Sánchez, is her most personal yet.

It's been a journey for Mexican singer Lila Downs.

She and her life partner, saxophonist Paul Cohen, were working together on her latest album, La Sánchez when Cohen died from a heart condition. He was 69.

"It was tough. I had to keep working because I knew that it would affect my voice if I didn't," Downs says. "So, I decided to go [on tour] to Argentina in January and I decided to record the voice for the album. Paul had planned for us to do it in January, so I didn't cancel. And I would record and then I would cry for a whole while."

Downs and Cohen had been together for almost 30 years. Cohen was her manager and producer. They were musical partners. They built a life together.

"That part has been very difficult," Downs adds. "But I have a lot of love coming from the audience. I have a lot of love from my family and from my two kids. I have the blessing of having my mother supporting me and spending time with the kids so they can be at school right now in Oaxaca. That's very helpful."

For this album, Downs and Cohen invited musicians who play in both her U.S. and Mexico City-based bands to go to Oaxaca and take part in a composition workshop. They spent two weeks with Downs and Cohen in their home studio, like a big family get-together, working on the songs and eating Oaxacan food. "We had a lot of tlayudas, mole, mezcal, [she laughs] vino, y bueno, that's where we came up with several arrangements that continue on the album," Downs says.

Some songs were composed during a complicated time in Downs and Cohen's relationship. "Paul and I had almost separated," she explains. "We went through the same thing that probably dozens of couples went through, during the pandemic. A bunch of these songs are about 'agarras tus cosas y te vas' (grab your things and get out). It's about separation [Downs laughs] and heartbreak." But then Cohen died last December and Downs still had to write songs to complete the album, such as 'Toda la Noche,' all night.

"It's a very therapeutic song for me; I listen to it, I have to cry, but then it's necessary for me to perform it for me as well.

Downs says "La Curación" is a song about healing with the memory of a loved one who departed. "It's strange because when you lose someone, when someone doesn't exist anymore in this reality, little by little you start because you need to survive, saying goodbye," she adds. "So, it's important, within your strength, to keep the memory alive, the good memories and the memories that are important to keep.

Accordionist and guitarist Leo Soqui has worked with Downs for nearly two decades. Soqui says La Sánchez is the most personal album of Downs' career. "In other albums, she delves into music styles or various themes. But in this case, it's an album that talks about her story. That's why it's called La Sánchez. Sánchez is her mother's last name. I think that's the way she can tell her story through this album."

La Sánchez appears to be Downs' first foray into the so-called "Mexican regional" style. But Soqui says that's not true. She already delved into that territory in her 2006 album titled La Cantina.

"I think it's very exciting that she chose this style and this time to do the album. This is such powerful and exciting music," Soqui adds.

Downs wrote the lyrics to the song "Solita, Solita" (alone, alone) when she and Cohen were on the verge of separating. But she says the song is also about her personality. "I have been a 'Solita Solita' kind of person all my life," Downs admits. "I think that as a woman, I've been pretty independent in my ideas, in my vision and our music. And so he respected that. So I'm proud to say that that's not something new for me. Pero, (but) he and I, we came back together; before he parted, we had our reconciliation. I was fortunate to have that."

The album includes a song called "Mandimbo," about a tree native to Oaxaca. Downs says there's a mandimbo tree in the center of her home and she looks to it as her pillar. The song closes with this verse she wrote: "Arbol de mi esperanza, mantente firme," tree of my hope, keep the strength.

Now that La Sánchez is out, Downs says she gets to live with these songs for a few years. She can't think of a better therapy for the soul.

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Betto Arcos
Betto Arcos is a freelance music journalist. He writes stories about music from around the world, with an emphasis on Latin America. He has been a contributor to NPR programming since 2009, when he began reviewing music for All Things Considered on the weekends.