bogotá beats: enter the fresh new sounds of lao ra
As we premiere the video for new track 'Drum Machine,' get to know the Colombian singer taking her country’s traditions and tropes of love and turning them into unadulterated, gloriously uplifting pop.
Chatting to Lao Ra in the sweltering heat of northern Colombia, sipping on canary yellow piña coladas with the raucous drumming of the Barranquilla Carnival in the background, we could be a world away from the country plagued by the violence of the War on Drugs that she grew up in during the 90s. "I was a little kid so I wasn't really aware what was going on," Lao Ra says of growing up in the Colombian capital, Bogotá, "but I remember words like 'extradition', 'Pablo Escobar,' and 'the mafia'. My parents really kept me safe from that part of it, but obviously I was still aware of what was going on because everyone was talking about it. I just went to school, came home, watched MTV. It was a normal childhood in a way but behind it was a really strange, dark context." Lao Ra's roots are something she unapologetically embraces and rebels against at the same time. Now living in East London, the 24-year-old singer has returned to the motherland to film each of her music videos, and while the visuals show her relentless love for South America, the lyrics of her self-dubbed "pineapple pop" rebel against the country's often conservative, and deeply Catholic traditions.
Now signed to Black Butter Records, with her debut EP Jesus Made Me Bad out now, Lao Ra's musical journey began by binge-watching MTV, sneaking out to punk gigs as a teenager, and eventually crossing the pond to settle in sunny Guildford to study singing at the Academy of Contemporary Music. After a year she moved to London, and whilst still refining her sound, she made ends meet with a checklist of the most arbitrary jobs the city has to offer, including working in a soccer pub (she has a Real Madrid tattoo on her foot), as a breast model for plastic surgery students ($100 for an hour baring your areolas), a dog-walker, a promo-girl, a brand ambassador for Heineken, and the one she only quit four months ago: a smoke alarm PR. "They were so random because I didn't want to get a full time job," Lao Ra explains. "I had this fear that if I got a full time job, I wouldn't be able to do music."
After four years of dead-end jobs and being on the brink of moving back to Bogotá, Lao Ra has the owner of the Indian restaurant she was living above at the time to thank for kick-starting her career. He introduced her to a couple of regulars in the curry house, one of whom became her boyfriend, and the other her manager. "I played him Jesus Made Me Bad, and he said 'lets go to the studio and we can produce it,'" she says of the latter. "I knew I wanted it to sound Caribbean, it needed to sound pop, it needed to sound fresh. In one day he nailed it."
Confidence and good humor radiate out of Lao Ra. While the topical songs on her EP don't impress her religious mom ("Jesus Made Me Bad") nor her dad ("Daddy Issues"), Lao Ra takes everything with a pinch of salt; "Pissing off my parents is therapy to me," she quips in her Latina accent. "I do everything with a bit of cheekiness and a bit of humor. It's pop at the end of the day, they're songs I want everyone to sing." She's quick to explain her thinking behind the controversial lyrics and is open about how her past relationships have influenced her songwriting. "I started going out with this guy at the time I wrote 'Jesus Made Me Bad,' and he was quite dark, quite evil, but kind of mysterious. I began thinking if humans are bad or good, and what is human nature? I guess that song is about accepting the way human nature is without taking any responsibility."
The second song on her EP, "Daddy Issues", blames the men of her father's generation for their daughters always picking the wrong boys; "I find that a lot of men can be quite awkward with their kids, they just bring the money home and the mom looks after the kids, and that makes girls feel like they don't really know how to be treated by men. They end up in really shit relationships, hating every minute, and not knowing why they always go for the wrong ones, but making the same mistake over and over again." The third song, "Tell Me Why" is more of a ballad, that states: "you fuck me once and you fuck me twice, how long until you realize, you said you love me hard… but we both know it will never never last." "That song is kind of like being in a relationship with a person who is punishing you," Lao Ra explains, "someone who gets some twisted pleasure out of seeing you suffer because that means they feel special. Again, I always ask that question, are we good as humans?"
As for the final song, it's a recording of "Jesus Made Me Bad" in Spanish, and we move on to talking about one of Colombia's most famous exports — Shakira. "No one is a prophet in their own land," is the quote Lao Ra uses to describe how Colombians regard the Barranquilla native. "They say that she moved to Buenos Aires and picked up this Argentinian accent, and then moved to Spain and got married to this guy, and now she talks like a Spanish person. Then she dyed her hair blonde and blah blah blah. She's so famous, everyone's going to criticize her so much for whatever, like what do you want her to do? Stay here in Barranquilla for the rest of her life? Let the woman be!" Is she worried about how Colombians will view her choice of language? "Imagine what they're going to say! It's like 'Who the fuck is she, she sings in English.' I've never had a problem with languages. I go with the flow, I am from Colombia but I have lived in London for such a long time, of course I am going to have a mixture of both."
Just a year ago, Lao Ra was shooting a lo-fi video with her dad's camera, but four months into 2016 and she's already danced through Barranquilla Carnival with a whole film crew and released her first EP. Jesus didn't give her "a pretty face and a body to corrupt the man she wants" for no reason. We're just glad he didn't make her any other way. Sorry mom.
Text Felicity Kinsella
Photography Francesca Allen
Styling Laura Vartiainen
Lao Ra wears T-shirt customised by stylist. Skirt Stüssy. Earring model's own.