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Tish Hinojosa on Growing up on the Border, Playing for Presidents, and Coming to Marfa

6 Feb 2014

Tish Hinojosa. Courtesy of Tish Hinojosa.
Tish Hinojosa. Image courtesy of the artist.

As part of the opening weekend celebrations for our upcoming exhibition, Hubbard/Birchler’s Sound Speed Marker, Ballroom Marfa is hosting a free concert by The Tish Hinojosa Band at the USO Building in Marfa at 8pm on Saturday, March 1st.

Tish Hinojosa is an Austin-based singer whose music is a reflection of her borderland background, combining the sounds of Texas country music with a love of traditional Mexican folk tunes, inviting comparisons to Linda Ronstadt and Townes Van Zandt. She’s recorded a dozen albums — singing in both Spanish and English — since her now-classic 1987 debut, From Taos to Tennessee.

We talked to Tish via email about growing up in San Antonio, her years as a back-up singer for Michael Martin Murphy, and her favorite spots in Austin to hear new music.

How has living in Germany affected you and your music?

I spent 2004 through 2012 living in Hamburg Germany. Because my stay there was related to my love and marriage to a German, the effect was one at first of adventure and excitement and a willingness to absorb everything: language, culture, food, everything German.

Their musical influence or history is not something that could really be said to effect my singer-songwriter sensitivity, unless we were to talk about Bavaria and the southern German influence of the accordion on Mexican music due to German immigrants in Texas (which has in it’s way affected my music, but that’s more from a Texas standpoint).

My time in Germany was spent in very urban Hamburg, where cover bands, blues, R&B, and discos rule. This lack of contemporary appreciation of “my kind” of music… and the years of realizing the underside of the German culture I was actually in, left little effect except leaving me more and more homesick for the U.S.A. That’s why my marriage is over and I am back in Austin re-building my career.

Even though you haven’t been to Marfa in some time, what were your impressions of the town and the Big Bend region?

I am excited to visit Marfa. It seems that although it was always a stop on visits to river trips in Big Bend and to El Paso or to Alpine (especially to stay up for the Marfa Lights), it always seemed quaint and sleepy. As for the buzz I am hearing from Austin friends and colleagues, Marfa is now quite a cosmic center for art, culture, and an extension of “keep Austin weird”-ness. I am looking forward to experiencing it from this new perspective!

You’ve been making music for decades, so how do you think your work has changed and evolved since your first album?

[It’s] been a very adventurous journey. My very first recordings were Tex-Mex bubblegum singles released along border radio stations when I was in my teens. This record label actually went on to become the first and premier Tejano label later. I was an experiment for the label in the early ’70s.

My real singer-songwriter career blossomed in the early ’80s when I left my hometown of San Antonio where I had been singing cover songs for tourists on the Riverwalk. I entered the first two songs I ever wrote to the Kerrville Folk Festival song-writing competition in 1979 and won. I then moved to northern New Mexico where the country-swing, two-step-cowboy scene was in full bloom. I helped form a country band and learned and played songs of that genre, which was all-new to this San Antonio city girl. I continued writing and performing my own songs, first with this “country” sensibility, then later spreading out into social issues, Latino, and contemporary singer-songwriter writing.

You’ve said that your time in Nashville encouraged you to start writing your own songs; why is that? Did something in particular happen that motivated you?

During my New Mexico era, Michael Martin Murphy was the big “star” in the northern New Mexico area. He took note of my talent and invited me to join him as a back-up singer and I got to travel on his bus, sing on lots of Nashville shows and on Austin City Limits with him. I learned a lot while watching him perform from the wings. I also made connections through him, which introduced me to some publishing companies, where my music began to gain notice.
I ended up getting signed to A&M Records in LA in 1989. That’s when things really took off for me as a recording and touring artist.

You’ve performed in some pretty amazing places, including at the White House for the Clintons. What has been one of your most memorable performing experiences?

I’d like to say that winning Grammys has been the apex of my career — but it hasn’t. Still, just as importantly, and maybe more so was my invitation to play for the Clintons at the White House during their tenure there. This was really special, because my parents, having both been Mexican immigrants and strong Democrats, would have been so very proud of their barefoot, jeans-wearing, “hippie” daughter, who they were so worried about when she was a teenager (They both passed away long before this, but I think they must have been smiling and chuckling from heaven).

I have also had other amazing experiences such as being invited by Carly Simon to perform for a close circle of friends on Martha’s Vineyard. These “friends” included Diane Sawyer, Mike Nichols, actress Elaine May, Jackie Kennedy Onassis, and Caroline Kennedy. And as if this wasn’t enough, the Clintons invited my former husband, manager, and father of my two wonderful kids, Craig Barker and I, to a special White House dinner and Ballroom dance. I was seated at Hillary’s table next to Robert Redford!

I was also thrilled and excited to be invited to play at rallies for Al Gore’s presidential run and then to a reception at his Vice-Presidential residence. Then to be politically balanced, George W. Bush invited me to his last dinner at the Texas Governor’s Mansion before heading to the White House. Although I do not agree with him politically, I was flattered to be invited and that he seated me right next to him. We had a colorful and interesting conversation and he was very amicable and cordial.

Since I seem to have been a friend to such political heavyweights, I am sorry that I missed out on all the Obama excitement by being in Germany, while also not being politically involved enough to be invited to perform at the Obama White House. I’ve got my fingers crossed though – it’s not over yet!

In past interviews, you’ve mentioned a wide range of influences, including the Beatles, particularly Paul McCartney; traditional Mexican folk music; ’60s pop; and the Nashville country music scene and your mentor Michael Martin Murphy. Who are some other artists, either fellow musicians, visual artists, or filmmakers, who have inspired you? Whose work have you been looking at recently?

Influences have come from many realms over the years. Frida Kahlo’s intense self portraits inspired my song “Manos Huesos Y Sangre” (“Hands Bones And Blood”) back in 1991. Since I was a child, Paul McCartney’s melodic and lyrical sensibility has touched me. He still does; I translated and recorded one of his songs from his 2005 record Chaos And Creation In The Backyard, “A Certain Softness”, to Spanish on my latest CD After The Fair. Coincidentally, this record reflects my time spent in the very neighborhood in Hamburg, Germany where he and the Beatles developed their music.

I am touched and inspired by things genuine though they be pop, Latino, or country. The Nueva Cancion movement from South and Central America has been influential from the early days, as well as contemporary sounds by my friend, Nicaraguan singer-songwriter, Katia Cardenal. I love Dolly Parton and almost everything she has done. Film-wise, the recent film Searching For Sugarman about the Detroit musician Rodriguez is so inspirational.

If you had to describe your work to a stranger, what would you say?

Singer-songwriter with Tex-Mex, Latino, country and pop influences.

What was it like growing up in San Antonio? What is the music scene like there?

San Antonio was a great place to have grown up. I am a little sad that I was too young to have hit the window of folk and hippie coffee-houses of the ’60s, and the hippie-country scene going on in Austin at the same time. Or the soul/R&B Afro-Tejano scene of the early ’60s in SA (Doug Sahm could have explained this beautifully!). On the national level, however, my coming of age time – the ’70s – produced the “singer-songwriter”: Paul Simon, James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, John Denver, Jackson Browne, Neil Young. Carrying an acoustic guitar into a club was all you needed.

Any upcoming performances or projects you’re excited about right now and think we should know about?

My record After The Fair is still a baby and promoting that this year has been the top priority. Coming up next: an “All Spanish record”, making a CD of songs written by my longtime accompanists, Marvin Dykhuis and Chip Dolan, who have great songs of their own that need to be heard.

And I’m waiting for that invitation to play at the Obama White House before he leaves and Hillary enters. I also hope to play for and have dinner with Wendy Davis when she becomes the next resident of the Texas Governors Mansion.

What is your favorite thing about the Austin music scene?

Since my recent return to Austin from Germany, I am just getting re-acquainted with the latest Austin music scene. I am a fan of Matt Sever, a.k.a Matt The Electrician (I recorded one of his songs on my latest CD as well). Although Carolyn Wonderland has been around Austin for a while, seeing her lately has been inspiring.

I’ve been getting out to the Broken Spoke and El Mercado to hear some great country and western swing. Lots of new and up comings at the Whip-In, including not-up-and-coming-but-always-great Oliver Rajamani. I also love hearing Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison.

It is great being in this mecca of live music again – hearing my little brother/longtime friend James McMurtry at his midnight Continental Wednesdays, Bettysoo, Will T. Massey, Toni Price, …and the list goes on and on….My daughter Nina is now playing fiddle in a nuevo, gypsy, vaudeville band – The If Onlys. My son is writing wonderful songs influenced by John Prine, Steve Earle, and all the new generation of Kerrville Folk Festival hippies who have grown up since babyhood there and have become insightful writers and mommies and daddies. I also recorded one of my son, Adam’s, songs, on After The Fair. I love how good music is all around us in Austin. It is a wonderful eclectic rarity, and it’s easy to take it for granted, until you find yourself somewhere that lacks this. And there’s a lot of that void out there.