There’s never been a more opportune time for Latinx artists to impact contemporary R&B than right now. Not that Latinos in R&B are an entirely new phenomenon — as evidenced by old school Chicano Soul artists like the Royal Jesters, or proto-rockeros Cannibal and the Headhunters, who once toured with the Beatles. Yet in recent years, a growing number of new voices have supplemented the genre with touches of Latinidad: including Chicano Batman, Kali Uchis, and Omar Apollo. Nevertheless, when you think of R&B hotbeds, Mexico isn’t usually the first place that comes to mind.
An artist working to change that perception is 24-year-old Mariana de Miguel, better known as Girl Ultra. A Mexico City native, Girl Ultra is the flagship artist for Finesse Records: one of many labels at the helm of the city’s burgeoning R&B and hip-hop scene. Her breakthrough came with 2017’s Boys EP, a collection of glossy, Nineties-influenced R&B ballads; she followed up in 2018 with Adiós, a frosty breakup EP with a sobering downtempo sound to match.
After spending the better part of 2019 courting audiences across the United States, Girl Ultra full-length debut, Nuevos Aires. The album includes highlights like the New Jack Swing-infused “Ruleta,” as well as her swoon-worthy space jam with Cuco, “Dame Love,” and her seething collaboration with Ximena Sariñana, “fuckhim.” Rolling Stone spoke with Girl Ultra on the eve of her debut LP release to talk her new album and her views on Mexico’s bubbling R&B scene.
What are your favorite songs on Nuevos Aires?
“Chachachá” is one of my favorite songs. Musically, I just find it addictive. I tried to encapsulate this particular Eighties sound with the lust of falling in love every Friday with someone new. I also love “Amore Salvaje,” which is the album’s closer. It’s a love song that I didn’t write for anyone in particular. It’s like an ode to love; something different than anything else I’ve ever written.
One of the more interesting songs on album is the single “Ruleta,” as well as its striking video, which closes with the message “Music is not a competition.” What were you trying to express with that visual?
The song is called “Ruleta” because life is not roulette; how ultimately you are the designer of your own reality. I also wanted the video to make a statement about Mexico’s music scene, because everything tends to feel like a competition. Many people pretend that we’re in a big sisterhood, but also try to tear people down with a word or comment. Many of the women in the video work in the industry. [We had] this idea of a girl gang that seems very close, but in the end they just rip off everything that I’m wearing.
What drew you to R&B as opposed to mainstream Mexican pop growing up?
My father was the driving force for exposing me to different musical tastes growing up. Every time I saw him, he brought me different kinds of records, like Aretha Franklin albums or film soundtracks with a lot of different genres. I had my “musical awakening” around 12 years old, when I began to really dig into different music through Limewire and online music piracy. I realized that I had a special taste for R&B, especially its soulful melodies, which seemed to be everywhere without me realizing. For example, all of my favorite Nickelodeon theme songs were R&B. Then there were popular artists, like Sin Bandera, that used R&B progressions and melodies that just stuck in my head.
As I became a bigger and bigger R&B fan, I realized that I wanted to open up the genre to my mother language. I felt the need to really explore this sound, discovering where it comes from and where it could be going. There really wasn’t a big R&B scene in Mexico, so I felt sort of a responsibility to make that happen.
“Latin music is not just urbano, salsa, etc. Latin music is every genre of music. In Mexico there are punk bands, shoegaze bands, bossa nova, jazz — and it’s still Latin music.”
How would you describe the current R&B scene in Mexico?
R&B music has been slowly building a scene in Mexico City over the past 25 years. . . . There are a couple of projects in Monterrey, Mexico City, Guadalajara. Artists throughout the country have been creating this community without even realizing it. Now we’re able to work together to create this community, because a movement won’t pop if there is no teamwork. You can’t just give all that responsibility to just one artist.
I feel like the biggest issue is our current mentality toward new music. It’s very hard to open up the spectrum because we don’t usually give a spotlight to new projects. We try to label them right away as the new this or the new that, “blah, blah, blah,” and as a result, artists are restricted from growing. Everything about Mexico’s music scene feels very tight. For example, it’s very hard to find opening acts in the R&B scene. You cannot create an all-R&B event, and that’s the struggle. It’ll be hard for casual fans to understand what we’re doing if they can’t consume the whole thing in one place.
There are a number of Latinx R&B singers doing pretty well in the U.S., like Kali Uchis and Omar Apollo. Have you found it much easier to recruit a fanbase in the States versus Mexico?
It’s hard to compare, because even the styles of promoting music change based on the culture, and there are pros and cons to each. The music industry in the United States is well-built, while in Mexico things grow more organically. For example, Mexican fans tend to be more grateful because R&B in Spanish is a new experience for them. You’ve mentioned Kali Uchis and Omar Apollo: I’m a big fan of both, but I feel we’ve got to break away from this whole “Latin boom.” It’s very different to be Mexican American, or a naturalized [U.S. citizen] in the music industry than being a Latino living in Latin America, or a Mexican living in Mexico. The opportunities are very different. Even someone like J Balvin, who struggled for years to get where he did, was able to legally reside in the United States. I just wish it were easier for non-U.S. citizens to have an opportunity to promote and tour in person.
Speaking of J Balvin, do you feel a connection with the música urbana scene?
I really love reggaetón and everything, but I’m not connected with that scene. A lot of people and friends who are not in the music business say, “With this Latin boom, you’re going to make it!” I think that’s confusing and unfair for other Latinos who do not [make] música urbana or reggaetón. I want fans to understand that Latin music is not just urbano, salsa, etc. Latin music is every genre of music. In Mexico there are punk bands, shoegaze bands, bossa nova, jazz, and it’s still Latin music.
Are there specific artists who you feel are getting overlooked by music media or streaming algorithms?
[Of many] underrated artists … an example is Natalia Lafourcade. She is an amazing artist, someone I admire so much, and she is finally getting the recognition she deserves after working for 20 years. I feel like, in this era, it would be very difficult for someone to repeat that. It is very easy to share your music, but there is so much being released every day that we, as an audience, don’t have enough time to pay attention and process everything that is going on. Twenty years ago, when we bought a record, we listened to that record over and over — it was like a religious feeling. Today, everything quickly becomes ephemeral.
Many of your most high-profile songs so far have been duets, one of them being “Dame Love” with Cuco. How did that collaboration happen?
We were playing the Ceremonia Festival in Toluca, Mexico, two years ago. A friend introduced us, we exchanged numbers, and we soon became really good internet friends. I was going to L.A. and he said, “Hey, let’s make music.” We went into the studio, recorded the song, and it came out almost right away. We really vibed, and I feel that song really encapsulates that friendship. It was very challenging for both of us, exploring our Mexican spectrum within. I told him to sing his verse in Spanish, which is not his first language, and he challenged me to do the same in English. It was a fun experiment going back and forth that way.
Of all the collaborations that you’ve done, which was your favorite?
I wouldn’t call any of them my single favorite, every collaborator happens to be a really good friend of mine — like Ximena Sariñana, Little Jesus, Clubz. There’s a different magic in each one of those.
Speaking of Ximena, she’s the rare mainstream pop singer who’s also very supportive of independent artists. How did you two get connected?
I grew up listening to Ximena; her debut album, Mediocre, was my teenage-angst moment. We connected through a friend, and Ximena wanted me to work on a song for her latest album. We got together at my studio and she brought her daughter, nanny, and dog. The entire atmosphere quickly made me feel like I was part of the family. She showed me the song and I loved it. Our vibe was so strong, we [recorded] “fuckhim” for my own album that same day. I really admire Ximena as a musician, and it was refreshing to see that she was very open to new ideas, while sharing her knowledge of the business with me.
How do you feel about streaming services making it easier to distribute your music to more people, but making it harder to succeed financially off of sales?
For the audience, these platforms are great. To have all this music for a small amount of money would have blown my mind as a child. But as an independent artist with a tight income, it is very hard to monetize our music. I know that selling records is not the main way that I’ll make money. I’m very grateful to get to all of these ears around the world because of the internet, but I particularly romanticize the Eighties, because it was the last time there seemed to be a utopian feeling about the future. The way my parents experienced the music of their era made the artists seem mythical. I think we’ve lost that feeling, now that everything is so immediate.
Are you interested in breaking out beyond the R&B genre, or would you rather pioneer a new wave of Mexico-based R&B?
Of course I would like to pioneer a new sound, but I’ve always seen myself as an artist working in phases. I don’t limit myself, I feel like the artist must be infinite in that way. I come from a family of painters, and I also paint and engage in other creative activities. I don’t try to limit myself with anything, and that extends to any genre that I may be performing. I’m more interested in seeing how things are going to evolve.
Where do you see yourself in the end of the next decade?
I’m going to own a farm.
No, in Wisconsin. Ha-ha. I don’t know — the world is so hectic. I just want to have some cows and chickens and grow corn. If I’m going to be a little more serious, I just want to be at my creative best and be happy with what I do. I want to find peace in my head and where I go from here. That’s what I want.