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Juana Molina: left-field folktronica at the Brisbane Festival

Juana Molina, who played at the Brisbane Festival last night, is a true original. Photo: Marcelo Setton

Argentine singer-songwriter Juana Molina is one of those fearless artists.

The kind of fearless artist who abandons a successful TV show at the height of its popularity to pursue a solo career in making and performing slightly left-field South American folk-tinged electronica.

A trailblazer for contemporary female DIY artists such Grimes, Molina’s set at the Brisbane Festival Spiegeltent showcased the diverse range of influences and styles that have made her one of the more unique musicians working today.

A youthful 51-year old, Molina took to the stage armed with an electric guitar, a synth, a collection of loop pedals and effects and a two piece band featuring a drummer and a keyboard player. While a small ensemble, they provided a lot of contrast throughout the set. The keyboard player also picked up an acoustic guitar on a couple of numbers, as well as doubling as a backing vocalist. The drummer balanced very adept finger drumming on a small electronic trigger pad with more straightforward acoustic kit work.

Molina takes the music of her homeland and completely reworks it, with short Latin-tinged guitar loops becoming trance like through layering and repetition. Extensive use of ring modulation and other effects occasionally turned Molina’s guitar into an atonal drone as her band created driving yet off kilter rhythms.

Comparisons to Bjork are lazy. The two artists may employ similar technical approaches and extended vocal techniques, but Bjork evokes wide-angle shots of the stark arctic beauty of her homeland whereas Molina somehow distills the hustle and flair of her Latin American heritage into a cut n’ paste aesthetic. It’s like a loop pedal and a sampler suddenly became self aware and found themselves lost on the streets of Buenos Aires trying to make sense of the nightlife.

Juana Molina performing live on KEXP.

Singing primarily in her native Spanish, Molina eschews traditional song structure and instead concentrates on creating swelling tension and release, repetition and contrast. Snatches of vocal melodies that are captured, repeated and layered to a crescendo.

Her guitar playing occasionally resembles the angular styling of Marc Ribot’s Prosthetic Cubans project and she is clearly an accomplished player with a strong and individual voice. However is was songs such as Un Dia, in which Molina put down the guitar, that somehow felt more visceral.

They allowed her to extend her vocal range and gave her band more space to create an incessant and almost industrial backing. Perhaps the sheer amount of work and attention needed to balance guitar playing, looping, keyboard textures and singing left her with less energy for her vocals on some of the other more guitar-based songs.

Speaking of energy, considering a 30-hour flight and jet lag, Molina’s on-stage enthusiasm was infectious. The audience size was a little disappointing and Molina made mention of the fact she wished it was a stand up rather than a sit down show. By the end she had a good portion of the Spiegeltent crowd dancing to her wonky brand of South American electronica.

Spanish banter resulted in Molina changing her encore at the last moment to please several audience members. The resultant song, El Perro, which she claimed not to remember, brought the house down. Molina harked back to her comedy days and even delivered some very fine canine impressions.

The final encore summed up all that was good about the evening; the South American flavoured rhythms creating a hypnotic beat, the synth bass giving the track a pulsing, relentless groove and Molina’s vocal loops building tension and an almost claustrophobic wall of sound.

And, finally, resolution – by stripping it all back to a single voice and a single melody.

Juana Molina played at the Brisbane Festival on September 25. Details here.

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