Lila Downs

Lila Downs tells a story about how snakes shed their skin every season, and how it is a powerful symbol for change.

Her newest album, Shake Away, is inspired by that symbol and although Downs talks about it in terms of the human condition, it could also refer to her career.

“It’s about healing and shaking the things away that are difficult to cope with sometimes,” Downs told Pollstar. “A lot of what we believe as a people could be interpreted as superstition, but it’s a beautiful array of symbols and stories.”

The Oaxacan-born artist, who was educated at the University of Minnesota and now splits time between Mexico City and New York, has made a career of vivid music and performance evocative of her native roots and people. That isn’t changing, but her sixth album sees her expanding into American roots music, with about half the songs sung in English.

Her themes continue to include those of social justice, mysticism and folklore as evidenced in songs like “Perro Negro,” “Tierra de Luz,”“Minimum Wage” and covers of Santana’s “Black Magic Woman” and Lucinda Williams’ “I Envy the Wind.”

“I wanted to go to the roots of American music and I think that’s why I went, in musical terms, to New Orleans, Texas and Louisiana,” Downs said.

“Minimum Wage,” in particular, carries a message about the dignity of work set to music that could be punched up on any honky tonk jukebox in the South.

That might seem like a major change to those familiar with Downs only through her concerts at performing arts centers or her Academy Awards performance of “Burn It Blue,” the Oscar-nominated song from the 2002 Frida Kahlo biopic,“Frida.”

And, in fact, Downs is moving from, though hardly abandoning, the PACs into more club and festival dates – going “where the love is,” as she and her agent, Maria Matias, put it.

Matias, a 14-year veteran agent at Monterey Peninsula Artists before striking out on her own, was “mesmerized” by Downs at a sold-out concert in Phoenix several years ago. “I thought, ‘Oh, my God, I would love to bring her into more of the mainstream,’” Matias told Pollstar. And several years later, they are doing just that.

“She’s a blend of both worlds,” Matias said of Downs. “She’s an American Mexican and she delivers very well. She does what moves her, and she always has.

Lila Downs

“With this album, she can reach a broader audience and we’re aware of that. With the team she has in place, and with this album, I think it is her time and she’ll capture that larger audience. I’m thrilled with her,” Matias said.

Downs’ team includes her seven band members, among them her husband and manager Paul Cohen. They met in a bar in Oaxaca where Paul was performing with a salsa band, and “I’d had a few mescales,” Downs said, laughing. They married 16 years ago.

Downs admits to a streak of melancholy in her songwriting, but when she talks about Cohen – who once worked as a circus clown – her tone brightens immediately.

But Cohen is all business when he talks about Downs’ career. They considered seeking professional management, but have yet to find the right fit. “We went that route, with a manager, and it gets to be, ‘You can’t do this, you can’t do that,’ Cohen told Pollstar.

“We do it ourselves, so if we lose money, we know that we will make it back. We can go out and do concerts with our whole team. I think of it as a restaurant strategy: We have this whole mixture that comes out good and it is consistent. We try to keep things consistent and the quality as high as we can.”

Downs has a strong fan base particularly in the Southwest U.S., but also draws well internationally. She has U.S. dates through September and moves on to Latin America and Europe later in the fall.

“We’re very fortunate because Lila’s a performer. There are acts out there that sell a lot of records, but they are not really great touring entities,” Cohen said. “Our records do OK, but our touring is stronger at the moment. Hopefully, the records will reach that level as well.”

This may just be the year for Downs and her team.

“Having gone independent, I have to say that we have a very special relationship in the sense that she champions me as a woman to get out there and do what I have to do and feed my soul,” Matias said. “I’m totally behind her for being the woman she is, being out there and doing what she does, and she embraces me for what I’ve done, too.

“The last couple of years have been really special for both of us; we’re kind of a sisterhood. She is a true artist that I’m blessed to be working with.” So perhaps Downs is the one shedding an old skin and revealing a new one.

“I’ve been thinking about it a lot and analyzing it, and I’m so attracted to the serpent at this time,” Downs said. “That’s what this story is about.” –