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Grammy award winner Lila Downs on her most personal album yet

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

The Grammy Award-winning artist Lila Downs has sung about love, loss, identity and immigration throughout her career. Reporter Betto Arcos says that Downs's latest album, "La Sanchez," is her most personal yet.

BETTO ARCOS, BYLINE: Last December, Lila Downs lost her life partner, American jazz saxophonist Paul Cohen, from a heart condition. Speaking emotionally, Downs says it's been difficult to overcome the grief, but now she can talk about it.

LILA DOWNS: Yeah, it was tough. It was tough. I had to keep working because I knew that it would affect my voice if I didn't. I hadn't recorded the voice, and Paul had planned for us to do it in January, so I didn't cancel. And I would record, and then I would cry for a whole while.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CONJURO")

DOWNS: (Singing in Spanish).

ARCOS: Downs and Cohen were together for almost 30 years. Cohen was her musical partner, producer and manager. Downs says, to prepare for this album, they invited musicians who play in both her U.S.- and Mexico-based bands to go to Oaxaca to take part in a composition workshop. They spent two weeks with Downs and Cohen in their home studio like a big family get-together, working on songs and eating delicious Oaxacan food.

DOWNS: And we had a lot of tlayudas, mole, mezcal (laughter). (Speaking Spanish). That's where we came up with several arrangements that continue on the album.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DOS CORAZONES")

DOWNS: (Singing in Spanish).

ARCOS: She says some of the songs were written during the time they almost separated.

DOWNS: A bunch of these songs are about (speaking Spanish). It's about separation (laughter) and heartbreak. (Speaking Spanish).

ARCOS: When Cohen died last December, there were songs she still had to write to complete the album. One of them is called "Toda La Noche" - "All Night."

DOWNS: Which is really a song that's the continuation - right? - after we lost him. It's a very therapeutic song for me. I listen to it to - I have to cry, but then it's necessary for me to perform it, as well.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TODA LA NOCHE")

DOWNS: (Speaking Spanish).

And then "La Curacion" is really a helpful song about losing someone and learning to live with their memory and not forgetting.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LA CURACION")

DOWNS: (Singing in Spanish).

ARCOS: Leo Soqui is an accordionist, guitarist and music director for Downs's Mexico City-based band. He has been working with her for 17 years. Soqui says this is an album where Downs reflects on her life.

LEO SOQUI: (Through interpreter) This album, without a doubt, is the most personal of her career. In other albums, she's delving into music styles and various themes, but in this case, it's an album that talks about her story. That's why it's called "La Sanchez." Sanchez is her mother's last name. I think that's the way she can tell her story - through this album.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOLITA SOLITA")

DOWNS: (Singing in Spanish).

ARCOS: Downs says the song "Solita Solita" - "Alone, Alone" - is about her own empowerment and self-confidence.

DOWNS: I have been a "Solita Solita" kind of a person all my life, no? I think that, as a woman, I've been pretty independent in my ideas and my vision and our music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOLITA SOLITA")

DOWNS: (Singing in Spanish).

ARCOS: Now that the album is out, Downs says she gets to live with these songs for a couple years. She can't think of a better therapy for the soul. For NPR News, I'm Betto Arcos.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOLITA SOLITA")

DOWNS: (Singing in Spanish). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Betto Arcos
Betto Arcos is a freelance music journalist. He writes stories about music from around the world, with an emphasis on Latin America. He has been a contributor to NPR programming since 2009, when he began reviewing music for All Things Considered on the weekends.