This article originally appeared in the March/April 2020 issue of Canadian Musician magazine.
By Andrew King | Photos by Daniella Murillo
Lido Pimienta doesn’t concern herself with convention; in fact, she’s built her artistic identity and subsequent career while laughing in its face – and her approach has proven to be rather fruitful thus far.
In 2017, Pimienta won the Polaris Music Prize for her breakthrough album, La Papessa, beating out peers like Feist and Leonard Cohen to claim the coveted title of best Canadian album of the year based solely on artistic merit. As a result, expectations are high and anticipation is palpable for its follow-up, Miss Colombia, set to drop in mid-April 2020.
But again, Pimienta doesn’t seem too concerned – at least not about the first part – because regardless of how it charts or how many clumsy genre labels reviewers stick to it, she’s created something definitive, transgressive, and ultimately transformative. She knows it, and isn’t afraid to say so.
“Everything that I do, whether it’s a music video or photo shoot or song or painting, I control. I’m behind it and I’m controlling it,” Pimienta asserts, speaking to Canadian Musician on the final evening of an extended visit to her native Colombia. “That’s very important to me because I am a woman, and I have been traumatized in my past experience of people taking credit for my work and all that. I know that I have to be very fierce and stand by my work and not be humble about it, because humility, when it comes to your work, is poisonous. You need confidence to know when it’s good, know when it’s shit, and know when you need to start again.”
Ironically, that confidence is partially a product of her experiences creating La Papessa years earlier, meaning the record that nearly 200 influential Canadian media types deemed the best of that year was, as far as its creator is concerned, a stepping stone to something greater.
“I have an artistic instinct, and I learned to listen to that instinct and to myself when I made La Papessa,” she shares. “If you listen to that album front-to-back, you can hear a lot of cooks [in the kitchen]; it was more experimenting and trying things out. I had an opportunity to make mistakes and grow, but that’s a thing of the past; Miss Colombia is me now, and ready to be even better.”
Despite the distance between release dates and notable artistic contrasts, the stories behind La Papessa and Miss Colombia actually weave through one another.
About five years ago, Pimienta moved from London, ON, to Toronto as a newly single mom and met a musician named Matt Smith – aka Prince Nifty – after his performance at a beloved but now-defunct arts community hub in Bloordale Village. “I loved his beats, loved the sound, and went up to him after and told him I’d love to work together,” Pimienta recalls about the fateful encounter, and it wasn’t long before they had their chance.
In 2016, Pimienta impressed Smith with some demos she’d been working on, so the two travelled to Santiago, Chile together in the fall to collaborate. “We had so much fun,” Pimienta enthuses, noting that while Smith’s workflow contrasts with her own, they were ultimately rather complementary with one another. Amidst their work, Pimienta realized she needed to release the collection of songs she’d been sitting on for a while to make good on a stipulation of her Ontario Arts Council funding. With little fanfare, she put La Papessa online and went back to her new music.
Returning to Canada shortly thereafter, the buzz around the LP – actually her second, following a promising debut, Color, from 2010 – was spreading. As attention surrounding the project amassed, the songs she and Nifty were working on were temporarily set aside.
La Papessa made its mark pre- and post-Polaris frenzy, sending eyes and ears from all over in Pimienta’s direction. Here was a gifted, self-assured, entirely independent artist and woman of colour seemingly coming out of nowhere (at least as far as the uninitiated were concerned) with a brilliant, genre-bending sonic collage sung primarily in Spanish. It wasn’t just novel for “Canadian” music; hers was an unparalleled voice that drew acclaim from all corners of the globe.
What’s more, she would readily and openly sound off about the realities and circumstances shaping her life and work – her identity as an Afro-Colombian with indigenous roots raising her family in Canada, her experiences with and opinions on the politics of race, sexuality, and gender in a new country grappling hard with all three.
Concurrent with the international praise for her art came labels like “polarizing” and “controversial” for those assertions; however, that usually revealed more about who was saying it than who it was being said about.
Subsequently, La Papessa wasn’t just a lesson in artistic and technical growth for Pimienta; it offered a clear picture of her new reality as a public figure with a multi-layered identity and, ultimately, a primer for some of the musical and lyrical themes she explores on Miss Colombia.
Pregnant through part of La Papessa’s support cycle, Pimienta gave birth in the summer of 2018, enjoyed a month of downtime with her newly-expanded family, and then dialed Nifty to get back to work.
Phase one of that work was building a studio – since dubbed Pipe Tocala – in the apartment below hers. “On top of being a musical genius and all the things that he is, he builds stuff, and he’s a sound engineer, so he made me the most beautiful studio with beautiful bass traps and [treatments] in the ceiling,” Pimienta says about Nifty, who she calls her “partner and mentor in creation.”
Phase two was getting back to the music, and they dove in earnestly. “If you know me personally, you know my life really revolves around my children, my family, my home, so Nifty basically became another member of the family,” Pimienta explains. “He would come for breakfast and eat with us, we’d listen to records and get pumped for the day of work… We spent a lot of time together.”
Miss Colombia was made over the following nine months, mostly recorded and produced in Toronto but incorporating tracks done earlier in South America. Pimienta points out the humour in the timeline: “It was like another nine months, right? I gave birth to my baby, and then nine months later, I gave birth to my album.”
Like its predecessor, Miss Colombia is a captivating and compelling piece of work; however, it’s also clearly the product of an artist at a different place in her life – one with more to say and more certain of how best to say it. La Papessa was understated in its brilliance; Miss Colombia beams it out with tenacity.
The record is bookended by different versions of “Para Transcribir” – “SOL” (sun) to open and “LUNA” (moon) to close. The former serves as a good reminder from the outset that, beyond the meticulous arrangements, diverse instrumentation, and stellar production, it is Pimienta’s entrancing voice and undeniable presence anchoring the allure here.
“Eso Que Tu Haces,” the lead single, is perhaps most emblematic of the whole. Rooted in slow-burning cumbia – a traditional Colombian style fusing African, Indigenous, and European elements – and porro – a sub-genre of cumbia based on a derivative rhythm – the track borrows tinges of so many different styles and influences that it takes on a colour all to itself. All the while, the upbeat and floating melody offers an interesting foil to lyrics about a troubled relationship.
In fact, much of Miss Colombia’s lyrical content focuses on the personal and interpersonal. The title refers to the 2015 Miss Universe debacle where host Steve Harvey erroneously announced Miss Colombia as the winner before taking back her crown, and Pimienta says that moment spurred plenty of introspection about identity and self-worth. On “Pelo Cucu,” for example, the singer uses the texture of her hair as a vehicle to examine her Afro-Colombian heritage.
It does have its weightier moments as well, like “Resisto Y Ya,” about the late-2019 protests in Colombia in which hundreds of thousands of citizens took to the streets in demonstration against Ivan Duque Marquez’s government.
The album also benefits from a pair of standout guest features: Li Samuet, vocalist of beloved Colombian electro-vacilon band Bomba Estereo, whose captivating voice intertwines beautifully with Pimienta’s throughout the vibe-heavy “Nada,” and a more communal affair with the members of traditional Afro-Colombian collective Sexteto Tabala.
“They’re my favourite band in Colombia,” stresses Pimienta about the latter. “I’ve been a fan since 13 and it’s always been my dream to write a song for them, and here, I made it happen.” The song, featuring a notably raw and open-air production style in contrast with the rest of the album, boasts truly infectious rhythms and an evolving call-and-response that feels like it could (and should) go on for days.
“I don’t think I’d be the artist I am now without collaborating,” muses Pimienta, who was actually in Colombia to co-produce some of Bomba Estereo’s new material at the time of this interview. “Collaborating with others makes you better; it’s a good practice to stay fresh and not fall into the traps of your habits.”
Of course, that goes both ways. While Pimienta has welcomed many other artists into her creative process over the years, she’s also lent her talents to realize other people’s projects. Notably, two of those higher-profile spots were on albums that were also shortlisted for the Polaris Prize: Shad’s A Short Story About a War and A Tribe Called Red’s We Are the Halluci Nation.
“It’s important to be an instrument to somebody else and to be of service to someone else’s vision, and then maybe they’ll do the same for you,” she says. “I just don’t know any other way to work.”
Owing to its incredibly eclectic composition, Pimienta’s music isn’t always conducive to description using existing labels; it’s the type that spawns new ones, though that hasn’t prevented people from attempting the former.
“The label I continue to see next to my name is nu-cumbia, or digi-cumbia, or world music? I don’t do any of that,” Pimienta asserts. “In fact, I’m a purist when it comes to traditional Colombian music; if you listen to the album, you hear a little bit of cumbia, porro, and all these specific regional Colombian sounds. So I thought, ‘Okay, you want to hear cumbia from me? Let me do it my way. You want me to be this exotic Colombian whatever character? I’m gonna be a hyperbole of it, and I’m gonna run my filter through it, so they’re going to hear a familiar sound, but won’t be able to label it in these same stupid ways.’”
Turns out the plan is working as expected; at the time of our interview, only “Eso Que Tu Haces” and “No Pude” had been heard by the masses, yet Pimienta reports they’re already getting different kinds of comments from the critics – “And I love it,” she tacks on.
Miss Colombia is exactly the album that Pimienta wanted to make – as true a real-life representation of her initial vision as she, Prince Nifty, and their various collaborators could realize. Again, much of that stems from fervently following her muse with no regard for external influence – just an artist knowing exactly what she wants to do and exactly what she doesn’t.
That newfound confidence, compared to the artist that made La Papesssa years earlier, can be partially attributed to learning to record and produce herself. She didn’t want to rely on other people to realize her art, and so now, she wields that power herself.
“When I was writing La Papessa, I was a single mom living in Toronto with a little kid, sharing an apartment with two other roommates, so I became a student of the YouTube tutorial academy,” she jokes. “I would finish my essays [for school], put my baby to sleep, and then ask the internet, ‘How do I put my voice in the computer?’”
She’s taken a similar approach to virtually every other aspect of her career, too. From her photography and music videos to her wardrobe and live performances, all of which seamlessly meld the traditional with a boundary-pushing creative flare, Pimienta is the mastermind, piecing everything together with a consistency and cohesion that’s impossible to ignore.
And even though she’s speaking with Canadian Musician two months ahead of Miss Colombia’s formal release, Pimienta already knows exactly where she’s going with the next one. “I already have a title and seven songs,” she boasts, noting her experiences surrounding Miss Colombia have only emboldened her as a creator and made her vision for the future that much clearer.
She’s faced her detractors and critics without flinching, fought off some sharks in the water, created internationally-acclaimed art, and carved out a critically and commercially successful career in the process. Indeed, Lido Pimienta is a force to be reckoned with.
Good luck getting that crown off of Miss Colombia’s head this time…
Andrew King is the Editor-in-Chief of Canadian Musician.