Mon Laferte has a little bit of a cold. It’s not surprising given her recent itinerary. The Chilean-born alt-pop star has lately gotten back from performing at the Latin Grammys in Seville, Spain, where she was up for her fifth Latin Grammy, this time for Best Alternative Song. Right now, she’s beaming in over Zoom from her adopted home of Tepoztlán, a 90-minute drive from Mexico City, and mulling over my question as if it were a warm cup of tea. She admits her newly released album Autopoiética, number eight, is different from the others. “I think this is one of my most honest albums,” Laferte agrees through a translator. Sun shines through a large window on healthy houseplants.
It’s a cozy, down-to-earth scene, miles away from the larger-than-life persona Laferte treats audiences to: A broken-hearted diva in a vintage-inspired sheath dress with rapier-sharp eyeliner wings and a coiffure topped with a spray of roses. These points are equally distant from the gritty mood and clubby, electronic sounds sprinkled throughout the new album, which represent less a hard pivot and more the completion of her slow evolution away from alt-sad girl and toward something more complex and dangerous. Those elements feel more inspired by the nightlife of the nearby capital city.
Laferte is identified with her glamorous-to-slightly campy stage looks and her powerful, theatrical voice that lends itself to the melodramatic. She has a tendency to wrap genuine emotion in gauzy nostalgia, not unlike Lana del Rey, with whom she recently had a highly publicized meeting. These trademarks have made her an icon, but she’s clear that the inspirations for her songwriting come from her real life, not a noirish dreamworld. “I always write music about things that are going on around me. I speak about personal matters, my day-to-day, my relationship with other human beings, my fears, my insecurities, my happiness, and my obsessions,” she states. This rings especially true for this album, which contains directly autobiographical songs such as “Te Juro que Volveré,” which tells her story as an immigrant to Mexico from Chile.
If Laferte’s latest collection of songs is more direct about some of her fears and joys than on previous releases, it may be because her life has gotten very real over the last few years. She’s at the peak of her music career, recently turned 40, tied the knot, and became a mom. Autopoiética was forged in the thick of all this change. “I wrote this album in the middle of the night while I was breastfeeding my baby. I was writing with one hand and holding my baby with the other,” she says.
The singer-songwriter continues, “At that time and place, I was going through a phase where I was trying to be a good mom, a good partner, a good wife. I was trying to be able to do everything at the same time and I was kind of going crazy. I still am, a little bit. But it was the absolute truth of being myself while I was doing that.” It was in this period of intense challenge that Laferte found the inspiration for her new album.
Personal matters provide a spark for many songs on Autopoiética, but one of Laferte’s “obsessions” gave it a structure. The title and concept for it are drawn from the work of Chilean evolutionary biologists Humberto Maturana and his protege Francisco Varela, who developed the theory of autopoiesis. It’s a complex idea with applications far beyond biology. At its simplest, autopoiesis is a definition of life as that which creates and reproduces itself. Explaining what their ideas mean to her, Laferte says, “I’m a follower of Maturana, not as a biologist, but as a thinker. Autopoiesis is about the biology of the cell and the cells ability to recreate itself. I feel that autopoiesis is something that all human beings have the capability to do. I have gone through that process myself in different situations.”
The themes of creation and recreation are embodied in the album’s Protean sonic twists. It opens with “Tenochtitlán,” a moody slice of trip-hop, which is followed by a Mexican-style cumbia that abuts a loungey bossa nova. Next comes “NO+SAD,” a convincing foray into bad-as-hell neo-perreo. Later, there is salsa, rap, and the dark techno of the title track. “Mew Shiny” is an industrial pop ballad that could have been written for Björk. It’s as if Laferte were in a state of flux and transformation from song to song. A playlist she created of musical inspirations for the album mixes Willie Colón, Aphex Twin, Radiohead, and Tego Calderón, with lots of Ray of Light-era Madonna, Our Lady of Pop Plasticity.
These ideas also show up in the lyrical content. Themes of transformation, self-definition and defiant self-empowerment recur. “Metamorfosis” casts self-transformation as both a natural and a mystical process, while “Tenochtitlán” faces down social judgment and bigotry.
What brought on the vibe shift? There does come a time in the life cycle of every alternative singer-songwriter when they just want to dance. It can be spontaneous, or there could be a catalyst. In Mon Laferte’s case, it was boredom.
“I invited that change because often I get very bored doing the same thing. A couple of years back, I was in a concert and I realized that I was repeating notes. And I was thinking at the end of the concert, ‘So, what’s for dinner?’ At that moment, I realized that I was getting bored. And it sucked because I didn’t do it when I was young and a rocker and a rebel,” the musician recalls. It was then that Mon Laferte began the process that resulted in Autopoiética. This suggests a theory of musical reinventions: Sometimes you have to transform to stay true to yourself.