MONOGEM Explores Her Mexican Heritage in “Soy Lo Que Soy”
The new single “Soy Lo Que Soy” marks a change of pace for Los Angeles–based MONOGEM: It’s the first time she’s released a song in Spanish. The singer tells BAZAAR.com, “For years, I’ve struggled with my identity as a half-Mexican woman growing up in the suburbs of Los Angeles.” She later adds, “Writing in Spanish had been in the back of my mind since I started writing songs.”
MONOGEM was ready to “incorporate her Guadalajaran heritage in her music,” according to a press release, at a time when minorities feel under attack in the United States, and controversial immigration policies endanger Mexican– and Latin–American migrants. “There have got to be so many people like me in America, who had similar upbringings,” she explains.
The risk has already paid off. “The thing that I was the most scared and insecure about, recording a song in Spanish, is of course just getting the biggest response,” the singer reveals. “Isn’t it funny how that works?”
MONOGEM, real name Jen Hirsh, has been crafting brooding pop songs for years now. Courteney Cox’s daughter, Coco Arquette, even starred in the music video for MONOGEM’s “Wild,” an ’80s-inspired synth anthem about the urgency of time.
But it’s with “Soy Lo Que Soy” that the singer sets a new course. MONOGEM speaks to BAZAAR.com about her ever-evolving career, her relationship to the Spanish language, her passion for shopping vintage, and finding the courage to start again.
After a period of severe anxiety, MONOGEM was ready to get back to her roots.
This song has been a long time coming. Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve always dreamt of being able to sing, perform, and write songs in Spanish. When my grandmother was alive, I would sing to her, and it would make her so happy.
I went to Berklee College of Music, where I studied a lot of Brazilian music—I developed a real knack for singing in Portuguese. And in the back of my mind, I always sort of knew, Why aren’t you singing in Spanish? The language you spoke every day of your childhood. It developed into a horrible insecurity for me, and I kept pushing it down.
At the beginning of this year, I was in flux, in a transition. I was suffering from severe anxiety. My team around me was changing. I reconnected with some friends from college who I hadn’t seen in 10 years, the two producers I wrote the song with. We had zero expectations. All my cards were out on the table. I told them about where I was at with everything in my life and how I had wanted to try writing in another language. We made a Latin beat, and it all happened so quickly. We wrote two songs in a week.
Writing “Soy Lo Que Soy” was such an informative process. The title has such a big meaning—”I am what I am.” It all came together.
Politically and personally, MONOGEM knew it was the right time to address her heritage.
Writing in Spanish had been in the back of my mind since I started writing songs, 10 or 15 years ago. After going through such a difficult time, I realized that I was searching for a deeper connection to myself. I had to completely strip myself down to nothing, in January on the verge of a mental breakdown, and slowly build up my confidence to be able to speak about my Mexican heritage.
With the current political climate in the U.S. and Mexico, the timing felt kismet. It feels like this was all meant to be. There have got to be so many people like me in America, who had similar upbringings, so that’s where I’m trying to connect with people, and just be really honest about who I am and where I come from.
“Soy Lo Que Soy” is the first time MONOGEM has allowed herself to be in the spotlight.
This is the first song where I was instantly inspired visually. The first visual that came to mind was of these swaying hips. I was just like, “I want beautiful women, and I want to see their hips.” I had met with a new director called Avery Wheless, and she helped me bring it to life. She just built this sparkly, vintage world. The whole video, I felt like we were dripping in diamonds.
I’m not used to being center of attention in my music videos. But the director had this idea of me in a spotlight with a microphone and with a title like “Soy Lo Que Soy” (“I Am What I Am”), it was like coming into my own, and coming into my body and into myself as an artist. And who doesn’t want to be dripping with diamonds, am I right?
We shot it on VHS. It fits with the whole vibe of the song. From the start, doesn’t it feel like I’m blowing off the dust on a record and getting ready to put the needle on the vinyl?
She dreams of working with famous directors and Instagram crystal artists alike.
There’s a couple of directors I’d love to work with. Cara Stricker is really artful. There’s a director that specializes in animation, and I always thought it would be cool to have an animated video. I’m all about finding strong, creative female directors. That’s sort of been my vibe lately, and makes me feel the most comfortable, with strong women around me.
Sara Shakeel is a visual artist who creates crystal art and bedazzles photos. I found her on Instagram and have literally just been reposting all of her work. She’s amazing. I love sparkly things, and with a name like MONOGEM, I use the gem reference a lot. Obviously, if I were to ever come into contact with Spike Jonze, sure, I’d work with him.
She’s growing into her stage name with every passing year.
Searching for a moniker, I wish it was a more glamorous process. I wanted to play on audio references, either mono or stereo, and I stumbled upon the word monogem. I found out that a Monogem Ring is actually a supernova remnant in the sky after an explosion, which is so cool.
I began to dive into loads of research about monogems in our galaxies, and one of the largest ones found is near the Cancer constellation, and when I found that out, I was like, “That’s the one,” because I’m a Cancer. It rang true for me. Over the years, I’ve developed more of a spiritual connection to astrology—I pay attention. I feel like I’ve come into the moniker and what it means over the years, which has been really special.
She has a passion for discovering vintage gems.
Some of my favorite pieces are vintage, which has been really fun for me. Growing up, I didn’t really ever shop in vintage stores. My stylist has opened up my whole world and taught me how to be patient and take my time vintage shopping. My style has evolved over the years, but I try not to take it too seriously.
Some of my favorite designers are Ganni, Rachel Comey, and my new obsession is Blazé Milano, an Italian blazer brand. There’s a blue jacket I’m wearing on the “Soy Lo Que Soy” cover art. My stylist pulled that jacket for the shoot, and I was so obsessed I bought it on the spot. As far as vintage stores here, I love Wasteland. Public Sale is a traveling vintage shop that’s amazing. And I’m having a lot of fun showing my curves a little more lately.
MONOGEM’s musical inspirations range from retro-inspired pop to Latin icons.
I’m really into Helado Negro. I love The Marias, I’ve been listening a lot to their record. And obviously Rosalía is a huge inspiration. I got to see her play, and it was so cool seeing the Latin community in Los Angeles really come together for that show.
For pop music, I’m really into Electric Guest. I love Shura—she’s one of the best pop songwriters ever. And Bat for Lashes.
I try to go back to my jazz roots. Whenever I’m home alone, I’m listening to Bill Evans and jazz pianists, Ryuichi Sakamoto … all those old-school jazz musicians I grew up on. I’m always trying to go back there and feel what I felt when I was a young musical sponge. I just saw the Linda Ronstadt documentary. I felt like there were so many parallels between Linda and I.
One of her songs just went viral in China, and she’s ready to tour.
My new EP comes out on October 18, and I’m headlining the Moroccan Lounge in Los Angeles on the 19th to celebrate. Hopefully, shows in New York and London are in the works. In 2020, I’m hoping to tour, including going to China. My song “Wild” has gone completely viral in China—it’s had over 150 million streams—which is the coolest thing ever. And I have another Spanish song coming in 2020—I’ve translated one of my popular releases into Spanish.
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.
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