Extraordinary Latinas: Interview with Vanessa Burden aka Beats of Burden + Accompanying Playlist
If there is a so called "American Dream"- Vanessa Burden has certainly lived the "Austin Dream." How many young people come to Austin each year yearning to make a name for themselves in the legendary Austin music scene?! Vanessa learned how to advocate for herself as a front woman starting in 2001. She learned the Austin ropes of event planning,booking bands, street teaming etc. She hosted her own radio show "Beats of Burden" on Austin's iconic KOOP where she curated musica latina mainstays like cumbia, bossa, and salsa and introduced moombahton and ZZK to Austin airwaves.
I met Vanessa as a party and event DJ bringing her big smile, big hair, big buenas vibras, and her delicious and distinct latina sabor to the function. She's currently sharing her skills and experience with girls as well as trans and gender con-conforming youth with Girls Rock Austin! She continues to DJ some dope as hell events, is working on her solo project "Finessa" and is fronting Latin-Psych- Rock Fusion band "Los Alcos." You can (and you absoltely should) catch Vanessa this SXSW- be sure to follow her at BeatsofBurden on Instagram for updates!
As an extra special treat- Beats of Burden herself has blessed us with A PLAYLIST to accompany the interview! I, of course, listened to it as I put together and I can't wait for y'all to hear it. You can find it HERE <3
R.A.: Where and when did you musical journey begin? Did you have any musicians in your family that encouraged you?
Vanessa: The first things that come to mind are church hymnals and a tambourine. My mother was Pentecostal so I remember loving to go to that church so I could play the tambourine! My dad was Baptist, so that's where I learned how to read music and sing harmonies. My grandfather on my dad's side played in a polka group back in the day and had an organ that I played every time I would go to their house. I would sit there and tinker on the organ for hours. I don't have any musicians in my family other than my grandfather that I am aware of, but my family recognized my love for music and was always very encouraging.
R.A.: Did you find any challenges in breaking into the music world- particularly as a woman in Austin, particularly as a female DJ, and especially as a LATINA in Austin?
Vanessa: Lots of challenges. My degree is in audio engineering and at the time I was in school, there were not very many women in that field, if any. I did have one mentor, Dan Workman, who gave me just an inkling of confidence to do whatever I wanted. He made it seem possible, not easy but within reach - which was enough for me. I moved to Austin with high hopes and the reality check was hardcore. I also joined my first band which was a Bossanova quartet and learned alot about advocating for myself in the process. DJing came much later even though I was always making mix tapes and sharing music. I actually DJ'd my 8th grade dance w/ my bestie using cassette singles and we were like "No Requests" because they were literally the only songs we had! The banger of the whole set that still hits today "Groove Is In The Heart" (my pick hehehe) so that songs will always be special to me. Shoutout to Park View for letting the kids DJ that year!
I don't think I really "broke out" until I produced and hosted my show, Beats of Burden on KOOP 91.7 in 2011. I was very intentional on the type of music I wanted to curate - cumbia, salsa, bossa, electronica y todo. Noone was playing moombahton or ZZK on the radio back then, so I helped bring these more obscure genres to the forefront of Austin radio. I am very fortunate to have made a name for myself from that invaluable experience so that people who book me already know Ima bring the "buenas vibras".
R.A.: What empowers you as a latina musician?
Vanessa: OTHER LATINA MUSICIANS! The representation is growing and that itself is EMPOWERING. I do not compare or compete with other women. I only compete with myself. One person's shine does not diminish my shine. If I start to feel envy or jealousy creep in, that is just an indicator that I had some unrealized goals for myself that I wasn't aware of yet. The more self aware, the less you are controlled by emotions and that's POWERFUL AF.
Ima bring the "buenas vibras".
R.A.: Music and the scene has changed and evolved a lot- luckily. But music, like so many other creative outlets is still seen as a boys game or man's world. In your work with Girls Rock Austin , do you get to influence and encourage young girls in Austin who have musical aspirations but may feel intimidated by the boys? What was your proudest moment so far at Girls Rock Camp?
Vanessa: Girls Rock is an international organization dedicated to empowering women, girls, trans and gender non-conforming youth through music education, mentorship and self-care. I've been mentoring with Girls Rock Austin since 2015 and each year I'm always amazed at how campers bloom over the course of a week within an environment that allows them to thrive. Rock Camp is a week where each camper gets to pick an instrument to learn, gets put in a band, writes a song, agrees to the band name / logo, and performs w/ their band for their family and friends. There are also social justice workshops like anti-rascism, intersectionality, self-defense, and healthy relationships that can open communication with the youth regarding some of the challenges they face in a changing world. Proudest moment? There are too many! Before a performance, I overheard a bandmate tell their other bandmate something I tell them often "Just remember - you aren't nervous - You're EXCITED! " That and having all the campers ask my band for autographs on their music folders after a lunch time performance from Los Alcos. My hand got tired. It was dope!
R.A.: How did Los Alcos come together? Is this your first time fronting a band? If not please tell me about any other experiences!
Vanessa: Los Alcos is a family band that sprouted from AlexAlco's solo project. At first, he was just looping and performing some songs he had written and asked me to collaborate on what would be our first track, "Rivera". After a year of guest appearances, we expanded to a full band that includes Alex's dad, David Alcocer aka Pops and a bunch of old homies that are familia, hence the name. Alex and I actually volunteered at Rock Camp together so how we approach our band is alot of what we teach at camp. I legit get to make music with my friends and it's glorious.
Los Alcos is my 3rd band. I fronted La Vida Buena ATX, a salsa fusion group from 2013 to 2016. Before that, I was in a Bossanova quartet when I first moved to Austin in 2001. Those experiences were like night and day because I had not yet stepped into my power fully. I knew what I was capable of, but I had yet to learn how to protect my vision. I had a very toxic bandmate who constantly criticized and belittled me in rehearsals at a time where I was struggling to stay sober. I almost let that destroy me - I definitely let it keep me from making music for longer than it should have. Don't let people's words affect your vision. La Vida Buena was a 6-10 piece group at any given time, so advocating for myself was very baptism by fire. Working within a dynamic that large, it is easy to get lost in the mix. I learned so much about how to run rehearsals, booking bands, event planning, music video shoots and street teaming from that group because we were so D.I.Y. We each had our own area of expertise with some crossover, so it was always a sense of accomplishment and team cuz we made that happen! All of these experiences shaped and sharpened me as a musician.
"My momma told me 'Don't half ass mija - you gotta use your whole ass' so be sure to know that whatever I do, Ima do it with my whole ass (and heart!)"
R.A.: I, of course, LOVE your work as a DJ. But when I see you sing with Los Alcos- I just see so much joy and vibrancy and PODER coming through you. What is your relationship behind your DJ booth vs behind your microphone? Are you stepping into different sides of you as a DJ vs a singer? Do you have a preference or are they like children who you love equally?
Vanessa: Music has the ability to heal and transcend and that is what makes it a powerful medium. You don't have to speak the language to understand or emote. When I DJ, I speak through each record I play. We go on a whole journey through space and time so we better be dancing! You def won't catch me playing anything that does not resonate within my being. If I did, it would come off as inauthentic and fake and people will notice if you aren't feelin' it. Making requests is like going into a kitchen at a restaurant and telling the chef how to season the food. The best part of playing vinyl - no requests. I am def more direct when I DJ, but I try to be cheeky when people tell me what I "should" play. "I should play whatever I want." she said with a huge smile and that's what she did.
When I sing, I transmute all the emotions into frequency, so it's def different. Sometimes it's powerful and I am overwhelmed with emotion. Sometimes it's more aggressive and rough around the edges. Mostly I approach the sounds to heal. 2020 vision was very clear for me in my purpose as a musician. It is to raise the collective vibration and connect with people. If we heal in the process, even better. I do like to play equally with the different aspects of music because I am a dancer too. Singing and dancing are the fastest ways to raise your vibration. I think more people should sing in their cars at the top of their lungs and dance like no one is watching. Got problems? Take that to the dance floor and shake that ass.
R.A.: What does it mean to you to get to sing in Spanish?
Vanessa: I didn't even approach the idea of writing in Spanish until I was in LVB. We don't talk about colonialism and how it's attempt to erase indigenous languages has affected our own identity and heritage enough. When my mother was in school, they were forbidden (and sometimes punished) from speaking in their native tongue. How this trickled down into a generation of non-spanish speakers still holds shame for alot of people. It wasn't until I learned that Selena wasn't always bilingual and how she was at least trying that gave people like me the confidence to write in Spanish. Shame is what makes and keeps us sick, so I don't hold shame about that anymore. Spanish is my secret language where I whisper my deepest desires into lyrics while trying to say more with the least amount of words. I'm a natural storyteller, so it's a challenge to say less.
R.A.: Who are your musical HEROES?
Vanessa: Bjork. I still wanna be Mexican Bjork. Or Texican Bjork. Medulla still one of my top albums - the a capellas alone!
Ella Fitzgergerald. My immense love for scatting and improv come directly from her.
Celia Cruz. Azucar! Noone could match the vocal intensity of that voice!
M.I.A. gave me vision for myself as an artist. Not just a singer, not a by product of record labels but of producer and creator of my own brand and vision.
JDilla. The beats were unprecedented and his sample selection top tier. Creating a whole new time signature from a sample was unheard of at the time and that was so dope!
R.A.: What are your go to karaoke/ warm up/ sing in the car/ sing in the shower songs? Basically- what songs get your blood pumping and you feeling like a diosa?
Vanessa: When I am preparing for a show, I like to sing TEMS. She has such amazing breath control with her phrasing. Right now "Replay" is on replay! Jill Scott "He Loves Me (Lyzel in E Flat)" or "Daydreamin'" w/ Lupe Fiasco because the vocal dynamics and breath are fun to play with. Jazmine Sullivan "Need U Bad" because the vocal runs are so hard - I been learning this one since it came out and if I ever feel good enough to karaoke it out, I'll know I've made it. Rosalia "De Aqui No Sales" it's the song where El Guincho just samples her voice at the end and I like to try and just sing the samples.
I also like to sing harmonies to anything. ANYTHING.
Karaoke: Beyonce. Bjork. Aaliyah. Sade. Hall and Oates. Journey.
Song I listen to when I need to remember who TF I am:
Amanda Blank - "Gimme What U Got" feat. Spank Rock
R.A.: How do you find your joy and peace when you're experiencing struggle and hardships?
Vanessa: Nothing disturbs my peace these days. If it does, I peace out. I still want everyone to eat, but not everyone is VIP, some people are really just GA. I have a renewed sense of faith and I pray often. I give everything over to God. I spend time in nature or with my plants to stay grounded. I teach yoga which keeps me very balanced and consistent in my personal practice. I also have good friends who hold space for me while also keeping it real.
R.A.: What advice would you have for young women wanting to break into DJing? What advice would you have for young women who don't have access to a group like Girls Rock to break into music period if they're intimidated by boys are discouraged by their families?
Vanessa: I think it's important to know your "why". There are plenty of clout chasers and fakers out there so don't get caught up in what everyone else is doing esp right now as it seems everyone is a DJ these days. That being said, master your craft and for the love of music, practice your transitions! Noone is you and that really is what gives you the edge. Be different.
Girls Rock is an international organization, with each city managing their own chapters so you can def find resources through these channels. Femme House is another organization that specifically helps women learn production skills and they offer classes remotely.
Locally, there is Femme Rock, Heather Webb's Jam Room, and Omni Sound that help push women to the forefront of music in Austin.
When I think about being intimidated by playing music, just remember that Smashmouth was an actual band. I joke but there are plenty of medicore white dudes in bands writing songs about nothing, so why not you? You gotta get in the mix like some entitled white nepo babies baby!
If your family isn't supportive, you gotta keep vibing. Vibe and be your most AUTHENTIC SELF. It will make it much easier for you to find your tribe.
R.A.: What is your greatest joy in music?
Vanessa: To be booked is to be blessed so I'm always grateful to play music. My greatest joy is an empty dance floor when my favorite DJ is playing. It's those rare moments between DJ and dancer that I will absolutely take up every inch if the vibes are right.
R.A.: What are your proudest memories as a musician? A song you REALLY nailed? A specific performance? anything like that?
Vanessa: Becoming a member of the Recording Academy. Mentoring through GRAMMY U and Girls Rock Austin. Playing Waterloo Greenway Creekshow. Diez y Seis at Hotel Vegas was pretty epic. As was our album release. I always like when someone says my voice made them cry or gave them chills - makes me feel like I did my job!
R.A.: Describe your musical journey in three words.
Vanessa: Music Makes Friends.
R.A.: What is next for you in your musical journey?
Vanessa: SXSW should be a fun time! Los Alcos are back in the lab writing and creating. I have been performing more of my solo project, Finessa, which is more electro soul. More writing and producing with the right collaborators. Relearning and playing more instruments. Most importantly, only doing things that energize and bring me joy. My momma told me "Don't half ass mija - you gotta use your whole ass" so be sure to know that whatever I do, Ima do it with my whole ass (and heart!)