Pop in Maria the Mexican’s new CD “Moon Colored Jade” and one thing becomes immediately clear: You’ve never heard anything quite like it before.
Sure, the album has a few moments that will remind you of artists like Carlos Santana, Gloria Estefan, Fitz and the Tantrums, The Supremes, The Wallflowers, Heartless Bastards and Joe Bonamassa. But none of those artists have ever blended blues, rock, soul and funk and splashed that masterful mix against the backdrop of Mexican folklore. None of them have tied together catchy pop songs, melancholy motifs and a southwestern vibe and delivered it to the masses in a sharp fusion of English and Spanish.
That’s Maria the Mexican’s business. And business is picking up.
Maria the Mexican is the relatively new creative collaboration between Kansas City sisters Maria (vocals/guitar) and Tess Cuevas (vocals/violin), St. Joseph native and Kansas City musician Garrett Nordstrom (guitar) and talented St. Joseph guitarist Jason Riley (who many around here may know from his work with The Nova Project and Soca Jukebox). The band initially formed in 2011, but its development has been years in the making.
From childhood to college, the Cuevas sisters performed for 10 years with Mariachi Estrella, one of the very first all-female mariachi bands that was founded by their grandmother, Teresa Cuevas. And although the two have explored all kinds of music for the last decade, their love for traditional Mexican music never subsided. They just knew it needed a fresh outlet to really reach the masses.
“We based a lot of it on our mariachi roots. That was where we began. That was our jumping-off point,” Tess says. “We knew we wanted to take this music that was second nature to us and make it different, make it relevant and make it new.”
That’s where Nordstrom came into the picture. The Cuevas sisters hired the guitarist, keyboardist, producer and frontman for The Garrett Nordstrom Situation to perform with them at a Cinco de Mayo in Chicago in 2011. Nordstrom was quite impressed with their talent and their unique approach, but he aimed to make the music a little more soul- and pop-influenced, a little more interesting and a little more marketable.
“He saw what we were doing — and our mariachi influence — and he said, ‘Hey, let’s take what I’m doing and what you’re doing and put it together,’” Maria says.
It didn’t take long for Riley to join the fray. He had always wanted to work with Nordstrom on some kind of project, so he jumped at the chance to lay down the guitar when Maria the Mexican went into the studio to record its first single, “Ruler.” He found himself immediately drawn to Tess and Maria’s personalities, as well as the eclectic smattering of influences and sounds the three of them brought to the table.
“This music mixes the Spanish style, the classical guitar, scales and sounds and rhythms and things like that, along with jammy elements of rock music,” Riley says.
Conversely, the trio was blown away by Riley’s skill set.
“He came in and just totally ripped it in the studio,” Maria says with a laugh. “We were in awe and immediately asked, ‘Would you be our lead guitarist?’”
Not much time passed before the four went to work on a debut album called “Moon Colored Jade.” The record would become an amalgamation of original songs written by Nordstrom and traditional Mexican mariachi songs given the band’s unique treatment. For example, Maria the Mexican lent a soul and blues-colored polish to the classic “Bésame Mucho,” and as Maria would describe it, the group totally turned “El Cascabel” into a rocker driven by Riley’s chicano rock riffs and Tess’ restless accompaniment on violin.
“It has always traditionally been a song where you solo and showcase the performers,” Tess says. “But when we thought of it, it felt like, ‘Why don’t we make this a rock song where our guitarists and our bassists can jam out and really connect with the audience?’”
Maria the Mexican boasts more than its share of songs that connect with an audience. The lighthearted album opener “Rock & Sway” has a catchy chorus, a great hook and vocal harmonies that are even more infectious. Nordstrom says he originally wrote the song as an acoustic number in the vein of “Wild Horses” by The Rolling Stones, but he brought it up a key to complement the girls’ vocals and it transformed into a pop tune.
Meanwhile, the heartbroken “Sigh” has a smooth, soulful blues vibe with additional vocals by acclaimed Austin rock singer Patrice Pike. Nordstrom says that the band followed Riley’s guitar to form the song, which feels a little more gritty than the rest of the very polished album.
“It almost gets a little dirty in there,” Maria laughs.
You can hear these songs for yourself — and pick up a copy of “Moon Colored Jade” before its digital release on Nov. 5 — when Maria the Mexican performs at 9:30 p.m. Oct. 12 at Cafe Acoustic. The band’s set includes all of the originals, a few covers, a few jams and even a song or two by The Garrett Nordstrom Situation.
If you can’t make it to the show, free singles and downloads are available at mariathemexican.com.