At the end of touring for the last Y La Bamba album, Luz Elena Mendoza says she felt a silence in her heart.
Mendoza's band had toured steadily after releasing Court The Storm in 2012 and Oh February in 2013, earning praise from the likes of NPR, Rolling Stone and Spin for the uniquely compelling blend of traditional Mexican music, folk and indie pop. But there was clearly a chapter in Mendoza's life that was closing with those records.
"I felt like at the point I was at, in my age, my experiences, where I come from, I needed to find a rest, even though I didn't know what that meant," she says. "When I gave myself a break, I started playing my guitar more, doing my visual art more. The last three years is just me letting myself grow and letting that happen."
It wasn't a planned hiatus, but in taking time away from Y La Bamba, Mendoza was able to see the new path forward, not only with that band but in a very personal way.
"What I've learned the last three and a half years was a lot about who I am as a woman, as a Mexican-American woman, as a Mexican-American artist," she says. "I'm arriving into that sense of self as we speak and as I continue. A lot of that space has been an opportunity, without me even knowing it was going to happen, to develop strength, confidence and courage to continue to spread my art. It's a powerful feeling and it's something that's moving me forward."
Y La Bamba's fourth album, Ojos Del Sol, released Sept. 2, is an expansive musical statement, richly versatile and bursting with sonic ideas, many that are new in the band's music. It's an album, Mendoza says, about knowing herself, about growth and transformation, about discovery and seeing the world in a different way
"The intention was just to let it happen. The album is just an extension of where I'm at in my growth, emotional, spiritual, everything. It's all personal. I show that vulnerability is a universal sentiment," she says. "I feel like the album just writes itself if I'm open to the experience."
Writing for the album began with the title track, a Spanish-folk song that puts a calm exterior on some more turbulent personal subjects. The song, Mendoza says, starts out feeling like a love song, before moving on to talking to her family and about the good and bad in her life.
"That song just kind of happened and I feel like it was the leader. It's an imprint of myself," Mendoza says. " I was just open to my creative sensibilities, allowing myself to really explore. It's an extension of how I explore within myself. What you're hearing sonically in my music is me and my exploration and learning how to piece something together in a different way. That was the indicator of me taking the initiative and letting the openness continue."
All the songs on Ojos Del Sol are written almost like collages, Mendoza says. They're not limited in subject matter, frequently making connections between seemingly dissimilar things, centered on the world at large, but also on her and her family.
"I call my songs homies, or ancestors, or teachers," she says. "They don't always want to be revealed, but I feel like they teach me something if I let them be exposed."
The songs' lyrics switch between English and Spanish, reflecting her background: born in San Francisco to parents who were from Michoacán, Mendoza was raised in a strict Catholic household in Southern Oregon. The two languages are equal parts of her creativity, but exist separately, not blended. Songwriting, she says, just happens and whatever language she starts in will largely determine the tone and direction of a song.
"The way I express myself in Spanish is so different," she says. "I sometimes don't understand how it happens and how I'm able to think and see poetically in Spanish in a way that's so different than English. It's a different emotional intelligence, a different emotional brain. The same words feel differently. Amor means something totally different to me than the word Love in English. If I start in Spanish and continue to flesh it out, the sentiment comes from a different platform. There's a different strength to it."
In between Y La Bamba albums, Mendoza worked on a collaborative album with Tucson's Sergio Mendoza (no relation), releasing a self-titled album last summer under the name Los Hijos De La Montaña.
"It was special to be a part of that, working with a kindred peer also from the same roots and background," she says. "I'd heard about Sergio's band, Y La Orkesta, and I started Y La Bamba with no relation, but that's special and I feel like we're connected in such a deep way. He has helped me a lot just being himself and us exchanging our ancestral memories though music."
Working with Sergio allowed Luz Elena Mendoza to learn a lot about how the multi-instrumentalist approached music, absorbing lessons from the studio that allowed her to feel more confident in approaching Ojos Del Sol. Though Steve Berlin of Los Lobos (who produced Court The Storm) joined again as co-producer, Mendoza herself called the shots, staying true to everything she'd learned about herself over the last three years.
"A lot of the stuff I express through the record is just being awake to your vulnerability and not letting fear be the component that governs your path," she says. "It's good to be acquainted with fear and use it as your teacher. We really need to support one another by us being vulnerable and being one another's mirrors. That's the most important sentiment I want to share with people."