Linda Briceño’s career as a trumpeter, vocalist, and producer has allowed her to rub shoulders with the likes of Wynton Marsalis and Arturo Sandoval. It also earned her a Latin Grammy. But all of that success took more practice and hard work; it demanded Linda break with people who’d been instrumental in her professional growth, and to stand firm in her vision for herself as an artist.
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Linda Briceño: Quisiera agradecer a todas las mujeres que estuvieron en esta nominación hace muchos años.Honrar María Rita, Laura Pausini. Y ver que soy la primera mujer en ganar este premio.
Menendez: That's Linda Briceno accepting her award for Latin Grammy Producer of the Year. She's a songwriter, a trumpeter and vocalist. She fell in love with music as a child, but it would take years for her to come into her own as a woman and an artist.
Linda, we have wanted to have you on this podcast for so long, so I'm so glad you're sitting across from me.
Briceño: It's my pleasure to be here for real.
Menendez: Thank you for waking up early to do this. The beginning of your journey into music begins with your father, and I know it's a story that you tell a lot, but tell it to me like you're telling it for the first time.
Briceño: It's a funny story. I was four years old. My dad told me that he fall asleep. He's supposed to be taking care of me while my mom was buying groceries and then he woke up and I was not around. Then he started looking to the house and then he opened the music room and he saw me trying to hold a trumpet and making like bubbles like ta ta ta, ta ta ta. Then he was like, what is this sound that she's trying to make? Then we remember that Don Francisco, the mambo, the Peréz Prado was one of the mambos that the show was famous for, and then I was trying to play that with the trumpet.
Then he realized, I think she's going to play the trumpet. So let me start like teaching her as much as I can. He used to be a trumpet player. Then when I was older, I got into a musical program, named El Sistema in Venezuela and that's how my journey start.
Menendez: But it was your mom who encouraged you to go to El Sistema, right?
Briceño: Yes. My mom was the one who took me to the classes, to the lessons. My dad was a independent musician, a drummer, very busy. He didn't have the time to take me to the classes and the lessons, but my mom was the one who really took me to the boss and to do like our long, long trip to get to the lessons every single day.
Menendez: El Sistema factors big into your story. For those of us who who don't know or might not be familiar, what is it?
Briceño: El Sistema is a program that takes kids in a very early age and some of them come from really vulnerable conditions and people from every kind of background.
Menendez: In Venezuela?
Briceño: In Venezuela. They put the kids in these bases that they have around the city and they teach them a classical music. They teach them how to read music and they have like private lessons, but they trained them in a very different way as somebody who has taking an after program class, for example.
Menendez: How is it different?
Briceño: It's different because in my case, we were supposed to be every single day except the weekends after school. We were there training day and night, day and night.
Menendez: When you train for something like that, how does it shape your love of music?
Briceño: It shape it in ways that you don't understand at the beginning because you're really young. When I was going there every single day, we were playing music that maybe I didn't understand. I just interpreted it in a way that my childhood was like, "Oh, this is, this is nice melody." Then when I grew up I realized we were playing very complex music by the time. So it really impact me in a way that I'm seeing it right now in the way I've composed, the way I write music, and the way I interact with other musicians.
Menendez: Part of your musical education is formal as you're discussing and part of it is is self-taught, specifically composition and musical production. Do you think there is a difference in how a person plays music when they are self-taught versus when all of their education is formal?
Briceño: Absolutely. That's actually a great question. I found myself in a moment where I was writing very complex music when I was younger and I was showing it to my friends. I was showing it to people who was not necessarily familiar with classical music. I realized that while trying to self-taught myself playing guitar, I would strive to create more simple melodies that were more accessible, because I didn't have the virtuosismo of playing more complex things, and that was a good thing for me in order to connect with people from different backgrounds. I feel like being self taught in terms of composition really helped me to write and connect more with story is not only about how hard it is, the music that I'm playing, but to connection with other people.
Menendez: Tell me about the band you started with your father.
Briceño: Well, we started a big band. I was the founder with my dad of the first jazz program that ever started in El Sistema. It was a very beautiful experience because I was one of the few musicians that could improvise in jazz and my dad, we just took all the classical musicians that we grew up playing with and then put them in big band setting where we were talking about Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, and it was like a whole process. It was kind of like a program that we didn't expect would have so much impact in El Sistema and later outside.
Menendez: Talk to me about that first performance with the orchestra. How old were you?
Briceño: I was around 16, 17.
Menendez: Wow, that's young.
Briceño: Yeah, my father's band--he was like a jazz then, and I actually started when I was 13. My sister, my dad wanted her to be a singer, a jazz singer, but she wanted to be a dentist. But she was so afraid-
Menendez: Wait, wait, wait. He wanted her to be a singer, but she wanted to be a dentist?
Menendez: Those are really not the same thing.
Briceño: Yeah. So my dad, he was preparing her for her premiere like, "I'm going to make your sister sing and you're going to play the trumpet." The same day of the concert, she said, she was crying: "Dad, I don't like this. This is not for me." I'm like, "What?" Now I was going to sing, because the program was based on her singing. So I told my dad, "I can sing her songs." He's like, "You don't sing." The way he was talking about it, "Just focus on the trumpet," I was like, "I really want to sing." He was like, "I don't have time to rehearse, so you better do good."
Then I was in front of all these people, we were playing really complex music, but we start singing this song Three Step. It went amazing just because after singing, I just took the trumpet, and it was something that people in Venezuela, they haven't seen that before. They're used to seeing figures such as Chet Baker and Miles Davis. It was very unusual for them. It was unusual for them seeing a young girl playing music from these old people. It was amazing.
Menendez: I want to read a quote from you that stopped me cold. You said, "In Venezuela, there's a lot of talk about the daughter of Andres or the soloist of the Big Band or the worship leader of this or that church. But among these three titles that were given to me during that time, there was a Linda who wanted to come out." What did you mean here?
Briceño: Well, being the daughter of a very renowned musician, it has struggles. People see the protections. The male protection over this girl. Like, "Oh, this is the guy who made you." But there was a part of me that wanted to come out in terms of music. My dad, he was really strict in terms of jazz versus pop music. He would really make fun of me while listening, N Sync and Backstreet Boys, and just living the life of a teenager. Like, "What are you talking about? You just play modern like these guys. Why are you talking about them?"
I wanted to write music like that. I wanted to live my life. So after I finished working with them for the Big Band, I felt like it was time for me to show what I wanted to show. I decided to start producing my first record. He didn't support me at all. He didn't believe in that side of Linda as a pop musician, writing pop music. He ended up recording the drums, and he still didn't believe in the record. And then-
Menendez: How did you know he didn't believe in the record?
Briceño: Because he told me. "I think you're good at doing jazz. There's nobody doing what you're doing right now in Latin America. You should stick with this project." I'm like, "I'm sorry. You know, I want to explore my life, produce." I definitely see myself songwriting and producing for other people and doing my own stuff.
Menendez: I think there are a lot of us who would. Like you know that we wanted to take a different path.
Menendez: Have the person who up till that point has been our biggest fan and our biggest champion. Tell us, "I don't think you have it. I don't think this is the right choice for you." And we'd fold. So I'm curious where you got the strength to say, "Thank you for your opinion but I'm going to do it anyway."
Briceño: I feel like the moment where I realized that that was not what I wanted to do for a living was when I decided to treat myself after I quit economy. My dad told me, you should go to college still if you want to make a living, if you don't want to struggle. Like I do have a career different from music. Then I went to study economy and then the teachers were like, "What are you doing here? You don't belong here."
Then I decided to take a trip to New York and being in New York, I was subbing for Wynton Marsalis, musicians to rehearse. I was exposed to the best musicians New York has seen, whether they were giving me free lessons. They were like encouraging me to come to the city. Then when I saw their lives and how they were so passionate about just jazz and keep improving, I was like, I don't think I'm being honest with myself. I think like I should be honest in terms of, I loved jazz, and this is a huge part of my life, but I feel like I can give more than that. I feel like maybe in the future I can just honor them, but with my own voice.
Menendez: Tell me about your alter ego, Ella Bric.
Briceño: Ella Bric is part of that artistic coming out.
Menendez: She's your Sasha Fierce.
Briceño: Yeah, she's my Sasha Fierce. I was 16 and I was taking selfies and exploring with pictures. Then I was like, I asked myself, "What is that woman that I want to be?" Then I realized that I wanted to be this strong woman being able to not be afraid of showing who she was and not having boundaries around ... Growing up in a very Christian conservative family is kind of hard too to bring up these desires to be somebody who was not afraid of saying things out loud. So what a perfect way of saying it as somebody else and also not on the name of the daughter of.
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Menendez: You spent years as a trumpeter rubbing shoulders with greats like Wynton Marsalis, Arturo Sandoval. What motivated you to pursue a career as a singer, songwriter and a music producer?
Briceño: Well, living in New York, moving to New York, I got a full scholarship to go to college as a jazz musician, which I was sure I didn't want to do that, but I was grateful for the opportunity of being in college. Then something that really inspired me was being surrounded by so many jazz musician who we're also doing songwriting and working with other hip hop producers. I saw the need for showing my side as a producer because there was very, very, very few female producers that I can look at.
Menendez: Tell me. Why is that?
Briceño: Well, there's many reasons. One of the reasons is that many sound engineers, many producers, they don't go to college and get an education for that because they don't see females that they can look out for. They also think that they're not going to make a living sometimes. It's really hard. I grew up and I didn't have anybody that I can look at like a female that I can trust. To be in a city where it's like male dominated, it can make you think that there's not a safe space for you to work in an environment where you can actually have a space for yourself. That may be one of the reasons why I wanted to be a producer. It was not money just because there were not enough females. I just did it because nobody around believe in my music. So I wanted to just have control over my sound and I kept going, keep going not thinking about I was a female or not. I was just wanting to make great music. I feel like that's the part of being a great producer is just being honest with what you're doing.
Menendez: What is musical a producer? Because I come from television, so I understand what producers do on the television side, and in video, but what does it actually take to produce music?
Briceño: The music producer has many roles in music. The music producer is somebody who, for example, if you're working with a different artist, you're just selecting the songs, the songs that are right for what the artist wants to portray in a record. The producer is in charge of hiring the musicians or right musicians for the type of sound that the artists and you are looking for. Sometimes you write with the artist, but also you are the person who's bringing together a whole team to get a specific sound. It's more complex than I'm saying, but it's a very big role in the music industry. Many times people forget about the role of the person who gives life to the music of an artist.
Menendez: Can you point to a song you've produced and tell me how we would know it's your work?
Briceño: 11. 11 is one of my favorite tracks. I think is my favorite song that I've produced. It was a song that I co wrote with Fernando Osorio, a great songwriter based in Miami. He has wrote for Celia Cruz, many people, many amazing people. But it started just missing somebody back home and being both in different cities. It's a very personal song. After we wrote this song, the whole production came to me the same afternoon.
*[Music: 11 by Linda Briceño]*
I was like, the ideas were coming, and then at the end of the song, I heard a choir of females, a chamber, female choir. Then I was like, "I have no idea how I'm going to put this together. I'm here, I don't have a music studio. I'm doing all from my computer, but I'm going to make it happen." Then one year after, we were able to get an all female choir that recorded in Venezuela of amazing musicians and people that I grew up in El Sistema.
When you hear 11, you're going to see, it's kind of like my story in sound besides of being a love story. It's just my story and my journey being El Sistema, surrounded with classical elements. You will hear some of rock too, you will hear some elements of folk music, and that's definitely my sound.
Menendez: But now I just want to know about the love story.
Briceño: The love story just leaving your country, breaking up with somebody that you love, and losing contact and wondering if that person is okay. I'm with somebody now. He or she is with somebody else and we're missing each other. I just hope that you're okay. It's nostalgia, missing somebody.
Menendez: Nostalgia gets me every time. You've said the role of a producer is an act of resignation, because it is not about you. I read that to Juleyka, our executive producer, and she was like, "Yes, that is perfect." How does that show up in the rest of your life?
Briceño: Oh, it shows by understanding people, by listening to them. I feel like there's a very powerful thing in listening and learning from people. When you're in the studio, many producers that are established, they have Grammys. They come and they forget sometimes why are they there for? To me the most important thing is to listen to the artist. That's the most important thing when you're producing something, to listen to the artist. What is their dream? What is it trying to say in this? Am I going to bring my own ideas and I'm going to impose them just because the record is going to come under my name, or I'm going to be open enough to give them what they are looking for. I make them happy while having that process. It's not about you when you're producing somebody.
Menendez: Does it then change the ego you bring to something when you are the vocalist?
Briceño: Not at all.
Menendez: Like, no, my ego is still very much in check.
Briceño: Not at all. Yeah. I feel that when you're a vocalist ... I tend to be insecure, so actually, what I need is like more than my ego. I need people surrounding me and I need mentors around me. I love learning. So to me, it's the opposite.
Menendez: Do you step into Ella Bric in those moments when you feel insecure?
Briceño: I feel like I step in Ella Bric when I'm performing. Life is a different experience. I feel more confidence. I feel like it's somebody different and that is performance. So in terms of when I'm recording and it's definitely Linda. I actually light the turning of the place where I'm recording, having an intimacy moment.
Menendez: Are you more nervous than when you record or when you perform live?
Briceño: I feel like I'm always nervous, you know? I like feeling nervous because it reminds me that I'm human and that if something doesn't go well, it's okay. But I feel like I'm nervous before playing life. That moment. Like you know, the people that works for me, like I can be the worst. Like, "I don't want anyone talking to me. I just need to be in silence." I enjoy silence so much.
Menendez: You were the first woman to receive the Latin Grammy Award for Best Producer of the Year. That happened in 2018. You got up on stage, and the first thing you do is acknowledge the other women who've been nominated for that award. Tell me about that choice.
Briceño: I was honored to be the first female, but I could not start talking about myself without recognizing the work of very few females that has been nominated before me. I do believe in the work of Maria Rita, an amazing Brazilian composer and singer. She's the daughter of Elis Regina, a very important figure in Brazilian culture. Also a lot of people seem to all know who she is, but many people who know, doesn't know that she produced her records. She's always been involved with the productions and being involved in the producer as a producer in your own records, being Laura Pausini. I feel like it's time for people to start talking about her role, also, as a boss lady. So I wanted to honor them and to make sure the people that is in the room, they actually acknowledge that some of those artists that they know as just singers, they also are in control of their music. So that's one of the reasons and the motivation behind that.
Menendez: What does it say about the role in perception of women producers in Latin music that you are the first to win this award?
Briceño: I still don't know if the Latin industry realize the contribution of my work yet. I feel like we're going to know that in a few years. I feel like it was a surprise for many people, not only I was the first female, but also I make it by being an independent artist and being an independent artist right now is a challenge for many people. There is data that is showing that 73% of the independent artists in the music industry, they're suffering from depression and from anxiety. These artists are being ... They're fighting for the music, but they're doing it against big machineries of big people, big labels, big names that have all the tools and all their resources available to be in this industry, which is very competitive.
Menendez: Talk to me about the decision then to be an independent artist, which is, I mean ... So what that means for a lay person is that you are not attached to a recording label.
Briceño: Well, I feel like I've been ... My music has never been commercial. I feel like my music, it goes beyond that, and I feel like I'm trying to open new opportunities and new fields for in the music, in the Latin American music scene. I feel like my decision was just having control over my stuff. I feel like I hate having somebody just imposing things to me and I'm not saying that's the case for every single record label. I have very good friends working in record labels and their experience has been amazing. But I feel like I wanted to have the independence of showing what's the songs that I want to release. How do I want to dress? What do I want to say? Also having the freedom was saying, "Oh, I feel like I want to direct a short film. I think I'm going to do it."
Menendez: Right. I want all that freedom too. So I hear you. But at the same time, I really value security. So that's what you give up, right? You have to be your own machine if you're not attached to a label.
Briceño: Yes. I had to be my own machine and sometimes it's really hard, but also living in New York has given me so many opportunities. There's so many options to survive as an independent artist is by applying for grants. Even getting angel investors that still believe in your music. The most important thing is that as an independent musician, you have to do the work of knowing what your business is, knowing where you want to go, what's that thing that you're working for? It's like having your own company.
Menendez: I appreciate your candor because I think a lot of us will watch your acceptance speech and be like, "That's it. Linda's rich now."
Briceño: Not at all. I'm happy that I'm not. I feel like being uncomfortable keeps you working.
Menendez: So I'll be working the rest of my life. On another episode, Quiara Alegría Hudes, who won both a Tony Award and a Pulitzer Prize. She's a playwright. When we talked about what those awards meant, she said for a little while you're hot, right? Like everybody wants to work with you, flavor of the week. But then fundamentally the work itself doesn't change. You go back to the work. What, if anything, changed for you after winning the Grammy?
Briceño: What changed for me is I feel like I gained more respect and to me, gaining respect in a music industry, that sometimes it can be very complex for an artist like me. It was something that was more priceless than just receiving phone calls from people that just wanted to work with the producer of the year. But at the end, it didn't happen. To me, having the award and knowing that people voted for my work was priceless. To me, that really changed the way I see things. I still believe in the music I do. For me, there is no excuse just to say I don't have money. You can work with what you have. That was my story. I worked with the resources I had available and I make it happen, and this was the result of it.
Menendez: What do you want to do next?
Briceño: I feel like what's next right now is I'm going to be releasing this conceptual album that I've been working for for a long time, which is reflecting my experience as an immigrant in the US. Later, I'm going to start grinding music for Ella Bric. She has her own tracks coming up in Spotify as Ella Bric. Linda Briceno is going to be out for a while. So get ready for the new tracks for Ella Bric. They bring in amazing music, electronic music, even reggae tones and very nice, uplifting music. She's fun.
Menendez: You're fun too. I can't wait to listen to both. Linda, thank you so much.
Briceño: It's my pleasure. Thank you for inviting me. This was really fun.
Menendez: Thanks, as always, for joining us. Latina to Latina is executive produced and owned by Juleyka Lantigua-Williams and me. Maria Murriel is our producer. Carolina Rodriguez is our sound engineer. Emma Forbes is the show's intern. We love hearing from you. Email us at email@example.com and remember to subscribe or follow us on Radio Public, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, or wherever you're listening. And please leave a review. It is one of the quickest ways to help us grow as a community.
Menendez, Alicia, host. “How Linda Briceño Won Her Artistic Freedom.” Latina to Latina, Lantigua Williams & Co., August 26, 2019. LatinaToLatina.com