Tish Hinojosa Opts For Change, Fun On New Album

Hispanic folk singer figures Sign of Truth, due next week, will provide some surprises.

Tish Hinojosa says listeners will hear some things they may not expect on her new album, Sign of Truth, due May 23 from Philo/Rounder.

"People usually come to me for border stories, family stories, Mexican history, things like that," she said recently while on a break between tour dates in Colorado.

"In this one, I wanted to be really simple in my writing, to be universal," she added. "Though some of the songs are really intimate, too."

Sign of Truth is the 12th disc — and the first wholly new album in four years — for the Hispanic songstress.

It is, she said, a set of songs about change, "and I guess you could say, about hope. There's a sequence to them, with the questioning in the beginning, with 'Sign of Truth' and 'Taste of Dying Summer,' and then 'Fence Post,' which is really dark — a darker song than I would usually write. That's sort of the low point, and then things begin to turn upward with resignation in 'Roses Around My Feet' (RealAudio excerpt) and 'Wildflowers,' which is a really fun, playful song, and then moving on with 'Song for the Journey.' "

Mexican, Folk Influences

Hinojosa grew up in San Antonio as the child of Mexican immigrants.

"I loved listening to the Mexican radio in my mother's kitchen when I was about five," she said.

She also heard the pop music and songs of the '60s folk revival that her older brothers and sisters liked. "One day when I was about 14, I walked into this room at school where some girls were preparing songs for a folk mass. I have to say that really turned my head around. One of them lent me her guitar, and in a matter of weeks I knew all the chords and was singing along."

Soon Hinojosa was singing Mexican ballads and folk-revival standards in clubs along the Riverwalk.

After high school she moved to northern New Mexico and began playing in bands for dances.

"The Anglos would come, the Chicanos, the artists, the hippies, and the real working cowboys — all in the same room at a dance. We'd play Rodney Crowell, the Eagles, Linda Ronstadt, Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris — that's what I was calling country music at the time.

"I was an outlaw without even knowing I was one."

She'd throw in a few of the songs she'd started writing, too. "I'd hide them in dance sets," she said. "I figured, put a two-step beat on them and they won't notice."

Soon she wanted a wider audience for those new tunes, though, and began working the college coffeehouse circuit, criss-crossing the country for several years. "Then I thought the next step would be in country music," she said.

Hinojosa landed a job as a demo singer in Nashville and moved to Music City, but things didn't turn out as she'd planned.

"They liked my voice, but when I'd play my songs, people would look at me like I was from Mars!" she recalled. Hinojosa also found that country music in the mid-'80s was not open to subjects drawing on her Mexican American heritage or border culture.

Making The Right Moves

Moving back to New Mexico, she decided to make her own record. "Here I was, I'd been doing this for 10 years, and I still didn't have a product to call my own. So I thought, why not get some musicians together, scrape up some money somewhere, and put some songs together? At least I'll have something to sell at gigs," she said.

"Taos to Tennessee" (RealAudio excerpt), the title song of that record — which she produced in 1987, and which Watermelon reissued on CD in 1992 — remains one of the singer's most requested numbers, along with "Amanacer," an original love song in Spanish.

That song would reappear on Hinojosa's first major label release, Homeland (A&M, 1988). She had relocated to Austin, Texas, by the time A&M came calling.

"I thought it never rains, but it pours because then there were two labels — one who wanted to make a mainstream country singer and one with a singer/songwriter deal," she said.

She decided to take the smaller deal that let her record her own songs. Homeland broke Hinojosa on the national scene, producing comparisons to Harris and Ronstadt, but because of a corporate shuffle, her contract was dropped. She next hooked up with Texas label Watermelon to record a bilingual Christmas disc and a live Cinco de Mayo concert in Spanish.

In 1992, Hinojosa recorded the award-winning Culture Swing (Rounder). "Culture Swing and Homeland seem to be benchmarks, or cornerstones, of my career as far as the public is concerned," she said. "Songs from those records — 'Donde Voy,' 'Something in the Rain' (RealAudio excerpt), 'In the Real West,' 'San Antonio Romeo' — are still what people ask for most often at my concerts today."

After two more records with Rounder, Hinojosa moved to Warner Progressive in Nashville. There she created two very different records. One was Destiny's Gate (1994), a mixture of folk, pop and country laced with her trademark ballads of social justice and bilingual love songs. The other was Dreaming From the Labyrinth (1996), a set of deeply introspective songs on the search for life's meaning and the nature of love in lyrics that interweave English and Spanish.

Aiming For Surprise

This summer while touring in support of Sign of Truth, Hinojosa knows she'll enjoy the shows and her audiences will, too.

"One of my goals with this record was just to have fun," she said. "And we did. It was a joy to produce it with Chip Dolan, who plays keyboard and accordion in my band, and Marvin Dykhuis, who plays every stringed instrument you can think of. So we plan to go out on the road and have a good time with it.

"Every time I do a new record somebody calls it a departure — but it's not really as though I'm leaving a musical territory never to return. They're all just ventures in different directions. I want to keep my audience entertained. ... But what I really want to do most of all is surprise them."