Stoking The Flame

Gemma Castro on Quarantine Romance

The musician shares her tips on quarantine loneliness, romance as a map and tool, and her first cell phone.

For the musician Gemma Castro, romance is an instrument. Beginning in her church choir and then later becoming well-versed in Latin Jazz and opera, Castro’s songs tie these styles, their textures, and improvisational attitudes into terribly dreamy yet succinct songs. Quiero Saber De Ti, the singer’s latest music video finds Castro calibrating to the new terrain of desire under quarantine. In the music video, Castro jags and bends her body, the emotion, and physical energy must be spent some way. Shooting the video at her Grandmother’s home in Guadalajara, Mexico the past summer proved to be a personal triumph for Castro. Returning to a place where the singer had to minimize her instincts of romance in exchange for the cool blandness of good behavior, Castro indulges in its excess in Quiero Saber De Ti.

Hugo Cervantes

Gemma Castro

What was it like to shoot the Quiero Saber De Ti video at your Grandmother’s house in Guadalajara? 

Sneaky because my Abuelita didn’t know I was shooting a music video. I remember hearing stories of my mom in her youth and how my Abuelita handled that time of rebelliousness. As a child, I was always censoring myself in her house, as we all do in the presence of our elders. In that sense, shooting the video there was cathartic because I’ve always felt more at home and replenished in Guadalajara. It was nice to return to Guadalajara as an adult, more secure of my sensuality and express it in her home, a place where before I have felt censored. It feels like a full circle wherever I go to Guadalajara. I’ve been going every year since I could afford to buy a ticket. It feels so romantic there, it really opens me up.

Would you say your Grandma is strict or nice?

She’s really nice and is so sassy. Like she is very cute and nice, but you can’t pull a fast one on her! One time she found a condom in my bag and she told me I had broken her heart and she was disappointed in me.

That’s how Abuelita’s always get you. Did you live there when you were little? 

I would only visit when I was little. I was born in Long Beach and raised in Lakewood, but would go to Guadalajara frequently. I have three siblings and out of those kids, I was the one obsessed with wanting to stay in Guadalajara longer. I was obsessed with my Abuelita and her house and felt an instant connection. She was always vocal about and welcoming toward the spirit world in her home. Coming from a Catholic upbringing, I was introduced to the notion of a spirit world early on. My relationship with it has changed but I still have a relationship. Not everyone has that.

Quiero Saber De Ti is a song about yearning and longing to know about the other person. Under quarantine, it’s been hard for people to hang out and to get to know one another casually and more intimately. How have you been staying connected with your friends, lovers, and community? 

I rekindled a romance with someone in Lakewood just before I left to my Abuelita’s house in Guadalajara for the summer month. It was so intense. I hadn’t spoken to them in four years. They are now a different person. I’m a different person and yet I still felt this intense feeling towards them that I never thought I would get a resolution for. Before I left for Guadalajara they confessed their feelings to me and I was like, “Ok Bye!” I was leaving like the next day. How people circle back in our lives in strange ways— ways we don’t ever see coming. They would call me every night when I was away and we’d talk on the phone. We got very close during those calls. It felt like we were so close. Then, one night he didn’t call me and the familiar feelings came again, “This is why I hate men.”

It’s that moment where you are like, here we go again.

In Guadalajara, the weather is almost tropical. In the summer there would be these intense thunderstorms where I thought the house was going to break. During those rainy nights, I made peace with a lot of my demons as it was raining so hard to the point that it felt like I was going to die—struck by lightning. All these people from my past would come into my mind who I didn’t want to be thinking about. It’s not who I should be thinking about but rather I don’t want to be thinking about the past all the time. In those moments I thought  “I can use this, I can use my skills to make myself feel better,” and so I took out my drum machine and put my feelings there. I recorded Querio Saber De Ti that night. I was thinking why hasn’t he called, fuck this guy, not fuck this guy but where is he? I wanted to know “What are you doing right now that you’re not calling me like what possibly could you be doing.” I started recording the video and thinking I’m going to send this to him and show him all these things I learned in the last four years.

Castro ‘s 18 year old Abuelita Alicia Margarita Cruz in 1958.

How did you feel about your crushes knowing songs are about them?

It is a weird feeling but it really comes down to your comfort level with your crush because I think part of the cathartic release of writing a song is saying what you need  to say but not having to say it to them. I remember in my first EP Gemma I sampled the recording of this guy’s voice mail on my phone who I had been seeing at the time. He listened to my EP and texted me, “I just noticed my voice is in your song” and my response was “yeah lol” and even then I didn’t tell him the song was about him. He was just lucky to be in the song.

He was lucky to be sampled!

Another time I remember this one person had me fucked up and I was writing all these crazy songs. At the time I was touring with Oscar of Sister Mantos in the Bay Area and I remember being in our hotel room spiraling over this guy. Oscar was like, “Why don’t  you just send it over to him?” And I just couldn’t do that! It was so crippling, feeling all these intense emotions and not feeling safe. I reflect on that and think about those people and as much as those were things I wanted to say to them, they also didn’t deserve those songs. 

Those songs are for me. With this song in particular I waited a few days to send it to this person. I wanted him to feel close to me in a way through this song. I was in Mexico for a month so I wasn’t going to see him soon. When I sent him the song, he called right away and explained why he didn’t call. It was miscommunication!

What was your first cell phone? 

I think my mom passed me down her pink Motorola Razr flip-phone. All the baddies had a pink Razr. I wanted the Sidekick. I thought that was the baddie phone. I remember them thinking they were so cool. The Razr was so chic. They still are chic. I had a hot pink one.

Self-portrait by the artist.

How are you staying connected with your sensuality under quarantine?

I’ve been trying to spend my time with myself as if I am on a date with myself. It’s been helpful during this time of quarantine. It’s been a journey to enjoy my own company because I have always been a hopeless romantic. Maybe it has to do with growing up in a machista household, yearning for something I didn’t see at home, I always wanted to see crazy romance exist.

My sense of romanticism, how flirty and dreamy I can be or give off can sadly throw some people off or make them uncomfortable. For a while, I thought people didn’t like me because of my love for romance or they didn’t take me seriously, but there is so much power in romance because ultimately it’s about having fun! I like that I am this way, in touch with romanticism, my sensuality. I really struggled with that in my early twenties and that’s when I started going out, performing, sharing my stuff. Although there is this super romantic side of me, there is also this super closed-off version of me where I want to preserve and protect myself, where I don’t feel open, but when I am open it is beautiful.

The escapism and euphoria of romance are powerful especially as a tool or way of living in the world.

Sensuality or the erotic doesn’t have to be about sex or romance. It’s about your body, the things you touch and are around, it is the things that touch you and move you. It’s more about being in wonder with your body, in the wonder of your relationship to things you touch and what you are around. We are not taught to not be sensual with ourselves. Once I was teaching this young girl’s choir, the girls were 10 to 12 years old and I had to choreograph one of their songs. The choreography was simple and I remember looking at these girls and thinking how beautiful they are, how they move their arms, their faces. Working with these young girls and creating a space for all of us to tap into the tenderness, the sensuality of feeling ourselves in our skin. There’s magic in  exploring new ways of moving, of being in your body. 

A 10 year old Gemma Castro.

You also began singing in the church choir where you learned about music before branching off into other styles. What did your time in the church teach you about music? 
Singing in Church taught me about rituals and the importance of practicing them. Church is like a musical theatre. There is an order of events and they have songs that accompany these rituals. The most important ritual in the Church is to take the body and blood of Christ in the form of a eucharist and wine. If you take part of this ritual it is an affirmation that you are at one with God. After there is a hymn that is always sung rather than spoken. It’s never a big song. It is simple in tone. I’m grateful to experience music in the church. I would be singing on stage feeling every world crying in front of the church. It was very powerful to feel and move people in such a way.

Primera Generacion
is the name of your Dublab show, it’s in Spanish asking what it means to be first generation in multiple senses: first born, the first generation in the United States, first to go to college, always first. What does Primera Generacion mean to you? 

Primera Generacion means that we are trailblazers. We are exceeding what we thought was thought to be possible. I decided to name the show Primera Generacion because it’s a phrase you hear a lot especially when college application season hits high schools in the fall. I didn’t identify or fully understand the power of being first-generation or how impactful it is to my lineage and to us — as a collective of diasporic Latinx peoples —  as future ancestors. It is empowering to be first-generation—primera generacion. Being a trailblazer is not necessarily being the first-generation to live in the United States but rather having a lack of, like your family not having any financial background or long-term stability.

Are you always constantly making music? 

In little ways, I have a lot of stuff  I’m always revisiting. I’m not in the studio everyday producing tracks. I have moments like that and I would love to get to that rhythm with my music practice. I am  always working on something though. I just finished shooting this film with my friend Jazzy Romero in New York.

Who are your favorite singers? 

Whitney Houston. She is just pure feeling, pure romance. She is living in her lyrics, her voice is worldly like I Want To Run To You. Her relentless devotion is so fucking real! Saving All of My Love!

How Will I Know!

I get it. The world can be extremely lonely and painful and sometimes you don’t want to hear songs like that and it’s actually been the opposite where love has taken everything from you. But if you find yourself in a position in this short life where you are able to relate and really feel those songs, there is really nothing like it.

What’s the first thing you want to do when  you have a live audience again? 

I can’t wait to play. It’s going to feel so good to play the new music that I’ve been making alone. Listening to my sounds on a sound system. I love performing– I want to stray away from the feeling of performing and into transcending into another state, something elsewhere and more improvisational. 

I recently had a dream where I was on top of a cliff with an audience watching. There was a pool of water where I was supposed to jump into the water and turn into the mermaid. The audience was there to watch me transform, waiting to see if I’d become a mermaid. Performing feels like you are making yourself extremely available to an audience who is just chilling and watching, neutral or excited, either one. There is a moment when you are about to perform and it feels like you are about to do the impossible and it is a bit upsetting when the audience is cold and is just watching. That is not what I want. This expectation to turn into a mermaid and  them waiting and just watching me become a mermaid. I want my performances to feel more like a celebration together, where we all become mermaids.

You can stream her latest on Bandcamp.

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