Elsa Carvajal, the voice of Elsa y Elmar, once described her music as “spiritual pop.” Perhaps another way to describe her ethereal synth sounds, though, would be “spiritual, genre-less música.”
The Bucaramanga, Colombia native knew she wanted to create music from an early age. Although she says she didn’t grow up with much art surrounding her, discovering the power of music helped her feel like she was understood — and that she could also have a voice. Carvajal tells Billboard that it was after she was connected to producers who wanted to control her image and what she sang at the age of 16 that she came to a realization: She needed to study music.
“I had a very deep intuition that told me that I needed to know what I was doing musically in order to be accepted,” she says. “I need to study, I need to prepare myself and get ready for this, because apparently this is how it's gonna be. I had my songs, and he was like, 'Mmm, no, we're not gonna use your songs, we're gonna use this composer's songs, he writes in Miami…' And I said, 'Why? I mean, isn't it supposed to be about the music I make?’”
She used that experience to fuel her desire to become well-versed in the music industry, in order to pursue her dreams of creating the kind of music that impacted her — artists like Celia Cruz, Bryan Adams and Selena Quintanilla.
After searching for the music schools that would offer her the best opportunities, Carvajal auditioned for Berklee College of Music — and with a scholarship, moved to Boston to kickstart her career at age 18. While she studied, she won the coveted John Lennon Songwriting Contest for her song, “Me Viene Bien.”
“I called the guy and said, 'Are you sure it's me?'” she laughs, recalling the moment she received the email. “'Cause I never believe when those things happen, I'm like, 'Are you sure? Say it again.' And he was like, 'Girl, you won!'”
It was during her time in college that Elsa y Elmar was born. Her last full length album was 2015’s Rey, and she is now gearing up to release her next LP, Eres Diamante (due out on May 17).
Before immersing yourself in Elsa’s dreamy and uplifting Spanish tracks, see what drives this week’s Latin Artist On the Rise below — and also see the new music video for her latest single, “Ojos Noche.”
Background: “I was born in Colombia, and when I was 18 I moved to Boston. I studied a little music there and then moved to the Bay Area in California, and lived there for four years. Now I'm here in Mexico City.”
What inspired you to pursue music? "What inspired me the most was the role that music played in my life. There wasn't a lot of art around me but I discovered music and words — the power of music and lyrics. So for me, naturally, it first became an appreciation process and how I felt understood by these artists and this music. But then what inspired me was the feeling of wanting to do that — to have a voice that makes, at first myself, and then someone feel understood and not alone."
What is the meaning behind your project’s name? “My name is Elsa Carvajal, but I thought it was very boring. I also didn't want it to be a one-person-focused thing, even though it's just me. I came up with Elsa y Elmar, which is cool because people always ask me, 'Who is Elmar?' And I say, 'It's you.' Whoever wants to be Elmar. And yeah, I just kept doing it and here I am.”
Recommended song: Elsa y Elmar’s latest single, “Ojos Noche” opens with the familiar ballad of Ben E. King’s classic “Stand By Me,” and later transforms into a slow-tempo pop and R&B-tinged melody with piercing vocals from Elsa as she sings the thoughtful lyrics about getting heartbroken by someone who lied about their intentions, even though she was telling the truth. The captivating video was shot in Mexico City, and depicts a doomed love affair with imagery of Elsa as a rendition of the Virgin Mary throughout the scenic shots. Elsa says she purposefully wanted this to be part of the visuals, as altars of the Virgin are displayed in many spaces along the Central American country, and represents a feeling of dwelling in sadness.
What inspired you to write “Ojos Noche”? “I wrote ‘Ojos Noche’ in a visit to my city, Bucaramanga. It gave me a lot of nostalgia to see the places where I had been with my first big love, to go through the same streets that we used to walk by, but by myself. So it's a memory of my first love and at the same time my first heartbreak, because he basically broke my heart. He was unfaithful. So it was about that feeling you have when you're telling the truth, and you're just hoping and trusting that the other person also tells the truth, but they don't.
The song is based on the city, on the streets of the city where you just go out at night. And ‘Ojos Noche’ [which translates to night eyes] is a metaphor for his eyes, and the fact that we would go out at night, and he had black eyes. We recorded that one in San Francisco in the studio that my producer had called Fantasy Studios, that is actually closed now. It's a studio where a lot of jazz was recorded."
Did you know that this would be your next single following "Culpa Tengo," "Puntos Medios," and "Nadie Va"? "No. Life has forced me to change a lot, and what I've learned is to plan and be ready, but at the same time to be open. I could tell that the album needed an emotional song to be shown. Last year we started with "Culpa Tengo," then "Puntos Medios," then "Nadie Va," which are songs that are very urban-y. But I wanted the other side to be shown before the next is released. Because there's another side that's very acoustic and it's very vintage.”
What was that like studying at Berklee? Did you win the John Lennon Songwriting Contest while you were still there?“For me, college was very hard. So I basically just focused on doing my music when I was in college, and I applied to that award, and I was like, 'okay, cool, I'll just send my song and forget about it.' A month later I got the email, 'you won,' and I was like, what the hell… like I called the guy and said, 'are you sure it's me?' 'Cause I never believe when those things happen. And he was like, 'Girl, you won!' [Laughs.] I was like 20 when I won that. I was very happy, and it's a very beautiful prize because it's not only like the prize, but it also gives you a lot of prospects.”
Did that award help you realize that this is something that you don't just want to do but that you're also good at?“Yes, that's a battle that I always deal with. You know the voice in your head saying, 'Ah, you didn't do enough, ah, there are other people who are greater'? That's why it's so hard to believe for me when I get those opportunities and recognitions. Because I'm like, 'Is it really me?' It's a good thing to remind myself, like, 'Okay, maybe you did do a good job.'”
And then you got to open for Coldplay in Bogotá in 2016. “Yes, I did. It was another good example of me just not being able to process the good things that happen [Laughs.] I said to my manager, 'No, no, send me a screenshot of the email we got!' It took me a week to accept that I was gonna do that. And I did it and it was beautiful. It's so surreal, to be honest. I knew them since my teenage years. It's the kind of thing that, to be honest… is so crazy! I would tell myself, 'Do you think that when you were 14 years old, you really thought that you were gonna be opening for these big bands?' No. I never thought about it. And it happened. So it's beautiful.”
What’s next?“I'm excited for the album. It's gonna be released with a new video and a lot of media around it, which I'm gonna be talking about later, because I'm really interested in the different ways that you can explore an album and the story behind an album. I'm also going to have shows around South America and Mexico and hopefully the U.S. too, we're working on those.”