The Expat: Tiffany Joy

Tiffany Joy
From: Los Gatos, California
Age: 29
Profession: Singer-songwriter and PR director for Alternative Latin Investor
Education: Spanish linguistics and Musical theatre degree at San José State University
Currently reading: La isla bajo el mar by Isabel Allende
Last film: Dolphin Tale
Gadget: My iPhone

How did you end up in Argentina?
I’m a bilingual singer-songwriter and I was getting ready to release my second album in 2002 and I got an email from an Argentine drummer. He wrote: “Dear Miss Tiffany Joy, I’m a big fan of your work and I’ve written the drumlines to all your songs. When you come to tour Argentina, I’d like to be your dummer. Sincerely, Martín Sosa.” I thought the way he reached out was really humble and we became friends.
We simply wanted to work together and we were sending each other songs. I was finishing my linguistics degree and had decided to spend a few months in Argentina. So I flew out, Martín and his family picked me up from the airport and I stayed with them in the province.

What was that time like?
I rented a place in the capital but also spent time with Martín and we started playing shows together. It was like a little tour and I was here for four months. That’s the point when I fell in love with Argentina.
I’d also fallen in love with an American before I moved out here. It was a passionate affair and he flew to Argentina to tell me he wanted me to move back to the States with him.

So you returned to the US…
To San Francisco for three years, but always with the dream of moving back here as I loved it so much. I feel like Buenos Aires is like a Spanish-speaking San Francisco, so as far as music events, culture, nightlife and art, crazy house parties, that’s the Buenos Aires which I’d experienced.

How long did it take to come back?
My dream was to come back, and with my love. It was 2009, I had a killer job on a magazine, was performing with my band, my new album was out and I was living an awesome life, then everything went to shit. My boyfriend left me, we lost our house because of the break-up, and I lost my job because of the crisis. It all happened within a two-week period.
It was a very dark time of my life. I was suicidal and went to the Golden Gate Bridge but then a crazy thing happened. The unemployment cheques sent to me while I was living in San Francisco meant I got to be a full-time artist so I started composing again. In six months I composed Finding Joy, which is about finding happiness on your own.

And did you find joy?
I spent time on my own and got involved with the tango community which made me want to come back even more. And I thought I could retake up my dream without the person who was no longer in my life.
I got in touch with a producer I wanted to work with in Palermo Hollywood. I didn’t have a lot of money but the songs were good, and I sent him rough drafts to see if he liked them and could do me a deal. My drummer was working there too, so they took on the project and told me to sell everything and come to Buenos Aires. I showed up with a suitecase and a guitar three years ago.

How did the album work out?
I spent two years recording it as the guys did it when they had time. But it was on a relaxed schedule as I’m independent and didn’t have a label breathing down my neck. As I continued to grow, so did my music. And as I settled into my life here, the music evolved with me as I came through that dark time. It was like a rebirth as that album was being born.

Was it easy to pull together?
In general doing business in South America is hard as it’s hard to get answers and timelines from people. Being a female solo artist, at times I’ve been pulling my hair out, wondering what company to use to fabricate the discs. But in the long run, I have a CD in my hand and I’m happy with that.

Have you worked on other musical projects?
About a year and a half through my album I met another singer-songwriter, Maqui, from Colombia, at a party. We started singing together and thought “woah!” We started out performing covers, being hired for private events then composing together and fell in love. We formed a duo called Individúo.

Tell me about being a bilingual singer-songwriter.
My last album, El ritmo del mundo, had six songs in Spanish and six in English. When I first came here I was
performing all of those. But what I do with Maqui is more unique and has a lot of force. All the music we are composing will be 100 percent Spanish pop.
I took my first Spanish class when I was 10 and was obsessed with it. I always thought I’d been born into the wrong culture. I used to lock myself in my bedroom and very nastily tell my parents I wouldn’t come speak to them unless they learned to speak “my” language. I wanted to be Latina more than anything.

How do you exist, financially speaking?
I work for Alternative Latin Investor, and launched the first issue in 2009. I saw an ad the first week I arrived for a marketing assistant, 15 pesos an hour. I met Nate for a coffee, which turned into a beer, which turned into vodka and he said “you’re hired” and made me the marketing director!
It gives me a lot of flexibility as I can work from home but I also went on tour to Colombia last year but was still able to keep working. We’ve grown it from the ground up.
But in a perfect work, the duo would work out and make it to the next level, which is when people would want to know what I had done before, which is when they would discover this album and go “wow!” It’s so special to me and I want it to be heard as I feel it could help other people as making it saved my life.

You and your partner are both strangers in a foreign land.
Sometimes I feel it’s harder for me as I have a really close relationship with my family. Maqui has been denied a visa twice so he hasn’t even met my family. It’s a sensitive subject for us but it’s out of my hands and there is nothing I can do. As much as I want to go back, I don’t want to leave him and I want to play shows with the duo, for him to see where I grew up, but right now we can’t do that.
I think it takes a particular person to live outside their country and he and I came here with grand delusions. And now that we are working on this project I’ve realized that’s the reason I’m supposed to be here.
I never appreciated the United States and was very unpatriotic and had negative things to say about our politics. But there are a lot of things I miss and I appreciate where I grew up. In a dream world I’d spend time in both places. I think it’s bittersweet to be an expat. We are both expats and we’ve adopted a lot of Argentines ways but we’ll always be foreigners. I don’t spend much time with English-speaking expats but with expats from other South American countries.

What do you miss from the US?
It sounds horrible but I miss capitalism. There are certain things about buying what you need when you need, which I really miss. It’s easier to make out there, easier to obtain things. You could easily get a sofa someone is throwing out for 20 bucks in San Francisco, but here no one throws out their sofa as that capitalist mentality doesn’t exist.

Any lost-in-translation moments?
Learning Spanish has been like running a marathon. You hit “the wall” and have to keep pushing to find that extra boost of adrenaline — and it’s like that with my language abilities. Every time I feel like I’ve dominated it, my brain will get tired. The transition came when I met my partner as we only speak Spanish.
We’re composing only in Spanish so the subtleties, the poetry, are on a whole different level.

Where have you travelled?
We took a shady bus from Once to Salta with chickens on board recently, and we saved money so we could do some excursions to Cafayate and the salt mines.

When the gigging doesn’t give
Three years ago, inspiration for starting a regular interview with expats was an American musician called Jonah Schwartz. Also a vocalist, Jonah plays the guitar and mandolin and was part of a popular indie-Americana-folk band called Los alamos which was regularly selling out Niceto Club in Palermo a few years ago.
Although the band only plays sporadically these days, given that lead singer Peter moved to Marseilles to be with his French wife, Jonah kept waving the flag with other bands, such as Spring Lizard and Los palos borrachos.
The weekly interview had been published for several months before I was able to combine a slot with Jonah but we finally made it and the original inspiration was “expat interviewed” in December 2008.
Of course, Los alamos may be one of the more well-known groups with a foreign band member in Buenos Aires, but other bands include Las Kellies, a post-punk girl band formed in 2005 with an English member, the 1060s who are led by Brit Benjamin Gibbons, while Lenny’s Wife and the Boys, led by Frenchman Julien Ferrat, comprises Australian Nick Olle, Anglo-Argentine Alistair Lee and the Argentine drummer who is Lenny’s wife, a veritable expat musical fantasy.
All of these bands, plus solo vocalists such as Mickey Vail and Ivy Markaity, are out there, performing regularly, but at what cost?
Singer-songwriter Tiffany Joy says: “Gigging is hell. They are very unfair to musicians here as you have to pay to play. If you do find a decent place the percentage isn’t very good, perhaps 70-30, from which you get 30. You have to pay a bunch to rent the really good theatres. Being an outside artist and coming in without a following means taking a huge risk.”
And it’s not that small venues for a musician or band starting out are lacking in numbers. Versatile spaces are 10 a penny here so it seems strange that hiring one for a gig seems to be so painful. I remember Jonah saying some nights, after playing a show, he might have made 20 pesos.
“I used to love playing at La cigale before it moved as the stage was very small and it was intimate,” says Tiffany Joy. Although that is one of many spaces offering live music, maybe next time we should all be tipping musicians, like the pizza delivery boy, to make sure they are earning their fare share of the house.

Published in the Buenos Aires Herald on October 23, 2011
Photo by Mario Mosca

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