Colombian producer Montañera makes deeply hypnotic and emotive music that fully draws you into her sonic world – all rich, expansive electronic textures and warming ambient hues

When María Mónica Gutiérrez – also known as Montañera – moved to London to study for a master’s degree in music in 2020, the timing was inauspicious to say the least. In her native Colombia, Gutiérrez had been an established artist for more than a decade. In England, she was coping with the hopes and fears of a stranger in a foreign land – making new friends, becoming familiar with new institutions and neighbourhoods and acclimatising to the weather – when along came Covid-19.

“I came here during the pandemic, so it was a bit challenging,” she says understatedly. “I came to study, and then suddenly everything was online. I had a very lonely period for a while, which I guess we all did.” 

Given the widespread misery that was suffered by so many, she’s keen not to overhype her own bad experience, although one can only imagine the bleakness of travelling 5,000 miles to end up in solitary confinement with no end in sight. Yet out of adversity came a radical new way to approach creativity, predicated largely on the limitations imposed on her.

“I had a Korg in my suitcase, so I just started exploring the synthesiser more than if I would have done in a normal situation,” she says. “I’d become accustomed to playing with other musicians but now, because of lockdown, I was literally just in my room singing and exploring textures and sounds.”

The outcome was Montañera’s stunning third solo album, ‘A Flor De Piel’ – which loosely translates as ‘Flowered Skin’ – a sonic departure from what’s come before, full of exotic soundscapes almost entirely devoid of beats. Much of the mood comes from a desire to self-soothe in lieu of any company. 

“I started listening to a lot of ambient and experimental music, Indian ragas, trying not to be anxious or stressed,” she says.

Gutiérrez has been writing melodies for the last 15 years, but out went the tried and tested songwriting conventions and in came the juxtaposition of her vocals against a monophonic voice. On a trip back to Bogota to do some shows, she met up with her old guitarist Diego Manrique, who is now one half of Colombian electronic duo Rizomagic with Edgar Marún.

“So I met with Diego to have a coffee and just hang, and he showed me what he was doing with Rizomagic,” she says. “I really loved it, and I just intuitively thought that maybe these guys could be the ones to produce this new music, because I trust their musical tastes a lot.” 

The cut-up, boom-bap eccentricity of Rizomagic’s 2021 debut album, ‘Voltaje Raizal’, has found much critical acclaim, and while their approach is very different on ‘A Flor De Piel’, the collaboration has produced something unique. Lush sounds are brought together to mingle from different corners of the Earth, giving rise to something altogether otherworldly.

The opening title track features Gutiérrez’s shimmering vocal set against stark, slowly glissading sub-bass, with the forbidding landscape of the verses transforming into the sublime in the choruses, like light breaking through a window. There’s a koto in the mix too, while on ‘Me Suelto Al Riesgo’, Gutiérrez plays the kora, which she studied in London under the tutorship of a Senegalese griot.

“I’ve become interested in Senegalese and African traditional music, and kora music is beautiful because it’s so celestial and ethereal,” she explains. “It wasn’t a conscious decision. I was just into music that made me feel calm and elevated my mind.” 

Perhaps the pièce de résistance is ‘Santa Mar’, which Gutiérrez admits is one of the most special songs of her career so far. The only piece on the album with an overtly rhythmic track, it also features the marimba playing of Juan Carlos Mindinero (aka Cankita) alongside the traditional Colombian singers Las Cantadoras De Yerba Buena. 

“The dissertation I did for my master’s degree was called ‘How can the singing practice be a tool for social healing and peacebuilding?’,” Gutiérrez explains. “And the Las Cantadoras were the case study for my research.”

Las Cantadoras are an all-female vocal group who live in an isolated village in the Chocó region on the Pacific coast of Colombia. They sing indigenous bullerengue music that has largely evaded the influence of globalisation. 

“I went to their village and I gave them some workshops around what I had discovered in my research. We did some singing and as I’m also a yoga teacher, we did some breathing exercises. They were really happy with all of the research and they asked to make a song with me. They’re such an inspiration, these women.”

As luck would have it, Gutiérrez met up with the famous marimba player Cankita in London, and it transpired in conversation that some of the Cantadoras were, in fact, his aunts. 

“So I invited him to record the marimba, and he became my bridge to these women because he’s very close to them,” she says. “They’re elderly so some of them don’t even have WhatsApp. Communication had been difficult up to that point so meeting Cankita was amazing.” 

Despite the gloom of lockdown, a sense of hope seems to permeate the record, although my inability to speak Spanish means I can’t be entirely certain. 

“In interviews, I’ve been repeating the part about being in a foreign country and how challenging it is,” Gutiérrez admits. “But there’s definitely a counter-story as well that I haven’t talked about as much, of how this music brought me such relief. 

“With Rizomagic, I was very clear that I didn’t want the album to become too dense, but then again I didn’t want it to be just airy and light, either. I wanted both things to be very present, where some tracks have very deep bass but then my voice is super-ethereal on top.”

We live in an increasingly binary world where we are constantly encouraged to be one thing or the other, but as Gutiérrez explains, life sometimes isn’t quite so clear-cut as that. 

“I wanted that tension of having something very light and something very dark, because that was actually the experience I was having,” she says. “The two were constantly there, which is contradictory, I guess. But to be honest, I was feeling both of those things at the same time.”

‘A Flor De Piel’ is out on Western Vinyl

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