A Conversation with Cristina Perez. Musician, Mother, Activist
By AnaMaría Bech
Click aqui para español- >Una conversación con Cristina Pérez. Música, madre y activista.
Cristina Perez is a firm believer that while life is complicated, that is what makes it beautiful. As a New Orleans-based singer and mother to three-year-old special needs son Oscar, she is dedicated to creating authentic music inspired by female empowerment, untraditional motherhood, positivity and inclusivity for all.
With an artists’ drive, she is focused on using her original music to bring light, love and awareness to her community and to give a louder voice to mothers of children with disabilities and rare diseases.
Following the release of her single, “The Sweetest Thing,” written as a love letter to New Orleans, Cristina set her music career aside to care for Oscar full-time. Oscar, or “Oskie,” has endured a one-and-a-half-month stay in NICU and six surgeries. His routine consists of thrice weekly physical, occupational, and speech therapies; he is also globally delayed and tube-fed.
As a result, Cristina and her husband’s lives are forever affected, and she now uses her voice to promote pediatric disability and rare disease awareness. She is Oskie’s champion in proving that he is much more than his medical diagnoses and inspires other mothers in her community to raise awareness, as well.
Cristina returned to her music career last year and released “Lessons I’ve Learned” on August 22, 2019, as an uplifting anthem for special needs mothers to turn to when things get rough – a motivation to remain strong despite what life throws at you. The music video includes four other local mothers who have overcome hurdles like Cristina’s.
Cristina also authors a popular blog called “It’s Not Too Complicated,” where she breaks down the trials and tribulations of motherhood, marriage and everyday life with a special needs child.
Currently splitting her time between New Orleans and Washington, D.C., Cristina sat down with VIVA NOLA to talk about her music career:
VN: Your biography mentions Miami and New Orleans being your two homes. Tell us about your connection to both cities.
CP: I was born in New Orleans and lived there until I was 12, when we moved to Miami for my dad’s new job. Although my dad is Cuban, he spent most of his youth in Puerto Rico and eventually went to undergrad and law school at Loyola New Orleans. I also attended Loyola University
VN: When did you start your music career?
CP: I asked for music lessons at six or seven years old — the first time I touched a piano, I just knew that’s what I was going to do. Music was everything to me. Music and volleyball. I joined the schools’ chamber ensemble in high school. It was the experience of playing in the orchestra pit that made me realize that I had to do music for the rest of my life. I ended up choosing a path in Music Therapy at Loyola University, which is what brought me back to NOLA in 2006.
VN: Which artists have influenced your music?
CP: Growing up, I was obsessed with Alicia Keys, John Legend, and Christina Aguilera. I used to learn their songs on piano and belt out singing my favorite songs when no one was home. I also listened to Norah Jones, Diana Krall, and
Michael Bublé. My favorite singer of all time is Ella Fitzgerald - period. She’s everything to me. In college, I was exposed to a lot more jazz — Esperanza Spaulding, Gretchen Parlato, Nina Simone, Nancy Wilson, Django Reinhardt — to name a few. My primary instrument in school was Classical Piano, and I took Vocal Jazz lessons from the famous Leah Chase.
VN: What about your Latin music influence?
CP: In New Orleans, I didn’t get the exposure to Cuban culture like I did in Miami.
I learned Spanish visiting with my grandparents in Puerto Rico and my dad taught us a bit as well. Most of my childhood exposure to Cuban and Latino culture was through music. Every weekend, my dad would drive us out to the pool or to the movies, and he’d play Gloria Estefan, Ricky Martin, Albita, Gypsy Kings, Thalia — all the greats. I would study the lyrics in the CD inserts (written in Spanish) and sing along, learning phonetically how to pronounce all the words. That’s probably the most effective way of learning languages for me — music. When we moved to Miami, we couldn’t help but to be immersed in Cuban culture. It was there that I learned the most about my heritage — Noche Buena, pastelitos, Celia Cruz, Buena Vista Social Club, Carlos Vives, reggaeton — these were all new to me! I was able to build a network of friends through playing music and playing volleyball, mostly with other Cubans. To them, I was the Southern girl — and in New Orleans, I’m the “Latina”. Honestly, I identify as a little bit of both.
VN: How did you start performing in New Orleans?
CP: I was neighbors and good friends with trumpet player Gordon Au, who introduced me to my husband. They played in a traditional jazz band called the New Orleans Moonshiners. There was a period where I started performing that style of music as well. Then, in 2012, I landed the lead female role in Jump Jive and Wail! - the Louis Prima tribute at the National WWII Museum. When I wasn’t performing at the museum in one of their shows, or as a “Victory Belle”, I was performing for private events with my own band. I have a huge place in my heart for music of the 1940s. Louis Prima, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Glenn Miller — the music is timeless and downright legendary. It’s my favorite era of music.
VN: Tell us how your album “The Sweetest Thing” turned into a love letter for New Orleans?
CP: Most of the songs on the album were love songs written and performed in the style of Diana Krall and Norah Jones. It was very representative of what you would get from my live performances. I love that album. For the video for the title track, “The Sweetest Thing,” I was working with a creative team — and we figured turning the song into a love letter to the city would bring about positivity and connect our community through their love of the city. I’m all about connecting people through music.
VN: Any memorable local performances you want to mention?
CP: I’ve had some really fun experiences sitting in with my husband’s band at French Quarter Fest, and I finally performed with my own band in 2015. I also really love performing at City Park’s music series — the audience is super attentive and appreciative. I was really honored to sing the National Anthem at a Saints Game once with the Victory Belles for the Veterans Day game. That was intense - 70,000 people in the stands and another 20 million watching on live television! The first run of “Jump, Jive, and Wail!” was so much fun. It was my breakout role for theatre — and because Louis Prima was a NOLA native, we were sold out every night for the three-month run.
VN: How has music empowered you for coping with the challenges presented by your son Oskie’s special needs?
CP: While I was pregnant, I thought I would get so inspired to write new music after giving birth. Things were so hectic and challenging the first three years — I didn’t write a single thing. I mostly listened to music as a coping mechanism, a way to process what I was feeling when I didn’t have the words yet. When I was angry, I’d listen to “Break Stuff” by Limp Bizkit. When I was in the NICU with my son, I listened to “Bedroom Fans” off of local guitarist’s Russel Welch’s “Mississippi Gypsy” album. It was so soothing — and not too stimulating for my preemie. I had it on repeat for a long time. My background in Music Therapy definitely came in handy in implementing therapy techniques I learned from Oskie’s physical, occupational, and speech therapists, and also has given me skills in interpreting nonverbal communication — which is crucial for my son who is (at least currently) non-verbal.
VN: You finally got back into writing and singing. Tell us about your latest single.
CP: My latest single, “Lessons I’ve Learned” was the first song I wrote after having Oskie — three and a half years after giving birth. It’s the musical version of what I would tell myself to get through tough hospital visits or bad news. “Lessons I’ve Learned” is an anthem to others who have faced adversity and have or are working towards overcoming them. These last three years with my son, have made me a stronger mother, wife, and a woman, and I want to use my creativity and art to give a louder voice to those with loved ones with disabilities.
VN: How has motherhood changed your music?
CP: As far as my songwriting approach goes, I’m writing more in detail about my personal experience. Now, I’m letting it all out. My new music has more variety in styles and moods. I’m also doing some co-writing, letting others help me turn my ideas into a reality. It’s very reflective of my experience as a mother — knowing when you’ve done what you can, knowing your strengths, and then knowing when to ask for help. It takes a village. I’m also toying around with some electronic music and branching into more contemporary and pop styles — although my music will always have some sort of jazz influence.
VN: Are you ready to move permanently back to New Orleans?
CP: NOLA is still home to me, but we have bounced around the past few years for my husband’s clerkships in Birmingham, AL, Wyoming, and now we are in Washington, DC. We are planning on moving back to New Orleans! September 2020 is our projected return date.
VN: Are there music related plans for when you move back?
CP: I’ve been doing a bunch of songwriting and would love to release some new music. I’m hoping to make another music video and get back to performing. I’d also really love to write songs for other artists and focus on doing more collaborations. I know I will always use my voice, my music, to advocate for my son and for other parents in similar situations. The beauty of music is that it transcends language, age, race, ethnicity — it’s the ultimate universal language. I can’t wait to share what I’ve been working on.
Stream “Lessons I’ve Learned” and support Cristina by following her on Instagram @CristinaPerezEdmunds, on Facebook, Cristina Perez Music, or read her blog itsnottoocomplicated.