Photo courtesy: www.lizethsantos.com
Whether it’s childlike whimsy or fatalistic fervor, it’s hard to pinpoint, exactly, what Lizeth Santos’ approach is to life and music. Sitting down with her in a North Park coffeehouse—three days after her return from a month-and-a-half-long sojourn in New York City on what she describes as an “artquest”—she tries to put it as succinctly as possible: She lives her life like a bad Jack Nicholson movie.
“Well, you know how everyone has a life-list dream,” she asks between sips of rose-colored tea.
“You know, a bucket list or whatever people call them—whether they’re written down or in you’re mind, the things that you think, Some day, I’m going to dot dot dot. So, one of mine, one of the big ones, was doing my own music.”
Santos is what you’d call a dabbler. A renaissance woman. A jack of all trades, but a master of none. Born and raised in San Diego and El Centro with summers spent visiting family in Mexicali, Mexico, her artistic inclinations have pushed her toward dance, music and photography. And although she’s made a name for herself with the latter, shooting album covers and pictures for Thrasher and Spin magazines, she’s still unsure what to say when people ask her what she does.
“I would tell people I’m unemployed,” she says, laughing. “I know my identity as a photographer, but if you met me while I was doing music, I guess I would say that I was a musician.”
It seems likely that once her catchy one-woman musical project, Smile Now Cry Later, hits more ear drums, she’ll be claiming the musician profession a lot more. Inspired by all sorts of music as she was growing up, whether ’80s-era top 40 or Latin stars like Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam, Sheila E. and Selena, Santos has always wanted to blend them all into something that was unique to her personal experiences.
“Something very Southern California and Mexican-American-inspired,” she says. “This is not sad music. It’s dance music.”
But busy with photography, her “lifeless dream” remained just that—until recently, when her husband, musician Rafter Roberts, gave her a cocktail drum kit (basically a small set that you play standing up) as a Christmas gift. She recorded some things off and on, but it wasn’t until MAC, the cosmetics company, hired Roberts in 2009 to score a commercial that she became really inspired. Seeing the video, with waif-like models applying fake eyelashes, Santos says she called Roberts and told him she had the perfect idea for a song. The resulting track, “Just Wanna,” with Santos cooing “come on and get it” over a highly danceable beat, went over like gangbusters at MAC. She admits that the subsequent comments left on the YouTube stream of the ad were a big ego boost.
“There were so many people on there saying, ‘What band is this?,’ ‘Who is this?,’ ‘I want this song,’ ‘Is it on iTunes?,’ and I just thought that was unbelievable. No one knew who I was. I didn’t even have a band name.”
Since then, she’s recorded 12 songs for a Smile Now album that she hopes to shop around to labels. She’s played only two shows so far, and her performance is unique in that she has no band but still manages to make a big sound using her drum kit, a mic and a set of sample pads to play pre-programmed backing tracks.
As for what’s next, Santos talks as if she already knows how the future is going to unfold but won’t share the climax. Fatalism? Whimsy? Whatever it is, it’s worked for her so far.
“It’s how I want to do it,” she says. “That’s what makes it more of an exciting thing. Wherever I want to go next is what’s going to happen, whether it’s tomorrow I’m done or I keep going with it.”
“But I would like to play my songs with an all-female mariachi band. That would be awesome.”
Correction: The original version of this story quoted Santos as saying "lifeless" dream. It has been corrected to say "life-list."
Smile Now Cry Later plays at the San Diego Museum of Art’s “Culture & Cocktails” on Thursday, Feb. 25, and at Whistle Stop Bar on Friday, Feb. 26. www.myspace.com/smilenowcrylaterband.