Soluna shoots to stardom
By Naughty Mickie
Pictures courtesy
The Southern California pop group Soluna is phenomenal. It consists of four beautiful young women, T Lopez, Jessica Castellanos, Aurora Rodriguez and America Olivo, who combine their vocal, writing and performing talents, while paying homage to their Latin heritage. They have toured with Marc Anthony and Enrique Iglesias in support of their debut release, "For All Time"  (Dreamworks Records). The album showcased their bilingual skills on sweet and tender ballads, as well as hot dance tunes and has spun off two singles.

With such an impressive background, I was thrilled to spend some time chatting with the foursome. Soluna was trekking across Texas in their tour bus and, as we spoke, proved giddy as teens, yet wise beyond their years. But what impressed me most is that they made me feel as comfortable as one of their friends. Not only smart, not only pretty, not only talented-- they were truly nice. In return, I will share with you the moments they shared with me.

T Lopez from Ontario, California, was the last member added to Soluna, but the first with whom I spoke. She grew up singing gospel in church and mariachi at home, as well as trying to breakdance with her father's crew. Lopez was discovered when a producer stopped in the auto body shop her father managed. He saw her photograph on her dad's desk and learned that she sang. The producer asked Lopez's dad to have her call him. She did and sang "Amazing Grace" to him over the phone. He put her in touch with Castellanos and the rest is, as they say, history.

DB: You say nice things about your band mates, did you ever worry about fitting in?

TL: I think, at first, because I was the last one to join the group, they were already a group, not for very long, but I was the last one and they were already a group. So at first I kind of, I don't think that I ever thought I would have a problem, but it took a little while to adjust, but not that long because the girls are actually really cool. Before I met them, I talked to them over the phone and I was like, "OK, they seem nice, but..." You never know because girls, especially when you meet new girls, sometimes girls have an attitude or they're catty. When I met them, they were really really nice and I think it's because we're all Latinas and we all grew up with more or less the same values and more or less the same types of traditions and culture, even though our backgrounds are different countries. I think that had a lot to do with it and also the fact that we all grew up, each of us grew up with a lot of sisters, so you know how to get along with other girls. You have respect for each other.

I think I kind of had a little fear about it at first, but afterward it was all good. Especially when I met them for the first time, I sang some things for them and then they sang for me and I left the meeting like, "Wow! These girls are pretty cool." You don't find very many girls that when you first meet them are really really nice and they were genuinely nice.

DB: What are you learning from this experience?

TL: Oh my God! So so so very much. I've always been singing since I was little, but once you start recording an album and writing songs, you learn so much more about your voice and how to use your voice. And when you're writing songs, you learn so much more about how to dig deep within yourself and find those feelings and put them to work, put them to paper, and sing about them. Oh gosh, there's so much, I've learned so much about the music business and we've been on tour, two tours this month, Marc Anthony and Enrique Iglesias, and you learn so much about performing, especially from them. We have learned so much just from other artists, especially from Marc and Enrique and just being on tour with them. They perform and they give all of what they are to their audience. It's all about the fans and it's all about connecting with them and making them feel what you feel while singing.

DB: What is the most important thing you've learned?

Soluna TL: As far as performing, honestly, the most important thing that I've learned is that you have to really communicate and get a feel for the people you are performing for. We've performed for so many different. we go to Puerto Rico, we've been to Mexico, all around the United States and each state of the United States, it's so weird, has a different vibe and the people are different. And you've got to get on their same vibe and find out what you have in common with them because we're all human and we have at least one thing in common, so you've got to play off of that. That's what makes the show good, is when you feel like you have a connection with the audience and that's what we try to do the most.

T says when she heard about other people from cities near her hometown making it, it gave her hope.

TL: Sometimes we still don't believe it. When we played the Staples Center, we were like, "We can't believe we just played the Staples Center." It's crazy, sometimes we still don't believe it.

Jessica Castellanos of Garden Grove, California, was introduced to Olivo and Rodriguez by a mutual producer friend. She spent her childhood listening to her father's Columbian cumbias, Aretha Franklin, Madonna and the Carpenters. Castellanos started on her career path at age four when she sang "Te Vengo A Decir" in front of the congregation at the Evangel Templo. She continued on, without any proper vocal training, to perform as a soloist for many years and was already spending time in the recording studio, when the offer came for Soluna.

DB:  Many groups think three is the "magic member number,'' why four?

JC: I've never heard that before, that three is the magic number, but we chose four because of harmony. We first got together as three, normal as three-part harmony, but we wanted to be a little bit different. We thought five would be a little bit much as far as girls and splitting money and stuff like that, we were definitely thinking about that too. So we were like, "OK, well, we could do four" because four will make our harmony more intricate and more different, so that's definitely why we chose to go with four people.

DB: How do you write your material?

JC: It works differently for every situation. There'll be a time when we worked with our producer and he came with a track and we wrote to it. I wrote a couple songs, I wrote before this, and we ended up using one of them for the album. A lot of it comes just by a melody in your head or some types of experience you've had. As a group, usually when we write the most is when we have a tune, we get a piece of paper and sit down and write it. Or if I have an idea, we'll come together and work on it or if she has an idea for a verse. I can't really say how it comes together because it doesn't work the same every time. But we survive off of each other when we do come up with either a hook or a lyric, we help each other. And it's a very personal process and we definitely respect each other. Writing is kind of like opening your soul, so you definitely have to respect each other's opinions.

DB: I know that you write a lot, are you the key writer for Soluna?

JC: We're all striving to be better songwriters. We're all trying to be better everything. I wouldn't say that one person sticks out, all of us try to help each other.

DB: Does one of you write more material than the others?

JC: I love to write, I'm always writing, every day, and the girls write a lot too.

DB: What do you think about the Internet?

JC: We all computers that we take on the road. We talk on the Web site, get on at least twice a week when we have time, and let our fans know what we are doing on the road and thank them for all their support and all their love. Without them, we are nothing and we really appreciate that. In Salt Lake City, when we were there for Enrique, we had girls fly from New Jersey and Chicago and different parts of the United States just to come see us. It was so amazing for us and we are very grateful for them.

There's so many questions though and there's times when it's really hard to answer back, but we try to. We also call in every Wednesday and we leave a voice mail message.

Castellanos confides that the girls got Enrique Iglesias to leave a voice mail message for them. All of the voice mail messages can be downloaded by visitors to Soluna's site through the tour diary section.

Soluna Aurora Rodriguez was born in Brooklyn, New York and raised in San Diego, California. Her father was a minister for 12 years and was also in a singing quintet, The Kings Five. On road trips, Rodriguez's father would assign each family member a vocal part so they could sing songs in harmony as they traveled. She studied voice at the California Institute of the Arts, transferring to UCLA to major in musicology. At CalArts, Rodriguez met Olivo in Latin Jazz ensemble. What started as a friendship based in mutual interests between the two girls has now matured into a shared career.

DB: Do you have any aspirations for Broadway or film?

AR: Oh yeah, absolutely. That's always been the first thing for me. That's how I met America, studying music in school. I love musical theater, that's the first thing that gave me power to be a performer, was doing it through musical theater, it was one thing that I could do and never get nervous. I absolutely loved that. I love movies, I'm a huge movie, film admirer and I love acting, so you never know. Right now we're so busy and we've had a lot of cool opportunities come our way. We have the opportunity to film a pilot for a series. We're going to do one episode which will be really cool. Opportunities like that expand our horizons as a group, so it's really cool, I'm totally excited about that.

DB: What is your favorite movie genre?

AR: Oooo, I love, hmmm, my favorite. It's really hard to say, I really like a lot of dark movies. I'd say film noir, but I get scared of it. I can't watch a lot of scary movies, but movies that are more about conversation, about dialogue, that are funny and kind of creepy at the same time. That's it. I'm not real big for romantic comedies, although I'll watch anything. I really will watch any movie. In the car, we're traveling, we're on our way to Houston, and we're watching "One True Thing" with Rene Zellwiger and I forget the guy's name. Last night we saw "Sweet Home Alabama," we saw "The Ring" the night before. Every little opportunity we get, we like to watch a movie.

DB: How do you like touring?

AR: It's just great, it's been great. Actually, we've been touring, we've been doing promotions, radio and television and press stuff as well and it's been a really hectic schedule for a while. We haven't been home since, well, we'll get home for like a day or two and then we're back out for ten days and it's been like that, so it will probably be like that until Christmas. But everything has been so exciting and things that we've only dreamt about doing, we've been able to do. It's been incredible touring with Enrique and Marc. Oh, there's our song (on the radio on the tour bus). They play our song on the radio now and again, cool stuff like that.

DB: Where is the best place you've been on tour?

AR: We spent seven days in Puerto Rico last month, I'm Puerto Rican, and it was five days of pure work, but then we had one day off to go to the islands and it was so nice, beautiful and relaxing. It was nice just to be in a whole other climate, a whole other vibe, away from the city. It was gorgeous, it was great, I'll tell you, it was my favorite.

It was awesome. You know where else we went? We finished the tour with Marc in the Dominican Republic and we stayed at this place called Casa de Campo and it was just awesome. It was right on the water. There were villas, like apartments, all beautiful furnishing, open windows, balconies and the weather was perfect. It was private and it was like a hotel. It was like a resort. It was so amazing, so amazing. That was another place that we went to.

We get to cool places, but we don't get to do anything but work. It drives you nuts, but the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, we got to relax, so it was nice.

America (pronounced Ah-mah-REE-kuh) Olivo is from the San Fernando Valley area of California. Her earliest influences came from her father, who wrote country-western songs and had her sing backup on his recordings. Olivo also spent her childhood singing in community theater. She studied at CalArts (where she met Rodriguez) and, after two years, completed her studies at the Julliard School in New York. She is trained in opera and musical theater. Olivo is also very vocal about empowerment and a commitment to community. She wants women to be independent and strong. Soluna has demonstrated their commitment by performing of behalf of many charities, including Recording Artists, Actors & Athletes Against Drunk Driving and the MacLaren Children's Foundation.

DB: So many women write and sing about putting men in their place, you show strength without doing that, what other values do you wish to impart to your fans?

AO: I think all of our music is just generally "feel good" music, it's just positive in general. We do have sad songs, broken hearted songs, but for the most part, the music's really positive. It's not really hating anybody or putting anybody down and it's not angry music. I think that that's just something that came out of us. This album is what we're feeling right now, we're really positive and happy and that's what we're going through in our life right now, so that's what we're expressing.

Soluna As for our message or values, I hope that we can be an example to other people that anything's possible, that you can do whatever you set your mind to, because all of us came from really different backgrounds and different, I don't want to say levels, but T's straight out of high school and I graduated from college and we're in the same boat. You can get to do what you want to do through many different paths and as long as you persevere, you try, you set your mind up to do something, there's not one way to do something, there's many ways you can go about doing it, as long as you really put your mind to it and work at it.

That was the path that took us to come together, from different paths, then together we've had to really work hard and not let any obstacles get in our way. And there's been a lot of doors that have opened for us when we first got together as a group and that was kind of how we knew that it was meant what was meant to be. But at the same time I look back, I think, gosh, at that point we could have quit or at that point we could have quit, it didn't even dawn on us or really hit us that we couldn't keep going. I think that's what you have to do is keep trying, keep going.

DB: Are you comfortable as a role model?

AO: It comes with it. I don't think I want to be a role model. It's like saying, "I'm a role model, I'm perfect" and I don't think that I'm perfect. I don't think anybody is. But I know that we try to be, we try to be good people, we are good people and work really hard. It comes with being in this profession, you're end up being a role model whether you like it or not and so you have to watch what you do and what you in say in the case that someone might follow your footsteps and what you do. You do have to watch yourself.

None of us have any problems. I think we're all really good people. I just don't want anybody to think that I'm perfect, but I definitely strive to be a good person. I've definitely learned a lot from life and hopefully maybe be an example to other people that you don't have to be perfect, just as long as you try your hardest and try to be good and try to work hard.

DB: What do you think of today's music scene?

AO: Today's music scene, what I love about music today is a lot of different styles and genres and worlds of music are over lapping and combining and coming together, where there's less and less lines drawn in between. What is rock? What is alternative? What is hip hop? What is rap? What is pop? What is Latin? It's all sort of like, "What is this song? It's kind of kind of Latin/hip hop/rock with rap." Everything is "What is that?" Everybody is trying to take all types of music and styles and put them all together. That's something that I've always loved about music.

Growing up, I loved world music and when cultures combine and come together and I think that I see that more and more. It's something that we strive for also with our music. I feel that it's eclectic and there's lots of different flavors on our album, there's not really "a" sound. I hear that more and more on the radio and I think most of the music is coming away from the synthetic and coming to the real playing. I think music is turning more that direction and I like that. I think we'll probably go more that way on our next album.

We discuss real instruments versus synth, and how harmonies and vocals seem to be coming back in style.

Olivo tells me that Soluna is working on pilot for UPN, about themselves. It will be the first acting that they have done as a group. They will also be featured in an episode of  "The Brothers Garcia.''

AO: We've been on the road and there's so little amount of time that you get to be an artist. Everyday it's so much the work part of everything, like the press and the photos and the TV interviews and this and that. There's such a small percent of the time that you get to be an artist and perform or to share your art. It will be fun to express ourselves in another way. It will broaden our artistic media.

The pilot for Soluna's television show will be based on their experiences as a singing group. It will  probably be laced with humor, but deal with serious issues as well. The quartet is working on new material constantly and is hoping to record a Spanish album. In the meantime, they have a song on the soundtrack of  the film "Hot Chick" and are preparing a new video from their album.

AO: There's always something. After the tour, you sit down for a second and they're like, "Off to Dallas." They keep us moving.

DB: Is there anything we haven't discussed that you would like to talk about?

AO: We really do love to talk to our fans and hear feedback on the message boards. The fans are so good to us. We really appreciate all the love and support that everybody gives us, really honestly. We're really happy to be where we're at.

Then Olivo moans about being trapped on the bus: I'm so cooped up, I want to get out and run around the building.

She tells me that they're at a gas stop and she wants to stretch, but then continues talking, telling me how the girls' families are keeping a diary of clippings from newspapers and magazines with photos and stories on Soluna. We start to say good bye, but Olivo can't resist sharing a road story with me -- she confides that I am the first person in the media to hear her fun tale.

AO: Did I tell you what we did to Enrique (Iglesias)? It was the end of the tour, the last day of the tour, and we wanted to do something. But what do you get for somebody who has everything? What could we get him? We had no time because we were traveling, traveling, traveling, but some fans showed up at the backstage gate when we came in for soundcheck. So we talked to them for a while and they gave us some presents. They asked us, "Do you want anything? Do you need anything?" It just so happened we were talking about it during the car ride over, we should get some gag gifts and TP Enrique's dressing room before we left.

They were like, "Oh, we'll go to Party World and we'll get all the stuff for you." So we gave them some money and they went to Party World and they came back with all this stuff, like streamers and balloons and they gave us big underwear that we wrote on stuff like "Enrique, we love you," "Call me," "There's more where this came from" and all this stuff. It was so funny, we trashed the room with Silly String and everything.

What we found out, and why we wanted to do this, is that he did to his manager all the time and his manager is a really really serious person, hard to crack. We went to his manager and said we want to do this thing, he's like, "I'm going to put the keys right here and I don't know anything about it." So we took the keys and went in there. He (Iglesias' manager) actually came into the room and he was loving it because he gets it all the time. He gets pranks pulled on him all day long by Enrique, so this was one prank that got him back. We thought he was going to be mad, but he wasn't, he was totally into it.

When Enrique came in, the whole place was trashed and we were hiding around the corner waiting for him. He was like, "Oh my God, what's going on?" And we came in and we were like, "Hi! We got you!"

That's something we haven't told anybody yet. He's a very cool guy and if we do any more concerts with him, we expect to get paid back.

Somehow, I think that when Soluna gets paid back, they will savor the moment with a smile and a giggle. Maybe their attitude is the real key to their success.... I wish them well!

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