Ila Cantor's Music Adventure
Having creative parents may open the door to being creative, but as you’ll read in this feature, it’s apparent that creativity gave Ila direction, solutions and opportunities in her life, not to mention, the insight to see a series of green lights as a sign of destiny.
BFC: I read that your parents worked as a filmmaker and author. What type of films and writing did they create? How did they influence your early years?
I was born in Boston, MA in 1984, and raised (after 1990) in Westchester, NY. In Boston, my parents worked together at their production company called CANTOMEDIA. When we moved to NY, my dad, Frank Cantor, continued to make documentary films, and my mom, Esmeralda Santiago, put her focus on writing. As I was growing up, she came out with her first book: a memoir called When I Was Puerto Rican.
My mother’s books and several lectures about Puerto Ricans in the states amplified my pride for having Puerto Rican roots. Not only was she Puerto Rican, she was publicly representing our culture. I admired this growing up and always loved seeing all my Puerto Rican aunts, uncles and cousins, (and always meeting a new one each time!) and of course visiting the island, which we did about once a year.
Because my dad is American, we spoke English at home. Before school, I spoke to my mother in Spanish, but once I started interacting with kids, me daba verguenza hablar en español, so I never did. I’ve met many people who grew up in this situation. Ironically, as I grew older, I was embarrassed that I DIDN’T speak Spanish, so at age 18 I moved to Barcelona.
BFC: You said you began in the arts as a visual artist but switched to the guitar. What was it about the guitar that compelled you to make the switch?
With my mother steadily becoming more present in the public eye and my dad constantly working on interesting and sometimes quirky projects (from his documentaries to his sculptures hanging in the trees), I grew up with artistic prospects. Never in my childhood did I consider growing up to work in an office. I devoted my time to drawings which my proud dad would hang all over the walls, and my child artwork soon became the wallpaper.
Around age 11, I became more interested in music. I tried many instruments until I settled on the guitar. I took some lessons, viewing it as a hobby at the beginning, but then my older brother (also a guitarist) got a tape of The Doors for his birthday, and that changed my life.
I became obsessed with classic rock. I listened to bands like The Doors, Pink Floyd, Credence Clearwater, The Who, The Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin… at age 12 I was deeply upset that I wasn’t growing up in the 60′s and I couldn’t have cared less about most pop music of my years. Later on, the kind of jazz that appealed to me was traditional and my favorite jazz guitarist was Charlie Christian. I also immediately got into tenor players: Dexter Gordon, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Lucky Thompson, Hank Mobley, Joe Henderson, etc. Eventually, my inspired brother practically forced me to take a lesson with his new teacher, Bob Hansmann. Bobby proved to be a blessing. His method was valuable, concise, and creative. I had been against lessons because I wanted guitar to just be for fun, but after one lesson I was hooked and was, as described by my dad to his friend, “constantly practicing in the basement like a crazy person.”
BFC: You mentioned in your bio that you decided to forgo college and study the guitar in the real world. How did you come to make this decision? Was it at this time that you decided to go to Spain?
I started lessons with Bob Hansmann at 15. At 16 I was playing solo guitar weekly in a local restaurant. I basically quit all my other hobbies, including getting top grades, and practiced. My brother was going to SUNY Purchase for jazz guitar, so I played with him and some of his friends. I went to a Wednesday night jam session every week to meet more musicians, and I was sure music was what I wanted to do, so I applied to the jazz program at the New School University. After graduating high school a semester early in December 2002, my parents sent me as a graduation present to stay with family friends in Barcelona.
It was by chance that I fell in love with Barcelona and during my 2 weeks there played more jazz with people than I ever had before. Also, learning Spanish touched something deep inside me, and communicating with a whole new world of people was exciting. It’s no surprise that I came back to go to New School and all year long was dreaming of Barcelona. By my second semester I was a part time student, and by summer, I was accepted to a study abroad program in Barcelona for the fall semester of 2004.
BFC:What was it like when you first arrived in Spain? Did you speak Spanish before you went to Spain?
I came to Barcelona with a student visa and dorm-style place to stay for three months. I took classes in advanced Spanish, and some other electives I don’t remember or attended. Theoretically I was supposed to stay for a school semester like the other kids, but I knew I would stay longer, so after three months I found my own place to stay: a converted four bedroom an old building with wonderful, young, fun, Spanish artists.
I loved it: my room was windowless, my door was a curtain, and sunlight dangerously shone through the cracks in the wall, but my roommates were like family. Plus my rent of 115E allowed me to focus on music (and not worry about visa issues for working). By that time, I had a weekly gig opening a jam session with a Cuban drummer, and I was doing little gigs of my own and subbing lessons for my friends (which ultimately resulted in my steady two days a week teaching guitar). This was more than enough for my cheap rent, so I played at jam sessions almost every night. It wasn’t until the following year that I finally got a steady group together with my great friends: Joe Smith, Tom Warburton, and Fredrik Carlquist, (yes, we were a group of foreigners!) and we played gigs and rehearsed until I left.
BFC:You describe yourself as a Jazz/Experimental/Alternative musician. What drew you to this type of music?
By the time I was playing with my own quartet, I had already written several tunes. Composing has always been fascinating to me because I get the feeling that one can do anything and that freedom is inexplicably beautiful. That’s why I would consider my music to be experimental, even if it has elements of mainstream music. I remember first hearing the music of Reid Anderson (amazing bass player/composer/member of the Bad Plus) and seemed to understand something essential for the first time. His music is deep, playful, accessible, and intellectual at the same time. I like that. Another jazz composer I’ve admired and briefly studied with is Guillermo Klein (Argentino, based in Barcelona and leader of “Los Guachos”). I think he also has those elements. Some other of my composing heroes are Hermeto Pascual, Frank Zappa, and Igor Stravinsky. The latest is Dmitri Shostakivich.
BFC:You’ve recorded a CD. What can people expect to hear from your music?
One’s own sound is hard to describe but I’ve heard some entertaining attempts. One friend said: “Your music’s like Tom Waits meets Bill Frisell… no wait, Pat Metheny, cause Frisell actually might have played with Tom Waits.” Names like Frank Zappa, King Krimson, John Scofield, Thelonious Monk, and more seemingly unrelated masters have been mentioned to me when people hear my music. Everybody makes their own connotation which I think is cool; everybody has a personal relationship to any art they come across. I guess they say: Beauty is in the eye of the beholder… or something.
But to try to explain it myself, I think my music can be simple and catchy, but it holds surprises. It has an element of trickiness that is amusing to me (and I hope it’s amusing to every one else!) Some tunes are consistently inconsistent… or intentionally unpredictable for the sake of expressing an idea. I’ve always been trying to write (and improvise) music that brings an idea across, literal or emotional.
BFC: You mentioned that you just came back from Spain. What brings you back? You even released your first CD on a Spanish label, will you continue to work in Spain in the future?
My life in Spain had turned into focusing on a band, playing, and teaching, but I didn’t think I was ready for that. There was still more I wanted to learn, and that’s what I’m doing in New York. There are countless musicians here that are inspiring and extremely unique. I meet more all the time, and for that reason I’ll probably be here until I just can’t take it anymore (my heart lives in the country).
However, I have already gone back to play in Barcelona 3 times in the past 2 years. Every time I go our band gets stronger and I get new ideas to bring home. I hope to bring my New York friends over on tour sometime also.
BFC: Where do I see my music taking me in the next 5 years?
Interesting and hard question, but it reminds me of something: A few days ago I was biking home in Brooklyn and as you know, there are a hundred ways to get from one place to the other in a grid-map city. I found myself (just like anyone might do) turning where there were red lights and going straight where there were green lights. Pretty obvious, but I realized simultaneously that just as I was letting the lights decide my route home on a bike, I am letting the signs and clues of life decide my destiny. In other words, in 5 years I see myself playing and writing music. Besides that I’m not sure but it really could be anything!
BFC: What advice would you give someone pursuing a musical career and going to a foreign country to play music?
Be open, be intuitive, play with everybody, learn the language, be around and available, practice a lot, have a good time, and if it doesn’t work go somewhere else.
*Visit Ila’s myspace page to listen to samples of her incredible music.