I opted on St. Patrick’s Day for Russian Red in lieu of Irish green. It was her shimmering interpretation of the song “Loving Strangers” on the soundtrack of Julio Medem’s beautiful film Room in Rome that first set me on this young Spanish singer-songwriter. Her given name is Lourdes Hernández, but she took as her stage name the brand name of a color of lipstick. It was, for all I know, the very color that, as I checked in at the ticket lectern of the Mercury Lounge, she was applying to her lips while sorting out some logistical matter or another with one of the club managers.
The Mercury is the sort of venue in which the audience stands in a big square room to listen to the performer, or the band, who play from a raised platform, with variable acoustics and modest accoutrements. I imagine some audiences get down and dirty with each other, and the music, while buying as much beer as possible. I am glad to say, however, that Russian Red attracts a civilized and respectful crowd; and for good reason, because she is one hell of a sophisticated performer. She writes and sings in English, a choice that she claims, whatever its commercial benefits, to have made for artistic reasons, English being the natural language for alternative rock and confessional folk, as, for example, lunfardo-laced Spanish is for tango, or Portuguese is for fado. I think that she is right about that.
In any case, she is a gifted lyricist and a flawless singer in her adopted tongue, and it may be that the distinctive character of her voice has something to do with her phonetic mastery of its nuances. The best singers turn the oddities of their voices into expressive vehicles; if her own is lightly accented, she makes of it a style rather than a marker of her origins. She can simultaneously drive a tune as a musician and as a singer slip past its more insistent beats like water circling a stone. She can swallow a sound and emit a thought or an emotion all the more powerfully for it. She can defy the world, even with a touch of anger, and remain open and lyrically inviting. She is greatly likable on stage, with that “it” factor – distinct from charisma but perhaps not from star quality – that makes someone seem effortlessly to belong in front of other people. She varies her presence without seam, as her material and environs dictate, sharp as a nail one moment, and a little drunken the next; rocking out, and then quietly confessional.
The songs she sang were mostly original, many from the themed CD called Agent Cooper, on the cover of which she poses fetching and spy-like and displaying a firearm. The titles of her compositions are all men’s names, which makes one wonder, naturally, if she is allegorizing a personal story. They are smart and evocative in any case, sounding like covered classics, assertive to the point of being standards already. I was prepared for the possibility of disappointment at seeing her live, but the truth is that there is something exceptional about her, and I like her all the more. She is writing a future for herself, and well on the way to it.