They Like American Music

Gina Villalobos Brings Americana Across the Pond

by Sarah Hammill

Americana. Ask 10 people what it means, and you’ll get 10
different answers. Simply put, it’s the culture of America. In the
music world, the term can be applied to anything from alt-rock to
folk, from no depression to rockabilly. But for some, the word
Americana transcends any single meaning. For these people — many of
whom are not American themselves — the word represents an attitude,
a way of being, a cloud of unsettled dust on the horizon of the
American West or a long, lonely stretch of highway. Fifty years
ago, in the days of Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash, it was truly
America’s music. But, as with all things American, the thrill wears
off and, for us, it’s on to the next big thing: funk, R&B,
grunge rock, and power pop to name a few. But, unbeknownst to many
Americans, the thrill of Americana music has not worn off
elsewhere. In fact, in many European countries, the demand for
contemporary Americana has only grown.

Enter Gina Villalobos. The Santa Barbara-schooled Los Angeles
native got her musical start playing parties in I.V. and has since
taken the U.K. by storm with her foot-stomping, heart-pounding,
throat-aching brand of American rock ’n’ roll. Her take on the
European Americana craze is pretty simple: “Nobody can play rock
music like the Americans. It’s our thing. It’s what we do,”
Villalobos told me by phone a few days before Christmas. “It’s
almost like an outlaw thing we have. They are craving authentic
music and that’s universal.”

Gina-Villalobos-File.jpgAnd Villalobos seems to have made it her
personal mission to bring it to them, as well as just anyone else
who will listen. Her debut album, Rock ’n’ Roll Pony, was released
in 2004 in the U.S., where it received critical raves but little
radio play. Months later, however, the album dropped in the U.K.
and — in addition to a new string of critical praise and six full
tours — peaked at the number three position on the Euro-Americana
charts. “I think one of the main things that helps musicians over
there is geography,” she noted. “The whole country is a lot smaller
and they have a national radio that’s played all over Scotland,
England, and Ireland.” Not so in America. “Here the stations are by
county or city. Big deal. That doesn’t mean shit for me when I’m
playing Florida or something,” she said, chuckling.

But Villalobos isn’t so easily discouraged, especially after the
difficult road she has traveled thus far. In college she played in
a number of bands, including the folk rock trio Liquid Sunshine and
The Mades (with brother Rey Villalobos, now lead singer of the
popular S.B. band, The Coral Sea), with relative success. It was
after she decided to move to L.A. and venture off on her own that
things got complicated. While recording Pony, Villalobos suffered a
work accident in which the retina of her right eye was detached,
rendering her blind in one eye. On Christmas day in 2003, after a
series of five surgeries, doctors informed her the damage was
permanent. “I was pretty much in shock,” said Villalobos. “I was
thinking, ‘They can send a man to the moon. They can reattach my
eye, right?’”

But they couldn’t, and for Villalobos, the road to recovery was
both physical and emotional. “I was in a big depression at the
time,” she said. “My eye physically did not look right for the
first year.” Determined to press on, Villalobos returned to the
studio to finish the album, and with its 2004 release, commenced
her national and international tours. On the schedule for the
following year was the writing and recording of the second album, a
process Villalobos found profoundly cathartic. “Creatively, you
reach a different place when something like that happens, and
there’s no better place to express yourself than when you’re
there,” she said.

Thankfully, these days find Villalobos in much higher spirits.
Now completed, her second album, Miles Away, is scheduled for
release in early April 2007 and this time around, Gina’s got her
sights set on the U.S. “I’m not looking to be that pop star. I
don’t even play that kind of music. My goal is to really tour. …
Hold on, I’m lighting a cigarette. How cliché of me,” she
interjected. “Mostly I’m looking for respect among my peers and

All things considered, what seem like modest goals — a solid
tour and a little respect — aren’t always so easy to come by. But
if there’s anyone to convince us Americans that the music of our
past can (and should) be the music of our future, it may just be
this honky-tonk rocker from our own backyard.

Gina Villalobos takes the SOhO stage this Wednesday, January 24
at 8 p.m. I See Hawks and Wil Ridge will open the show. For more
info, call 962-7776 or visit


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