‘My voice lends itself to sadness​ –​ I carry a lot of grief’​: Rebekah Del Rio, David Lynch’s musical muse​

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The Guardian

“I am sort of an emo – I love Morrissey,” admits Rebekah Del Rio. This is no surprise, given the way most of us were introduced to her, as the sorrowful singer La Llorona de Los Angeles, who appears during a pivotal scene in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive with a heartrending Spanish-language rendition of Roy Orbison’s ballad Crying. No matter your personal theory about Mulholland Drive – is the plot a Möbius strip with no beginning or end? – the scene at Club Silencio is the crux of the film. Del Rio appears to be singing live, but her voice carries on playing even after she has fallen to the floor in a faint: a metaphor for the deceptiveness of Hollywood and its indifference to suffering.

In her own life, Del Rio has faced professional disappointment, homelessness and the pain of losing a child. “My voice lends itself to that sadness because I carry a lot of that grief inside,” she says, as she finishes the North American leg of her No Hay Banda tour, a continued celebration of Mulholland Drive’s 20th anniversary. Alongside the late Julee Cruise, Del Rio is Lynch’s chief musical muse, but her relationship to Crying long predates her artistic relationship with the director.

Del Rio is 54 and of Mexican, Italian and Sephardic heritage. She grew up in San Diego. In the early 90s, she was a country singer, and Crying was part of her repertoire. “I would sing it a cappella because, oftentimes, the band would have a hard time with some of the chord changes,” she says. Then, in 1995, the Latin pop singer Selena was killed by her former fan club president. Del Rio was devastated, so a friend of hers suggested she sing Crying in Spanish. She enlisted singer-songwriter Thania Sanz to provide a translation, and it became Llorando, the version in Mulholland Drive.

Before she worked with Lynch, Del Rio had only ever had a hit in the Netherlands – with the title track of her first album, Nobody’s Angel, which reached No 2 in 1994. Lynch shared an agent, and the director was persuaded to meet her. She had coffee with Lynch at his home; he asked if she wanted to get into his recording booth, where, he boasted, he had a rare Telefunken tube microphone. The whole meeting took less than half an hour. “I was absolutely unaware he was recording,” she says.

When shooting the scene at the fictional Club Silencio, Lynch used the recording of the impromptu session they had done at his house, but Del Rio also sang live with the mic turned off to better convey the lungbusting effort of her vocals. The scene could have been filmed in one take, but, at the fainting moment when the vocal track plays on, she inadvertently exposed her underwear.

“David said: ‘Now I want you to do that one more time – try to close your legs a little,’” Del Rio recalls. “So I did it again, and this time it wasn’t as natural. He asked me to do it again. And again.” She can no longer remember how many times she did it, but she does recall the massive bruising on her thigh. “And after all that, he used the first take.”

Performing in 2015 in Los Angeles. Photograph: Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Just as in Lynch’s films, the sadness Del Rio channels for her songwriting derives from broken dreams, grief and strife in cities associated with the American dream. Her 2011 song Betty Blue is a tribute to Elizabeth Short, AKA the Black Dahlia. “She just wanted to be a famous star and she ended up being the most infamous murder victim in Los Angeles, and she was so beautiful,” Del Rio says. “I just felt such sadness for her.”

Another city she associates with broken dreams is Nashville, the inspiration for her song No Stars, based on one of Lynch’s poems (and produced by John Neff). She performed it in Twin Peaks: The Return, accompanied on screen by Moby. “In Nashville [in the mid 1990s], I had a record deal. Then some man crashed into me and basically stole my opportunity, and I saw my own dream die,” she says. Following injuries she sustained after her car was rear-ended while she was waiting at an intersection, she had to undergo extensive rehabilitation, leading to the cancellation of a radio tour that had been set to launch her as a country star. In addition, her label, Giant, changed managers in 1998, causing her second album – which cost $500,000 to record – to be shelved indefinitely.

Del Rio focused on Latin jazz and other styles, but frustration at her hamstrung career remained. “So when I saw David’s poem, it was literally a grief for myself.” The song is about dreaming of getting back to a happier place “where it all began / on a starry night … That’s the song that I sing for myself and for everyone in my business that has been just constantly hustling and not getting respected or paid,” she says. “I have friends that have huge record deals all over the world. And they’re still renting houses.”

Rebekah Del Rio. Photograph: Candice Ghai

During the pandemic, Del Rio found herself once again stranded in Nashville (“everything had fallen apart”) and eventually scrambled back to Los Angeles. Then she suffered “an avalanche of circumstances” from a botched biopsy for a skin tag, leaving her unable to climb stairs and having to abandon her accommodation. “I had to sleep in a converted rented van on the street,” she says. After a year, she became eligible for California benefits and moved into a one-bedroom apartment.

Then she found out that the film composer Danny Elfman wanted to collaborate with her. He was putting together a deluxe version of his album Big Mess, trying to explore how some of the songs from that album might be reinterpreted by other artists. “I started with a shortlist of singers I admired,” Elfman tells me. “The song We Belong seemed like it could lend itself to a female voice who could approach it from the perspective of a torch song. I admired Rebekah’s work from Mulholland Drive and thought she could be great at it. And after speaking to her and understanding her life experience better, I knew for certain she was the one.

They recorded it on Mother’s Day in 2021, a fraught day for Del Rio, whose son Phillip died of cancer in 2009. “That’s the best Mother’s Day Danny could ever give me. I brought my son’s picture, I just put it there on the music stand and I sang.” He encouraged her to sing the opening line, “I think I know you”, in her proposed version of Yo Te Conozco: I know you. “I started getting a lump in my throat,” Del Rio says. “I just started crying.” She wanted to attempt the song again, but the take was good the way it was. Restrained, almost in a whisper, it feels like an elegy to a life full of hurdles.

Now, in her live concerts, she closes not with Llorando or No Stars, but with Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, the song her son wanted performed at his memorial. Del Rio’s cover of it, in terms of delivery and emotional impact, trumps even Crying and No Stars. Watching her perform it can feel like being led in prayer. “I get lost in the music and the sound and the feeling – I feel like I’m in a trance, and we’re all on the same ride together,” she says. “I think that’s where the devotional part of it comes out. It’s because I’m feeling such a connection to everyone that is with me.”

July 14, 2022 at 07:55PM Angelica Frey

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