Up Next is a FIERCE series highlighting rising Latina and Latin American women artists you might not know about but definitely should.
Girl Ultra is the velvety R&B en español songstress your millennial ears yearned for in the ‘90s, and her dreamy neo-soul jams about heartbreak and moving on will still be welcomed in adulthood—trust.
Since she was signed to the fringe Mexican label Finesse Records in 2016, the Mexico City-born and raised artist has delivered buttery earworms most 20-something girls in the lamentable dating pool can relate to. “Porqué eres tan cruel,” she asks an ex-lover in “Cruel,” a smooth banger on her debut EP Boys about her uncertainty to let her former boo back into her life after he returns claiming to be a “different” man— as they usually do. “No mires atrás. Sé que nada va estar mal. Bye, bye,” she croons in “Bye Bye,” a mid-tempo track on her second album, Adiós, which dropped this summer, about accepting the finality of an unrepairable relationship.
“At this point of my life, I have a need to talk about what I’m going through and what my friends are going through. I want to show the most honest parts of me. That’s my interpretation of feelings and how I see the world and my perspective on human relationships. It’s been a process,” Girl Ultra, born Mariana “Nan” de Miguel, told FIERCE.
At 22 years old, Nan has created a catalog that sad girls can cry to and, through her lyrics and cadence, find the courage to say farewell to people, circumstances, and thoughts that are impeding their growth.
But, equally important for the Mexicana, she’s a part of a youth-led pop-soul evolution in Mexico, where she hopes more expressive young women singers will join her. We spoke with Nan about Mexican R&B, her musical inspirations, how she deals with heartbreak, our shared love of learning and creating room for other Spanish-singing girls to shine in contemporary soul.
Q: You grew up in Mexico City, not exactly the area that comes to mind when thinking about R&B music. Who were the R&B artists you grew up listening to?
A: No, definitely not. You don’t think of Mexican R&B, especially not back in the day, but there were some pop artists that were doing this. For example, I used to listen a lot to the duo Sin Banderas. They were definitely R&B. They have this Boyz II Men sound.
Q: Omg! It’s so funny you say that. When I was younger, my dad literally used to tell me, “Raquel, listen to Sin Banderas. They’re like Boyz II Men,” which was my favorite band.
A: It’s true! They’re super similar. You can find a lot of hints of R&B in Mexican ballads. I just never noticed it then, and it was never labeled that. But I grew up listening to Beyoncé, Destiny’s Child, and Christina Aguilera, but that never inspired me to do R&B until I was older. It wasn’t R&B that inspired me at first to do music. I was inspired more by artists my dad listened to: David Bowie, Grace Jones, Prince— the icons. But when I was older and listening to certain R&B, like Erykah Badu and D’Angelo, my perspective changed a lot. I felt comfortable expressing myself through it.
Q: What was it about this genre that drew you in?
A: There’s a feeling to R&B. It can be in any language, but you could still feel it the same. But the main reason I decided to play R&B was because I loved it, but there wasn’t R&B in my language, and I wanted to create this with my language. I knew my responsibility in this genre would be about the language, and I would study more to develop and improve and elevate the quality standard.
Q: I know you sang throughout high school. When did you realize this was more than a hobby and something you wanted to take seriously?
A: I always knew it. This was the only thing that drove me crazy. I am a painter. My whole family on my dad’s side paints, so I always felt this sensibility through art, but when I started singing and when my dad introduced me to music, I found something I never felt. I started writing when I was little, and I sang and had a band in high school, but it wasn’t until I became a solo artist, not that it was ever a hobby to me, but I realized then this is more than a 9-to-5. I wake up thinking about this, about songs, about videos. I organize my calendar every day toward this. I breathe this. I eat this. With the right people and my passion, I think I’m where I should be, but we’re still working.
Q: Talking about the right people, you were signed to Finesse Records in 2016. How do you think you’ve grown, as an artist and a person, since?
A: I’m a different person, same essence, but I went through a lot of stuff. I learned how to work with a team and how to learn from people who have been in this business for years. I’m pretty shy, and Girl Ultra is a character for me. When I step on stage, any empowerment I have is on stage, because down here I’m low-key and shy. I’m also very emotional about everything, while Girl Ultra is not. She’s like, “fuck this.” So I learned how to separate these two. My ego trip is Girl Ultra, and I’m very down to earth.
At Finesse, it’s not just about music. I learned how to be a creative, how to help other people improve their projects. Everything in Finesse is teamwork. We’re always having listening parties and giving each other feedback. I never thought having a team was that important when I was little. I thought artists were self-made. I didn’t understand that every Michael Jackson record had like an 100-person team. So I’ve learned how to complement my abilities with other people’s skills, and that excites me. When I learn from other artists and hear their creative process, how they got there, I’m perceptive about everything I’m living in this industry and I think that helps me carry the message I’m trying to carry. Everything is about human emotion, and how can I understand them better than talking to people and observing?
Q: You dropped your EP Boys last year, which dealt a lot with romantic heartbreak and sadness, the agony of a bad relationship, and followed up with Adiós this year, moving on from that heartache. Why explore these themes in your music?
A: I’m an artist in phases. I mentioned David Bowie, and I relate a lot to him. At this point of my life, I have a need to talk about what I’m going through and what my friends are going through. I want to show the most honest parts of me. That’s my interpretation of feelings and how I see the world and my perspective on human relationships. It’s been a process. I see each of this as experiences I let go of emotionally, but yet I’m still trying to develop them on stage. I was writing “Adiós” about six months ago, so I have to think about how I will take that and perform it on stage right now, maturing and growing up.
Q: In the song “Adiós,” you sing, “decir adiós es crecer,” one of the realest lines ever! What are some ways in which you’ve grown in your own life after deciding to move on from something that no longer served you?
A: “Adiós” is not really about a relationship. It’s me saying goodbye to the old me, my prejudices, old ideas about people, the industry and friends. This whole concept of adiós isn’t a bad thing. Saying goodbye has always been portrayed as something negative, but it’s not. Letting go can be good. Imagine carrying around a big bag of stones, 20 pounds, and then finally dropping it. That’s good. Your back can finally heal. And I see it that way. I say goodbye to being overly attached to ideas and people. That’s my way of saying goodbye: understanding it, owning it and moving on.
Q: Of course, this isn’t always easy. What are some things you do after letting go in order to prioritize your healing and growth?
A: It’s super hard sometimes, not just for artists, but everyone, especially in our Internet era and having all the information and people at the palm of your hand all the time. Of course, you can’t let go if you can find the profile of someone from your past. Even if you don’t want to, you’re going to look at it. I see it as a problem in our era, so I try turning off my phone as self-care. I try to prioritize my time that way, reading, having a meal with a friend, watching a movie, nurturing my artistry. Being on the phone, you’re asleep. It’s fucking scary actually. I just found a feature that shows you how much time you spend on each app, and I was at like 20 hours a week on Instagram. I thought, oh my God! I can’t be that person. It’s evil. A teacher told me the Internet is like the Holy Spirit: it’s invisible but always there. That energy, that force that humans created, has power, and we can lose ourselves if we’re not careful. We have to turn it off.
Q: Whoa! That’s scary and hella real. You, like your music, are honest about your emotions and perspectives. How do you want women, who, let’s be real, often deal with the brunt of the ish you tackle in your songs about heartbreak, to feel when listening to your music?
A: I want them to feel related, but I want to create some time of empowerment. A lot of women say I really feel your message. We’ve all been in shitty relationships and not given ourselves what we deserve. It’s a wake-up message: Hey, girl! I’m just like you. I’m a 22-year-old girl from Mexico City telling you everything is going be OK. I feel empowered when Cardi B tells me to fuck everything up. And I want my listeners to also feel empowered, and related, and connected and appreciated — if we know each other or not.
Q: Your music is really resonating with Latinas in the U.S., first and second-generation girls who grew up in Spanish-speaking households but always enjoyed tunes from Brandy, Aaliyah, Lauryn Hill, and Erykah Badu. We really get what you’re doing and I think have been kind of wanting this for a while. Would you say it’s the same in Mexico? How are you being received at home?
A: It’s like you say it, the middle point of two cultures, and I think the reason this has been understood by people is because I’m labeling it. Sometimes labels are bad, but, in my case, I don’t think so. It’s R&B en español. People like to digest that. In the U.S., I’ve had small shows or opened for other bands, and the people immediately have a connection. They tell me, “thank you, girl. I don’t have this at home.” And I see it as a blessing. I’m just trying to put my culture out there, and I really appreciate that. Here in Mexico, we are trying to grow this scene. It’s a big responsibility. People say, “you’re the only girl in R&B in Mexico,” and I don’t really want to take that responsibility. You need a big team and a lot of artists for this to develop. I want to be the base for whatever comes, and see new artists in my country.
Q: I love that! With amazing reception, of course, comes constant anticipation for more. Can you tell us what you’re working on and when we can expect to hear it?
A: I’m working on collaborations. I can’t say who they’re going to be, but one is Chicano and the other is a Mexican pop artist I listened to when I was young. We want to elevate the standard of this industry, so we’re working with a lot of artists who have this drive. I’m going to tour with The Marías. We’ll be in the whole West Coast and Canada in November. We’re also pairing with CLUBZ and are going to drop some singles in the next six months, and I have an album, too. I’m really on this creative process. As soon as I finished Adiós, I was in the booth working on my next album. It’s the artist’s drive. You always want more, so you have to work for it. I’m also taking a theater class. I just want to keep learning.
Q: I feel that. I always say my favorite thing to do in life is to learn.
A: Yes! Learning gives you this freshness like nothing else gives you. I feel like a baby when someone teaches me something new. I like this feeling; I’m addicted to it. It can even be a new recipe. I just love learning.
Q: Exactly! I completely understand. You’re 22 years old, at the start of your career. In a few years, what do you hope people can say about Girl Ultra?
A: I want to make a change in the culture, that’s my drive. I don’t project myself being on Billboard or at the Grammys. I don’t think that’s the culture right now. For me, it’s playing a lot of shows, people paying to see you live at big-quality badass shows. I see myself elevating the quality standard here, and, in regards to music, I just want to see where the evolution takes me. I’m really excited for what’s yet to come for my country in terms of music. There are a lot of emerging projects that are so exciting. I want to grow with all of them and see where it all takes us.