Feb. 23 2010 07:08 PM

Lizeth Santos dabbles in multiple mediums, but her new musical project will keep you smiling

music2-prime

Photo courtesy: www.lizethsantos.com

Whether it's childlike whimsy or fatalistic fervor, it's hard to pinpoint, exactly, what Lizeth Santos' approach is to life and music. Sitting down with her in a North Park coffeehouse—three days after her return from a month-and-a-half-long sojourn in New York City on what she describes as an “artquest”—she tries to put it as succinctly as possible: She lives her life like a bad Jack Nicholson movie.

“Well, you know how everyone has a life-list dream,” she asks between sips of rose-colored tea.

Life-list dream?

“You know, a bucket list or whatever people call them—whether they're written down or in you're mind, the things that you think, Some day, I'm going to dot dot dot. So, one of mine, one of the big ones, was doing my own music.”

Santos is what you'd call a dabbler. A renaissance woman. A jack of all trades, but a master of none. Born and raised in San Diego and El Centro with summers spent visiting family in Mexicali, Mexico, her artistic inclinations have pushed her toward dance, music and photography. And although she's made a name for herself with the latter, shooting album covers and pictures for Thrasher and Spin magazines, she's still unsure what to say when people ask her what she does.

“I would tell people I'm unemployed,” she says, laughing. “I know my identity as a photographer, but if you met me while I was doing music, I guess I would say that I was a musician.”

It seems likely that once her catchy one-woman musical project, Smile Now Cry Later, hits more ear drums, she'll be claiming the musician profession a lot more. Inspired by all sorts of music as she was growing up, whether '80s-era top 40 or Latin stars like Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam, Sheila E. and Selena, Santos has always wanted to blend them all into something that was unique to her personal experiences.

“Something very Southern California and Mexican-American-inspired,” she says. “This is not sad music. It's dance music.”

But busy with photography, her “lifeless dream” remained just that—until recently, when her husband, musician Rafter Roberts, gave her a cocktail drum kit (basically a small set that you play standing up) as a Christmas gift. She recorded some things off and on, but it wasn't until MAC, the cosmetics company, hired Roberts in 2009 to score a commercial that she became really inspired. Seeing the video, with waif-like models applying fake eyelashes, Santos says she called Roberts and told him she had the perfect idea for a song. The resulting track, “Just Wanna,” with Santos cooing “come on and get it” over a highly danceable beat, went over like gangbusters at MAC. She admits that the subsequent comments left on the YouTube stream of the ad were a big ego boost.

“There were so many people on there saying, ‘What band is this?,' ‘Who is this?,' ‘I want this song,' ‘Is it on iTunes?,' and I just thought that was unbelievable. No one knew who I was. I didn't even have a band name.”

Since then, she's recorded 12 songs for a Smile Now album that she hopes to shop around to labels. She's played only two shows so far, and her performance is unique in that she has no band but still manages to make a big sound using her drum kit, a mic and a set of sample pads to play pre-programmed backing tracks.

As for what's next, Santos talks as if she already knows how the future is going to unfold but won't share the climax. Fatalism? Whimsy? Whatever it is, it's worked for her so far.

“It's how I want to do it,” she says. “That's what makes it more of an exciting thing. Wherever I want to go next is what's going to happen, whether it's tomorrow I'm done or I keep going with it.”

She pauses.

“But I would like to play my songs with an all-female mariachi band. That would be awesome.” 

Correction: The original version of this story quoted Santos as saying 'lifeless' dream. It has been corrected to say 'life-list.'

Smile Now Cry Later plays at the San Diego Museum of Art's “Culture & Cocktails” on Thursday, Feb. 25, and at Whistle Stop Bar on Friday, Feb. 26. www.myspace.com/smilenowcrylaterband.

Calendar

  • Visit one of the 70 participating restaurants, bars, coffeehouses and nightclubs in town on this night and 25 to 50 percent of sales will go to local HIV/AIDS services and prevention programs. 
  • Anthony Bernal and Chris Ward, who are vying to replace Todd Gloria on the San Diego City Council, will discuss urban issues, such as parking, homelessness and new developments
  • The new exhibition designed by Dave Ghilarducci is made from hundreds of rolls of packing tape and bound together by layers of plastic shrink-wrap. Visitors can navigate their way through cocoon-like passageways...
  • The renowned Mexican black and white photographer presents an exhibition exploring the principal themes within three groups: "Bestiarium"," Fantastic Women" and "Silent Natures."
  • Presented by Pacific Arts Movement, the sixth annual mini film fest features 14 film programs from 10 countries that includes everything from docs to romantic tearjerkers. See website for full lineup and...
  • The San Diego County Bike Coalition hosts this monthly bike-in happy hour event to get biking residents involved in their communities and discuss bike projects planned for that specific community
  • Debunk some of the stereotypes surrounding cannibalism at this new exhibition that takes a hands-on approach to the subject. Includes video games and interactive activities where patrons will have to decide...
  • So Say We All's monthly storytelling night features stories about those jobs we took because we had to take a job. Featured readers include Allison Gauss, Annmarie Houghtailing, Cecile Estelle, and more
  • Artists from the all-abstracts group show will talk about their work and techniques. Artists include Edwin Nutting, Danielle Nelisse, Leah Pantea, Lenore Simon, and more
See all events on Thursday, Apr 28