Interview: Montañera – The World of Music According to María (November 2023)

Words by Eero Holi

The fundamental challenge every music journalist faces – by no means different from the rest of the industry – stems from oversaturation: having new releases coming out of our ears can make us forget the special powers of music and why we chose to write about them in the first place. Until one day, you come across an artist who jogs your memory. In my case, it was Montañera (born María Mónica Gutiérrez), a London-based Colombian singer-songwriter, and her new coming-of-age album A Flor de Piel.

So, on a cold and rainy evening in Berlin, having brewed a fresh pot of rosehip tea with whole cloves – brought from Cairo by our Egyptian friend – I was eager to listen Gutiérrez tell her story on Zoom. What I didn’t expect was to be initiated into the world of music I had never known even existed.

When it comes to Colombia’s hugely lucrative market, the country’s reputation as ‘The Land of a Thousand Rhythms’ is in name only. Dominated by chart-busting reggaeton and pop superstars such as J Balvin, Shakira, and Maluma, the indie scene is yet to be consolidated, which makes living off music an uphill battle not every artist is cut out for.

The one that is really crucial is persistence not stopping even if the journey is quite hard,” Gutiérrez states without hesitation, a bright and unassuming woman speaking from experience. “And a bit of luck. Because being in the right place at the right moment can definitely make you succeed and take you to places.”

13 years and nine albums later, with live shows at KEXP and SXSW under her belt, Gutiérrez has proven to be as persistent as she’s been industrious. During her jazz degree studies at Pontificia Universidad Javeriana in Bogotá, she formed a four-piece band Suricato in 2010, followed by the duo Ságan in 2015 until starting a solo project, Montañera, in 2017 – all still running in parallel.

Despite Gutiérrez’s projects covering a plethora of genres from modern jazz to cosmic electronica, one key element they all share is her high level of proficiency in traditional music from Afro-Colombian bullerengue and currulao to a 21-string kora she was taught by Senegalese griot Kadialy Kouyaté.

Gutiérrez’s passion is partly down to music having been part of her life since she was a little girl: long Sunday lunches in local taverns, admiring Indian duo’s melodically complex bambuco over a steaming bowl of ajiaco with her family. However, she is driven by something a lot more profound.

“Traditional music makes me feel like I’m part of something bigger,” she describes. “It’s not just a song for the sake of a song. We are making this song because we are connecting to the ocean, or the clouds, or the birds. So traditional music really has that ceremonial touch to it.”

In her alias, old customs run just as deep. Over in Paisa, the mountainous region Gutiérrez’s family comes from, a specific unflattering term with colonial undertones is often used in reference to a local – ‘montañera’ (lit. mountaineer, fig. hillbilly). “When I told my family I’m going to call my solo project Montañera, they were like: why…?” Gutiérrez tells me, letting out her contagious laughter. “It’s a matter of saying: I’m very proud of being from the mountains, I’m proud of being Colombian.” In essence, she took a derogatory term and restored it back to its former glory.

By the time a few songs off Montañera’s ebullient debut Encarnación (2017) and its dancy follow-up Salvadora (2020) appeared in Mexican crime series La Búsqueda and La Venganza de las Juanas on Netflix, Gutiérrez had reached the goal she had worked so hard towards: her place in the Colombian indie scene was cemented. And then one day her luck ran out.

A scholarship for the master’s degree in Music in Development at SOAS University of London was a textbook case of being in the right place at the wrong time. The minute the Good Old Blighty went into a full lockdown, all prospects of seeing a stonking gig at Cafe OTO or discussing exciting collabs over a pint at Ten Bells were shattered. “I had never lived abroad. I had never lived with flatmates. I came from a very comfortable lifestyle in Bogotá, and then suddenly, boom, I was dropped in London.”  Not knowing anybody, stuck in her poky room in the middle of freezing winter, Gutiérrez learnt a lesson on self-doubt the hard way.

Living by the Churchillian maxim of never letting a good crisis go to waste, Gutiérrez has adapted her rite of passage into A Flor de Piel, a spellbinding ambient pop album embedded in the Latin-American tradition of magical realism. Against the vastness of whale calls and oneiric wind chimes, it is Gutiérrez’s earth-motherly, ASMR triggering timbre that reigns supreme as she struggles with the shackles of the past on ‘Vestigios,’ descends to the bottom of the ocean to meet her loved one for the last time on ‘Bajar,’ and dreams of breaking out of her chrysalis as a butterfly on ‘Un Día Voy A Ser Mariposa.’

The album’s near-total absence of percussion originates from her experiences of playing two ambient songs off her previous albums, ‘Nido’ and ‘Chiminigagua’, at live shows. “When I started performing these songs, the audience connected with me in a different way,” she recalls. “What is this…? This is weird… But nice…” she mimics, giggling. “I was really looking forward to that specific moment because I felt the vibe completely changed, my performance changed, I felt more connected with the sounds and with my voice.”

As expected, turning points in Gutiérrez’s life are rarely limited to music. Her master’s degree completed and a talent visa valid until the end of 2024, she has two options: apply for citizenship and stay for good or return to Colombia. “I wouldn’t be mad if I had to go back. But I’m loving London right now, so I’m not sure what’s gonna happen in a year’s time.

Whatever she chooses to do, whenever fickle yet fair Lady Luck decides to give her wheel a spin next, Gutiérrez can take comfort in knowing music – the one true constant – will always be there to ensure she doesn’t lose faith in herself. “When we are migrants, we are always questioning ourselves. Am I still the María who lived in Bogotá? Or am I a new María who’s now in London?” she asks rhetorically. “Music is really a way of understanding who this new María is.”



- A Flor de Piel, Montañera's third album, is now available via Western Vinyl in digital and vinyl on Bandcamp -