The life of Cecilia Cassandra Peña-Govea — known by her loyal fans as La Doña — is one defined by music. And now, she’s fusing all that she’s learned to bring audiences something new. Born and raised in San Francisco to the iconic music Peña-Govea family, La Doña recently released ‘Paloma No Vuelve Amar,’ the debut song to her upcoming EP, ‘Can’t Eat Clout.’ The next track on the EP will be released on Aug. 24, and the entire EP will be released on Sept. 21. And on August 11, concertgoers will be treated to her live performances at the renowned San Francisco music festival, Outside Lands. El Tecolote sat down with La Doña ahead of her latest performance, where we discussed her rise, latest projects and her role in guiding the next generation of student musicians.
Before we get into your latest projects, talk to us about your musical journey. Many of us here in the Bay have witnessed your steady rise. Tell us about that.
It’s been a wild ride for sure. Having grown up in a musical household to parents who were cultural workers and professional musicians, they always told me to get a union job with benefits. And my trajectory has been far different than what I had expected. I never really anticipated being a solo artist of this caliber. So it’s been exciting and unexpected and full of tons of twists and turns. I think that beginning as ‘La Doña,’ I didn’t really anticipate for it to move outside of a community-based project — which it still is. But I didn’t expect the audience that I currently have. And then once upon my introduction to the music industry … it took me a little bit to decide where exactly I wanted to go with the project. At first, I was like, ‘Yea, I’m riding for Frisco. This is for the Homegirls and the Gays and the Theys.’ And then I was like, ‘Whoa … This [pop music industry] is crazy, it’s not for me. It seems pretty exploitative and dangerous for the artist. For the individual artist, especially a young woman of color.’ So I kind of stepped back a little bit from functioning in that capacity and in those spaces. And now, I feel complete inspiration, overwhelming love and, ultimately, freedom to do the project exactly how I want.
When did you experience this exploitative side of the music industry?
That’s a complicated question because part of being an independent artist is not alienating different parties in the industry. So I can’t super go into detail about that. But I will say that once COVID hit, the whole industry kind of took a pause. And I took a pause. I was really able to calibrate and to reassess what my mission was with the project. I think that moment of deep introspection gave me the faith to really decide what I wanted the project to look like and who I wanted to be involved with it. So during that time, I started again making music and touring and being out and friends with the public. But I would say that this is the first time that I feel I’m integrating all of the different facets of my musicality and of my musical history. And to have a really supportive fanbase that really upholds and uplifts us as a touring band is important. I think that my getting the fellowship with the California Arts Commission this year, tying in my recording work as well as my educational work is really validating.
You just released the song Paloma No Vuelve Amar. Tell us about that.
‘Paloma No Vuelve Amar’ is the first single off of the upcoming EP, ‘Can’t Eat Clout.’ This song is really special to me because it draws on the influence I had growing up of Vallenato and Cumbia, especially Lisandro Meza and how his melody writing and harmonic writing and storytelling really impacted me as a songwriter. So ‘Paloma No Vuelve Amar’ is about heartbreak, it’s about somebody who is experiencing this emotional rupture — this breaking apart from another person or from an industry or from whatever it might be. And they’re finding themselves back where they started and in this transformative state. It goes through the pain of the heartbreak, the redirection of la Paloma, the physical transformation and what’s most special to me about the song is that it calls in and creates space for Rumba Afro Cubana, and that for me is such a pure form of collective mourning and of celebration. To feature Sergio Oriache and Esai Salas on their instruments, but also feature the large coro, which is at the root of what I love about music. What’s exciting for me to present to you all are some illustrations that Alyssa Aviles is doing in conjunction with the releases. So to see her beautiful visual interpretation of Paloma and of the different tracks, I think it’s going to be very impactful. But just for my own journey, it’s going to be “lo más grande,” a huge moment for me in my journey and in my healing too.
You’re obviously an amazing singer, but you’re also an amazing performer. You have an upcoming live performance at Outside Lands. Tell us about that.
I first want to thank you for acknowledging the effort I put behind performing. It’s true. There are a lot of different ways for an artist to excel. And coming up primarily as a performing musician, of traditional music, my performances … like that is the moment that brings me back to music again and again and again. Through all of the hurdles, the obstacles, that feeling of ceremony when you’re with the audience, that is the most important part of the whole project. And a lot goes into that. I’ll be taking a full-live 10-piece band to Outside Lands. No track, no digital production. And we will be playing soo much music. I’ve designed the set to touch on all of the different styles, dare I say, that I delve into. We’ll be playing reggaeton, hip-hop, the new unreleased music, oldies, maybe throwing in some rancheras, some mariachi classics, so I have a lot on the bill. And I’m just so excited to get the whole band together and show the people that music that’s contemporary and that’s coming out right now, it doesn’t have to follow this rigid prescription. I’m thankful for the support of my bandmates, community and musical collaborators to really break free of that mold.
Earlier this year, we saw you at the Viva El Mariachi student concert at Mission High School in the role of an educator to the students who were performing. Tell us what it means to you to nurture the next generation of musicians.
I’m so happy to be talking to you and to be in community with people who acknowledge and notice that as important. Because to me, that is my life’s work. For me, I think that that’s going to be the most impactful work that I do. I hope that that’s my legacy, as it was with my parents, of just allowing access to voice and to self-expression for children and for youth in the Bay Area. I know that that is something that changed my life. Having the support and having the confidence to express myself through writing, music and performance. If I can lead even one or two students in my time of teaching towards a path of spiritual and individual realization, then my work will have been done. I’ll feel happy.