Student Spotlight: Mercedes Escobar

The singer and guitarist talks about her unique journey to Berklee, the niche genre of Latin Americana, and being inspired by strangers.

November 14, 2022

What’s it like to study at Berklee? Our Student Spotlight series asks current students all about their Berklee experience—what they’re learning in class, what kinds of projects they’re involved in onstage or behind the scenes, how they recharge, and of course, what they’re listening to. This week, get to know Mercedes Escobar, a sixth-semester vocalist and guitarist from Antigua Guatemala, Guatemala, who's about to declare a major in professional music with a songwriting track and a minor in recording and production for musicians.

Tell us about your path to Berklee. What made you decide to come here?

A good friend from the U.S. encouraged me to apply to Berklee. There wasn’t much more room for growth for me in Guatemala (people there are supportive, but we just don’t have the numbers for a thriving music industry, considering it’s a small country, and about 90 percent of people live in poverty. Forget about it if you play a niche of a niche like “Latin Americana”). I’d been playing bars most of my life, and I think my friend recognized that I had nowhere else to go. Let’s just say he saved my life by encouraging me to come to Boston. I applied and received a partial scholarship, and my friend and other incredibly generous people in his circle sponsored the rest of my stay. At the time I also received housing sponsorship from two friends who are twin folk singers who have been singing in the U.S. since the late 1950s! Somehow, all roads led me here. (I’m not revealing their names, because they would prefer to remain anonymous.)

What's been your favorite class so far, and what has it taught you?

There are so many wonderful musicians and educators that it’s hard to pick only one. I think PM-111 Foundations for the Independent Musician is a great one (taught by Cristi Catt). If anything, it solidified ideas and taught me that diversifying is the way to go as an artist. I also learned that no matter what, it’s important to make time for self-care.

What's a project you've worked on since coming to Berklee that you've been especially excited about?

I have a full-length Latin Americana album planned, which will feature both songs in English and Spanish. I wrote it in its entirety during my trips back home. As an international student (and while I’m enrolled) it makes no sense for me to release it any time soon, as I can’t really tour/legally sell music here (even if it’s “selling” it for crumbs on Spotify or the likes), but I look forward to releasing all the material I’ve been gathering for the past couple of years as soon as it makes sense for me to do that.

In other news, maybe more relevant to Berklee, I had an assignment (which was the same for PM-111, PM-340, and LHUM-400) to interview someone who is currently doing what I want to do. I decided to go big and reached out to a personal hero of mine: Raul Malo, the golden-voiced frontman of the Mavericks. I was lucky that he agreed to meet with me while the Mavericks were on tour and passing through Portsmouth, New Hampshire. They invited me to the show, I was able to interview Mr. Malo, and the Mavericks even offered to put me up for the night so I wouldn’t be stranded in Portsmouth after the show. Mr. Malo was extremely generous with his time. I had the best time ever picking the brain of an artist I greatly admire.

How do you typically recharge or find new ideas outside of class?

When I’m back in Antigua Guatemala, I will go out to a bar and strike up a conversation with a stranger. I love a good story. Even if I rarely write about other people’s specific personal experience, a word, gesture, or image never fails to spark up a song idea. It doesn’t work the same way in Boston. Here, I will go out looking for live music. If it’s good, it will inspire me to try to write something just as good. If it’s bad, it will inspire me to write something that doesn’t sound as bad as what I just heard!

When all else fails, I listen to Kris Kristofferson, Paul Simon, or Agustín Lara.

When you think towards your own future, who inspires you most?

Gaby Moreno has always been an inspiring figure and friend to me. A fellow Guatemalan, she was able to break through as an artist, while keeping her artistic integrity and always writing, performing, and producing with the utmost care for quality in her work.

What's one piece of advice you'd give to your high school self?

Always be kind.

Mercedes' Current Favorite Songs

We asked Mercedes to share some of her all-time favorite music. Here's her list of five songs that have come out of what she says has been "an oldies binge."

1. “Sombras Nada Más,” The Mavericks

I think this is the best rendition of this classic bolero, including the original version. I love the Latin elements as well as the Americana instrumentation.

2. “Pasito Tun Tun,” La Sonora Santanera 

This is a very old song that is probably from the time of your great, great grandma. I love this arrangement, and how people still love the song, even with the simplicity of its lyrics. It’s a great example of how classics never die.

3. “So Far Away,” Carole King 

There is something about Carole King’s songwriting and her voice that connects with me immediately. The line, “Doesn’t anybody stay in one place anymore?” just kills me every time!

4. “From the Bottle to the Bottom,” Kris Kristofferson 

This is the wordiest good song I’ve ever heard. Production-wise it’s not the best example, but the storytelling and images it conveys are top-notch. 

5. “En el Último Trago,” Chavela Vargas (original by Jose Alfredo Jimenez)

I’m not going to blaspheme and comment on this song.

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