Get To Know the Artist Queering Harana Music

“I’ve been a solo artist since 2007, 2006, but I’ve never published a solo work."
Photo by Felice Trinidad

By Rosie Long Decter

If you’re looking at the lineup for Toronto’s Venus Fest, you might notice an unfamiliar name. Louie Sanchez is one of three performers on Saturday, Sept. 23, alongside CJ Wiley and Shannon and the Clams at this year’s edition of the feminist music festival. Yet they have little public presence. There’s no music on Bandcamp or Spotify, no videos on YouTube or TikTok. There is an Instagram account with just nine posts, and a link to a website that leads nowhere.

So, who is Louie Sanchez? Eirene Cloma is asking themself this same question. Cloma is a member of the Toronto-based Filipina music collective Pantayo. In Pantayo, Cloma plays guitar, bass and keys, and sings, as well as helping with composition and arrangements. As Louie Sanchez, the multi-instrumentalist is stepping out on their own, with a new style and a new name to go with it.

“I’ve been a solo artist since 2007, 2006, but I’ve never published a solo work,” Cloma tells me. The plan for the project came during the early days of the pandemic, when Cloma was finishing a degree in horticulture. “Great, I know how to look at butter under a microscope and I know how not to kill my house plants,” they joke.

They had a handful of old songs, written a decade ago, that they wanted to finally release into the world. Between 2020 and 2023, Cloma recruited a host of collaborators and recorded a four-song country EP. They are planning to release the EP in 2024 and a full-length album is in the works. Venus Fest will be their first performance as their alter ego. “I’m still figuring out who Louie is in terms of personality, even sound,” says Cloma.

The name came after the idea for an EP. “So much has changed for me as a solo artist, especially now with the profile of Pantayo,” Cloma explains. “I wanted some separation — so I wanted to create a persona.” Their chosen persona is ultimately not so far removed from their real identity. Sanchez is their mother’s maiden name, and Cloma’s sister Elysse releases music under the name Clara Sanchez. “I obviously copied her,” Cloma laughs. “Like Martha and Rufus Wainwright. She hated it, but it’s fine.”

Cloma grew up in North Vancouver, in a house near a forest, their surroundings a mix of metropolis and bush. Their parents immigrated to Canada in the ’80s and imparted to them a love of singer-songwriters and Canadian heavy-hitters: Blue Rodeo, Neil Young, k.d. lang’s Ingénue. “Filipinos love James Taylor,” Cloma adds. The Louie Sanchez EP is informed by this tradition, a singer-songwriter record with roots in folk storytelling and country instrumentals, highlighting Cloma’s specialty in fingerstyle guitar.

Trained in classical music and jazz, Cloma stresses that they played in every possible band in high school. “At school, outside of school, choral music, concert band, jazz band, praise and worship band.” You name it, they were in it. They were a serious mallet percussionist, too, skilled in the xylophone, marimba, bells and chimes. After high school, they dove into writing their own material, performing around Vancouver at open mics, activist events, and women’s music shows. They also hosted a women’s music show on Vancouver Co-op Radio that connected them to music communities across the country, and inspired a move to Toronto in 2014, where they met their future bandmates in Pantayo.

The queer Filipina collective has been very active since Cloma joined, with a busy touring schedule, a debut record that landed on the Polaris Prize short list, and a followup, Ang Pagdaloy, released this summer. The group has received acclaim for their unique take on Filipino kulintang music, using traditional metallophone instruments and compositions and combining them with electronic, R&B and punk elements.

Cloma’s work in Pantayo has helped inform this new project, particularly the song “Mali” on Ang Pagdaloy, which features a pop structure and tells a story about a love that can never be. “I want us to win,” Cloma sings in their tender alto, over a strummed guitar and rock beat. “It’s hinting at what Louie could sound like,” Cloma says of the song. A collaborative and affirming space, Pantayo allows Cloma to not only test out styles but also build the confidence that they need to step out as a solo artist.

“I’ve been with Pantayo for eight years and now that this second album is out, it just feels good to be taking more time to think about myself as an artist,” Cloma reflects. “When I first started playing solo I felt like I didn’t really know myself, and it feels different now,” they say. “It feels less scary.” Cloma hopes to pay tribute to their work in the collective at the Venus Fest show by performing a Pantayo number.

For the most part, though, Pantayo’s sonic world is very different from Louie Sanchez. With Louie, Cloma is less interested in experimentation and more in storytelling. Cloma envisions Louie as being at home in the world of easy, breezy adult contemporary. “It’s softer music,” with a wider appeal, they explain. “I welcome a duet with k.d. lang in the future."”

Though Cloma describes Louie Sanchez as less explicitly about Filipina identity than Pantayo, their songwriting also takes cues from another Filipino tradition: harana songs, which are typically sung by a man seeking to win a woman’s heart. The courtship genre is connected to Spanish folk and manifests in Cloma’s sensibility for longing.

“Louie is definitely queering, Louie will always be queering,” Cloma responds playfully, when I ask if the EP is a way of queering harana music. Rather than singing to a specific lover, though, Cloma suggests that they are queering harana songs by taking that sense of longing and applying it to feelings of not being seen, or feelings that have no possibility of reciprocation. One song on the EP expresses a desire for social recognition; another sings to a cis, straight, white person who is now married with children.  

Cloma’s writing is also shaped by a love of “new country” music. As a teenager, they would drive around listening to country radio. When university didn’t work out, Cloma went into the army, often living in small towns in Alberta for months at a time, where country music dominated. Cloma quickly rattles off their country favourites: Brad Paisley, Meghan Patrick, Crystal Shawanda, JoJo Mason, amongst many others.

They muse that Louie might be a mode of expression for their rural experiences, more of a rough and tumble kind of guy. The EP has a beautiful song about a sailor at sea, who works paycheque to paycheque and can’t hear a daughter calling him home. Cloma’s father works as a captain for BC Ferries. They played the EP for him during a long drive on Vancouver Island.

“He wouldn’t tell me, he had sunglasses on, but I could see the tears rolling down his cheek,” Cloma describes.

The name Louie actually comes from Cloma’s middle name, Louise. “Louie felt a bit more masculine,” Cloma says. “Whatever masculine means,” they add. So, is Louie Sanchez a masc country king? Cloma isn’t sure yet. “Is Louie gonna be a bit more campy? Is Louie gonna be a stone butch?” they ask themself. “Louie can be both.” For Louie Sanchez, there’s no rush to define anything — just a road ahead, full of possibility.