On a weekday evening in the summer of 2013, singer/songwriter Tish Hinojosa strummed her guitar and watched as tourists and stray pedestrians trickled into her show at El Sol y La Luna on Sixth Street. They didn’t all come to see her perform, but she was grateful for the opportunity to play for them anyway.
Austin once belonged to Hinojosa. As local music royalty in the 1990s, she recorded several Austin City Limits performances and packed venues like the Paramount Theatre and Gruene Hall before conquering stages around the world.
“Back then you couldn’t shake a stick without hitting someone who knew who I was,” Hinojosa, 58, says.
In the whirlwind of her stardom, she performed at the White House and on another occasion found herself sitting as a guest among First Lady Hillary Clinton and Robert Redford at a White House celebration. “It was something out of Hollywood,” she says.
With a trailblazing career and more than a dozen albums under her belt, Hinojosa in 2005 decided to move to Germany for love. After spending nearly a decade mostly out of the spotlight overseas, Hinojosa returned to Austin not just to rebuild her career but also to mend a broken heart.
Singing for the sparse Sixth Street crowd wasn’t exactly the homecoming she envisioned. “For me, it was certainly taking steps down from the late 1990s,” she says. Austin changed, a new crop of musicians sprouted and Hinojosa wondered if she could ever get back on top.
“Can it happen again?”
Finding her vibrato
On the first day of Catholic high school in her native San Antonio, Hinojosa noticed a group of girls sitting in a circle playing guitar and singing Paul Simon songs before morning Mass.
The youngest of 13, Hinojosa grew up listening to traditional Mexican music that blared from her parents’ kitchen radio. By the time she got to high school, though, Linda Ronstadt and Joan Baez were her musical heroes.
“I was really shy but eventually moved in a little closer,” to the girls’ music circle, Hinojosa says. She began practicing with them, learning guitar chords, and one day mustered the courage to sing “Someday Soon” by Judy Collins. “They all shut up and started listening to me,” she recalls. Her best friend exclaimed, “Oh my God, you have a vibrato.” “I was like, ‘What’s a vibrato?’”
Soon Hinojosa was performing on the River Walk five nights a week. Music then took her to New Mexico, where she sang backup for country artist Michael Martin Murphey, and later to Nashville to work at a publishing company. In 1988, she made her way back to Texas, landing in Austin.
She wasn’t only a musician now but also a wife to attorney Craig Barker — they divorced in 1999 — and mother of two toddlers. The brutal schedule of a singer/songwriter weighed on her, but finally “it seemed like the stars were aligning,” she says. Hinojosa signed with A&M Records, her first major label. “Suddenly, we were in the big leagues,” she says.
With Tejano music gaining popularity, it was easy to try to peg Latina musicians to that genre. “Back then, if you were Latina, you couldn’t really do anything else except for Tejano or salsa music,” Hinojosa says.
She wasn’t playing either. Hinojosa’s innovative music spanned genres including folk, country, pop and her own style of Tex-Mex.
“This was someone telling our stories in a way that I never felt before,” says Austinite Rose Reyes, a longtime music advocate. “There was a sincerity and storytelling aspect that was so fresh and exciting to see someone do. She was in a category all on her own, and she paved the way for so many, even non-Latina, songwriters.”
Hinojosa led Texas-based Latina artists with many firsts, Reyes says, including performing at gubernatorial inaugurations, making national television appearances and starring in a Coca-Cola commercial. Hinojosa’s hero Ronstadt even recorded one of her songs.
“I wasn’t trying to break any barriers,” Hinojosa says. “I was just trying to do stuff that made me happy.”
German love story
In the late 1990s, Europeans were mad for Texas singer/songwriters, and Hinojosa, the pride of the Lone Star State, was touring Europe about three times a year.
She remembers one tour that ended in Hamburg, where fans waited to chat with her after the set. Hinojosa’s two children were sleeping in the club’s coatroom, and she was eager to get them to the hotel.
“But they were big fans and kept talking to me,” she says with a laugh. “I kept trying to get away.”
When she returned to Hamburg years later in 2004, one of the fans she had met on the previous tour stopped to say hello again. But this time, things were different. Hinojosa wasn’t rushed, and she was single now. Sparks flew.
“It was everything you think of when you fall in love,” she says.
She was also ready for a new beginning: She was finishing a three-year probation for a previous drug charge (“a stupid mistake,” she would say in retrospect), and it felt like the right time to start another chapter.
Over the next year, her relationship with the German fan, Andreas Sedlmair, blossomed, and Hinojosa decided to move to Germany so they could be together.
“I thought it was going to be a breeze,” she says. She figured musicians could live anywhere and she could broaden her international fan base.
Life in Germany
Hinojosa dived into her new life in Hamburg, inspired by the Beatles’ old stomping grounds and its famous fairs.
She wasn’t afraid of taking risks — she’d made a fruitful career move before when she left Texas for New Mexico on a whim. The pair married in 2007, and Hinojosa immersed herself in her adopted home, learning German and taking in the culture, but the live music scene had turned tepid. She struggled to book paying gigs, and venues that once had a robust appetite for singer/songwriters now resorted to passing the hat for tips.
She endured a lengthy drought between albums. “My guitar began gathering dust,” she says. The less she played, the less she wrote.
“I began feeling like I was semi-retired,” she says. “I felt like a housewife in Germany, not earning any money really.”
Expat life began to take a toll on the once prolific performer. Not gigging, writing or recording regularly began to shake her confidence.
“If I wanted to stay in Germany, it wasn’t going to be music that would keep me there,” she says. She decided to look for day jobs but found most required a college degree. Hinojosa had attended community college in San Antonio but never finished her studies. She felt deflated.
Hinojosa says her marriage began feeling strained as well.
“I felt pretty worthless over there,” she says. “I wasn’t employable … and no one cared if I could sing or write songs.”
Something had to change. Hinojosa returned to Austin and enrolled at St. Edward’s University in January 2013. Completing her degree, she thought, would help her job prospects back in Germany. Her husband could visit, and she’d spend the summer in Hamburg.
She finished the spring semester and returned to Germany, but things didn’t seem to be getting any better between the couple. Before summer was over, she returned to Austin disappointed but still determined to make her marriage work. In August, he asked her for a divorce.
“That totally turned me upside down,” she says.
The tears flooded her small Travis Heights apartment — the apartment they shared whenever they visited Austin together. “It’s hard to function when you’re brokenhearted,” she says.
About two months later she had to make a painful trip back to Germany to promote her album, “After the Fair,” which should’ve been a big step forward after not recording for six years.
“It was one of the most heartbreaking things to return to (Hamburg) and do interviews about how wonderful it was to make the record,” she says. “The only thing I could function at was getting on stage.”
Picking up the pieces
On the darkest of days, Hinojosa turned to her children Adam, 30, and Nina Barker, 26, for strength. She found fortitude in her friends and family. And even though audiences didn’t realize it, they helped lift her, too. “Being on stage, I’m not living for myself,” she says. “I can close the doors on my personal life and play music.”
Sometimes on early mornings Hinojosa clears her head by walking around Lady Bird Lake. She practices yoga and pilates. And she’s writing again.
“I’m a little scared getting back into it again because there’s uncertainty,” she says. “I’m about 10 years older now, and the music scene has changed.”
Her audience has aged, people recognize her name but don’t always remember why she’s famous and younger fans who know her music aren’t necessarily familiar with her noted repertoire — they often recognize her from a children’s album she recorded in the mid-’90s.
Hinojosa’s been reintroducing herself to a new Austin, reconnecting with her longtime fans and getting acquainted with new venues and musicians. She’s been playing house concerts and performing at venues such as Strange Brew on Manchaca Road (which didn’t exist when she left Austin). She’s planning a special Spanish-language record with Flaco Jimenez.
“I can’t assume everyone knows who I am,” she says. “But I’ve got faith in myself, and I can still sing and put on a good show.”
On an overcast July evening at the Bullock Texas State History Museum, Hinojosa prepared to play a “Music Under the Star” concert, opening for featured singer/songwriter Carrie Rodriguez.
The threat of rain moved the show indoors, and fans set their lawn chairs in the museum’s lobby. Backstage, Hinojosa and longtime bandmates Marvin Dykhuis and Chip Dolan had a quick chat about the set list but hardly had to say much. They’ve been playing together for so many years that things flow organically at this point.
Hinojosa looked calm, ready to take yet another step toward her comeback. She applied lipstick and headed out.
“She has her own aura on stage,” says musician/producer Dykhuis. “I have no doubt she’ll find her niche again. She’s talented, strong-willed and has a lot of guts and perseverance. Maybe it has something to do with being the youngest of 13 and having to fight for the scraps, you know?”
Hinojosa played a mix of old and new tunes, and a few couples danced inside the museum. “I recently moved back to Austin after nine or so years,” she told the crowd.
“Welcome home!” a fan shouted.
She’s picking up the pieces at her own pace. And some days, like this one, surrounded by fans asking for her autograph after the show, are better than others. “I’ve been through the deepest, darkest part,” she says. “I tried really hard belonging somewhere else. But I’m back where I belong.”
Tish Hinojosa Concert & Conversation
What: Unplugged with Tish Hinojosa on the Front Porch
When: 7 p.m. Thursday
Where: All Saints’ Episcopal Church, 209 W. 27th St.
Cost: $10-$20 suggested donation
For more information about the show, visit frontporchaustin.org/unplugged-on-the-front-porch.
To learn about future shows, visit mundotish.com.
As the Austin area rapidly changes, the American-Statesman is providing in-depth coverage of the culture and life of a fast-growing Hispanic population. Get more community coverage in our free weekly Spanish language newspaper, ¡Ahora Sí!, and online at ahorasi.com.