When Ruby Castellanos' older sister, already suffering from diabetes, suddenly died of a heart attack at the tender age of 13, it set the singer on a path toward music as medicine. In the wake of the tragedy, her mother, by then a single parent, decided to quit her factory job of 15 years and the long work commutes from Riverside to Newport Beach in order to spend more time with her children. That meant selling off the family home and traveling through Mexico. “When all this happened, it was a big eye-opener on how fragile life is,” Castellanos says. “My mother didn't even hesitate in selling everything and going off and buying a motor home.”
The Santa Ana-based singer was around 10 years old when her mother took the family on a two-year vagabond journey through Mexico, finally settling in Aculco, a provincial town a few hours away from the nation's capital. Music was deeply woven into the social fabric of the small, colonial locale. It wasn't long before Castellanos wanted to learn how to play instruments herself.
“My friend's brother started teaching me because he knew I had an interest. I didn't even own a guitar then,” she says. “He would let me borrow a requinto, and those strings hurt!” After a fear-conquering singing debut at a quinceañera, Castellanos became a performing musician.
She returned stateside at age 17, and in 2006, she co-founded Taller Sur, an OC-based trova group well-versed in the stringed sounds of Latin America. The outfit released a self-titled album and toured through California and Northern Mexico. A follow-up was always planned, but it never materialized, leading Castellanos to pursue a solo effort two years ago. “I was thinking of doing something really simple, just guitar and voice, something I could sell at shows,” she says.
Now, the statuesque singer is on the cusp of realizing that vision with Todo Sana, which translates to “Everything Heals.” The collection of five Spanish-language songs was produced in the home studio of longtime friend Efrén Luna and is similar to Castellanos' previous work, but imbued with a different sentiment. “In Taller Sur, the songs were very melancholic,” she explains. “When I wrote these new songs, I was really searching to find a sense of hope, of telling a story of how through music, I've healed, coped and been able to process life without such a dark or saddening kind of feeling.”
Her solo effort intertwines with her work in the community. The music video for the Andean-folk-flavored “Niña” was released in conjunction with the opening ceremony of the Latino Health Access-initiated Green Heart Families Park earlier this summer in Santa Ana, a notoriously park-poor city. Another offering, which shares the title of her new EP, “Todo Sana,” came to Castellanos via Mexican singer/songwriter Armando Quirós, who thought it'd be perfect for her to voice. The song deals with domestic violence, an issue she deals with daily at her job with the Family Resource Center in Santa Ana.
On other songs, the focus is purely internal. The viola accentuates “Venir Aquí,” while La Santa Cecilia's Miguel “Oso” Ramirez handles percussion duties. “It is a part of healing, too, finding someone that awakens certain feelings in you. I wrote a passionate song! I'm not so sure if it was love. It's a little bit of alburera,” Castellanos says of the Mexican practice of double-entendres with sexual undertones.
The effort was reflective of the transformation entailed in the recording process. “I was going through a lot of difficult moments emotionally. I had gone through a relationship in which I had been with somebody musically and emotionally for many years. Just writing the songs was very therapeutic,” she says on the eve of Todo Sana's release.
“I feel like I'm a very free person now,” she says, “somebody who sings, 'Venir aquí, venir aquí . . .'”
Ruby Castellanos performs with Nancy “Cat” Mendez and Fadia Mosri at the Ebell Club, 625 French St., Santa Ana. Sat., 9 p.m. $20. All ages.