Ever since Suemy Gonzales ’13 and her bandmates in Trio Ellas were nominated for a Latin Grammy Award, her professional life has been a whirlwind.
“We could be at the Hollywood Bowl one night and playing a funeral the next morning,” says the violinist-vocalist, who was a USC junior when the band was nominated.
“A day being a pirate fiddler at Disneyland could be followed by a day stuck in a recording studio, followed by a red-eye to do a concert in Chicago.”
Trio Ellas garnered a 2012 Latin Grammy Award nomination for their first album, Con Ustedes…Trio Ellas. Since then, the group’s success has taken off—recording on Lady Gaga’s Born This Way on the track “America-no,” performing at the Hollywood Bowl and Ford Amphitheatre, accompanying DeathCab for Cutie frontman Benjamin Gibbard on late night’s Conan, and playing for Hillary Clinton.
“I never thought that playing for tips at local restaurants would lead to performing for a variety of prestigious venues and artists,” Gonzalez says. “That was never the plan, but I’ll gladly take it!”
Gonzalez has been a musician virtually all her life, but it wasn’t until she was in the USC Popular Music Program that her range and creativity blossomed.
The first Latina to graduate from the program, Gonzalez is the daughter of a retired truck-driver father and almond-factory worker mother. The first-generation Mexican American from Sacramento grew up with Latin music—and not much exposure to pop.
“Nobody in my family is a musician, but my mom had always had a dream of playing violin,” she says.
So, starting when Gonzalez was 5, every Saturday morning meant violin lessons. The next 13 years were filled with classical recitals and concerts and, later, traditional mariachi performances. At 16 she joined an all-female Los Angeles mariachi group, flying frequently to LA for gigs while juggling high school classes. At 24, she moved to LA permanently and began working twice a week as a pirate fiddler at Disneyland, a gig the self-described Disney fanatic still does twice a week.
Around the same time, Gonzalez hooked up with Nelly Cortez (guitarrón and vocals), a fourth-generation mariachi musician, and versatile artist Stephanie Amaro (guitar and vocals) to form Trio Ellas. “We all knew each other from gigging with various mariachi groups,” Gonzalez says.
Starting out by playing traditional mariachi in skirts and jackets (now discarded for hipper outfits) at a Pasadena restaurant for tips, the Trio Ellas members soon branched out to weddings, baptisms and private parties. Their style started to evolve as requests came in for Beatles songs, classic rock and country tunes. They added Andrews Sisters-type harmonies.
But it wasn’t until Gonzalez transferred to USC in 2010 that the group’s repertoire really expanded.
“I came out of USC a transformed musician,” Gonzalez, 31, says. She learned not only from professors but also from her “extremely talented” fellow student musicians. She was exposed to new styles and genres of pop and was introduced to songwriting, arranging and producing.
“USC’s Popular Music Program really turned on the creativity switch for me. I have a constant urge to create music,” she says. It’s reflected in Trio Ellas’ second album, scheduled to come out this summer. Featuring covers and original songs, the album captures their unique brand of blended pop.
“We’re super excited about this one,” Gonzalez says. “We’re producing this ourselves. I feel there’s more of a game plan this time around.”