Let’s face it: When Fíjate bien came out in 2000, no one gave two fucks about Juanes (born Juan Esteban Aristizábal in 1972).
Sure, the critics loved him, music industry insiders loved him, and those who had heard of Colombian rock band Ekhymosis knew he was the man. But the record buyers, mainstream press, TV, and radio paid no attention to the album, even though it was produced by Latin rock guru Gustavo Santaolalla (Molotov, Café Tacuba) years before he’d won a Golden Globe and two back-to-back Oscars for the music of Babel and Brokeback Mountain.
Then, in early 2001, something mysterious happened. Alone and broke in Los Angeles, he flew to Miami and had to wash his only pair of sneakers to go to the press conference announcing the nominees for that year’s Latin Grammy awards. He still had trouble getting in — no one at the door knew who he was. When the nominees were announced, the name Juanes was mentioned seven times, more than any other. Months later, on September 11 in Los Angeles, he would go on to win three of those, eventually getting a record number of 17. But he had to wait a couple of months to get his awards. The terrorist attack to the Twin Towers forced the suspension of the ceremony.
Five albums later, he has sold more than 15 million records worldwide and is Latin alternative pop’s biggest thing, on par with Shakira, even though he only sings in Spanish. Besides his immense critical and commercial success, he’s sort of like the Tom Hanks of Latin music: a genuine, humble, likable guy. But at the peak of his success, infidelity caused a brief separation from his wife Karen, a Colombian model and actress and the mother of his three kids: Luna, Paloma, and Dante. That, and his controversial decision to perform live in Cuba in front of more than a million people (for which he received death threats in Miami), are the only blemishes in an otherwise scandal-free career.
On Friday, March 25, Juanes returns to San Antonio, a regular stop whenever he releases an album. His rock-solid, mostly Colombian band (Dominican Waldo Madera on drums, Felipe Alzate and Venezuelan Richard Bravo on percussion, Fernando Tobón on guitar, Felipe Navia on bass, Emmanuel Briceño on keyboards, and Juan Pablo Daza on guitar) excels at both rock and roll and alternative Latin American fusion, and the opening act, Spain’s Antonio Orozco, who will appear alone with his guitar, is a talented singer-songwriter best known for his intelligent mix of pop with rock and flamenco.
Last week, Juanes spoke in Spanish to the Current on the phone from Los Angeles.
This is your first album without Gustavo Santaolalla as producer. What happened?
Everything’s OK, there’s nothing to hide. After 10 years of working with Aníbal `Kerpel, engineer` and Gus, both of whom I love deeply, it was time for a change.
Aníbal went to the show in Los Angeles and we were talking like we always did. I simply needed a change and looked for something else. In that search I had to make the difficult decision of not working with Gustavo anymore, and I found Stephen Lipson (Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Annie Lennox, Paul McCartney), and it was a completely different experience. He has no connection with the Latin world, doesn’t speak Spanish, it was a different vibe. But when I met him I felt a special enthusiasm from him. I spoke with Gustavo and everything’s cool, and my dream is to one day work with `Santaolalla and Kerpel` again.
Aníbal went to your show, but not Gustavo?
Gustavo didn’t go because that night he was coming back from Argentina or Australia, I don’t remember. But obviously everybody else from Surco `Santaolalla’s label` went and my relationship with them is super-good.
P.A.R.C.E., the name of your latest album, was inspired by parce, the Colombian slang for friend. Why did you write it like that, as in B.U.D.D.Y.?
It was a little personal exercise of mine. I wanted everyone to find their own meaning. I could think of paz (peace), amistad (friendship), compromiso (commitment), esperanza (hope) … The album is all about friendship, friends, relationships, love…
Talking about friends, you have lots of them. You seem to live on Twitter. Is it actually you talking to your fans, or someone at the office?
Yes, yes, it’s me, it’s always me. I’m looking for you right now and can’t find you. What name do you use?
No, I don’t do Twitter, but you can find me on Facebook. If you ask nicely, I might accept you.
You need to get into Twitter, brother. You’re a journalist, it’s an incredible tool.
You have like 10 million fans already … Let me see … Fuck! 2,732,673! I’m supposedly one of those, but you never reply to my messages!
No, no … `Laughs` For me, it is great to be talking with you, because we’ve known each other for many years. You’ve been there from the very beginning.
Yeah, but you’ve obviously haven’t read my review of your last album.
What? You didn’t like it? No, I don’t know what you wrote, but I don’t care. If you didn’t like it, it’s cool. No problem.
I just feel that you’re getting closer and closer to pop and straying away from rock. I’m stuck on your first album, which I think is your best one. Maybe I’m expecting you to do like your countryman Carlos Vives, who at least recorded a great rock album (El rock de mi pueblo). When are you going to go back to where you came from? I still love your voice and guitar, and a handful of great songs in each album, but I think all those people praising your latest album `P.A.R.C.E.` are out of their minds. Or maybe I’m the crazy one. C’mon, do you really think this is the best album of your career, as some people I respect have said?
(Laughs) I see it as an album that was historically necessary in my career. I understand what you’re saying, and maybe at this point in my career, because of my mood or whatever, I needed to make this record to break free a little bit from what came before. I like it a lot. When I listen to it, I know certain songs are not my best or maybe they should not have been included on the album, but there are others that I love. And Stephen Lipson’s work is impeccable; he’s a great engineer. I like it, but it’s hard for me to evaluate because I’m the one who did it. But what you feel is completely valid and doesn’t bother me. To the contrary.
I strongly feel you are capable of doing a much edgier album. This is hit after hit after hit, too radio-friendly for my taste.
Perhaps at one point I’ll reach to that point, brother, and make a “rock” album. But I still want you to please go to the show. I want you to see it.
Of course. And, having said all this, I did choose you as my concert pick of the week, because I’ve never seen a bad Juanes show.
Thanks a lot.
Musically speaking, what are the big changes compared to the Santaolalla’s albums?
I think this album goes deeper.
Yes! The other ones were more fun, more in-your-face. This one’s a little more laid-back. The lyrics are more personal and introspective, more mine. I wanted to say what I felt, without thinking of making an album that was pop, rock, or whatever. And it came out the way it came out.
I must admit “Yerbatero” is excellent, among the best songs you’ve ever written.
I like that one a lot.
You mentioned your lyrics, and I know how much you love `Cuba’s` Silvio Rodríguez’s music. But your poetry and his could not be more different. Even when he writes love songs, he often uses subtle, abstract, hermeticimages, while you are totally direct. I do find Silvio’s influence in your music, but why not the lyrics?
I don’t know … As a lyricist I’m very basic, I talk about daily life. I don’t have a very complex language and my poetry is not very structured, it’s very simple. I write the way I talk to my wife, my friends, and my children. I admire Silvio profoundly, and I also love the lyrics of, say, `Argentina’s Gustavo` Cerati, very conceptual lyrics, but my way of expressing my feelings is much more simple and I never wanted to create something that I am not.
You’ve always sung about the suffering of your fellow Colombians, but also showed solidarity with suffering peoples elsewhere. How did you receive what’s happening in Japan?
On a human level, it hit me very hard, brother, like everyone else. I played in Japan six or seven times and it’s very tough for me. I feel very powerless. But what bothers me the most is how world leaders continue spending billions of dollars in wars, or in developing their war arsenal, or in space programs, even though tragedies like this are like a slap on the face that tell you, “Hey, life is something else!”
You once told me that, before becoming the most-nominated artist in the 2001 Latin Grammys, you had run out of rice to eat and were ready to go back to Colombia, but your mother told you, “Don’t come back until you realize your dream.” Then, on September 11, 2001, the night of the awards, your big night had to be suspended due to that morning’s terrorist attack. You mother was there with you. Tell me something about that day.
Just imagine ... It was a very important day for me. My mother had gone to Los Angeles, everything was ready. Then, about 7am, that happened. And she told me, “This was the most important day of your life, but you’ll have a lot more days even more important than this one.” And she was right. Now I look back and realize that, without her, I wouldn’t be here today. And that goes way beyond the simple fact that she’s my mother.
Don’t forget Karen.
Totally. Let me tell you something, when Karen and I split, my life fell to pieces, but it was something that had to happen. I love that woman. I don’t know if you ever went through a separation, but …
Me? Naaaa, never!
… relationships are very difficult, very tough. Sometimes you split and come back, but sometimes you don’t. I was able to come back, I was very fortunate. I’m happy that I was able to recover my marriage and, thank God, we’re doing great.
Juanes in SA
8pm Fri, March 25
Freeman Coliseum, 3201 E Houston