Raul Malo makes a singer’s record, and proves himself a great interpreter
Ex-Mavericks frontman Raul Malo is out the door, on his way to the studio where he’s producing a new album by Rick Trevino. It’s Malo’s second collaboration with Trevino — if you discount their work together with Los Super Seven — but he’s not ready to leave the stage just yet. At 40, there’s just too much he has left to do. In fact, “I don’t feel like I’ve done half of what I’m supposed to do,” he admits. “I feel very... I wouldn’t say ‘unfulfilled’ - because my work, the stuff I’ve been associated with as a singer, producer, whatever, I’ve been very fulfilled artistically. But I just feel like there’s a lot more left to do.”
|Raul Malo: ex-Maverick who defies country conventions|
Malo’s first step was to jump ship after the financial woes of his label, Sanctuary Records, became a concern. “Not that they’ve been a nightmare,” he points out. “It’s just an unfortunate turn of events.” That leaves the release date of his upcoming album of covers, You’re Only Lonely, a mystery and a sad one at that. Following in the tradition of Linda Ronstadt’s cover albums of the ’70s and ’80s, Malo recorded some of his finest vocal work to date and, creating wonderful new interpretations of classics that most would balk at touching, such as Etta James’ “At Last.”
“I love songwriting and making my own songs and all that, but I wanted something that would require a whole new set of skills. That would require me being a singer, an interpreter of someone else’s work,” he explains. “And that’s a whole other art form in and of itself. It’s quite challenging and it’s not as easy as people think either.”
Not as easy, and not at all like what you would expect from the former Maverick. The Mavericks, you might recall, were one of the few substantive acts of the ’90s to out-paddle most of Music Row’s endless onslaught of mind-numbing country pop. Their first major-label release, From Hell to Paradise (1992), was solid work, but it was What a Crying Shame in 1994 that made so many of their contemporaries look adolescent by comparison. Malo’s soothing voice, which gracefully blended country, jazz, and salsa had a lot to do with that. The band’s influences — names such as Roy Orbison, Patsy Cline, and Hank Williams — manifested themselves in his crooning.
The new millennium went Mavericks-free until 2003 when the band, apart for five years, reunited for a self-titled release on Sanctuary and, in 2004, a live album, but don’t hold your breath for another reunion following the wrap of last year’s tour. Malo is quick to declare, “Oh no, we’re done,” leaving little room for discussion.
Of course, if you want more Malo, you can always look for his collaborations with the pan-Latin supergroup Los Super Seven. He’s featured prominently on their last two albums, Canto (2001) and Heard It on X (2005). Born in Miami to parents who emigrated from pre-Castro Cuba, Malo has never shaken his Latin roots. Hell, just look at his debut solo album Today: it’s chock-full of fiery salsa rhythms, Spanish-language tracks, and Latin jazz.
“It’s part of what I do, it’s part of who I am,” he says. “That influence will certainly be there no matter what. Even with the Mavericks, our first album From Hell to Paradise. That album had no Latin influence, but the title track was about Cuban refugees.”
| Raul Malo |
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These Latin elements come with a price, though. Commercial country is a finicky beast to handle and Malo’s recent, more expansive and embracing sound hasn’t scored the hits that the earlier, more traditional Mavericks work did. “I think they’ve been as accepting as they can, but certainly mainstream country radio... that’s a tough nut to crack,” he laughs. “We haven’t had anything on country radio in a long time.” But he’s not worried about losing listeners, saying, “If you lose some fans along the way, they’re not fans anyway.”
The release of You’re Only Lonely will likely reinvigorate old fans, nevertheless. At least the ones who prefer early Mavericks and, moreover, early Malo. The covers here are almost all ballads and almost all marked by that Orbison-esque longing that Malo exudes so effortlessly. With producer Peter Asher, the guy who helped make Ronstadt a household name, he assembled a list of 60 songs that was culled down to 16 that were recorded. Eleven made the cut, including numbers by James, Willie Nelson, Randy Newman, the Bee Gees, and the Everly Brothers. The five that didn’t make the cut went without Malo batting an eye. “Lord knows I gave them a full-on college try, but some of them just didn’t sound convincing to me,” he says, with the most glaring mismatch a take on the Beatles’ 1966 classic “Good Day Sunshine.”
The only non-cover on the album is an original called “For You.” The anomalous inclusion seems odd given the context, so what motivated the screwball pitch? “Yeah, that’s a good question,” laughs Malo loudly. “I think what happened was, honestly, we had an album full of ballads. We had recorded that song just in case we needed something upbeat and what happened was, a couple of people heard it, loved it, and said, ‘We’ve got to put it on the record.’ That’s really the only reason.” He laughs again. “We needed something upbeat because it turned out to be such a mellow album.” •
By Cole Haddon