All-Star Latin Music Artist and Producer

By 
Mark Small

Your song “Querido Tommy” [“Dear Tommy”] is based on a letter from a fan seeking advice from you. It’s a novel premise for a song.

Those lyrics are actually based on tweets from a fan. I wanted to develop them and still keep his language even though his words didn’t rhyme. If a songwriter has something to say, the words don’t have to be very fancy or decorated with metaphors. I’ve always tried to tell a story.

That song was an attempt to approach my lyrics more freely. In pop lyrics, we spend too much time trying to win the girl. I started asking myself what else could be done. I listened to pop tunes from the sixties and seventies and realized that some of those songwriters were focused on telling stories about the world. You don’t have to be the protagonist in the song, you could tell someone else’s story. If you describe it well, it will get an emotional reaction from people.

It became a challenge for me to become an artist who writes about almost anything rather than someone who is just talking to the girl directly. It’s harder to tell a story from the third-person’s point of view. You have to describe the scene really well. From a first-person perspective, it’s easy to say what you are feeling, but you need to be even better to describe what someone else is feeling.

You did that well in the song “Una Día Mas” [“One More Day”], in which the character Julian has a close brush with death and asks God for another day—and gets it.

While writing that song, I was thinking, “What would Bob Dylan do?” He’d give the character a name, and the person would change and become someone different by the end of the song. I’ve been trying to treat my lyrics with the same care I give to the music. I really work at it.

Some of your songs are longer than those typically getting radio play.

The song “Mientras Tanto” [“In the Meantime”] from the 12 Historias album is more than five minutes long, but it became the second single and went to number one in Billboard. It’s not a love song, it’s about the worries people have these days about politics, the economy, natural disasters, or other things. The song doesn’t offer solutions to these problems. It gives my feeling that a lot of things we worry about don’t end up happening. We lose the present worrying rather than really living each moment. The song seemed to click with a lot of people.

Is it accurate to say you go for more of an American rock sound rather than the styles and rhythms that other Latin artists work with?

I guess my music has a lot of American influences in general, but it isn’t really rootsy. American rock was my first influence. There is something about electric guitars and the sounds of country or rootsy stuff that I really love. I’m not just using these sounds to be cool; it’s what I hear in my mind as I’m writing. If I was to do merengue, salsa, or bachata, it would be from an intellectual point of view. I probably wouldn’t listen to that kind of music in my car, but I do listen to Juan Luis Guerra and Rubén Blades. They get me into their world with their lyrics.

You have assembled a team of players and producers that you regularly call upon for your recordings.

Yes. Dan Warner has been with me on all four of my albums. On the first, he was a guitar player. On the second, I asked him and Lee Levin, who was the drummer, to coproduce two songs with me. I gave them a demo and told them to surprise me when we got to the studio—and I was happily surprised. I needed someone else’s ideas. They coproduced the third album with me. For 12 Historias, I had Dan take the lead on the production. I wanted to use all of my creative effort for the songwriting.

You can run out of ideas if you are writing and producing your own music. It’s different for me when I produce another artist, but having people come in with fresh ears to produce my own albums is great.

Do you write songs with English lyrics too?

I have problems writing in English. I cowrote something with Alejandro Sanz and Alicia Keyes that is half in English and half in Spanish called “Looking for Paradise” and I wrote a song [with English lyrics] for Banana Republic for their ad campaign. I have some songs I’ve written in English that I’ve never played for anyone. When I write in English, I don’t feel the same emotional feedback as when I am writing in Spanish. I can write English words that say what I want, that rhyme, and fit the music, but I don’t get the goose bumps that come when a special line comes to me in Spanish. Maybe it’s because English isn’t my first language, so my emotions aren’t as connected. It’s hard for me to know if something is good in English. Whenever I write melodies, chord progressions, or lyrics, I am looking for the emotional connection. I lose that if it becomes intellectual rather than a flow of creativity.

Will you continue producing other artists?

That’s been very tempting to me; a lot of good projects have been offered and I had to say no. If I get into producing someone else, it will take six months or a year of my time and creativity. I’m starting to wonder if there is a limit to the amount of creative energy you can put out. After producing someone, it can take me a year to feel like I want to create again. I’ve decided that since my career as an artist is going so well, I will give it priority. I finished 12 Historias in November 2011, and it was released in October 2012. I have the creative energy now and I am writing songs. I have to decide if I will use those for my own album or someone else’s.

In the past, when Ricky Martin called me to produce, I saw it as an amazing opportunity to work on pop and dance material with him. It was the same when I got the call to produce Alejandro Sanz. That was just after I released Tarde O Temprano and had spent a year promoting it. Producing and writing songs with Alejandro was an experience that was too good to pass up. But then it took me another year to get over writer’s block and begin 12 Historias. It took almost five years from Tarde O Temprano to 12 Historias. If I want to give a priority to my singer/songwriter career, I should release an album every two years. Producing projects for other artists has been great for me, but at the moment, I can’t wait to write another 12 stories. It’s exciting to me again.

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