All-Star Latin Music Artist and Producer

By 
Mark Small

Tommy Torres '93
Tommy Torres '93
Image Credit: 
Ruben Martin

When he left Berklee in 1993, Tommy Torres wasn’t plotting the course that would lead him straight to winning a Grammy and three Latin Grammy awards for cowriting and producing hugely successful records for Latin music superstars. These endeavors were a fruitful detour from launching his own career as a singer/songwriter.

These days Torres remains in demand as a producer, and his performing and recording career is also in high gear. Most recently, his fourth album 12 Historias (12 Stories), entered the Latin album charts at number one and was nominated for a 2013 Latin Grammy in the Best Singer-Songwriter Album category. It is also nominated for an American Grammy in the Best Latin Pop Album category. [This story goes to press just before the January 26 Grammy Award telecast.] As well, Warner Music Latina released an in-concert CD and DVD package titled 12 Historias En Vivo.

During his youth in Mayagüez and San Juan, Puerto Rico, Torres became well acquainted with American pop culture through top-40 radio and American TV shows. He pored over album credits to learn the names of those creating his favorite records. Because he was largely self-taught when he arrived at Berklee in 1989, Torres had to pedal fast to keep up with the pack. But diligence and desire enabled him to graduate magna cum laude in 1993 with a demanding double major in MP&E and commercial arranging.

Upon leaving Berklee, Torres took a job as an assistant engineer in Sony’s New York studios. After hours he recorded demos of his own songs in the company’s studios. On the advice of a Sony A&R man, Torres moved to Miami to be closer to the heart of the Latin music industry. His first break as a songwriter came as he shopped his demo. That opened a door to cowriting a pair of dance songs with members of the Puerto Rican pop-rock band Menudo. Both tunes went to number one. Torres was soon signed to a Sony subsidiary as an artist and made his eponymous debut album.

But the label delayed releasing the disc and the launch of Torres’s solo career stalled. What initially appeared as a dark cloud overhead later revealed a silver lining. The execs hadn’t completely shelved his music, but they started playing Torres’s songs for other singers seeking great tunes with Spanish lyrics. In a further twist of fate, top artists cherry-picked some of the album’s best songs before Torres’s versions could get out there—but then the artists asked Torres to produce them.

In 2001 his first production work on famed Puerto Rican singer Ednita Nazario’s Sin Limite album started the momentum. Ricky Martin and Jaci Valasquez called next seeking his production expertise. Since then, Torres has worked on chart-topping and Grammy-winning projects with Juan Luis Guerra, Rubén Blades, Alejandro Sanz and Alicia Keyes, Ricardo Arjona, Jesse & Joy, and other major Latin artists spawning numerous radio hits, awards, and accolades.

Beyond his fame as a musician, Torres’s public profile grew in 2008 when he married Puerto Rican actress and model Karla Monroig, the current host of Idol Kids Puerto Rico, a variation on American Idol. In 2009, Torres, Sara Bareilles, Liz Phair, Esperanza Spalding, and four other musicians were featured in a major ad campaign for Banana Republic. Torres is in the winners circle among Latin musicians, and his future as an artist and producer is squarely in his hands.

Describe your early introduction to music.

I started out playing violin when I was nine or 10. I really got into it and my grades started falling, so my parents took the violin away. I went back to music in high school. I found out that it was easy for me to learn music by ear. I started playing guitar and keyboards in bands.

Were you listening to American and English pop music in those days?

Pretty much. There wasn’t much Puerto Rican pop music. The radio stations back then played American pop or Latin tropical music. I listened to top-40 artists like Bryan Adams, Journey, Michael Jackson, and Madonna. I played in top-40 bands, but I was mostly into rock for the guitar solos.

How did you come to attend Berklee?

No one in my immediate family was a musician. I was going to study business in college, but then at the last minute, I told my dad I didn’t have the passion for business that he did. I had a passion for music and I tried to convince him that I should study it. He thought a musician wouldn’t make a good living, but said, “Let’s figure it out.”

He arranged some meetings for me with people that had been musicians for a long time, and they said that I should study at Berklee or the University of Miami. I told him that Juan Luis Guerra had studied at Berklee and he was doing pretty well. The University of Miami was very focused on jazz rather than popular music, and I hadn’t listened to much jazz at that time. As we went through catalogs, he read about sound engineering and thought that had career potential. I wanted to have his blessing and said I’d study that if I could do it at Berklee. He changed his thinking and encouraged me.

I did a double major in MP&E and arranging and went straight through including summers, from 1989 to 1993. I don’t remember my college years being a party; there was a lot of work. I made sure I got good grades because I wanted to prove to my dad that I was serious. When I walked at the commencement ceremony, I shook hands with Bonnie Raitt. Her hit “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” is one of my all-time favorite songs.

Were you writing songs back then?

No. I had written a few instrumental things in high school, but I wasn’t thinking of writing songs as a career. Singing wasn’t even in the picture then. The first time I tried writing and singing a song was for a Berklee arranging project. The lyrics were in Spanish so I ended up singing it myself, but I didn’t like the sound of my voice. It wasn’t until four years after Berklee that I started thinking more about singing and began liking my voice. I started getting back into the things that I liked most about music from the beginning. To me, when I really connect with music, everything else goes away. I can’t have music in the background. If there is music playing, I get pulled into it. It’s like watching a movie. I wanted to be able to create music that would have that effect on listeners.

What was your next move after Berklee?

I was hired as an assistant engineer at Sony Studios in New York working for a guy named Paul Sloman who ran the studio. He told me I got the job because I’d studied arranging. He wanted engineers with a good musical background; he didn’t want people who were just knob turners. I started out getting coffee for people and answering the phone, but I got to watch sessions with Mariah Carey, Michael Jackson, Nirvana, and Harry Connick Jr. Later there were a lot of hip-hop sessions.

When did you relocate to Florida?

It was in 1998. I stayed at Sony for five years, but I don’t think I was a great assistant engineer. A lot of friends who got there after me started assisting on the big sessions while I was always a second assistant. I started thinking that I might not be cut out to be an engineer—maybe because I was very shy. But this experience pushed me toward writing my own songs and using the studio at night to record them. I’d invite musicians I’d met at sessions to play on my demos. Omar Hakim played drums on one and Anthony Jackson played bass on another. So although my engineering career didn’t take off, being at Sony and seeing sessions with different artists and producers gave me the sense that I could do that. So I started making demos as an artist and sending them around.

How did other artists come to start recording your songs?

There was a point when I got frustrated sending things out and not hearing anything back. One day I went into Sony’s 150 Madison Avenue building to see an A&R guy, Tomás Muños. He was working in Latin music and had signed big artists like Julio Iglesias, Chayanne, and Ricky Martin. I didn’t have an appointment but walked into his office and asked if he’d listen to my music. He said he didn’t have time right then but that he would listen and we could have lunch the next week. When we met, he told me he thought the music was great but that my lyrics didn’t have the same depth as the music. That stuck in my mind.

He also told me that since I wrote in Spanish, I’d be better off in Miami where the labels working with Spanish-speaking artists were located. That was the first good feedback I’d gotten. He had signed many big Latin artists, so I took his advice to heart and moved to Miami.

Tommy Torres '93
Tommy Torres '93
Image Credit: 
Ruben Martin

Once I got there, I started doing some engineering for commercials. On one session they needed a guitar player, and I said I could play the part. A guy named Edgardo Díaz came into the studio. He had founded Menudo, later called MDO.

After the session, I gave him my demo, and he called me back. He said he really liked my songs and wanted to know more about me. He was impressed with all the stuff I’d been doing and that I’d come from New York. He played the demo for some people at Sony records in Miami and they liked it. Edgardo was doing an album for MDO and was interested in a song on my demo. He also wanted me to write with the guys in the group. They weren’t really songwriters back then; they were pretty much a boy group that danced. I got together with them and got their input and started writing songs. Their record had two hits, “No Puedo Olvidar” and “Un Poco Mas.” They were both number one on the Billboard charts. I was also the arranger on 90 percent of that album because the group liked my demos.

Sony was interested in me as a singer/songwriter, but the release date of my first record kept getting held back. Someone at Sony played my record for Jaci Velasquez, who was from Nashville. She was known for singing Christian songs in English and wanted to do a song in Spanish. She picked one of my favorite songs from my album and I was inclined to say no at first. But after I heard one of her albums, I thought she had an amazing voice. I gave her the song and it went to number one in Billboard. The first three singles of songs I’d written for my own album went to number one.

How did you become a producer?

The people at Sony kept playing my album for artists. Ednita Nazario, a well-respected artist from Puerto Rico, had been signed to Sony. She heard my album and wanted me to produce her [Sin Limite album in 2001]. Ricky Martin heard what I did on Ednita’s album and called me because he wanted to do some songs in Spanish. He was on top of the world at that time. I produced songs on his La Historia album in 2001.

So everything started happening for me because artists were reading album credits. I’ve worked on three albums with Ricky Martin, and that has led to more opportunities. I’ve worked with Juan Luis Guerra, Rubén Blades, Italian artist Eros Ramazzotti [e2, 2007], Alejandro Sanz [Paraiso Express, 2009], and Ricardo Arjona [Adentro, 2005]. Ricardo is a singer/songwriter and working with him helped me to break down some barriers in my mind. Seeing what he was doing made me feel that it was OK to take some risks.

What was happening in your career as an artist when you began producing?

Sony released my first album in 2001. After the president of Sony was fired, I was still signed to Sony through his personal company. I released my second album [Estar de Moda No Esta de Moda] independently in 2004, but I had to license it to him. I started doing more producing to earn enough money to hire lawyers to get out of that contract so I could release my third album [Tarde o Temprano] in 2008. I was very lucky that I had the opportunities to produce such great artists and gain experience in other musical worlds.

Are you more interested in being an artist than a producer?

Usually you are an artist first and then you start producing. Desmond Child produced “La Vida Loca” for Ricky Martin, and I ran into him at Sterling Sound when I was producing for Ricky. He asked what else I was doing and I told him that I was going to make another album of my own. He said, “Why? That’s going backward on the path from artist to producer. You’re at the top right now.” I personally don’t see it like that. I think of the artist as the central person that everyone else works with. People think that if you are a producer who wants to be an artist, you just want the spotlight yourself instead of being a behind-the-scenes hit maker. But I tell people that I have four albums as a singer/songwriter and that I’ve been producing on the side. I feel I have more to offer creatively as a singer/songwriter than as a producer. I’m in a spot now that I’m really enjoying.

Your lyrics offer some of your personal philosophy; they’re not all love songs.

For a while I got trapped into writing only about love—especially in the songs I wrote for other artists. But for my own albums I can’t think along the lines of a formula. When artists want me to write for them, they are generally looking for a hit. They aren’t hoping to sing about the environment. So there’s a different focus as you try to come up with catchy phrases. But I only have one life, and I want my own music to be something I’m proud of. To have a career that people will respect, I think you have to stay away from just following trends and trying to be number one all the time. I’d rather be the kind of guy whose career builds and grows with music, lyrics, and production that are a little different from album to album. The artists I like best—people like Sting or Juan Luis Guerra—keep pushing themselves and keep growing rather than just trying to make hits.

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.