With Feeling: For Cheche Alara, Musicians Need to Know They Are Artists First
When Cheche Alara, a multihyphenate artist who’s worked with everyone from Christina Aguilera to Barbra Streisand, talks to groups of music students, he often asks for a show of hands: “In the last year, while you’ve been at school [who’s heard] the word network?” Everyone’s arm shoots up.
He’ll follow up with a question about the words brand and personal brand. Again, hands fly skyward. Then he’ll drop this question on the crowd: “How many times have you heard the word emotion?” The room grows quiet.“
And I’m like, okay, we have a problem here,” Alara B.M. ’94 says, but in a tone that’s affable rather than chastising. “Network and brand are very important, but we’re musicians. We’re artists.” For him, the core of what an artist does deals in the realm of feelings, of making people want to cry or to shake their booty. Staying engaged with these emotions, and exploring where they take you, he says, is what’s going to keep a musician growing both personally and professionally.
It’s a philosophy that has led Alara into several roles throughout his career—from keyboardist to arranger to music director to producer to composer—and to remarkable success. He’s won a Grammy, for Best Latin Pop Album (Claudia Brant’s Sincera), and two Latin Grammys, for Best Folk Music Album (Natalia Lafourcade’s Musas Vol. 1 and Musas Vol. 2) and has been nominated for several others. He’s served as music producer and music director for the Grammy Awards Premiere Ceremony several times. Just the highlights of his production, composition, and music directing accomplishments run pages long.
Recently, he talked with Berklee Today about his background and how it prepared him for a serendipitous opportunity that changed his life; his mild allergy to the terms music industry and music business; Latin music and culture in the U.S.; and why he doesn’t think there is “advice that anyone can give to a younger musician when it comes to their career.” What follows is an edited and condensed version of that conversation.
Tell me a little about the environment you grew up in. Did you come from a musical family?
So I come from an artistic family, with the only musical element being my great aunt [who was] a pianist and an amazing teacher. She gave me her piano as a gift when I turned 4. She was my first piano teacher. But as far as the family...my dad is a writer and my mom is a painter. So I grew up surrounded with a lot of artistic life experiences. Not necessarily musical, but music was always part of the house—always, always, always. And Buenos Aires [Argentina] is a city with a lot of culture, so I used to go to jazz concerts, classical concerts with my parents when I was a little kid. My parents have been the biggest, most amazing influences in my life, and [they’ve been] extremely supportive since I was a little kid. And, quote-unquote, “letting me go” when I was 18 to go to another country. Back then it was a big deal, and they faced a lot of real criticism from close friends.... It was a different time and a different culture.
Christina went from not being a household name to around two, maybe three, months later I had friends of mine calling me from Argentina, going, "Oh my god! You're playing with Christina Aguilera?"
Why did you want to go to Berklee?
[In the late ’80s, early ’90s,] Berklee was doing outreach seminars. Gary Burton [’62, ’89H] would go and give weeklong workshops that were amazing. So I enrolled in quite a few of those. The first one that I enrolled with, my mom had to ask for a waiver because I think I was 11 or 12. I remember being in awe of everything. When I finished high school I took one of the seminars and I got a scholarship to go to Berklee. So that was the final push that I needed to say, “That’s it. I’m going.” It was a big deal, and I was equally excited as I was petrified. It was a big, big shock, big cultural shock. It was the first time that I was living away from my city. But, yeah, it was great. The Berklee years are an essential chapter of who I am as a person and as a musician.
How did they shape you as a person?
It was kind of like a connective portal between growing up in one culture and coming to a new one. The biggest thing that I can recall is that I started making deep friendships with people from other countries, mostly Latin America. [We] were all helping each other understand what we were going through, and helping each other figure out all these changes. And it was beautiful. Many friendships that I made in Berklee are still some of my closest friends.
Did you come to Berklee as a keyboardist?
I came as a keyboardist. I had quite a shock when I first got to Berklee by the level of other students. I was, like “Oh, I got this. I’m going to be part of the top of the....”—no, top of the nothing! [Laughs.] It was like, “Oh, my god!” The level was outstanding. So basically I enrolled as a keyboard player, and to my surprise I tested out of most of the core courses. I was not expecting that at all. I ended up enrolling in what at the time was called commercial arranging [now contemporary writing and production]. And that was great. I graduated in about two years with my major, and then I stayed an extra year doing my own electives. But the performance part I kept doing on my own...I kept doing a lot of playing in ensembles, whether it was for credit or not. But it was basically developing both sides: the performing and the writing, arranging, composing, and producing.
At the time, did you know what you wanted to do professionally?
I don’t think I had a clear idea. I knew that I wanted to do more than play. The way that I have approached my career since the Berklee days is rather than switching directions, I expand into new things. So I still do the things that I started doing, but as the years went by, I added new areas that pique my interest and my passion.
What was your plan right after Berklee?
I was convinced I was going to move to New York. That was my plan. I was taking classes with a couple of people at Julliard. [But the University of Southern California] let me send a demo, and gave me a scholarship. When I moved to L.A...I was pretty much on my own. And I was like, “Okay, what do I do in this big, massive monster of a city?” [Laughs.] But again, [being in school] gives you a structure...and then if you make friends, “Oh, we’ve got plans for the weekend, or we have a couple of gigs,” or they recommend you to do this or that.“
And then you started getting into the industry in L.A.?
Okay, I would love to talk to you about the word industry later on because I have an issue with that. [Laughs.] …So fortunately for me, while I was at USC I was gigging a lot. I played most nights of the week, in completelycdifferent, eclectic situations. I was playing at a jazz club called the Baked Potato here in L.A. It’s very, very famous. And someone came after a show and was like, “Hey, we’re putting together a band. We’re holding auditions for a new singer, would you like to play?” At the time I thought it was a Latin artist...“Oh, you know, Aguilera, that’s a Latin last name.” Little did I know she was doing pop, in English! [Laughs.] And I got the audition, and that was a time where it was like a pivot point. It was quite a drastic change that enabled me to, careerwise, make a lot of connections and all that but also to legally be able to stay [in the U.S.] and to build the next chapter, not as a student but as a professional musician. So that was a big deal.
Probably one of my biggest real-world learning experiences, not academic, was to witness how…Christina went from not being a household name to around two, maybe three, months later I had friends of mine calling me from Argentina, going, “Oh, my god! You’re playing with Christina Aguilera?” And it was an amazing learning experience because I had first-row center seats to witness how something like this happens. I witnessed that with Christina [and with] Destiny’s Child. So I saw Beyoncé going from one of the singers in Destiny’s Child to dear god!
It’s so important that we make people aware that we are artists. We deal with emotion. We deal with feelings.
So you started as a keyboardist with these different artists and then started branching out?
I started as a keyboard player with Christina; I ended up doing assistant musical director duties. I started doing a bunch of arranging. I realized—also early on in my touring years—that I wanted to become a music director, just to be able to put more of a personal stamp on the projects. So, in about three years or so…I basically expanded it into music direction. And I loved it. Still to this day, music directing and conducting is one of the favorite things that I do. It gives you more of a chance to have more of a personal relationship with the artist, to be more involved with the project as a creative. The transitions that I made careerwise are: I started as a keyboard player, I became an arranger at Berklee…then I toured as a keyboard player, also utilizing the arranging skills that I had, and then I became a music director. And then I expanded into album production. And then I expanded into composing for both album production and for media, for film and TV. And it’s been always, again, expanding, not stopping.
Yeah, there are a few people I can think of who’ve worked in so many aspects of…and I do want to talk about the word industry.
You know, whenever I do a master class or a talk with students—we have gotten so used to referring to the music industry. And we talk about industry and the industry…. I look at what we do as a chain of things, and each link is preciously important, because without it the chain breaks, right? A link is your training, your formative years, personality, awareness of what you want to do with your life and everything professionally. I think one of the links of what we do as musicians, and professional people that make a living through music, is 100 percent a business. But it’s just one of the links. You need to be very aware of that link, because without that link you don’t have a chain and you’re in deep trouble, but it does not define what we do. I’m very, very, very passionate about that because I think it’s so important that we make people aware that we are artists. We deal with emotion. We deal with feelings.
Do you see this awareness missing in some musicians?
A lot. And there’s an issue with that because we are having people go through life as artists and not necessarily being aware of that. And that’s a shame. I talk to a lot of young people who are like, “Oh, you know, I want to look at my brand, build my following, build up my business, work out these deals.” And it’s like, “Sure. And I applaud you for that, but you have to remind yourself that at the core of that is art. Because, if not, what are you doing?”
To me, it’s like a yin-yang thing. If you make that aspect of things more important than the craft…then it’s not yin-yang, then it falls apart. As musicians, in particular, I don’t think this yin-yang has been properly presented for many, many, many generations. So you have one of the parts overtaking the other. So technique, technology, network, branding, blah blah blah. Yeah, great. You can go through life that way. And it’s gonna be okay. It’s just kind of like you’re missing out on the root. And interesting enough, I think that it happens to musicians way more than to other types of artists. It is very common to find musicians that are extremely skilled, successful—people that we look up to as musicians—that have very little or no knowledge about other artistic disciplines. There are a lot of amazing musicians [to whom] you’ll mention something about theater, literature, ballet, paintings, and they’re clueless. [But] most people that do sculpture, for example, will probably have a really, really advanced knowledge of music.
So what do you do to feed your inner artist, outside of music?
I love cinema. I love reading. It doesn’t happen that often, but when I travel I try to plan my trips to find as much time off as possible within the trip. I’ll find out, okay, there is this museum, there is this part of town that has all these different things that I don’t get to see in my daily life, and I go for that. Down to something that can be superficial but it’s also not, something like food. So my traveling becomes an enriching experience usually, besides what I’m doing. I was in Mexico City with Natalia [Lafourcade] last week, and we started working at noon. Every morning, I would wake up early and go walk. …I want to experience, like, what do people do in Mexico City at 8:00 in the morning? How does that feel?
I wanted to ask about your experiences as music producer, music director, and arranger over the past seven years for the Grammy Awards Premiere Ceremony, the live show where most of the Grammys are handed out.
The [Recording] Academy and the Latin [Recording] Academy given the opportunity to raise the bar and to do things in wonderful ways. I’ve done a lot of music direction and conducting of shows and big award shows and everything. By far—by far—the most complicated show is the Grammy Premiere. Nothing comes even close. We play about a hundred songs, 100 percent live, in every single style of music that you can imagine. We play everything from straight-ahead jazz to hip-hop to Latin, classical, country, gospel, blues, everything. There are no backup tracks, and everything is back-to-back. …It’s like the Super Bowl of live music events.
As someone who’s part of the Latin and the English-speaking musical worlds, what do you make of the rise of Latin music in the U.S.?
Basically, like with anything else in life, you have to look at history to probably find out a lot of what’s going on right now has happened before. But with Latin music there were cycles—or waves, if you will—in which Latin music became more popular and more mainstream throughout the decades. Back in the day, we would have things like Santana, Tito Puente [’95H]. Later on, you had things like Gloria Estefan [’07H], Miami Sound Machine. In the early 2000s, there was a pretty big Latin crossover, “Latin explosion” as they call it, with Marc Anthony, JLo, Ricky Martin, where you would see all these Latin artists in mainstream media. That went away for a second, and then this current wave started building exponentially fast and big. And I think it’s fantastic. I think it’s great to have cross-cultural growth, whether it’s Latin music, or whether it’s K-pop, or whether it’s African pop.
It does seem that Latin music, though, has a special place in the U.S., because the Latin population here is so important and we have such a connection with Latin America.
I agree. And that is a beautiful thing, because in many other aspects the Latin population in the U.S. is not properly represented and is closer to being invisible. ...The amount of very hard work—farming, service industry—that is performed by Latin people that I see on a daily basis. Yet that isn’t properly represented as far as politics, social construction of the daily life, movies. It’s almost like there’s a whole layer of our society that is there yet we don’t talk about it. So I’m happy that music has given more of a voice and a presence to the Latin community, because...as an American society, we need to recognize how vital it is.
So music can act as a portal through which the wider U.S. community connects with the Latin community here?
Exactly. Last year I produced Karol G’s segment at Coachella…and it was like thousands of people singing in Spanish. And I was like, “This is something, this is different. What is it and what do we do with it?” I hope that we seize the opportunity—I’m not just talking as a Latin person but as an American citizen—I hope that we seize this opportunity to make it count for something else than money and record streaming on Spotify.
You’ve had such an eclectic career. What advice would you give to musicians who are developing their careers?
You just asked one of my two favorite questions that you can get asked in an interview. I’m going to give you my very sincere answer: I don’t think there is music advice. I don’t think there is advice that anyone can give to a younger musician when it comes to their career. I think anyone that gives advice is probably coming from a good place, but I don’t think they’re giving you anything that is going to be useful for you in particular. The reason is there’s so many paths. I always tell people, “You can finish Berklee, be at the top of your class, be a fantastic musician, move to New York, and within a week you’re going to land the best project and be successful for the rest of your life. Or you can move to New York, again, being at the top of your skills and really good, be there for five years, and nothing happens.” There’s so many variables. You could meet the right person right away. You could meet the wrong person six months from now. There’s not a clear path to what we do. So I think the only thing that you can do is to keep yourself on this internal journey that’s going to carry you through your life as a person, as a musician, and as a professional musician. Those you can try your best to control. The rest, you know…
What’s your other favorite interview question?
The other question has to do with gear. When people go, like, “Hey, tell us, what kind of gear do you use?” I’m like, “Okay, stop right there. It’s not about the gear.” What we do has very little to do with gear. It’s about how you use it. You can have the world’s worst computer and crappiest keyboard and make the most amazing music. And particularly when you talk to people that are in other parts of the world…this advice about gear is really harmful because people don’t have the money. So it’s not about that. It’s about, hey, try to get a hold of any gear that you can get a hold of and get to know it well. And then it’s going to be what it’s truly about: the music, the art.