Colombian star Juanes captures personal "Moment"

Sun Sep 9, 2007 11:04pm EDT

Colombian singer Juanes sings during a protest against violence and kidnapping in Medellin, Colombia, July 5, 2007. With more than 8 million albums sold worldwide, Juanes -- real name Juan Esteban Aristizabal -- still has the air of an accidental star. REUTERS/Fredy Amariles

Colombian singer Juanes sings during a protest against violence and kidnapping in Medellin, Colombia, July 5, 2007. With more than 8 million albums sold worldwide, Juanes -- real name Juan Esteban Aristizabal -- still has the air of an accidental star.

Credit: Reuters/Fredy Amariles

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MIAMI (Billboard) - The rain beats down incessantly on a typical Miami summer afternoon when Juanes runs into the Hit Factory studios, late from battling rush hour traffic in the middle of a storm.

He is traveling solo, devoid of entourage, as he likes to be when he isn't in touring or promotion mode. Juanes is here to begin mixing his fourth solo studio album, "La Vida Es un Ratico" (Life Is a Brief Moment), due October 23 on Universal Music Latino. With only a first single mixed at this point, Juanes carries the rough cuts on his iPod and cues them up for Billboard. The tracks are full of rock edges and aggressive bursts of down-and-dirty Colombian folk beats.

When it is all over, he asks, expectantly, "Did you like it?"

With more than 8 million albums sold worldwide, Juanes -- real name Juan Esteban Aristizabal -- still has the air of an accidental star.

But a superstar he is: "La Vida ... Es un Ratico" will be released simultaneously in all Universal territories, an unprecedented move for an artist who records only in Spanish.

Indeed, Universal Music Latino president John Echevarria says, "It is quite possibly the first all-Spanish album to be released simultaneously in Europe, Asia, Australia and North and South America."

While it is tempting to compare this scope of marketing with the strategies designed for such crossover stars as Ricky Martin, Shakira and Enrique Iglesias, Juanes is an anomaly because he doesn't record in English.

Nevertheless, his song "La Camisa Negra," from his 2004 album "Mi Sangre," managed to go to No. 1 on radio and sales charts in more than 30 countries, including Germany, France, Japan and Holland, which will release special editions of "La Vida."

"Singing in English doesn't really interest me," Juanes says. "I have to worry about pronunciation, so I don't sing from my soul."

"Mi Sangre" has sold more than 650,000 copies in the United States, according to Nielsen SoundScan, and more than 4 million worldwide, according to Universal. Its predecessor, 2002's "Un Dia Normal," has sold 700,000 copies in the States.

Q: This album has songs of love and breakup. Should listeners interpret them as personal experiences?

A: "These are things I've written mostly while on tour and they reflect different emotional states, but they're not only based on my reality, but also in the creativity and stories of people around me. But definitely, it's a very personal album."

Q: But all your albums are very personal.

A: "Yes. Most of the songs I write are a reflection of my feelings, and I couldn't do it any other way. For this album, I did the exercise I always do, of writing many songs, and in the end, those songs that aren't very honest get dropped along the way. The songs that stay talk about what I really feel and think at that moment. Right now, it's a bit of a transition. For example, 'Tu y Yo' (You and Me) speaks about the years I spent with my partner and how we stuck together in good times and bad, and that our love was made carefully, like a carpenter, and that the house only looks beautiful when she's there. But there's also the transition. I have a ballad titled 'Dificil' (Difficult) that talks about the breakup, and it's a harsh song lyrically and melodically."

Q: What is your writing process like?

A: "I do the music first. Never the lyrics. I have my guitar, my computer, my little m-box, and I put them in the hotel or home where I'm at, and I improvise the melody over a series of chords. If I like something, I save it. But I'm always searching for the melody, and that melody dictates the words. I live with the songs for a long time. They change 20,000 times. I improvise a lot. I can record 20 guitar solos until I find the one. Sometimes, I will go in the studio and write a song in a day. But from the moment of inception until it's recorded, the process passes through a million different places."

Q: When I interviewed you prior to 'Mi Sangre,' you said you felt very pressured, given the success of 2002's 'Un Dia Normal.' Now that you've been continuously successful, has the pressure lifted?

A: "I don't think so. It's still there, but it's all me. No one is saying anything, but it's the pressure of being able to do a different album, one that I like, the concern about not writing the same song. I still respect the audience. I like what I do, but I don't know if the audience will like it. And I face the album that way -- with respect, because you never know."

Q: You wrote most of the album in Colombia. Does this influence the music?

A: "I think so. My home is in the mountains of Medellin. Being there, watching the news, my family, the air -- yes, it has a great influence. I had a need, a physical and mental need, to go to Colombia. I love living there. I like Miami a lot, but I have more things to do in Colombia -- with my mother, my siblings, the foundation." (Juanes established the Mi Sangre Foundation to aid Colombian children injured by antipersonnel mines.)

Q: As a public figure, with a visible foundation, many people assume you have a stance on social issues. Do you like that role?

A: "It's not a question of whether I like it. What I've realized is you can really make a difference through music. You can motivate people in the good sense of the word, either to push a message or to at least place issues in the public agenda. For example, I didn't know preschool education wasn't mandatory in Colombia. The recent march (in Colombia, where more than 400,000 took to the streets against kidnapping and violence) had no precedent. We tend to be indifferent, and as citizens we have to take action."

Reuters/Billboard

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