Music
12:29 am
Thu August 16, 2012

Juanes: A Superstar Slows Down, Shifts Gears

Originally published on Thu August 23, 2012 10:57 am

The new release from Juanes marks a departure for the Colombian pop star. The all-acoustic album was recorded in front of a live Miami audience for MTV Unplugged.

Born Juan Esteban Aristizábal Vásquez, Juanes — who appears Friday and Saturday at the Hollywood Bowl with the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra and conductor Thomas Wilkins — has been one of Latin America's most popular young musicians for the past two decades. His first four albums topped music charts. He has won a Grammy Award and 17 Latin Grammys.

Juanes has also sung for huge crowds around the world: a concert for peace in Havana, a World Cup kickoff, even a Nobel Peace Prize ceremony. He founded an organization for victims of landmines. He married a beautiful model and actress and they have three gorgeous children. But even with so much going for him, the artist says he recently found himself at a crossroads.

"To be honest, I was feeling a little bit tired, a little bit sick of myself and depressed," Juanes says. "I was not enjoying the process. So I decided to make a little stop in my career and just rethink everything."

That was last year. Not long after, MTV's Spanish-language channel, Tr3s, asked him to do an Unplugged session. Juanes says he embraced it as an opportunity to take a breather and recenter himself.

To help with that process, he turned to one of his heroes, Juan Luis Guerra. In the 1990s, the singer and songwriter was considered the Dominican Republic's premier poet and musician.

"He's one of the most incredible musicians from South America," Juanes says. "He's like a legend, like another Beatle member. He's like, wow!"

Speaking from his home in the Dominican Republic, Guerra returned the compliment.

"Juanes is a great guitar player," Guerra says. "He's a great singer also. Juanes' songs are so beautiful, but I wanted to give a new version of them."

Guerra became the producer and arranger for the Unplugged album, and also something of a mentor for Juanes. Guerra himself had taken a break from playing his fusion of merengue and bachata with jazz and classical influences, in order to devote his time to Christian gospel music.

"You need time to rest, to think about your career, to find another way," Guerra says. "That's what I did and I think that's what Juanes did, also. He was kind of, 'Too much work,' and he needed to stop."

"I remember the first moment I got to his studio in the Dominican Republic in [Guerra's] house," Juanes recalls, "and I was a little bit nervous. Then I just found this guy Juan Luis so relaxed, so calm, so sober. And he just inspired this peace inside me."

Juanes says the two of them jammed for hours, taking breaks to ruminate about life. "For me it was it was almost like a journey, like something spiritual," he says.

Juanes found still more inspiration from another idol of his, journeying to Madrid to ask Joaquin Sabina to collaborate on a song. The Spanish singer-songwriter and poet had also put his career on pause — but that four-year break was prompted by a stroke, followed by a deep depression.

"Joaquin Sabina is one of my favorites," Juanes says. "He's like a legend. He's like our Bob Dylan or our Bruce Springsteen. He's one of our most talented writers of our Latin music."

The result of the collaboration was "Azul Sabina." Joaquin Sabina wrote lyrics and Juan Luis Guerra arranged the song, calling on the spirit of Louis Armstrong.

"I said, 'That's what we need. We need a clarinet, a trumpet and a trombone,'" Juanes says. "It's a blues, like kind of 1950s New Orleans sound. We really had a good time."

Juanes says singing with Sabina, working with Guerra and the whole Unplugged experience was just the shot in the arm he needed for his career and his life.

"This a new beginning for me," he says. "Now I have no fear. I want to take risks. I just feel so happy to have that freedom and say, "You know what? Let's forget about everything and just break things. Go fast and break things and do whatever comes from your heart. That's what I'm doing now."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

We're going to hear, now, from a pop star from Colombia. The musician is known by the single name Juanes. And though Juanes has a huge following, his latest album reflects struggle - not financially, but musically. It's all acoustic - a big departure for him - recorded in front of a live audience for MTV "Unplugged."

This weekend, Juanes is bringing his new songs to the Hollywood Bowl. Here's NPR's Mandalit Del Barco.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: Juanes has been one of Latin America's most popular young musicians for the past two decades. His first four albums topped music charts. He won a Grammy Award, and 17 Latin Grammies.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

DEL BARCO: Juanes has sung for huge crowds around the world - a concert for peace in Havana, a World Cup kickoff, and a Nobel Peace Prize ceremony. He founded an organization for victims of land mines. He married a beautiful model and actress. They created three gorgeous children. But even with all of this, Juanes says he found himself at a crossroads.

JUANES: You know, to be honest, I was feeling a little bit tired, a little bit sick of myself - and depressed. And just, I was not enjoying the process. So I decide to make a little stop in my career and just - to rethink everything.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE FROM "UNPLUGGED" SESSION)

DEL BARCO: About that time last year, MTV's Spanish-language channel, Tr3s, asked him to do an "Unplugged" session.

JUANES: So it was like a great opportunity for me to take a breath, and that's what we did. And then - I don't know, I just feel so connected now; so connected.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

DEL BARCO: To help him catch his breath, Juanes turned to one of his heroes, Juan Luis Guerra. In the 1990s, the singer and songwriter was considered the Dominican Republic's premier poet and musician.

JUANES: He's one of the most incredible musicians from South America. He's like a legend. He's like another Beatle member. You know, he's like, wow.

DEL BARCO: From his home in the Dominican Republic, Guerra returns the compliment.

JUAN LUIS GUERRA: Juanes is a great guitar player He's a great singer, also. Juanes' songs are so beautiful, but I wanted to give a new version of them.

DEL BARCO: Guerra became the producer and arranger for the "Unplugged" album, but also something of a mentor for Juanes. Guerra himself had taken a break from playing his fusion of merengue and bachata - with jazz and classical influences - to devote his time to Christian gospel music. So he had some advice for Juanes.

GUERRA: You need time to rest, to think about your career, to find another way. And that's what I did. And I think that's what Juanes did, also. He was kind of too much work, and he needed to stop.

JUANES: I remember the first moment when I get to his studio in the Dominican Republic, in his house. And I was a little bit nervous, you know. And then I just found this guy - you know, Juan Luis - so, so relaxed; so calm, so sober. And he just inspired this like, peace inside me. And for me, it was like a journey, like something almost spiritual.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

DEL BARCO: Juanes found more inspiration from a generation before Juan Luis Guerra. The Colombian went to Madrid, to ask Joaquin Sabina to collaborate on a song. The Spanish singer-songwriter and poet had himself taken a break from his career. But his four years offstage were prompted by a stroke, followed by a deep depression.

JUANES: Joaquin Sabina is one of my favorites. He's like a legend. He's like our Bob Dylan, or our Bruce Springsteen. He's one of the most talented writers of our Latin music.

DEL BARCO: Sabina wrote lyrics. And Juan Luis Guerra arranged the song, calling on the spirit of Louis Armstrong.

GUERRA: I said that's what need. We need a clarinet, a trumpet and a trombone.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

JUANES: It's a blues, actually; like, kind of 1950s New Orleans sound. We really had a good time doing this.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

DEL BARCO: Juanes says singing with Sabina, working with Guerra - the whole "Unplugged" experience was just the shot in the arm he needed for his career, and his life.

JUANES: Yes, this is a new beginning for me. Now, I have no fear. I want to take risk. I'm just feel - so happy to have that freedom and say, you know what? Let's forget about everything, and then just break things. Go fast and break things, and just do whatever come from your heart. That's what I'm doing now.

DEL BARCO: With his newfound freedom, Juanes says he may go back to playing heavy metal - like he did as a teenager. And though he remains dedicated to singing in Spanish, he may even start singing a little more in English.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

DEL BARCO: Mandalit del Barco, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

MONTAGNE: This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And I'm David Greene. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.