Interview Time: Juanes

By MusicRooms on 30/05/2006
Before you read on, understand this. Juanes may be one of the biggest and sexiest male music stars to come out the Latino music scene for almost a decade, but he is not like anything, or anyone, that has come before. Forget Enrique Iglesias; forget Ricky Martin but remember Juanes.Juanes
Before you read on, understand this. Juanes may be one of the biggest and sexiest male music stars to come out the Latino music scene for almost a decade, but he is not like anything, or anyone, that has come before. Forget Enrique Iglesias; forget Ricky Martin but remember Juanes.
His heritage and his passion – and his 15 Latin Grammys – set him head and shoulders above the rest.

In his homeland of Columbia, Juanes is revered and a megastar, however, he has turned his temporarily back on fame and fortune and risked failure to try and break Britain.

In the UK, Juanes is, with the greatest of respect, a nobody. However, this nobody managed to sell out his first major London show in just one hour. That is the find of ticket mania that is usually reserved for acts like Madonna, Red Hot Chilli Peppers of the UK’s own object of pop idolatry, Robbie Williams.

In Columbia, Juanes can’t walk down the street for getting mobbed by fans. In the UK, Juanes could walk down the street and probably no-one would bat an eyelid – unless they were trying to catch a glimpse of his Adonis-like physique.

In Columbia, every woman wants him, and every man wants to be him. In the UK, he’s just a man.

Singing in Spanish and Spanish only, Juanes has been almost entirely absent from UK radio playlists. However, his debut single in the country, ‘La Camisa Negra’, made it into the Top 40, and his latest album – ‘Mi Sangre’ – has become one of the most talked about and critically acclaimed of the season. Demand has been so high that some retailers have even run out of copies.

Everything is against Juanes making it in the UK, but there is one thing that is for him, and it’s a big thing. The record buying public. They don’t know what he’s saying, but whatever it is, it’s struck a chord, they like it and they want more.

There’s no denying that Juanes has arrived in Britain with a bang.

Born Juan Esteban Aristizaba, the former lead singer of Columbian metal band, Ekhymosis, started playing guitar at the age of seven. In 1992, his second solo album – Un Dia Normal – stayed at number one in Billboard’s Latin album charts for two whole years.

Achievements and firsts are his specialities; however tragedy and conflict are his bedfellows of misfortune that pump the blood round the body of his work.

Juanes’ cousin was executed by kidnappers, and a close friend was killed by gunmen, and then also lost his father to cancer.

However, those cruel twists of fate far from broke the singer – the grief made him stronger and even more determined to tell the world what it’s like to be Columbian- the love, the hate, the joy and the torment, the good and the bad. The truth.

Time magazine have already counted him as of the 100 most influential people in the world today. Simon Thompson caught up with the singer in London recently to find out why Juanes – the troubled troubadour – would rather suffer failure than endure the hell of knowing he’d never tried.

You’ve won 15 Latin Grammys and have millions of fans but you’re an unknown in the UK. How do you find that?

It see it as a great opportunity and so starting again somewhere new is, for me, just part of the process. I started in Columbia 18 years ago. I was in a rock band and then I started my solo career six years ago but my first step in Europe was in Spain so we’ve been concentrating on that market until now. People in places like France, Switzerland and of course in the UK started to get more interested in what I have been doing so I thought I’d give it a shot. It is a surprise because I never thought it would happen, especially as I only sing in Spanish.

But after all your success, do you mind having to prove yourself all over again?
Not at all, because after 18 years it’s actually fun to go back to square one. It’s a challenge. I’m not worried that when I go to a new country people don’t know me when I walk down the street. It’s something that’s really nice actually. All I want to do is keep sharing my music with people. For me to be able to meet someone who doesn’t know me or what I do and to get their feedback and teach them about my culture and my music is a very special thing. It’s important to me not to be lazy or to just sit back and be satisfied with the easy life. Every bit of promotion or interview I do is like building a bridge or opening a new door – you never know what’s on the other side or what it might lead to and that’s what keeps it exciting for me.

You did a concert in London recently and it sold out in one hour. Even some of the world’s English speaking stars can’t do that.
I know. It was amazing. When my record company told me I couldn’t believe it. To play somewhere where, as you say, nobody really knows you, if anyone turns up it’s a good thing, but to sell out in an hour and have the place full was just amazing. Actually, amazing doesn’t even start to describe it.

Do you mind that the audience was mainly Spanish speaking fans and not English speaking fans taking a chance on you?
Not at all. When I started in the United States or even in Spain, the Latin community would always come out and see my shows. I don’t mind that because then they would take what I do on my CD’s or on stage and push it outside the concert venues, into their everyday lives and introduce people who never have heard my music. That’s the way we’ve started to get people listening to my material. It happened the same way in Germany. We started playing to a mostly Latino crowd but then by the end of the tour there were hundreds of non-Spanish speaking people out there in the crowd really enjoying themselves. But without the Spanish speaking fans I wouldn’t have anything. They’re a big part of me and what I do.

Do you find that people over here have expected you to be another Enrique or Ricky Martin or a male J. Lo?
It’s kind of hard because most of the people in Europe do think of Latin music as one thing without any differentiation between acts. We are coming from the same place but we are all different. I just sing in Spanish because that’s my language but my background is in rock music, but the stuff that I sing now is softer, more like a kind of pop folk music. So they will say I am like Ricky Martin or Shakira or Mark Anthony or whatever but they are wrong and have probably never heard my music. I don’t take it personally.

Has there ever been on pressure on you to just make music that will be a hit rather than the music that you want to make?
No. Definitely not. I have been into making music since I was a small child and even when I started playing in a rock band my roots were always in traditional Columbian music, so if I started recording a song like ‘Living La Vida Loca’, I wouldn’t be making my music, I’d be playing some other persons song. So for me I have to make my music and luckily the record company. I like all types of music and can play all types of music but it has to be from me otherwise it’s not real. It’s all about identity.

So it’s very important for your music to have the personal touch.
Absolutely because when I was in a rock band we were always trying to sound like someone else and we realised that we needed to find ourselves and out own sound. That’s the hardest part of being a musician; trying not to sound like another band, being different. It’s what makes music unique.

Would you ever make an English language album like other Latin singers?
I will never make an English album because it’s not my language. It’s really important to me to sing en espanol because it’s my roots. Coming from Colombia I don’t see why I have to change. That’s the way that’s natural for me. I still dream in Spanish, I still think in Spanish. I don’t want to be thinking about the pronunciation of words or what it means. In Latin America we listen to music in English and don’t expect those artists to sing in our language so why should Latin stars have to sing in English? When you listen to the songs you can still love the music but not understand the lyrics – you can still connect to the rhythm and the melodies. That’s what it’s really all about.

What about people who expect your songs to be all about sex and making love or romance? People kind of expect that from Latin stars, especially men.
That is true. People also think that Latin music is all about summer hits, Latin lovers or macho men but that’s not true. We sing en espanol because that’s our language not because we’re trying to sexy or clever. It’s a misconception. I like to sing about reality and things that matter to me like family, love, war, peace and things that have happened to my country. You have to know love but you don’t have to sing about sex all the time to be sexy or a man who loves.

You have some impressive celebrity fan including Bono from U2 and Paul McCartney, but is there one person that’s turned out to be a fan, that’s really blown you away when you found out?

It’s amazing to have the support of people like that. It’s a real honour. I grew up listening to them and now they’re listening to me. I never think about who might hear my music when I make a CD or write a song, but to find out that people that inspired me are inspired by me is amazing. It’s like when I found that Quincy Jones heard my music. It was about three years ago when a friend rang me and said that Quincy was listening to one of my albums on his iPod and said, ‘Who the hell is this guy Juanes? What is he saying? What is he singing about? I want to hear more’. Then we met and now we are friends. For me, that the most amazing thing. Quincy Jones likes my music and now he’s my friend. That’s like, wow!