Juanes’ favorite book, Ami: Child of the Stars (Ami, el niño de las estrellas), by the Chilean writer Enrique Barrios, begins with a warning (directed to adults only): “Do not continue reading, you are not going to like it: What follows is wonderful.” As with Ami, to tell the story of Juan Esteban Aristizábal Vásquez, better known as Juanes, you could easily add, “Madly in Love.”
Juanes and Barrios share the idea that love is a universal force that creates all that exists and Loco de amor (Madly in Love), the new and seventh album of the Colombian singer, is clear proof of that.
Juan Esteban, whose stage name is a contraction of his first and second names, was born in Medellin, Colombia, 41 years ago. He knew from a young age that his passion was music, his music. The singer, songwriter, guitarist, arranger and music producer learned guitar as a child and began playing professionally at the age of 15 with the heavy metal band Ekhymosis. When the group broke up, the gifted adolescent decided to continue as a soloist. The rest is a riveting story of setbacks, successes and disappointments, with one common theme: music that echoes as much in Latin America as it does in every corner of the world — with lyrics that sing to love.
“I feel very happy, very grateful to the public, to God and to life."
The year 2014 welcomed the artist with open arms: new recognition, humanitarian projects and of course, Madly in Love, a new album with producer Steve Lillywhite (who has worked with U2, The Killers, The Rolling Stones and Peter Gabriel, among others). Life has treated Juanes well, and the singer admits this with his characteristic humility: “I feel very happy, very grateful to the public, to God and to life. This is a very special time in my artistic and personal life; things have fallen back into place, and the end result is an album that makes me feel very happy, proud and satisfied,” he says with excitement.
His voice is clear, and although he sometimes seems shy, a real peace emanates from the performer. Juanes admits that the concept of his new production was very clear to him from the beginning: “The idea of the album is that of love passing through a prism, all the different manifestations of love in the daily life of a couple, the delusional love, the most romantic, like a flower, the nightmare, the impossible, the real one that fills you with joy and a desire to live; all the different manifestations of love that one can find in human relationships. I believe deeply that love is the most powerful energy in the universe and perhaps the most important lesson that we have to learn in this life. I experience love intensely and therefore my songs deal with this,” says the singer, father of Luna, 12; Paloma, 8; and Dante, 4, and husband of nearly 10 years of former Colombian beauty queen Karen Martinez.
Juanes has a spotless reputation in the entertainment world. His relationship with his fans is unwavering, respectful and open. No one can deny that he’s one of the most beloved figures in Latin America. Just by chatting with him, you can easily tell that his secret lies in the way he sees the world and, of course, in his music: “I follow my heart, make decisions with love and trust my music, which is my religion. I’ve been through many experiences in life, always taking refuge in music and what I love. This is how I connect with the world and with people,” he says in a slow-paced tone.
The new album is another example of the artist’s eclectic style, where rhythms have melded to produce a unique result. However, Juanes is the first to admit that his creative process is complicated: “It’s rather chaotic” — he sighs — “I start composing by improvising with chords that I like or with a rhythm that sounds cool. It’s like painting a picture by mixing shadows and colors, which then carry me elsewhere. First, I finish the music, and then I get to play with the lyrics. This time I did something very special with the lyrics. I wrote a part and then I shared it with friends like Meme from Café Tacuba; Miguel Bosé; Raquel Sofía, who is a Puerto Rican singer; José Pablo from the rock band Matute, so that they could ‘correct it,’ and that gave the lyrics a fresh feel. It was very special because it gave a twist to the love language that I wanted to express. My process in the past had been very solitary, so I wanted to join forces and try different dynamics, and the result has been amazing,” says the singer and songwriter.
The way in which a song is created varies with the mood and the present moment of the troubadour. Some of his songs emerge in minutes; others, however, take months to materialize: “When I get to the demos, things are pretty clear, but when I’m recording, I go a little crazy; I want to change things, to the point that I have to calm myself down and let go of the song; even today, when I hear songs from the past, I think I could have done better. But there comes a time when you have to realize that the song doesn’t belong to you anymore, it is anyone’s who’s willing to listen to it and make it a part of their life,” Juanes declares.
The talk continues. We talk about his conversations with Luna, his daughter, who likes to read Neruda; the fact that his favorite movie is Pink Floyd: The Wall; that he listens to all types of music as long as they make him feel something; and that mornings are his favorite part of the day, because it’s the time of feeding his creative soul.
He also shares that he does have “normal days” when he likes to get up early and have breakfast with his children, who, by the way, have inherited his musical talent: “Paloma and Luna dance and play the piano wonderfully.” He takes them to school and exercise. “I also watch the news, spend time with the fans on social media, and I learn new things: Music is what drives my day. But of course when tours start, all my focus is on the concerts, although when it’s possible, Karen and the children join me,” adds the singer.
A hopeful romantic, Juanes is passionate about the philanthropic work that he started when he was with Ekhymosis, and that has grown hand in hand with his fame. In 2006, he created Fundación Mi Sangre, a foundation to help victims of land mines. It all started thanks to his song “Fíjate bien” (“Look Closely”), which, in addition to catapulting him into international fame, was a stepping-stone for his humanitarian work.
Human rights organizations started to invite him to participate in their events until Juanes decided to create Fundación Mi Sangre (My Blood Foundation), which has grown steadily since it began: “We are working to empower children who have been victims of land mines or violence in Colombia. We also add the concept of peace to the collective imagination of young people so that they will grow up with the idea that achieving peace is possible, and that they should work toward it in the future.”
In addition, in 2008 the winner of 19 Latin Grammys joined Miguel Bosé and great figures of Latin American music that included Carlos Vives, Ricardo Montaner, Alejandro Sanz and Juan Luis Guerra in a project to give peace concerts through the civil initiative Peace Without Borders: “Peace Without Borders is going through a reassessment right now, because we want to go beyond concerts. Miguel Bosé is working hard to make the Universal Charter of Human Rights recognize a right to peace, and we are collecting signatures for this goal, to be presented to the General Assembly of the United Nations. It’s a very exciting process,” he says.
A rehabilitation center for drug addicts and victims of violence, Juanes de la Paz Park, in his beloved Medellin is another project of his. And all this humanitarian work has not gone unnoticed. Juanes has received numerous awards for his social work, as well as for his music, which has broken records in countries like the U.S., Canada, Germany, France, Italy, Austria and Switzerland. He always sings in Spanish.
“With songs, you cross the language barrier; music is an amazing universal language. In fact, I have thought about doing some trial songs in English, but I know that what I want is to do it in Spanish. I have recorded in Portuguese, and I think I will continue to work with English artists, but I don’t think I’ll make records in English,” he says with conviction.
The poet of Latin American rock cannot pick his favorite song, because they all come from genuine feelings during certain times in his life. They talk about love and hate, a black shirt, a photo, petitions to God or signs, and Madly in Love’s “sticky” first single speaks of light. It has already broken several records in the world with a touch that characterizes both Juanes and other great Latin American figures, capturing the soul of this region, crossing all borders. People who listen to the rhythm of “La luz” (“The Light”) do not know the origin, but swear that it is authentic to their countries; however, the inspiration for the song comes from faraway places:
“The background of ‘La luz’ is very interesting,” says Juanes with a smile. “It comes from Africa, from the cargo ships that came to Latin America many years ago and arrived in Brazil or in Colombia’s Atlantic and Pacific coasts. In an area called San Basilio of Palenque, near Cartagena and Barranquilla, LP discs played African music. In the ’70s, this music became a traditional dance known as terapia, and in the ’80s, it became a musical genre known as champeta. It’s very interesting that the people of Mexico say that it sounds Mexican, and the same thing happens in Argentina, Bolivia, Peru and even in Brazil, so I recorded the duet in Portuguese with Brazilian singer Claudia. ‘Everything is connected,’ as Santana says. Everything comes from Africa.”
For the singer, the most important thing is his music and the people he loves, including, of course, his fans. In fact, the songwriter has more than 15 million followers on Twitter. “The world has changed; information is faster and more accessible. Today, we are much more humane and democratic because we’re all on the same plane, relationships are more horizontal. I love being in touch with people, knowing who likes my music, who doesn’t, and what they like the most. I love technology, and this is how I keep in touch with my fans,” he says.
For this pasta-loving vegetarian rocker, the word Medellin is powerful: “It makes me feel everything that I am as a human being, the beginning and the end of my existence. It’s the place that has made me who I am, a place of contrasts that sometimes gives me great joy and other times great pain. But above all, I feel the greatest love for it because it’s part of who I am, or better yet, I am part of what Medellin is,” asserts the singer.
Juanes concludes by stating that self-love is his most fundamental value: “Everything that comes from the inside out, if it’s good, it heals you, and if it’s bad, it sickens you. Loving oneself is key. I have learned it throughout my life, and this is what I teach my children.”
With Madly in Love and a series of concerts and philanthropic plans in the future, Juanes, the good boy of Spanish rock, continues fighting daily for his dream of universal love.