Colombian songwriter and rocker Juanes is that rarest kind of pop music artist, someone who makes powerful music from the heart that’s been recognized with the most stellar success.
Since he burst onto the international music scene with seven Latin Grammy nominations in 2001, for “Fijate Bien,” his bitter portrait of the emotional and moral devastation wrought by Colombia’s civil war, he’s racked up one achievement after another: multiple hits, 12 Latin Grammys, more than 8 million albums sold, packed stadiums around the world.
Juanes’ fourth solo album, “La Vida ... Es Un Ratico (Life ... is a Moment),” came out of a difficult year in which the singer split from his wife, Karen Martinez, who is mother of his two young daughters, Luna, 4, and Paloma, 2. The couple have since reunited.
After a preview of the album at Criteria Studios in North Miami, The Miami Herald sat down with Juanes, 35, to talk about what inspires his music.
This record is full of songs about disillusion and falling out of love. What happened?
My music is a reflection of my reality, and each record represents the periods of my life. “Life ... is a Moment” is a part of my life in which there was a transition.
It will be reflected in the songs, as if it were the end of a cycle, and another starts. There’s some sadness—it’s difficult—but I feel that I can keep going and find myself again.
Emotionally it seems very direct and intense.
Yes, I feel like this record is more open—it’s like these songs are everything that’s happened to me recently. It’s very transparent. This is what I am, this is what’s happened to me, and here it is in the songs. For me it was a kind of therapy, because when I go into these feelings, the songs freed me from the pain a little.
Tell me about the song “Bandera de Manos (Flag of Hands).” Is this about Colombia?
This is a song that took root in Colombia, but I think it’s more universal. It has to do with the situation in Iraq, with the issue of immigrants in the U.S. and Europe, with the situation of displaced people in Colombia, with indigenous people and peasants. It’s taking all these things at a single moment, how we’re in this world that’s so violent.
Do you think music can help overcome these problems?
No. The truth is, it’s hard. I think we can neither tolerate other religions nor accept differences. It’s complicated. I think it’s a problem of inequality more than poverty, and I think this generates a lot of hate, and this hate creates war. And this inequality is growing.
Does Karen know what the songs are about?
Yes, Karen knows absolutely everything.
Is that hard for her?
We’re human. We’ve lived good and bad things, a great love, matrimonial crises, and the songs are my way of expressing all those things. It’s nothing bad, it’s simply reality.
You’re not worried that you’ll be asked about your personal life while promoting this album?
It’s inevitable that we’ll talk about what happened, because the songs talk about those things. But I think the songs talk about much more, and among those things are very private issues, about my life as a husband, or with the girls.
Why do you think love songs and songs about falling out of love are so popular?
They’re very much alike. It’s like the moon is dark on one side and light on the other—it’s the same thing. Love and sadness are the same thing. The only way to understand one is to know what the other means. When we’re in love we’re human—it’s part of life. When you love you have to assume that you have to suffer, that love hurts. When your daughter falls you know it will hurt you, because it’s such a powerful love. It’s a love that’s so great that it hurts.
You created a lot of this record in Colombia. Tell me about that.
Right, in a house in the country. What it is, is that Medellin (Juanes’ home city) is in a valley, and my house is up in the mountains around it, and that’s where I lived. I recorded practically 80 percent of the record there. Sometimes Karen came with the girls, but I was alone a lot of the time. For me it was very important to return to Medellin, to my city where I was born. I needed to recharge my energy, impregnate my record and my songs with this place. I was really alone in the studio, recording my guitar, my songs. It was very traumatic, but at the same time it helped me a lot to free myself and get out everything I had inside.
How do you feel about what’s happening in Colombia? A few years ago a lot of people seemed optimistic about (President Alvaro) Uribe, but now there’s so much news about corruption and connections with the paramilitary groups.
There is a very big problem in Colombia and it’s that Colombia has a very big business called drugs. The majority of the problems that it has suffered come from the drug business. In the beginning there were armed groups that worked for equality and human rights, and now they’re doing business. The guerrillas manage drugs. So there are changes but a very big armed conflict continues in Colombia. Now there’s some development, but the conflict continues.
“Fijate Bien” was very bitter, but it was the bitterness of someone innocent. Now you seem more mature, like “things are terrible, but that’s the way life is.”
I don’t know if maturity is the right word. But I’d say that learning and understanding and studying can tell you a lot about how things are and how everything works. Sometimes I’m frustrated, and sometimes I have a lot of hope. Maybe you can’t change things, but you can tell that you have to struggle against these forces that are SO brutal and full of rage. If you can’t do anything, you give up believing in anything.
Do you think your music, or any music, can do anything about this?
Really I don’t think that music can change these kinds of things. But it can be a way to connect a lot of people, and through that something can start. I feel like what has happened in Colombia for the last 50 years, the politicians have taken so much time and politics doesn’t work at all. We’re in conflict, we keep negotiating and peace doesn’t come. I think this is the moment to make different decisions. You have to do something radically different, look for other solutions, or the next 50 years will be the same.
Where do you see yourself going with your career and your music?
I dream—I dream of a lot of things. I want to make music for the rest of my life, changing, dreaming, traveling to different places.
I never imagined that what happened would happen. The only thing is I try to make sure that each record really is about me, is honest, gets out what I have inside. That’s what I’ve tried to do with each record, in each moment, in each one of the songs.
I think that on this record you can tell that all the previous ones are finally completed. It’s like this record sums up the other three musically. This record is more organic. It keeps the essence, but it goes to a different place.