Chaos Is a Tool: An Interview with Latin Grammy Winner Jorge Drexler

On his latest, Salvavidas del Hielo, Drexler only uses voices and guitars to create thoughtful pop. He discusses the new sounds he's found with PopMatters.

Salvavidas del Hielo
Jorge Drexler
09 Sep 2017 (Spain)

An unexpected turn of phrase, a sudden shift in soundscape, an unlikely career — Jorge Drexler’s arc across the Latin pop firmament has been a constellation of surprises.

A former otolaryngologist and the son of a German Jew who fled the Nazis and settled in Uruguay, Drexler developed an international following after emerging as a thoughtful singer-songwriter in the ’90s. He’s most popularly known for winning the 2005 Oscar for the theme song from the film Motorcycle Diaries, but the self-deprecating, soft-spoken Drexler gained some notoriety at the glittering awards ceremony. After the producers incongruously chose to have Antonio Banderas and Carlos Santana perform his song, Drexler took his statuette from Prince, then turned and sang several lines of the song a capella in Spanish as the entirety of his acceptance speech.

After releasing two albums solely in Uruguay, Drexler left medicine and his homeland for Madrid in the late ’90s, where he met Spanish musicians and released several albums of gently insistent electro-acoustic music with wistful and wry lyrics. Drexler has shown himself to be not just inquisitive about the world of romantic love, but in love with the world and the world of ideas. He has been nominated for four Grammys and won four Latin Grammys and has collaborated with a variety of notable musicians including Shakira and the Bajofondo Tango Club.

On his 13th album, Salvavidas del Hielo (Warner), Drexler again covers a wide range of topics, all rendered in his signature poetic and playful style. On the achingly beautiful title song, he and Natalia Lafourcade compare an ephemeral love to “Salvavidas del Hielo”, or a life preserver made of ice. On “Movimiento”, he writes of immigration and humans continually moving “with the pollen in the wind.”

While the album keeps things interesting with its varied textures and colors, its biggest surprise is that all the music is created only by guitars and voices. We spoke to Drexler in Spain via phone as he was preparing for a tour of the US and Mexico.

It has been three years since your last album. Were you taking a break?

It’s not that I actually planned it. I kept on touring until I was too overwhelmed by crossing the Atlantic 20 times a year, because I live in Madrid but I perform on both sides of the Atlantic. I decided to make a pause and start writing. I wanted to do it thoroughly, so it took me a year of composition.

I really wanted to go deep into writing. I missed writing. I don’t write all the time. I especially don’t write when I’m touring. I really feel like there is a rivalry between touring and writing, so I had to stop. I wrote for a year, which is the longest writing period I remember in my career and I had this target that I wanted to write songs that are autonomous, that can be played alone with one guitar and one voice. I wanted to focus on the core of the songwriting craftwork and try to write songs that can be complete with just the guitar and the voice.

Then I realized that I didn’t want it to be a linear concept. I wanted it to be three-dimensional. So I used the traditional tools of the singing and songwriting troubadour, but used them in a non-traditional way. Several songs are just with the guitar and voice, but it doesn’t sound like that. The guitar is used as a percussion instrument, harmonic instrument, melodic instrument — everything you hear in the record comes out from either a guitar or voice.

Did you go into the studio knowing exactly what you wanted to do or did you shape the songs as you went along?

The whole record was a very organic procedure. I didn’t have a lot in mind when I started making it. I just knew I wanted to do it with only guitar and voice… We did a sort of a fractal work — you can find the infinite in a reduced amount of space. We only worked with a reduced amount of elements. Really one, the guitar, and we tried to find all the different shapes and colors inside that one instrument.

I have known the guitar for 40 years already, but I discovered a lot of sounds that the guitar can make that I didn’t know it was capable of making. Igor Stravinsky said, “The more I limit myself, the more I free myself.” We established a very concrete limit in our creative process with just the instruments of the troubadours, just the guitar and the voice, but in order to expand the possibilities of those two instruments.

You sing with three women [Natalia Lafourcade, Julieta Venegas and Mon Laferte]. Was that a conscious decision to have a strong female presence on the album?

We decided in the middle of the process to go to Mexico just because I wanted to get out of Madrid and get the input of that [stimulus] you can feel in Mexico City — that kind of mescal-drink feeling of crazy energy, that crazy excessive energy that that city has, that chaotic creative epiphany. Then when we decided to go to Mexico, I said, “Whom do I want to work with in Mexico?” and I had these magnificent three composers, beautiful and talented women who happen to be my friends, so I called and I was lucky enough to find them in the city when we were recording. They were generous enough to invest the few hours that they had between touring to come to the studio and sing a song of mine, considering that they themselves are great composers, the three of them.

I actually didn’t plan it. It was like anything in the record, it was not completely planned. I’m used to navigating chaos. I love chaos as a tool. I love to adapt to new developments in what happens in a record.

Do the songs reflect a chapter in your life or what is currently happening in the world?

I’m not a journalist, so I don’t have the task or obligation to deliver an accurate description of the reality. I have a very subjective point of view with my very limited human experience from my point of view. So I just write from my point of view. I’m not really aware why I’m writing, actually. Writing for me is a semi-conscious, mostly unconscious, process. So I’m not really trying to depict or describe the reality. I’m just playing with my own reality, the restricted and small world in which I move.

I think I consider the audience to be an equal and capable of having their own opinion, so I think my duty is to deliver my truth and just wait for people to unravel it, to make their own conclusions. I don’t have a message… I don’t have anything to teach. I don’t have an ideology to deliver. Just my own limited human experience.

You have always struck me as someone with a restless curiosity…

I find curiosity a leading vector in my approach to music and songwriting. I’m a very curious person. Sometimes I think I’m too curious. I should stick to something in life. I kept wandering from one thing to another. I studied medicine, I worked as a doctor, I wrote contemporary instrumental music, I wrote poetry and books and then I went to songwriting and then I went to acting. I really like too many things. I read mostly about science. I love science and medicine.

I started reading poetry seriously ten years ago. I went from folk music to electronic music and from classical music to Afro-Uruguayan music. Sometimes I think I don’t have a fixed identity. I’m like a sponge. It is actually made of what it absorbs. So I’m really, really curious and sometimes much more than what’s recommended.

Since you won the Oscar 14 years ago, it seems like you are always asked about it. Does the whole episode feel a bit like a dinner guest that just won’t leave?

I’m a huge fan of the present time and I tend not to be nostalgic, so I always prefer to talk about things that are actually happening more then things that did happen. But it would be crazy to deny that it was a very important thing for me. I’m really proud of it and really happy. I was really thankful to the Academy.

All my criticism was based on the production of the show… They really didn’t understand the concept of Spanish culture… “You are all the same people.”….I come from a very diverse background. I like diversity. I get kind of pissed off when people don’t receive diversity… I felt that I wanted to make a statement, to say something. But I don’t like complaining. I don’t like saying “sorry” or just protesting. I thought that singing was a beautiful way to deliver what I wanted to deliver and at the same time being elegant and creative.

I don’t like victimism. I don’t like paternalism. I love to relate with the audience in a horizontal fashion and I love to be also approached in a one-on-one conversation. I don’t like the speech of being a victim of the system. I always try to be proactive, to create things more than protest against things.

As an immigrant and the son of immigrants, how do you feel about how immigrants are being portrayed these days?

The song that is opening the album, “Movimiento”, addresses that matter directly: “I am not from here but neither are you… I’m not completely from nowhere and I’m a little bit of everywhere.”

I think the human species used, as a means of survival, movement. We started in Africa 120,000 years ago and we ended up in every corner of the world… The common thing we have as a species — there’s two of them. There’s music and there’s migration. There isn’t a culture that didn’t have music and there hasn’t been a culture that didn’t move. We moved from Africa to everywhere… If we see the big picture, we realize we have been moving through all our stories. And if you are a politician and you are blind enough not to realize that you are not really specifically from this place – that you came there from your parents or grandparents or maybe great-grandparents or maybe 800 years ago, which is a blink in the history of humanity — you must be humble about that and know that this is a process. And that process is we as a species move. That is the way we have learned to survive.

I’m not a protest singer… I don’t like complaining. I just like bringing the big picture in, [looking from my] very short and very limited view of the world. I’m just trying to open that perspective.

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