Jorge Drexler‘s initial path to an internationally successful career in music was, in a way, a result of simple social connections.
Born in Uruguay to European parents that had fled the Nazis, Drexler followed his father and brothers into medicine, writing and recording songs as a passionate but non-remunerative second job. In the 1990s, he met singer-songwriter Joaquin Sabina, who invited him to go to Spain. He fell in with a community of musicians and emerged a singer-songwriter, leaving medicine behind.
He gained a following and writing credits, but his big leap came for “The Other Side of the River” from the 2004 film The Motorcycle Diaries, which won Drexler an Oscar for Best Original Song. After being nominated, he was told he couldn’t perform his own song at the broadcast (it was performed improbably by Carlos Santana and Antonio Banderas). When he won, he came to the stage and just sang several lines of the song in Spanish as his acceptance speech, his gentle act of defiance.
A man enamored of both science and art, Jorge Drexler posits on his new album that along with gravity, electromagnetism, and the strong and weak nuclear forces, love is what holds the universe together.
An otolaryngologist by training, Madrid-based singer-songwriter uses said new release, Tinta Y Tiempo (Ink and Time), to gently probe, poke and examine love through a variety of lenses. He opens the examination with “El Plan Maestro (The Master Plan)”, a song celebrating the two one-cell creatures that first had the urge to merge millions of years ago, creating love and all its lovely complications.
Tired of dividing on its own
It made eyes at a neighboring cell
I decided to mingle, it learned to laugh
And that story of the chicken and the egg was born
Unknowingly, it had invented
Love and sex!
And love is the plan.
Not surprisingly, Drexler’s tender consideration of love arose out of the isolation that came from the pandemic—a period in which he made a simple but profound discovery regarding songwriting.
“I had lots of things that I thought were everything I needed to write songs,” he recounted when speaking to PopMatters. “I said: ‘I have everything I need to write songs. I have silence, I have loneliness, I have my books, my films, time.’ But I learned through the pandemic that there was an ingredient that I didn’t know was part of the writing process, which was the ear of the other person—the listener. The songs didn’t condensate; they lacked the final act of communication to be complete. So I learned that you don’t write alone. That’s a very important thing. I mean, you write alone but you don’t write alone, at least I don’t.”
With the increased visibility following his Oscar win, Drexler released his albums internationally and toured the world regularly, collaborating with a range of Latin American stars. However, the conveyor belt he was on came to a stop with the global arrival of COVID-19, which influenced his latest album in several ways.
“The first songs I wrote were about the loneliness, the fear, the masks, the screens, the distance,” he said. “And at some point, a little light started showing up at the end of the tunnel. I very quickly moved to writing about not what I was feeling, but what I was hoping for … so I was singing [but] not experiencing love and closeness and contact like in ‘Tocarte (To Touch You)’. I was looking for a way of materializing that need, that wish.”
The album is filled with strings, brass, and choral arrangements and a core of his familiar electro-acoustic mix. “I wanted it to sound as though as it wasn’t made in a pandemic,” he said. “I wanted exactly the opposite. I didn’t want it to sound small and concentrated; I wanted it to sound like a jungle, like a forest.”
As if to create an antidote to the pandemic isolation, he brought in a variety of singer-songwriter collaborators, from salsa superstar Ruben Blades to rising Israeli rapper Noga Erez. “They all have in common that they bring something into the song that I’m not capable of bringing alone,” he said.
Drexler also extended his collaboration with C. Tangana, who has become a somewhat controversial pop star in Spain, mixing his murmuring, bad-boy rap with older musical elements, particularly flamenco. The two worked together for a recent C. Tangana hit, “Nominao”, and on Drexler’s album, they co-wrote “Tocarte (To Touch You)”, a song that is somewhat more carnal than Drexler’s usual wistful, intellectual lyrics.
I want the entire barrio to know about our obsession
And show you off, making out on the balcony
Idolize you, until you can’t stand it
And enter the Sheraton suite in each other’s arms.
“He took me to places in the new urban music that I wouldn’t go by myself,” Drexler said, “and also thematically, he addressed the longing of human touch and connection in a very direct way, which I’m not so capable of.”
On “El Dia que Estrenaste el Mundo (The Day That You Premiered the World)”, Drexler sings of a different kind of love, inspired by a photo sent to him by a friend.
“It’s a song about that first photograph that you take when you become a father or a mother,” he tells us. “Somebody puts that little person in your arms, and the second thing that happens is that somebody takes the picture exactly at the same time. We don’t have so many images of moments that your life changes forever, so I wanted to write a song and it’s also about family because it’s dedicated to my three children. But it also relates to the invention of love. I’d say it’s like you’re inventing something, like ‘El Plan Maestro.’ And at some point, I think the pandemic also brought this feeling of ending and being reborn, when you come out again to life; you look at life with new eyes.”
Drexler said during the extended isolation that he felt himself, like many others, languishing. “The moment I started playing again in July 2021,” he said. “I literally felt that the blood came back to the veins. I felt my body was again alive, and that’s when I started completing that 20 percent that every song needed. I went back to the songs and very quickly finished them. And that happened by getting together with other musicians in the same room and coming back to connecting with people.”
“We’re a species that is built in a world to be gregarious,” Drexler said. “We’re used to being with each other, and being deprived of that, it’s very scary. It was a very simple thing that I learned that I might have known already. It’s that life is something that you should never take for granted. It can change at any moment. And although with my age, you would already know that, but it’s very good to refresh your memory about that and to celebrate every moment that you can celebrate and to mourn if you have to mourn, but also to be present in what you do. It’s a very simple thing, but we all got to know that piece of information much better.”
“I am really happy to come back. Really happy to go to make shows, to travel, but it’s not been easy,” Drexler said. “It’s re-adapting to the life we had before; I used to do 50, 100 concerts a year, and now I’m afraid of doing ten because I’m out of shape. We’re trying to come back, but the world isn’t exactly the same one … it’s a very exciting moment, but at the same time, it’s not automatic. It’s not completely easy, but we’re really looking forward to it.”