by Janet Goodman
With no formal training besides a handful of guitar lessons at age 9 or 10, Miami native Raul Malo has gone on to become the vocal powerhouse front man of the Grammy Award-winning alternative country band The Mavericks and more recently has achieved well-deserved critical acclaim as a solo recording artist. His 2009 album, The Lucky One, is considered by many a mini-masterpiece, yet Malo humbly insists that he’s still learning and evolving as an artist.
Taking a look at the musician credits on his upcoming sophomore release on Fantasy Records, Sinners & Saints, due out September 28, one might be dazzled by the long list of instruments on which he performs: guitar, bass, drums, percussion, organ, synthesizer, piano, Mellotron, tron violin, requinto and ukulele. Mention this to him and Malo laughs at himself, “I just found something I’m pretty good at. I mean, it’s not as impressive as it sounds. I have no other marketable skills. It’s all tied into the music. Believe me, I’m a completely useless human being outside the music world. Ask my family.”
There was never a time in Malo’s life when he considered himself a musician first and a singer second. “I really don’t differentiate between the two. I think singers ARE musicians. I kind of consider them one and the same.”
And what an instrument the man has! He’s a singer’s singer–admired by his peers for having one of the best voices in the business. His outrageous tenor has strength and clarity more associated with opera singers than Americana/World music singers. Malo admits to having listened to a lot of opera as a kid. “My mom was a big opera fan. I found myself at times imitating all those great tenors, but opera is a whole other discipline. That’s really a studied art form. You can’t just jump in and sing a musical piece like a great aria. I have the utmost respect for opera and the people who sing it, but they are way too disciplined and I’m way too lazy to study opera (laughs).”
Even though he considers his voice his instrument, he doesn’t follow any preparatory regimen for concerts or recording sessions, such as taking herbal teas or honey. “You know, honestly, I don’t warm up. I don’t do any of that stuff…really. I’m very fortunate that I can just sing. In that regard I’m very, very blessed that I have a strong instrument. It also has to do with the fact that I don’t strain my vocals. I can reach the high notes without having to hurt myself. I think the trick is to playing with a dynamic band that won’t overpower you, and keeping stage volumes low.”
“A lot of singers–I see them all the time in clubs live–their bands’ volume on stage is ridiculous. And when a singer has to sing above that–you’re done, you’re not going to last long. I know so many people who have burned their vocals out and there’s no reason for it, really. We used to be able to sing without having to have monitors. Bands used to not have monitors on stage. They used to be able to just play with each other–just set up and play–and we don’t do that anymore. Well, I mean I do; we’re kind of old school in that way. Usually, on a big stage you have to have them, but you see people in small clubs with monitors cranked and the stage volume tripled. A singer cannot compete with a Marshall Stack (laughs); there’s no way it’s going to happen. So something’s going to give, and eventually, what’s going to give is your vocal chords. Yeah, you’d think more people would adhere to it. Honestly, that was a big sticking point with The Mavericks, you know? For some reason, The Mavericks were so ridiculously loud on stage that it got to the point where I’m like, ‘Man, I can’t do more than two shows in a row.’ It’s like, ‘What’s going on here?’ And so that was the real (issue) with the band because everyone was just so used to playing so loud and I’m like, ‘Well, if I keep up this route I’m going to be…,’unless I go into a whole Tom Waits impersonation (laughs), you know? Which is fine, but even Tom Waits–that’s an affected voice. He can’t do that over a loud band. I guarantee you his band’s not a loudband. You can’t sing like that night after night. The ones that last–who have been doing it for awhile–know how to do it. So I’m a real stickler about that.”
Malo recorded most of the tracks for the upcoming Sinners & Saints at his home studio and then took them to Ray Benson’s Bismeaux Studios in Austin to finish. For the first time he wore many hats during the creation of an album. “I was enjoying the process and learned a lot about engineering and micing techniques, which is a whole other skill set. I wanted to learn that kind of stuff because I’ve never really engineered analbum or been involved in a project from every aspect. I’ve always been the artist; you come in, you sing your song, you play a little guitar and you leave…not quite like that, but you’re not that heavily involved from the get-go. And on this record, I was involved from the first sounds to the mixing to the editing to the playing of it, arranging, producing, writing–all aspects of it. So this is what I meant by this is truly the hardest I’ve ever worked on an album.”
“I think, also, in many ways it has been really rewarding just to see it done, just to finally have it completed, ready to come out. I’ve really dug the whole process, even though it puts a strain on family. When you’re involved in a project like this you’re doing everything. It puts a strain on relationships. It puts a strain because you’re always immersed in the work. Between that and still going out and gigging it’s been a long, hard year, but it’s been fun.”
Malo’s work is laced with eclectic sonic accoutrements, like compelling retro-surf electric guitars, lively accordion and high-pitched tropical requinto, giving Sinners & Saints a delectable musical soundscape, and his vibrant Cuban heritage comes through in intense Flamenco fashion. “I wanted to make a record that is fundamentally fun to listen to. Some of the songs just took on a life of their own as I added stuff, as I arranged them. You put in the instruments that you think work and hopefully people will like the effort. It’s hard to say. You work hard on the record and you pour your heart and soul into it, and you just never know how it’s going to be received. This record was definitely a bit more selfish than the other ones; I really wanted to do exactly what I wanted and not having any compromises. And so people will hopefully appreciate that, you never know…my mom likes it (laughs).”
Luckily, the project was completed before the devastating floods in Nashville this past May. Malo’s home suffered water damage, although his studio was spared. “All myinstruments were at Sound Check [the famous warehouse that was heavily damaged by the overflowing Cumberland River, where many recording artists kept their touring equipment and instruments]. Hey, I just finished this record. I did all this recording. I had all of my guitars and stuff [at home], and then all my guitars were gone–all of them. And I just thought, Really? Maybe God didn’t like my record (laughs).” More likely He cut Malo a break and let him finish his stunning tracks in time before the rains came.
Actually, not all of his guitars were lost. One guitar was with Malo in Florida when the floods first began. He was there performing at the Key West Songwriters Festival, which took place April 28 – May 2. “That [guita] has proven to be my favorite work horse. I got that from a gentleman named David Vincent, who’s the Takamine rep and I needed a classical acoustic–this was years ago–and I borrowed it from him. I fell in love with that guitar and I’ve never given it back. So I can’t give it back now–she’s mine. It’s a very high end Takamine. It’s their Flamenco model and it’s just beautiful–sounds great.”
While visiting cities like New York, Toronto, Houston, Kansas City, Philadelphia, Copenhagen and London during his summer/fall tour, Malo won’t be thinking much about creating songs. “I don’t write all the time. I write if I have a record to make or if something comes up. Right now I’m touring, so I’m not really in the writing mode. But that’s not to say that if a friend of mine or somebody calls me up, ‘Hey, you wanna get together, have a couple of beers? I got a song,’ then we’ll give that a go. I’m not one of those who always has a pen and paper in hand. If I’m traveling or if I’m working on the road, I don’t write. Sometimes I’ll get an idea and jot it down, or put it on a little work tape then save it, and when I get back home or get some quiet time, I might work it out.”
A stellar cut on his previous album, Lucky One, is the lush, piano-driven ballad “So Beautiful”, although Malo admits that he mostly composes on guitar. “Every once in awhile I’ll fumble my way through a melody [on piano] or come up with something that sounds close to a song (laughs), and I’ll call it a song. Luckily, I kept playing with that little melody and eventually it just turned into a song. So there’s a piano song here and there, but I’m not proficient enough on the piano to completely compose on her.”
Listen to any handful of Malo tracks and the common denominator is a great melody. “I would say that melody is probably the most important [part of a song]–uh, well I shouldn’t say the most important because lyrics are important, too, but melody is definitely important. As a singer, I’ve got a pretty good range and you always want songs that you can sink your teeth into and have fun singing them, so usually melodies are crucial. That’s probably why I love all those old songs because the melodies were so fantastic! We don’t hear a lot of really great melodies anymore and I don’t know why that is; while I could take a guess as to why that is. Every once in awhile somebody will come up with something that’s really catchy, but most of the time I don’t really hear a lot of great melodies. So I always refer back to the old stuff because the melodies were just wonderful and they’re great to sing to. People like Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Patsy Cline, Tammy Wynette, Ray Charles–and the list goes on and on–sing that music and I know why they sing those songs. And yeah, part of it’s the lyrics, but a big part of it is the melody because they can really resonate.”
For Malo, songwriting is not an exact process. “Sometimes I’ll re-record a song a couple of times. Sometimes I’ll re-write it. Sometimes I’ll re-arrange it, try different versions of it. I would say they don’t always come easy, but then there are times when the whole melody is in my head from beginning to end, and that’s kind of cool. That’s like a little gift, you know? Somebody going, ‘Hey, let’s go easy on the big guy today. Let’s give him a melody. He seems a little grumpy.’ So, that happens every once in awhile. I don’t know where they come from. I’m glad they do.”
“Usually there’s a melody and some sort of lyrical hook line or title, and once you have that, then you can hammer out the rest. But it depends. Sometimes none of those things exist. You just might have an idea for a theme for a song, then you go at it with a complete blank canvas–and that’s fun, too. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. That’s the beauty of it all. For me, there’s no set way. I work however it comes and you adapt. I don’t have to sit there and go, ‘Oh, I’ve got to write at ten in the morning–the sun is out.’ It doesn’t matter. Sometimes I’ve gotten up in the middle of the night and written. Gotten up at four in the morning and come out to watch the sunrise and have a song. “So Beautiful” was like that. I woke up in a thunderstorm and sat outside and the rain came down and wrote “So Beautiful,” so you never know.”
Sinners & Saints has plenty of the songs Malo fans love and have come to expect from him: tasty, playful Tex-Mex inspired songs like “Superstar” and “San Antonio Baby,” beautiful ballads like Rodney Crowell’s “Til I Gain Control Again,” and a spectacularly sung Spanish standard “Sombras.” But then there’s “Staying Here,” which feels like new country territory for Malo as an artist and a songwriter, issuing in a Glen Campbell/Jimmy Webb renaissance.
“I’m certainly a hug fan of Glen Campbell and a huge fan of that style of songwriting and that period. I guess that was my tribute to a sort of Elvis/Glen kind of song–[circa] 1968 or 1969. It was one of those songs that kind of wrote itself. I really didn’t think much of it at first, then later people asked, ‘Are you gonna put this on the record?’ I kept hearing that and kept hearing that, ‘You gotta put this on the record.’ Sometimes you lose perspective, especially when you’re–and it’s the danger of working so hard on a project and a bit by yourself–you lose a little of that objectivity. But then again, Picasso didn’t work with anybody, you know what I mean? Not that I’m comparing myself to Picasso, but art is art, and it’s supposed to be about artists’ expression and whatever their ideas are. It’s a bit self-indulgent to work like that. How you remedy that–I don’t know. Hopefully you have honest friends and family that sit around and tell you ‘You suck’ every once in awhile so you can kind of get a grip on it. “Staying Here” was one of those. I didn’t think much of it, really. Then I just recorded it and, ‘Well, let’s see what this sounds like,’ and ended up liking the results. I think it’s a good little song and a good little track, and I got to have my friends The Trishas sing on there [background vocals], so it’s a full-blown Elvis song; a bit self-indulgent, but fun.”
Special guests on Sinners & Saints bring a lot of Texas charm to the record. Malo met accordion player Michael Guerra sometime last year and started hanging out in San Antonio and Austin, rekindling old friendships. While working on this project, the songs started to take on a vibe that inspired his desire to have Augie Meyers play organ. Other Texas Tornadoes added their flair, as well as The Trishas, and Guerra, who is now part of Malo’s touring band. “To have those guys on the record–I just thought, ‘Well, what a perfect fit.’ Some things–you just don’t fight them. If that’s where the music is taking you, if that’s where the people are congregating to play with you, just go with it. And that’s what I did with this record. I kind of let it take a life of its own and see where it was going. When I started it, I didn’t really have a set plan where it was going. So, it was nice to see it come to fruition and have it all come together at the end.”
Stand-out track is the honey of a song “Matter Much to You,” that brilliantly gets across a socio-political hot-topic statement in a gentle and non-preaching way. It’s a little Tex-Mex, a little Roy Orbison and a whole lot of Raul Malo. Co-written with Alan Miller and Rick Trevino, it’s a song he feels passionate about. “At the time when we wrote the song, there were all these songs on country radio done by country artists that were promoting intolerance that I thought was just amazing to me. All these songs about taking Texas back, and keeping your guacamole here and getting the illegals out. Then you saw the Tea Party thing, and now it’s become a reality–it’s incredible. We wrote “Matter Much to You” about a year ago. It was really our answer to that, to that intolerance. It seemed to me at the time that if you were on the left, you couldn’t relate to people on the right, and people on the right couldn’t relate to people on the left. And it’s still like this now. That divide is certainly there. We all talk at each other. We don’t listen to one another. Nobody’s listening. You hear the pundits on TV, everybody’s yelling over each other. No points get resolved and it continues. And now, these people are coming into power. They’re kind of nutty. I’ve never see it quite like this. It’s funny that it’s even worse now.”
“In country music, I’ve always thought about it, but certainly now, and I think it’s hard to argue that country music is the mouthpiece of the right wing. You hear it in the music and you hear it in the lyrics and the attitude. There’s no denying it. I felt, when did country music do this and why? But it’s supposed to be about the downtrodden, the poor, and the meek. Not just country music–folk music, too. It’s really been kind of sad to see, but it’s certainly there. I’ve seen it in Nashville. I know that I’m certainly an outsider now because I’ve been so outspoken about them, and it doesn’t matter. I’m not part of that world anymore. It doesn’t affect me one way or the other, but it is interesting to know if you’re on the left politically and you’re a bit more liberal, you’re not going to be a part of that machine.”
“You’ve got a lot of country artists–BIG country artists–that play up the redneck thing and they’re really not that red, but it makes them a lot of money and it serves them well. I think that’s sad to see. Right there–that promotes intolerance. If you’re a big star, you should be able to speak your mind. You don’t have to let everyone know your dark, deep secrets, but my gosh, let’s not promote intolerance! Sorry I’m going on and on about it…Honestly, “Matters Much to You” is one of my favorites on there. I like that song a lot. You never know how music will affect people; all you can do is put it out there.”
The man has had some golden career moments, yet somehow finds a way to remain grounded and grateful. “I think once you’ve been at it for awhile, you want to have fun with it and relax, and just enjoy the moment and not take it too seriously. At the end of the day, we’re musicians and we’re blessed to be able to do that for a living. I see so many people day in and day out really working for a living–sweating guts, building stuff, paving streets, whatever. I get to sit around and tour the world and play beautiful places and make music. That’s a blessing and that’s a pretty blessed life. So, I think in our heart or hearts, old guys like us–we appreciate it (laughs).”