South America’s biggest musical export has won twenty-five Grammys, sold 15 million albums and performed for the Obamas twice. The Cultured Traveller chats with Latin American pop star JUANES about his musical journey to international stardom, what inspires his music, his humanitarian foundation Mi Sangre and singing in English.
What would you say influenced and shaped you musically?I was very into metal music growing up. Playing metal music helped me develop my guitar skills. I also grew up listening to a lot of folk music, but I also love rock music and hip hop. So I try to combine all these elements. My music is some place between reggae music, funk, hip hop and rock.
What fuelled your passion for music?A family home filled with singing and instruments and the political turmoil that raged around me back then. If you take a picture of Colombia from the 80s, it is different if you took a picture of what is happening right now. Colombian culture is very rich. We grew up surrounded by many different problems and violence, but now that’s changed a lot.
You lived through the violence of the drug cartels that rocked Colombia in the 1980s. The country was the hub of cocaine trafficking and production. Rebel kidnappers killed your cousin. How did all of this affect you?Thirty years ago there was no family that didn’t have violence around them. I think art, in my case, was like a salvation, because through art I put all my energy, positive and negative. And I just used music as a way to escape from reality but, at the same time, as a way to express myself.
Did your experiences, in Colombia, in the 80s, influence your political views and music?I love my country so much, and I feel so proud to be from Colombia. To go everywhere around the world, talking about my country and singing my music.
What inspires your lyrics more, politics or the love of the Colombian people?Both, but I am mostly inspired by love. Love of my country, my family, of human beings. Love is the most powerful energy we have in this life. Everything is about love and particularly with my 2014 album Loco De Amor, I wrote songs as if observing a ray of love through a prism and its approach to relationships, how love sometimes takes us through stages that are extremely wonderful or extremely terrible and how after that, there is an immense feeling of emptiness – and everything has to do with that feeling of love. That’s why I wanted to make an album about that topic.
How difficult was it to leave your band Ekhymosis at possibly one of the most successful points in your careers?It was not difficult because we had learned and grown together for a long time and decided to each follow our own individual dreams and projects. Our first show took place in Envigado, a little neighbourhood in Medellín on the 17th March 1988, and in our twelve years together I learned a huge amount and we achieved a lot.
Your band was arguably one of the pioneers of Latin Rock, influencing many others. Did the change between being in a rock band and going solo have a significant effect on your own musical influences at the time? No. I have always liked many different types of music. The first show I ever went to, when I was 6 or 7 years old, was Argentinian band Los Hermanos Visconti. They sang popular, folkloric songs. I also went to see Dueto de Antaño – a ballad group from Medellín. As a young teen I got into heavy metal bands such as Kraken and Reencarnación, and although I moved from folklore to metal, my tastes have always remained varied. I grew up listening to (tango legend) Carlos Gardel and then became obsessed with Metallica!
Have you ever been afraid of putting certain lyrics out publicly? Of course, because writing music is very personal. There is something curious…fear is our worst enemy and if you create something based on fear, it will always end badly. With the Loco De Amor album it was totally different: from the moment I started to write the songs, no fear ever entered my mind.
How was your most recent tour in Colombia different to previous ones?My hope was to connect with places I’d not visited before, and I took the show that gave me so much inspiration to do that. At the same time, I wanted to know more about each region, know its concerns and wishes, but above all, unite hearts through music. I wanted to get closer to Colombia through art and music; to give dignity, importance and relevance to other areas of the country, and break with the established touring schedules.
Which are your favourite places in your hometown of Medellín? I love Parque Lleras: it is beautiful and has some great restaurants. My true favorite place is my home right outside of the city.
utside of Colombia where have you enjoyed your most memorable experiences?I have been lucky enough to go to many amazing places. Touring Israel for the first time was an amazing experience. We visited Jerusalem and it is a place so full of spirituality, it was very moving. I also had a great time when I visited McFarland in the US. I wrote music for the film (of the same name) which was released in 2015 and met local people, out on the street, that were extremely happy and thankful that the film was going to put McFarland on the global map.
La Camisa Negra generated a lot of controversy for different reasons in different countries: political in Italy, sexual in the Dominican Republic. How do you interpret these reactions to the song?I think the lyrics lend themselves to be interpreted in different ways. I see how people find different messages in it. I have been a solo artist since 2000 and I have enjoyed an incredible career. I’ve experienced so many amazing things and I’m so grateful to my fans for their support: (the song is also used in Spanish language classes across the United States). I think it’s awesome … music and art are wonderful mediums for teaching.
Have you ever had to compromise your beliefs or politics in order to succeed?I have always been public with my beliefs and politics, so I do not think I have had to compromise them to succeed. I live my music intensely and through my music I express my feelings – the good and bad. There is always a fine line and you sometimes cross it, sometimes not, I try to avoid making mistakes but equally we are all here to learn. I believe in music and I believe in its culture as a means to create peace.
In 2005 Time magazine named you as one of the world’s 100 most influential people. Has this title had any effect in your life? It made it clear to me that people are watching what I do, made me look at myself as a role model, and made me step back and see how my actions may influence others.
Your foundation, Mi Sangre, is an organisation dedicated to eradicating Colombia’s land mines and supporting victims of land mine accidents. Juanes Peace Park – with special facilities for people with disabilities – opened in Medellín in 2008. What drives your humanitarian work?Growing up in Colombia, I saw a lot of pain and suffering from the effects of land mines. What is happening in the world today is something difficult to look at, and music is something that can be used as a tool to send powerful messages. The foundation is in the best place it has ever been, we have a great leader and spectacular team, and are continuing our strong work not just in relation to mines but also to bring to the forefront of people’s minds everything that is related to peace. We are working with adolescent mine victims and connecting with them through art. Now more than ever we believe that it’s worthwhile and important to focus on the arts as a way to build peace in our societies.
Describe your experience singing at the December 2007 Nobel Peace Prize Concert and what it meant to you?It was a very beautiful experience. Being surrounded by these influential people all sending a message of peace was quite moving. I hope that music will always continue to be used to hightlight peace, unity and tolerance in our societies.
You have performed with Carlos Santana, Tony Bennett and John Legend. How was sharing a stage with them?It is always an honour sharing the stage with such talented musicians. But for me, the gift that music gave me to express myself and connect with all these incredible people is the most I think about it. The opportunity to perform in front of many millions of people and just sing songs, even in different languages, like English for example, is another journey which I enjoy a lot.
With whom would you like to duet next? There are a lot of people who I would like to sing with, especially Ed Sheeran or Maroon 5.
You won your twenty-fifth Grammy award for your most recent album, Mis Planes Son Amarte. Tell us about the album.The album is a very visual album, 12 songs and 12 videos, and it’s kinda like a movie. It’s the story of a Colombian astronaut who lands in Colombia in the current time, looking for the love of his life. So, all of the songs are going through this visual in a very organic way.
Mis Planes Son Amarte seems to musically take you back to your roots?This album did a lot for me as a musician. The vocals were very important for this record and we wanted to recuperate that sweetness to my voice from previous albums like Un día Normal. We made sure my voice was in a comfortable state; we dedicated a lot of time to that. The album reunites previous experiences from my past albums.
How did you come about singing Goodbye For Now in English?After many years and many exercises, I finally found a beautiful song that I fell in love with, that I wrote with Poo Bear from Los Angeles, and I just felt that it was the right moment to do it. I’m not planning to record a whole album in English, it was just one song, I just wanted to try it.
Will you be recording more songs in English?For me, to sing in Spanish is very important because it makes me feel close to my roots. But definitely I am learning the language, my kids were born in the United States and I love Anglo music, so maybe in the future I will record some more songs in English. But for me I will keep singing in Spanish.
Do you find that singing in Spanish is more emotional?Yes, when I sing in Spanish I just close my eyes and feel, I feel the music. When I sing in English, I have to think a little bit more about the pronunciation and the words. But definitely music is a universal language, and I can play guitar in English for example!
Where would you tell a traveller they could find Colombia’s best kept secrets?They should visit the Salt Cathedral of Zipaquirá. It is beautiful. Also, if they like the ocean, to go to the Islas del Rosario where they will find the most beautiful beaches.
Outside of Medellín, which is your favourite place in Colombia and what makes it so special to you?I love Cartagena. I have many great memories of going there with my wife and kids, paddle boarding and enjoying the old city.
What Colombian souvenir is a must-have for visitors to your homeland?A traditional Colombian hat, sombrero vueltiao. Also, visitors must watch the unmissable documentary, Magia Salvaje, because it showcases the very best of our country.
Lastly, where do keep all your Grammys?!We have a place in Miami where we rehearse and record our music, and all the Grammys are kept there, in the studio.