You can take the boy out of Colombia, but you can't take Colombia - or el vallenato - out of the boy. Carlos Vives has proven that with Corazon Profundo, his latest album and the first in eight years, which was released Tuesday during the 24th annual Billboard Latin Music Conference in Miami.
As "Volvi a Nacer" - which could be his current theme song - played in the background, Vives got on stage to sit for a Q&A with Leila Cobo, executive director of Latin content and programming for Billboard, who first told the audience how thrilled and relieved she was when she first heard a song of his on the radio.
"When I first came to this country, many years ago, there wasn't Colombian music played in Miami. There was no Colombian music on the radio," said Cobo, who is herself from Colombia. To hear Vives on the radio was special not because of his nationality, but because of his identity. "Not just because he was Colombian, but because he was Colombia. Because the music he played was Colombian. It was us," Cobo said. "It was music that was so powerful that it went international."
And then she asked the Latin Grammy winner with four #1 hits why he took a long break between his last album and Corazon Profundo. Vives, who was the best known artist from Colombia before Shakira shook the global music world, said his hiatus took even him by surprise.
"I didn't understand a lot of things. I clearly didn't understand the changes that happened in the industry. Like the change in the contract. We thought we could keep working, but it wasn't what happened for us in that moment," Vives explained. "Then we didn't succeed in reconnecting with the industry immediately. These were rough times for me. But a true artist is not going to stop working. I worked many years in Colombia on projects, I worked for other artists. I wrote songs. I produced records. I wrote a musical for children," Vives said. "I always stayed occupied and working with children with new songs.
"But, yes, I did miss it and thought the life I had come to know had come to an end. It was difficult to reconnect and find myself again with the audience I had." But he says he feels encouraged by the reception of his re-entry into the business as a frontman.
"I have found an industry that has been renewed in many aspects, that is looking to accommodate new changes -- not just in technology, but also in marketing and a new way of sharing business with all the elements of the industry," Vives said, admitting that it is easier for established artists than new groups.
"I think I also found an industry that is harder for new projects, for new artists. But I think that is temporary. Everything has to do with the economy," Vives said. "The economy marks history. We are living moments of change. But I think, at the end, the public wants their artist, the industry wants their artist, and we are going to be working on new projects."
Why did he choose the name Corazon Profundo for his new album?
"When Sony gave me the opportunity to do another album, I knew I had to dig into the deepest of my heart and tell those stories, play those rhythms, and what came from the deepest of what I see in people," Vives said. "The artists who represent us, our traditional music, are born from hearts like this. It is more sweet than a papaya. I don't know how to say papaya in English, but it's sweet." While he was tempted to dig into his archive of old songs he had written and not recorded, he decided to change gears and start from scratch.
"I had been working every day writing songs. I began to look at songs I had written before. Many had been left in the studio here in Miami. But in the end, I felt the need to do an album that was more authentic to now, not fill it with songs that had been left here and there."
Some of the new album's songs were written in his hometown of Santa Marta, on the Caribbean coast, in the presence of his father, who has been ill and was probably the single most important catalyst to his career, having purchased a Magna recorder when Vives was six years old.
"My father, who was a doctor, all his friends were mucisians. And this was a time when bolero was king," Vives said. "The weekends would come and they would get together to enjoy music. One would play guitar and so on. When he realized I liked music, he would record it and play it for his friends and they all said that I had a unique sound. A unique sound with vallenata. My father would take that recording everywhere. And his friend said, 'He is going to be a singer.' In my family, there were no singers. At school, I had an opportunity to sing and represent the school, and I was in chorus and I liked it. But I wanted to be a doctor," Vives said, and the audience giggled.
"The medical world doesn't realize what it was saved from, huh? But music cures the soul. It is like medicine for the soul," Vives said.
So it made sense to return to the home of his soul, Santa Marta, to write some of the album.
"It is a place where we can be tranquil, enjoy the edge of the sea. I started to pay sentimental debts," he said, adding that he got most of his inspiration from his wife and children. "Claudia has been a very important motivator for me. She has believed in my music more than I," he said of his wife. "And with children running around the house, it is very easy to find inspiration. I felt reborn from their love. And I feel reborn every day. I felt reborn in Santa Marta, with the Sierra Maestra in the back. And, while it has a different meaning, I felt reborn again because they asked me to do a solo album again. It had been many years."
"Volvi a Nacer," which was released in September last year and made #1 on the hot Latin charts, was the perfect song for this rebirth of the artist, he said. "Maybe it was that song that people expected from us and it was a good song to re-launch ourselves within the industry," Vives said.
The second single from the album, "Como Te Gusta A Tu Cuerpo," was recorded with Brazilian musician Michel Telo after Vives produced a music festival in his hometown. He said the merger just happened naturally, after the mayor of Santa Marta suggested bringing Telo for the festival. "I think Michel has some influence of yours," the mayor told Vives.
Following the festival, Vives and Telo wrote the song that has reached #3 on the Hot Latin charts, and which they will perform together for the first time on Thursday during the Billboard Latin Music Awards.
"People may think, 'If I don't sing in Portuguese, the Brazilians won't know me.' Or 'If I don't sing in English, America won't know me.' But music doesn't work that way. Sometimes music gets there all by itself," Vives said.
In addition to his new album and two new singles, Vives will launch his first tour in nearly ten years this June. "I am terribly anxious because it has been very long since I performed in the U.S., and I need to reconnect with a public that I love very much. We start in June in Puerto Rico, which has a special significance for me," said Vives, whose early acting career was on the island.
"I am very happy. There are many cities. The information is in the Billboard magazine," he said, laughing.