Draco Rosa's upcoming album, "Vida," due March 19 on Sony U.S. Latin, features duets with 16 top Latin artists (including Shakira, Mana and Romeo Santos) performing new versions of songs from Rosa's ethereal alternative-rock catalog. It's the kind of star set that can guarantee radio success and singles sales-just the type of record that Rosa, who during a two-decade solo career has been called the "vagabond poet," never thought of doing until he had cancer.
"This wouldn't have happened if I had not fallen ill, that's for sure," says Rosa, 43. "I would never have done duets because these collaborative things are always some record guy calling you. It just didn't seem genuine."
With a dense regrowth of dark hair matching the stylish stubble on his face, he looks remarkably fit sitting back on a leather couch at Phantom Vox, his West Hollywood studio on an afternoon in early February. Following a stem cell transplant, doctors declared him cancer-free on the last day of 2012, almost two years after he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma.
"The difference for me this time was I thought that maybe I wasn't going to be around," Rosa says. "Some doctors thought I'd be dead in a few months. I thought, 'Well, if this is it, at least I did this record with my peers.'"
The album's first single and video, "Mas y Mas," features Ricky Martin, who performed with Rosa in Puerto Rican tween magnet Menudo. Long after the group aged out, Rosa produced and wrote for Martin-including the hits "Maria" and "Livin' la Vida Loca"-and other Latin stars, before deciding that the songwriting success wasn't worth leaving his own solo work behind. "I just wanted to make my own records and write my own songs," he says.
A self-described "brooder," Rosa's esoteric, bilingual albums have been well-received critically, although they've sold slightly less than 195,000 copies total, according to Nielsen SoundScan. "Draco's has been more of a niche career," Sony U.S. Latin managing director Nir Seroussi says. "['Vida'] is 20 years of Draco's life presented in a different light. It's putting his songs in the top 40 format-an amazing platform to introduce Draco to people who haven't heard him."
The strategy is paying off: "Mas y Mas" hit No. 16 on Latin Pop Digital Songs on Feb. 2, making it the top-charting track of Rosa's 19-year solo recording career.
Rosa says making "Vida" allowed him to reflect on his music and his life, even as his future looked bleak ("The chemo wasn't working," he says). Ruben Blades' vocal for "El Tiempo Va," for example, took Rosa back to his childhood in New York. "It was my dad playing dominoes and listening to salsa, and hearing Ruben's songs through the door," he recalls.
Jose Feliciano sings on "Cruzando Puertas," the first song Rosa wrote for his debut 1994 album, Frio. Rosa insists the new version is better than the original: "I look back at what I was trying to do, and there was a song there, but it was a demo for this moment with Jose."
The normally reclusive Rosa is immersed in promotion for "Vida," planning an upcoming tour and a TV special featuring the album's guest stars in between running his side businesses (which include his Phantom Vox imprint, a rum line and a clothing brand). He even performed with Martin on Univision's Premios Lo Nuestro awards show-the two hadn't appeared together onstage since their high-voiced Menudo days.
"It's so nice to be walking amongst the living," Rosa says. "It's a lot easier now to say, 'Sure, why not?'"