As a teenage music conservatory student in Madrid, Natalia Jimenez entered her eight-piece band in a rock contest in the nearby town of Torrelodones. But then, on the day of the show, the band backed out.
Undaunted, Jimenez got on her motorbike with her guitar and headed to the show where, in between big-hair metal and rock bands, she performed a short set inspired by Janis Joplin : Kris Kristofferson  and Fred Foster's  "Me and Bobby McGee," which Joplin famously covered; two of her own songs; and an a cappella version of Joplin's "Mercedes Benz." The set was a hit and Jimenez took home the prize.
"It was like a thousand euros," Jimenez says today, her eyes lighting up with delight. "I used the money to fix my guitar and buy myself an amp."
Video: Natalia Jimenez, "Por Ser Tu Mujer"
Jimenez, now 30, is once again readying to take the stage alone. On June 21 Sony Music Latin will release "Natalia Jimenez," a solo debut that comes after 10 years and four studio albums with pop/rock trio La 5a Estacion, including 2009's "Sin Frenos," which won a Grammy Award for best Latin pop album.
As much as the group's success-more than 400,000 albums sold in the United States and Puerto Rico, according to Nielsen SoundScan, and 1.7 million worldwide, according to Sony-rested on its blend of pop, rock and Mexican sounds, the group was carried by Jimenez's extraordinary voice, which has evoked comparisons to Celine Dion  for its expression and flexibility and to Spanish diva Rocio Durcal for its strength.
On her solo album, Jimenez works every angle of her range, navigating from standard pop, as heard on the single "Por Ser Tu Mujer," to the rumba flamenca of "Eternamente" and the blues of "Solo Por Mi." In a twist, there are two English tracks on the album, including the gospel-tinged power ballad "Real," penned by Diane Warren  and Jon Secada .
"There isn't anyone else like her in the Latin marketplace right now," Sony Music U.S. Latin president Ruben Leyva says. "She can reach a very broad demographic."
At first blush, it can be difficult to reconcile Jimenez with her music. Tall, slim and elegant, she has the presence of a runway model (she wore Lanvin for the Billboard Latin Music Awards in April), but in a world of breathy, wispy-voiced divas, Jimenez is an anomaly: a beauty who can belt.
"I book the studio for the whole day and she comes and does it in one take and it's done," says Emilio Estefan Jr., who returned to the studio to produce the album after having stepped away from music to concentrate on other entertainment ventures. "And she tells me, 'No tuning, no tuning.' "
Estefan and Jimenez met in the spring of 2010 when the artist's manager and boyfriend, TV producer Danny Trueba, introduced the two during the taping of Haiti relief single "Somos el Mundo," which Estefan produced and on which Jimenez appeared.
At the time, Jimenez had already recorded a duet with Marc Anthony  and had been approached to appear on Ricky Martin's  single "Lo Mejor de Mi Eres Tu" (which she would later perform at the 2011 Latin Grammys). She was broadly recognized-among the members of La 5a Estacion, she was the only one the public at large knew by name-but she hadn't fully committed to taking the solo step.
"I'd been thinking about it for a long time, but I was comfortable," Jimenez says. "We were selling records and touring the world. I mean, why kill the cow if it's giving milk? But I found myself wanting to sing other things and give my music another turn. I wanted to touch the Latin stuff and the English side of it. I wanted to make my voice shine."
Estefan's success with crossover acts made him a natural fit to help Jimenez shine-both in the studio and beyond. Estefan Enterprises now represents Jimenez for endorsements, sponsorships and marketing opportunities, and has already secured a sponsorship deal with AT&T. A TV spot featuring Jimenez singing "Por Ser Tu Mujer" began airing in April and will run through the album's release. Jimenez is also onboard to shoot a TV special taped exclusively for AT&T's U-Verse broadband service, which will be available to subscribers this fall.
Sony has also brokered a deal with Target-providing the retailer with a version of the album that includes five exclusive tracks in exchange for a major media campaign including TV and radio spots and in-store positioning.
Meanwhile, Estefan and his team are working to set up Jimenez's foray into the English-language market, hoping for a film placement for "Real" while also planning to release the song initially in Europe before crossing back to the United States, much like Martin did earlier in his career.
"I'm super happy," Jimenez says. "Every song has something of mine. Either I wrote it, or co-produced, or I played the keyboard or the guitar."
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