Q&A: Draco Rosa All Smiles, Loving 'Vida'

Draco Rosa

Sony U.S. Latin

After alternative rocker Draco Rosa was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkins lymphoma in 2011, Latin music's leading artists rallied to collaborate on a duets album that would also serve as a tribute to his two decades long career. The resulting album, fittingly titled "Vida" (Life), comes out just after doctors declared Rosa cancer free.

The line up on "Vida," to be released March 19, includes Ricky Martin, Maná, Rubén Blades and Jose Feliciano on new versions of 16 songs that will be familiar to Rosa's longtime fans in Puerto Rico, where he has been lauded since his days as a member of the teen boy band Menudo. Rosa, who has been called "the Latin Lenny Kravitz," is known for his poetic lyrics and individualist approach to his music and career. This album -- one he thought in his darkest moments could be his swan song -- has already earned him the highest charting single of his career: "Más y Más," with Ricky Martin, hit No. 16 on Latin Pop Digital Songs on Feb. 2.

In an interview at Phantom Vox, his recording studio in West Hollywood, Rosa talked to Billboard about the album, his recovery, and smiling at the joy of being alive.

When artists are struck with a serious illness or other kind of life-changing event, they often retreat from the public eye in a private search for meaning. In your case, you took a step more toward the mainstream with "Vida", an album featuring the biggest Latin stars.
[The album] wouldn't have happened had I not fallen ill, that's for sure... I've always associated duets with something that was... it was never really about music, it was about putting product out... The difference for me this time was that I thought maybe I wasn't going to be around.

How did the "Vida" project come about?
I received a couple of key phone calls that led me to believe that it could be fun, and it could be a healing process for me. I had broken the ice already [recording songs with] Ruben Blades and Juan Luis Guerra [for a concert DVD and CD produced by Puerto Rico's Banco Popular], and those tracks came out awesome. And then along the way, Bunbury was hanging out and I got in touch with him, and then I get a call from Rene Perez [of Calle 13]. So one thing led to another and all of a sudden here we are putting this piece together.

It just happened. It happened because [manager] Angelo Medina was there by my side too, trying to put it together, because Afo Verde at Sony was like this is a good thing. And the selection was easy, it was obvious. Like [Argentine rocker Andres] Calamaro should do "Vagabundo", he can represent that song. And I was like Calamaro, where do I reach Calamaro? And there he is vacationing in Mexico and he is having a miserable time because he's like in front of the ocean and saying this sucks, I should be doing some shit...So he comes over – and it was like that story after story.

What was the recording process like?
I couldn't travel, so I had to depend on somebody to go out and record vocals. So I'd send them this track which basically had a kick track and a couple of things I was about to change, and it was great getting their vocals back and having to work on it- it was muy artesenal [very handcrafted] you know, putting these tracks together, like the ones with Tego Calderon and Calle 13. These guys in the hop hip world they send vocals around left and right, and I wasn't too hip on how it all worked. But I went for it.

The "Cruzando Puertas" piece with Feliciano is special because that was my first real composition. That's the song, and it really is the song now. I look back at [my first solo album] "Frio "and what I was trying to do, and there was a song there, but it was a demo for this moment with José.

And it's the same for a song as recent as "El Tiempo Va". I mean I get this vocal back from Ruben [Blades], I was overwhelmed intimidated. I was like holy shit this vocal is amazing. It's got this thing taking me right back to New York, to my dad playing dominoes and listening to salsa, and hearing Ruben through the door when I was a kid. To have this voice here on this Neve [console in my studio], it was my responsibility to make sense of this. It was part of the healing. Things were very cool.

Did the experience of being sick and coming out on the other side change your perspective on life?
It's a lot easier to say sure, why not, right now. I mean I tell you everything looks different. The big change for me is that I'm like, sure let's try, that  sounds like fun. And at the same time behind closed doors I'm just focused on trying to do more what I like doing.

The business has changed so much, so I'm trying to find the semblance of freedom within the music business. It's tricky sometimes unless you're having hit songs and stuff like that. And sometimes that realm is not necessarily the very artistic one.

You've found your passion, and it's one of chaos and distortion, of spontaneity, adventure, it's about let's go fuckin do it. Business isn't like that. Its like stop, we've got to think now. We've got to exchange emails and we're going to let this brew for a while.

I understand, its ok, I get that.

So I'm at a crossroads. I come out of a hospital and I enter a deep depression for two weeks. After I had the news of being cancer free I was just depressed - super depressed. I was thinking now what do you do how are you supposed to live? Am I supposed to stay away from everything in the past?  Is that part of my problem, the intensity? Marcel Proust does he matter now? He used to matter, does he matter today? Does Nietzche? Did they kill me? Did they send my cells into total chaos?

So now I find myself somewhat hovering in the void of what it is life after a stem cell transplant. Because you genuinely feel different. I notice things that I never noticed before. I find myself smiling. Sometimes I used to smile because something was funny or I remembered something funny, but now I don't have to be thinking about anything and I have a smile, and I go what's that all about?

In addition to recording the album, what other ways did music accompany you during your illness?
It can carry you. The piano was awesome – you hold and sustain a note – its like however many seconds that lasts you would embrace it. Because its all about being able to wake up in the morning. Because so many nights you feel so fucking ill. You don't lose hope, but your faith rides beyond life itself At some point you accept you are a man of faith. You say if this is the end, so be it, but I'm with una sonrisa [a smile]. I've come this far, I got it.

When I was really ill and I was at City of Hope [cancer research hospital], I went to Pandora and I put on Christmas songs, because it was all I could handle. Sinatra, that's what it was all about, the classics. It kept me positive.

Then I had to turn that off. I just started doing 3D puzzles, I couldn't do music anymore. I had a piano there [at the hospital], I had a guitar, and at some point none of that mattered I couldn't handle music after that. I figured, at least I've got this record.

But here we are, we have this album and I'm cancer free as of December 31.