Watch Juanes his thoughts on new album 'Loco de Amor' behind-the-scenes at Billboard's interview session & photo shoot.
Tucked in a nondescript industrial complex in North Miami, Cherokee Studios East is the kind of place you would never suspect existed if you didn't have business there. There's no sign on the door, no VIP parking, no gate, no security guard. For the past week, Colombian star Juanes has been hunkered down here with his band, rehearsing for a series of shows that will herald the release of his seventh solo album, "Loco de Amor" (Crazy for Love), due March 18 on Universal Music Latino. The singer is known for being low key, and the studio ambience is eminently chill as the musicians prepare to wrap up for lunch. When Juanes, 41, steps out dressed in cargo pants and a brown corduroy shirt, he looks like just one of the guys.
The singer gives this writer a hug, grabs a beer, pours it into a coffee mug so it won't show on camera and abruptly asks: "Did you hear the album? I know we artists always say the same thing, but it's my best so far."
It's a typical introduction for him: Juanes agonizes over his albums, pours his most intimate thoughts into the lyrics and music, and then worries, worries, worries about how people will react. And he has good reason to be nervous: "Loco de Amor" is very different from his past two, moodier efforts; it's lighter, often playful, peppered subtly with Colombian rhythms and recorded with acoustic guitars instead of his usual electric, including Colombia's traditional tiple.
"Colombian music is in my blood, in my DNA," says Juanes. "It's the music I've heard since I was a child -- it's impossible to avoid."
Ironically, this shift is partly due to a noted rock producer -- Steve Lillywhite (U2, The Killers), who was hired at the suggestion of Juanes' manager, Rebecca Leon, also vp Latin talent at AEG/Goldenvoice.
"After making records for so long, I need to get excited by something," Lillywhite says. "To be honest, alternative rock, for me, sounds very boring. But I love the idea of entering [new] genres and working with people who think differently."
Lillywhite had one, immediate request: to see Juanes perform in his native Colombia.
"I thought, 'This is fantastic, because if you go to Medellin and you see me perform in my hometown, you will get it,' " says Juanes. "You will get me as a person and as a musician."
At the performance back home, Juanes played acoustically. When the time came to record, Lillywhite said, " 'Don't bring your electric guitar,' " recalls Juanes. "I said, 'Come on, Steve. I've been playing acoustic for two years and I wrote the songs with electric. And he said, 'No, just trust me.' "
Juanes is married to actress Karen Martinez, with whom he has three children -- Paloma, Luna and Dante. He's also in a happy business relationship with manager Leon, who took over after his highly publicized, acrimonious split with Fernan Martinez in 2011. The good vibes informed much of "Loco de Amor." "I need to be in the right state of mind when I write; that came before the album, otherwise I couldn't have made these songs," says Juanes. "When you're not emotionally healthy, it's hard to make good music. And everything on this album has to do with how we live our relationships. It's about how we experience love."
Juanes catapulted to solo fame in 2000 with "Fijate Bien," his debut after a long stint as frontman for Colombian rock band Ekhymosis. Colombia was in the midst of a particularly violent era and the album, which reflected the country's malaise, struck a chord with critics and audiences alike. Juanes won best new artist that year at the Latin Grammys, and his mixture of rock, pop and Colombian beats has proved durable. To date, he's sold close to 2 million albums in the United States and Puerto Rico, according to Nielsen SoundScan, including 731,000 of 2007's "Mi Sangre," which included global hit "La Camisa Negra." Juanes' last two albums haven't fared as well in the United States: 2010's "P.A.R.C.E." sold 42,000 copies while 2012's "Tr3s Presents Juanes MTV Unplugged" has moved only 40,000 copies (although the label says both albums sold many times that worldwide).
But even if Juanes' album sales are in a slump, his stock has risen in other ways. He's become a favorite for major brands eager for a Latin brand ambassador -- "Loco de Amor" arrives backed by TV campaigns from Target and Dodge Ram.
"It was very important to create a specific persona for this brand -- Ram is about credibility, work ethic, toughness," says Chrysler chief marketing officer Olivier Francois. "So when it comes to addressing the Hispanic target, we asked, 'Is there someone out there who shares the same set of attributes?'"
Francois answered the question with Juanes in 2012; the singer has been included in several Spanish-language TV spots since. The most recent, launched in March, features Juanes and "Loco de Amor"'s first single, "La Luz," which leaps 11-1 on the Latin Airplay chart dated March 15. A billingual version of the song featuring R&B singer Miguel will also be released. The international collaboration is one of many Juanes has recorded, although he demurs when asked whether he's planning to release any English material soon. "I speak the language much better now," he concedes.
Juanes also worked closely with several noted Latin artists on the album. Emmanuel "Meme" del Real, of Mexican alt group Cafe Tacuba, came in as associate producer to provide a Latin-music counterbalance to Lillywhite's rock roots. Del Real, Puerto Rican singer Raquel Sofia, Juanes' longtime friend Miguel Bose and Jose Pablo Arbelaez from Colombian rock band Matute co-wrote, another departure for Juanes.
"We were a group of people with a lot of love and a lot of energy," says Juanes. "I've spent 10 years doing everything on my own, in my house, in my studio, with my guitar, everything coming from me. I needed to refresh, and it's wonderful to multiply energies. When you add one energy, and another, and another, there's good vibes -- there's love. It's a powerful thing."