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Billboard Latin Music Conference: Luis Fonsi Talks '80s Miami, 'Anonymous' Songwriting in London

Michael Seto
Luis Fonsi and Leila Cobo at the Billboard Latin Music Conference and Awards, Miami, FL, on 29 April 2015.

Luis Fonsi (born Luis Alfonso Rodríguez López-Cepero), the 37-year-old singer and Latin Grammy winner, brought his guitar to the stage for a Q&A with Billboard's executive director of Latin Leila Cobo at the Billboard Latin Music Conference in downtown Miami Wednesday (April 29). With a little prodding, Fonsi broke into song -- twice.

"It's always morning for me until 4 in the afternoon," he joked at the morning interview, prompting Cobo to wonder now is that possible now that he has a toddler in the house. "My daughter sleeps in. She got that from her papa. Es dormilona," he joked.

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After introductions, the conversation turned to music and songwriting quickly. "That is the most important thing to me, what happens behind the closed doors in the studio and makes me an artist." Fonsi called songwriting "the backbone of the industry. It is where everything begins and ends."

Born in Puerto Rico, Fonsi moved to Orlando, Fla., at the age of 11. "The transition to the United States was very interesting," Fonsi said. "I learned the language. I kind of got into the R&B. I'm a huge fan of the '80s, Journey and all that fun stuff. But when I moved to Orlando, it was more like Boyz II Men."

"My English was very limited and music was sort of my way to bond. It's hard to walk in as a seventh grader. Everybody has their cliques, and I was very shy. I'm still very shy. Music opened up doors. I would get to my choir class and I was sort of one of the better kids... I could read music. That's when I realized how good El Coro de San Juan was. I felt, for once, like, hey, I can fit in." The singer's first foray into performing outside a those school choirs was with an a capella group he formed with Joey Fatone, who later went on be a founding member of 'NSync.

Appreciation of music was in the family, Fonsi said, describing how his father "can tell you who played the trumpet, who did the arrangement for this album... he's that kind of guy. He would read the booklets in the LP collections."

Moving on to the craft of songwriting, Cobo asked what a good song is made of. "When the melody is strong enough, hooky enough, that the lyrics are easy to digest," he said. Equally important to his work is Fonsi's partner, Claudia Brant, with whom he's written more than 300 songs. "Eighty percent of the songs I've written have been with her," he said. "It's important I give her all the credit. The thing that happens with Claudia is that we just look at each other and literally we finish each other's sentences... whether its the melody or the lyric, we are just in sync."

Cobo asked him to illustrate his process via his song "Corazon en la Maleta." "It started with the melody. I had this," he said, strumming the guitar. He did the same thing to show the audience how he wrote what is probably his biggest  hit, "Y No Me Doy Por Vencido," which surprised him with its success and how people and organizations like St. Jude's Hospital for children with cancer took it as an anthem. Fonsi later became the hospital's Spanish-language spokesperson.

"The way people digested it was very different than how I envisioned it. For them it all about hope," he said. "It's a positive song. Obviously, it was a song about 'I'm going to fight. I'm going to win.' But it wasn't the typical love song. And what happened with that song, we obviously did not plan that," he said, referring to the St. Jude's campaign. "And there were other stories that brought tears to my eyes. People saying 'Thanks to that song, this or that.' I never realized that afternoon in L.A. when I was going 'la la la la la la la la,' that it would be moving people. To me, that's the bet part of the job -- to be able to penetrate people's lives in a way that is better than, 'Hey, I like your voice.' Good songs do that."

For his work on his most recent album, Fonsi decided to escape celebrity, traveling to London in order to "write with people who had no idea who Luis Fonsi was," he said. "It's so much better to work with just a blank slate." He took only his backpack and a guitar, working with Swedish music producer Martin Terefe, who has worked with Jason Mraz, Train, James Blunt, the trip lasted longer than Fonsi anticipated. "I kind of wanted to feel as though I was a backpacker. It brought a little vibe to the trip," he said, and then smiled. "Of course, I got there and had to buy a bunch of underwear and jeans," he joked.

An emerging artist in the audience asked him what secrets there were to his tenacity. "Sometimes, we want to throw in the towel. After so many years, how do you find the strength to go on," the young artist asked. "I've been in the industry a short time, even though it's been 17 years, but it has gone so fast that I think I still have so much to learn. To think or feel, 'I'm established. I've arrived?' Never," Fonsi answered him. "Still to this day there are moments in my case where -- you don't want to throw in the towel, but one gets frustrated with the creative process," he added. "Obviously the industry is changing a ton. One has to become accustomed to it. Some things are better. Other things not so much. But that uncertainty, that courage, is exactly what one has to have to be an artist, and you should never lose it. It is what makes us fight, what makes us risk. It is what makes us hungry.

Like the song says, "no te des por vencido."