Alejandro Sanz Talks 'Syrup' and the Ghost of Paco de Lucia

Spanish star Alejandro Sanz’s much anticipated new studio album, Sirope (Syrup), dropped May 5 -- Cinco de Mayo. The release date was sheer coincidence, and it followed his performance of “Un zombie a la interperie” at the Billboard Latin Music Awards on April 30.

Although often spirited, Sanz’s finely crafted pop has little -- or rather nothing -- to do with the revelry associated with the holiday. Instead, Sirope explores new pop territory with little concessions made for easy listening but with compelling results nevertheless; it’s hard not to pay attention to Sanz’s trademark raspy vocals, his emotion, the very distinctive way in which he incorporates flamenco strains into mainstream pop.

Billboard spoke with Sanz on the phone from Madrid, prior to his album’s release.

Billboard: You’ve been out of sight from us in this side of the world for a while. And you love Miami. What’s up?

I’m in Madrid, running. I’m kind of out of shape with this promotion business. I’ve spent a year and one month in the recording studio, answering only to my wife and kids

Why were you there and not here?

I went to shoot my video in Northern Spain and I got injured. It’s a kind of micro-fracture on my pelvis, and there was no way to calm down the pain. Maybe it’s from playing tennis.

Your producer this time around is Sebastian Krys. Had you produced together before?

No. He did the mixes on the last album. But this time, I wanted to work alone, and the past eight months I spent absolutely alone in the studio designing basses, harmonies, drums, everything. When Sebastian flew to Madrid to work with me, I started to mix the demos because I thought, ‘he’s going to come here and ruffle my songs.” When he landed he texted me and said, “Can I take my suitcases out of the airport?” And that’s how everything started.  But it was important that he understand that in my head the songs were one way, and in the end, I wanted them to be like that. Because when you work with a producer, songs transform.

Did this happen?

Not at all. In fact, many of the things that are in the demos remain. The Spanish guitars in all the tracks, the drum loops. What we did was enrich what was there but we never lost the essence. Even the keyboards that appear to be sequences are actually played. I wanted an analog sound, made in the 21st century.

How did you end up working with Sebastian?

He was recommended by Jesús López (Chairman Universal Music Latin America/Iberian Peninsula). I really liked what he did in the last album. And I wanted someone who wouldn’t be a producer, but would be my partner, my accomplice. Producers tend to take work and do it their way. And what I like is to lock myself in the studio with someone and work. Sebastian is a walking encyclopedia who knows every single band and every sound. If I say, ‘I want this guitar to sound this way,” he knows exactly what to do.

What’s the sound in this album?

Aside from flamenco, some songs have a touch of folk or R&B. It’s a very eclectic sound. It’s a mix of many styles, searching, perhaps, for different path by mixing sounds. I’m looking for each song to tell me something and have a sense. The sound is completely at the service of the songs.

Describe the album in five words:

Analog, emotional, intense, and at least, where I’m concerned, it's healing. 

Many of the tracks are unusual and have unusual names. Tell me about “El silencio de los cuervos” (The silence of the crows):

It’s a lullaby. It’s what you ask in New Year’s, like a letter to the Three Kings. I’m asking for something better for my children, for a change in things and a better world. And I titled it that way because I would love for the crows to shut up. Everybody has an opinion and no one listens.

“No Madura el coco” (The brain doesn’t mature) is also quite different and quite political. It deals with Venezuela.

I started to write that song with a political slant. But it wasn’t that in the end. Many times I get into a song and I forget the lyrics. Then I sit down, I have a glass of wine, and it’s as if someone else were telling me what I wrote. Songs have a life of their own. And this song really has nothing political about it, because it only talks about the land, about Venezuela and how it’s hurting.

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Why Venezuela?

It’s so upsetting to me, because I’ve known that country in the best of times and I’ve seen how it’s gone to hell. It’s a war.

You’ve always said that the fact that you’re an artist doesn’t mean you don’t have an opinion…

I don’t get into issues just to do it. I don’t like to be part of the noise. Providing opinions via Twitter is no good at the end of the day.  But I will give my opinion, especially in a song. A song is almost like a textbook page. And it stays there.

What’s your work process?  

I can’t be in my studio at 9 am. There’s too much noise. It’s not just that I have children, they demand of me, the phone rings. So, when everybody goes to bed at night, that’s when I work. And I can stay up till 5, 6 in the morning, until I’m satisfied.

Do you get visited by spirits at those hours?

I get goose bumps, because when Paco [De Lucia] died, I couldn’t leave the studio for two, three days. I couldn’t bear to see anyone. And I had a guitar that Paco gave me six, seven years ago, and I opened it, and it had a dedication inside. I’d never seen it. I spent one day with Antonio Carmona talking about Paco, and in the middle of the conversation, one of the guitar strings broke. It’s very strange for that to happen if you’re not playing the guitar.