It was Gervais’ idea to collaborate with Juanes, whose music he first heard while playing in Colombia some eight years ago, long before his 2013 remix of Lana del Rey’s “Summertime Sadness” made him a household name. “I had a Colombian girlfriend at the time, and I started developing a big love for the country and making friends down there,” Gervais remembers, adding that he actually bought Juanes’ Mi Sangre CD. “It doesn’t matter what language it is, when it’s good music, it’s good music, and I instantly connected with ‘La Camisa Negra,’ ” he says in his charming French accent.
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Good music -- and the world’s thirst for it -- is exactly what Juanes and Gervais are after, regardless of language or genre. “EDM is very large, but it’s not at its peak yet,” says Gervais. “From my travels to South America it’s clear that people down there are obsessed with electronic music, just like they’re obsessed with rock n roll, and great music in general. With the peak of EDM and the Latin community growing all over the world, it’s the right timing for something like this. But you gotta have the right artist to pull it off. Juanes was my guy.”
Other Latin superstars are already emulating “Este Amor.” Maná, for instance, called on Steve Aoki to remix its new single “La Prisión.” That he and Juanes may have unintentionally sparked some major trend is flattering, says Gervais. “We did this out of a serious love for the music. There’s nothing else. But it’s cool that someone out there might be like, ‘Oh, they might be onto something big.’ ”
On the EDM side, some of Gervais’ peers are wondering why they didn’t do it first. “David Guetta is one of my closest friends and I said to him, ‘David, I want you to listen to this,’” recalls Gervais. “He listened to the thing and he goes, ‘This is sick. I get it. It’s not cheesy; it’s good.’ He was kind of freaking out like, ‘Man, I should’ve thought about this before!’”
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The key, of course, was not just doing it, but doing it right, and that involved Gervais spending time at Juanes’ Miami home, sharing his vision for the song -- and then just letting go. “Cedric told me, ‘Don’t worry about anything. Just write a [Spanish-language] song as if you’re playing on an acoustic guitar, almost like a ballad, and then I will take care of the rest,” says Juanes, who admits to being intimidated by the whole process at first. But the chance to do something risky with someone he respects compelled him, even if the Latin audience, however loyal, is often risk-averse. Balancing his fans’ expectations, the pressure of the industry, and his own artistry is something he’s been working on since day one.
“From the moment I released ‘La Camisa Negra’ I started thinking about not doing the same thing again because it’s not going to be exciting,” admits Juanes. “If I feel that vibe again of course I’ll do it, but what I don’t want is just to do it because that song was successful and then I end up with a bad version of ‘La Camisa Negra,’” adds the 43-year-old father of three with a laugh. “I’m trying to have a long career and stay relevant over the years. Sometimes it’s hard, but in the end it pays off.”
For Gervais, it was important not to take his collaborator out of his element. “A lot of artists in my world, they don’t understand artists like Juanes, so when you want to do something special you don’t just give them a beat that you created and say, ‘Here, write to this,’ because then you’re not going to get the magic.”
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Part of that magic was recording the tune in Juanes’ native language. “This is who Juanes is, that was the whole point of it, to do something completely different,” adds Gervais. “The American fans, it’s not that they don’t understand it, but they just don’t comment on it. The response that I have from my Latin fans has been ridiculous.”
To be clear: Juanes isn’t against recording in English in order to reach more people. In fact, he says that lately he’s been toying with the idea in the studio more than usual. And his ability to carry a full, articulate conversation in English these days is impressive (that wasn't always the case). But there’s no rush to go in that direction, especially when his fans continue to connect with his songs all around the world. “I was in Europe two weeks ago and I was performing everything in Spanish and the local audience from Belgium, Holland, France, Germany, they were singing along and I was thinking, ‘Wow, maybe I don’t need to do it.’”
It’s on the road that Juanes finds the biggest reassurance that he’s doing the right thing. Music, he says, is “a spiritual experience,” a means for a message of positivity and peace. The same week in which he performs at Madison Square Garden, he’ll be performing at a United Nations event for World Humanitarian Day. Then, on Sept. 26, he’ll play for Pope Francis in Philadelphia as part of the Festival of Families, an international celebration of family, community, and faith.
“I always want people to feel good, to feel happy, and look at the world in a positive way,” says Juanes in response to why he wants to be around for the long-run. “Connecting -- that’s what it’s about.”
What could be more universal than that?