Fito Páez Takes the Sound of a Liberated City to Carnegie Hall: A Conversation

Sebastian Arpesella
Fito Paez

Argentine singer/songwriter Fito Páez is a master at navigating massive and intimate spaces. His music --songs of love, relationships, and incisive social and cultural observation—can fill arenas and cozy rooms. In the wake of his two Latin Grammy nominations – for song of the year and best rock song for the luminous “Tu vida mi vida” (Your Life My Life)—Páez is set to perform for the first time at Carnegie Hall.

The iconic Argentine rocker will play at the Stern Auditorium/Perelman Stage on Friday (Sept. 28) accompanied by his full band and a 21-piece orchestra. Billboard caught up with him as he was readying for rehearsals in New York City.

You’re in what you call your “concentration week” prior to Friday’s show. What does that entail?

Be as quiet as possible, in a room with a humidifier and stable temperature. Of course I have a million things to write and practice but the idea is to rest, except for Wednesday and Thursday where we have two very intensive four-hour rehearsals with the orchestra and the band that’s flying in from Buenos Aires. It’s a very savage concert, with a lot of adrenaline. It’s like doing aerobic exercise. 

This show was confirmed only two months ago. What was your immediate reaction?

Shock. And then several good problems. Like the staging. Should I do piano solo? Piano quartet? Rock band? In the end we went with an electro-acoustic band, almost like an unplugged, and we added a [symphony] orchestra like I did with Euforia [the 1996 album]. Each of those options called for different repertoire, so once we made the decision we focused on that. And the repertoire will include music from almost all my releases, plus to premieres: one instrumental track and one with vocals. 

Your songs are complex. There’s nothing facile about them. Why do you think they remain so successful at a time when complex music rarely plays on radio?

The Beatles were mainstream in the 60s and their music was incredibly sophisticated. Bossa nova was mainstream. Popular music historically has been of very high quality. And I’m not saying it’s been good or bad, I’m talking about depth. Music is made up of three elements: rhythm, harmony and melody. And the conjunction of those three elements gives you the blend. Today’s popular music maybe lacks as much harmony and melody. But genres that are being created need time. The Americas in their entirety have given us musicians of the highest level throughout the 20th century –Chico Buarque, Manzanero Spinetta. The list is endless And that treasure will continue through the generations Nothing can be created without the notion of our past.

Where does your personal musical connection come from?

I was born in 1963 and there was a piano at home. Someone was always playing the piano. We had these big get-togethers and my aunt played the piano, people sang and chatted. It’s like what James Joyce narrates in The Dubliners. That was part of popular culture back then. Two things were crucial: My mother was a great concert pianist, and my father was a great music lover. 

Your mother died when you were only months old. Was your dad able to see you become successful?

My father died 20 days after I filled my first Luna Park as a solo act. He couldn’t go because he was in the hospital in Rosario. But he knew. I think it allowed him to rest easy, knowing his song was able to do that at 22 years old.

Your two Latin Grammy nominations are for “Mi Vida tu Vida,” from the album La Ciudad Liberada (The Liberated City). Tell me about it?

It was an album with a complex genesis. I went to Sony in 2015 and asked them to organize my life. They said, "record an album with just voice and piano solo," and I did. Then they said, "do an album with drums so it can play on radio." And I said they organized me because many of the songs in Ciudad Liberada came from that piano album. We recorded in Miami at the Hit Factory Criteria, and then we went back to Argentina to mix the album. And at that stage I found a lot of music that was intertwined. So, we started with nine songs and ended up with 18. All of them were a block, or a bar, or a street of that liberated city. 

Give me two songs to highlight?

The album has two distinct lines: one is the loving one, and the other is the composer who lives within the world. From the intimate side, I’d say “Tu Vida Mi Vida,” which I wrote one afternoon in Cordoba while everybody went to the river. I sat at the piano and wrote the music. A year later, I added the lyrics. And “Islamabad” is a song that features rhythms from Northern Africa and casts a pretty philosophical look at the Western world. The world was on fire when I wrote this album. 

So, what’s your city?

I’m always tied to Buenos Aires because I’ve lived there the past 19 years. But my favorite city is Rosario. I’m from there. I know everything there. It’s my place. But every city has its charm. 

Watch Paez's Facebook Live Performance at the Billboard offices below.