Latin Grammy Awards' Person of the Year Joan Manuel Serrat: 'What I Write Is What I Live'

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Joan Manuel Serrat performs live on stage  at Auditorio Polyforum on February 17, 2011 in Tuxtla Gutiérrez, Chiapas.  

Outside a mountainside cafe just below Barcelona's century-old amusement park, a couple approaches Joan Manuel Serrat, the Latin Grammy Awards' 2014 Person of the Year. From afar it looks like a typical encounter with adoring fans, but it turns out these are two anxious French tourists whose bag was snatched by kids on a moped. Serrat, whose navy linen pants and jacket are brightened by a Mediterranean-blue T-shirt, calls police from his cellphone. When a patrol car arrives 10 minutes later, he gets up from his chair. "I want them to see it's me," he says with concern and a grin. A few minutes after he shows his face, the parking lot is filled with cops.

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Serrat, 70, first gained his reputation as a man of the people in the 1960s, when he was the skinny kid with shaggy hair and caterpillar eyebrows who had the first No. 1 pop hit, "Canco de Matinada," on the Spanish charts in Catalan, the language of his native city. It was a political as well as musical milestone in the years of the Francisco Franco dictatorship, when Castilian Spanish was the only officially recognized language among the country's many tongues. On tour in 1969, he began his long love affair with fans in Latin America, where, as in Spain, his lyrics have been adopted as beloved words to live by. His popularity throughout the Spanish-speaking world explains his recognition by the Latin Recording Academy, which will fete him at a gala on Nov. 19 on the eve of the Latin Grammys, as part of the awards' 15th-anniversary celebration.

"Serrat is a poet whose popularity is massive," says Jordi Bianciotto, music critic for Barcelona's El Periodico newspaper. Earlier this year, Serrat was named the "Best Spanish Musician" by readers of the national paper El Pais. His biggest international hit, 1971's "Mediterraneo," an ode to his native land and culture, was previously voted the most popular song in the history of Spain by viewers of Spanish TV. (Serrat acknowledges that earnings from the hit helped put his children through school.) These days, fans tweet lyrics from his songs at @maestroserrat, @quotesjmserrat and other handles. One translated tweet: "And if you need to cry it's better to do it facing the sea."

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Spanish pop star Alejandro Sanz goes so far as to call Serrat's lyrics "the word of revelation." "I don't close my eyes when I write," says Serrat. "I don't cover my ears when I write or stop touching things around me when I write." He digs in his pocket and takes out the notebook he always carries with him. "What I write is the result of what I live and what I see and what I feel."

Serrat spent six months selecting and rerecording 50 of his songs for Antologia Desordenada (Disordered Anthology). The four-disc set with autobiographical liner notes arrived Nov. 4. An international tour will follow in 2015.

"You could say this album took my whole life to make," says Serrat, who sings on the set with Sanz, Calle 13, Ruben Blades, Miguel Rios, Joaquin Sabina, Mercedes Sosa and others.

A university agronomy student, Serrat was a self-described angry young man when he joined a group who wrote and sang in Catalan. He was inspired by the social commentary of Jacques Brel as well as Italian singers, Spanish folkloric genres and boleros. After his success with "Canco de Matinada," he was invited to represent Spain at the 1968 Eurovision Song Contest. But told he could not sing in Catalan, he refused to participate.

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Though he remains a symbol of Catalan identity, his many recordings in Spanish also made him an icon of modern Spain as it emerged from dictatorship after Franco's death in 1975. His ties to Latin America deepened with his solidarity with protest movements in Chile and Argentina during their black times.

"Songs can't change anything," he says. "But songs accompany the people who change things ... they can help open people's eyes and uncover their conscience."

Serrat does not sing in English (nor does he speak it), but his 2015 tour will include two stops in the United States, New York and Miami. At his gala in Las Vegas, Serrat will meet with those artists who make appearances on Antologia Desordenada, all of them he handpicked.

"The album includes not only the songs but the people who have been present during my life," says Serrat, who calls this the most intimate recording of his career. "These last 50 years, for me, have been as marvelous as they have been surprising."

This article first appeared in the Nov. 15 issue of Billboard.



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