Alejandro Sanz defies easy description. As a singer and songwriter, he’s known for masterfully fusing pop with flamenco sensibilities from his native Spain. As a hitmaker, he has earned 28 entries on Billboard’s Hot Latin Songs chart and four No. 1 albums on Top Latin Albums. Stars like Shakira and Alicia Keys have sought him out for collaborations, and when he’s not touring or serving as a reality TV music-contest judge, he’s helping communities on the ground from India to Latin America. He’s also a father of two sons and two daughters.
“Alejandro has everything,” says longtime friend and fellow Spaniard Miguel Bosé. “An outstanding musician, a unique voice and a genius composer who knows no horizons.”
Sanz, 49, is this year’s Latin Recording Academy Person of the Year. He’ll receive the honor during a gala dinner on Nov. 15, the night before the 18th annual Latin Grammy Awards will air on Univision from Las Vegas.
The recognition comes on the 20th anniversary of Sanz’s breakthrough album, Mas, which is still the most popular album in Spain’s history, selling over 2.2 million copies, according to Promusicae, the country’s recording-industry trade group. Sanz celebrated the anniversary with a concert in June at Madrid’s 55,000-capacity Vicente Calderón Stadium. Universal Music in November will release a DVD of the concert, titled Más es Más. On Nov. 23, Aguilar/Penguin is publishing #Vive, an authorized biography of Sanz.
With some 27 million followers combined on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, Sanz also has used social media for activism — “I consider it a privilege to help others” — reacting immediately to the earthquake in Mexico and using his project La Fuerza del Corazón (The Strength of the Heart) to connect with organizations including Doctors Without Borders, Save the Children and Greenpeace.
“Alejandro is a veteran blessed with an inexhaustible and unpredictable musical force,” says Gabriel Abaroa, president/CEO of The Latin Recording Academy. “Add to that his power, leadership, intelligence and social conscience, and he is a great choice for us to celebrate this year.”
Sanz spoke with Billboard about his Latin Grammy honor, the memories stirred up by his biography and the guitar teacher who set him on his musical path.
This is a big moment for you. What’s your celebratory drink?
Wine. Always. And it has to be very good wine, because that goes better with my age. My doctor said so.
#Vive will be published this month. More than a traditional biography, it’s a collection of stories from hundreds of people in your life.
It’s a very dynamic, very beautiful read, all told by people who were next to me from the beginning: my childhood friends, the promotion person who would take me on those first trips where we crisscrossed Spain by car, the record salespeople, athletes. Each speaks from their own perspective. Many things surprised me because I’d forgotten them.
What’s a memory that surprised you?
That first concert in Madrid, in 1991, was beautiful, because that’s when I realized I’d really made it. We also did a tremendous promotional effort for Viviendo Deprisa [his 1991 debut on Warner Music Latina], where we sold little by little. The book tells of our promo trips: how I would sit in the backseat and play my guitar for the promo guy so he wouldn’t fall asleep as he drove literally hundreds of kilometers from show to show. Today, my office in Madrid is called MOW — Music on Wheels — because we did music on the road.
And a memory that moved you?
When I was looking to get signed initially, there was a bidding war between Warner and Ariola/BMG. And it reached a point where Iñigo Zabala, the head of Warner Latin, called me and said, “I can’t [top] the offer from Ariola. I’ve gone as high as I can. But I want you to know that I’m a big fan of yours, and I think you’ll sell many records.” At that point, I called my attorney and said, “I want to sign with Warner.” He said, “But why? The other ones are offering a million more!” And I said, “Iñigo has given me a reason that’s worth more than a million dollars.”
What was the hardest thing to share?
The losses. When you lose your parents, that’s a complicated moment. [Sanz is the youngest son of María Pizarro and Jesús Sánchez, both from the Andalusian region of Spain.] I remember my parents with a lot of joy because that’s how they would want to be remembered. As far as my personal life goes, my four children contributed to the book, even my 3-year-old [Alma]. I’m a family man. I have my children and they’re the greatest thing I have, and that’s the way they appear in this book. But this isn’t a book where I dwell on my personal life, because my personal life is in my music. All my demons are in my songs.
How did it feel to revisit the songs on Mas two decades later?
I spent years without listening to it. But I discovered this is an album that holds up well; it’s very well made, the musicians are amazing, and the arrangements are still very current. I’d take out a few sounds that are very of that time, like the keyboard with that bell sound. But when we began to revisit the songs [for the concert], we found we didn’t have to change much at all.
At the gala, different artists will perform your songs for you. Who was on your wish list?
They don’t tell me anything! I’m very detail-oriented, and I like to keep everything under control. So in the beginning, I said I wanted to decide what would happen. And they said, “Let us take care of you and surprise you.” I expect to see my friends. I love this particular event. I think it’s the most beautiful event at the Latin Grammys, because all the guests are very relaxed and we don’t depend on timing or ratings. It’s like an embrace from the entire industry.
The Person of the Year gala raises funds for the Latin Grammy Foundation, which advances music education. Who helped you on the path early in your own career?
My father. And a teacher I had called Don Andres. He was very strict and he yelled a lot and got very angry, but he played the guitar. And he would take me home with him after school to spend time with his family and play the guitar. His son is in the book, and he talks about how dinner would be served and everybody was hungry, but his dad was playing guitar with me. It was the first time that I felt that someone who wasn’t a family member was interested in my music.