Draco Rosa lays out his manifesto of a lust for life in “Hotel de los Encuentros/333” (“Hotel of Encounters/333”), the opening track of his upcoming 11th solo album, Monte Sagrado (Sacred Mountain). “Here I am in my feverish bed, seeing my childhood pass by on the ceiling, holding tight to my name in case I get lost,” he sings in Spanish over crashing guitars and throbbing drums.
Monte Sagrado, out Oct. 26 on Sony Music Latin, is Rosa’s first album of new material since he was initially diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma in 2011. It’s also his first since Vida (Life), his 2012 album of collaborations, which won a Latin Grammy for album of the year and a Grammy for best Latin pop album.
The 11-track Monte Sagrado is angry, thankful, brutally honest and poetic. The songs, which discuss death, love, gratitude and redemption, are arranged in a thrashing, hard-rock format. The music represents Rosa today, both musically and personally — and he makes no apologies about it.
“I got ill, and the way that medicine works, it really shut down my spirit,” says the 49-year-old, who, after beating back the disease twice, has been cancer-free for the past five years. “But something magical happened. I felt this internal rebirth, and I took advantage of it.”
Monte Sagrado is the latest chapter in a career that began with the artist born Robert Edward Rosa joining Menudo as a 12-year-old in 1984. He then went solo, with fare that ranged from romantic to brooding, while donning multiple hats: as a hit songwriter — penning such tracks as 1998’s “La Bomba,” “Maria” and the Grammy-nominated “Livin’ la Vida Loca” for friend/former Menudo member Ricky Martin — and, most recently, as a coffee farmer in his native Puerto Rico.
Rosa, who is newly signed to Paradigm Talent Agency and now represented by PHVX Management, spoke to Billboard about his never-ending passion for music and a second chance at life, along with memories of his days with Menudo.
How would you describe Monte Sagrado?
It really is the planet. Monte Sagrado is everywhere you set foot, but obviously my island and my farm are my sacred mountain. I originally presented a very different album to Sony. But in April , my doctors diminished my medications, and I had a reawakening. I [began to have] fun again, and that’s when I committed to this album. It was like I was injected with life. I recorded many songs at the time but left the project to focus on other things because I wasn’t feeling quite right. After the hurricane [hit Puerto Rico in September 2017], it was hard to be up in [the countryside] with this amazing generator on this 100-acre estate. I’m not going to be the guy with all the light and power when there’s this devastating vibe surrounding me. So I left. I set up my shop in my house in L.A., and I did all the vocals in my house.
What is your first memory of music?
My father was a great salsero. [My family lived in New York, and] he and my mom would go to Manhattan to dance. I would stay home listening to salsa and classical music. My mother would also go to the YMCA, and they played great music there, like Sly Stone. While in Catholic school I loved sports, and the phys-ed teacher, Mr. Killangelo, was also the music teacher. He told me, “I hear you sing all the time. We’re doing [the musical] Oliver! You should be in it.” So I did it. I sang “Where Is Love,” and it was incredible. There was a standing ovation. From that day [on], I paid attention to music.
You were part of Menudo for three years and left in 1987. What did that experience teach you?
We would do these meet-and-greets after shows, and my line was the longest because I took too long [with each person]. But I got so tired of speaking, of signing autographs, that I rejected it. I went radical and hung out only with musicians, people who only wanted the craft of making music. I’ve been criticized for this. I’ve had people say, “You make music for you; you have to listen to the radio.” I don’t agree. If you’re a musician you have an opportunity to contribute. Each person has their own discovery.
In fact, you do have that other side to you, writing pop songs for Ricky Martin under the pseudonym Ian Blake. Why?
I created this character that allowed me to be more open and out of Draco’s head. I also created a pseudonym to write for [Puerto Rican musician] Ednita Nazario. I thought, “I’ve put so much effort into making my music, but I need to make other music,” and it helped me find that guy. [Writing for Martin] reminded me of the joys of making pop music.
Tell me the story behind your years living in Brazil.
As an ex-member of Menudo, I had a new manager. And I sent all these songs on cassettes to him for eight months. The producer was going to be Jellybean Benitez. The money was good — it was half a million dollars — and it was an opportunity to make my music. Finally, the time came to sign the contract, but after eight months of sending my music, I still hadn’t spoken to the producer. No one had responded, and I said I wasn’t signing it. My agent was angry, and in typical Hollywood fashion, he got up and said, “You will never work in this town again!” And they shut me down. I couldn’t work in the U.S. for five years. I felt such a sense of rejection, so I went to Brazil, met great composers and recorded two albums there [1988’s Robby and 1989’s Ser Feliz (Be Happy)]. What I learned in the studio was invaluable — that music was to be felt and not understood. It’s the silver lining I always talk about.
As someone who has faced death, what is your message to those who fall into despair?
My life has been tumultuous. I went into rehab in my early 20s, and my wife of almost 30 years [actress-director Angela Alvarado] supported me. It was tough. Since I left home at age 12, my [inspirations] were [French poet] Arthur Rimbaud and [French novelist] Honoré de Balzac — the intense literature consumed me. Depression set in, and it didn’t go well. Melancholy is something I carry with me. So you have to either see a doctor or shake it off. It’s like my cancer. It doesn’t go away, but you manage it.
What are the keys to living with it?
Thankfulness and staying positive. I look for people who are positive and inspire me. I don’t want to deal with people who represent something negative. And I believe gratitude liberates you from your fears. I celebrate these young cats that have their shit together. It’s not easy. If you don’t have a family unit or someone to stabilize your emotions and have that balance, you can go down a spiral. I used to have slogans like “Oscuro hasta la muerte” (“Dark till death”). I wasn’t well when I said that. People ask if I have regrets. Yeah, my mom. I regret making her go through all that. But I learned one big thing: to forgive yourself. And I’ve done that.
The industry is now going through a reggaetón phase, and you’re releasing rock music. Do you even think about that?
Over the years, I’ve respected cats that do what they do. At the same time, I love reggaetón, I love Caribbean music, I love some of these DJs. It’s a wild scene. But I’m Draco. I do my thing.
Who do you like to listen to for fun?
It can go from [Russian composer] Sergei Rachmaninoff to a specific song by [Mexican trío romántico] Los Panchos. You know how songs land in your head out of nowhere for no reason? I pay attention to that, and I make sure I jot it down. One time, I went to buy a shirt, and there’s a CD [Gon’ Boogaloo] with a guy wearing a white suit on the cover. The guy at the counter says, “Oh, it’s [Australian blues singer-songwriter C.W. Stoneking].” I bought it and discovered an album that I love. I was so amped on the song “The Thing I Done” that I had to cover it. Along the way, someone on Twitter posted it, and Stoneking wrote, “I love this version of my song by Draco Rosa.” I didn’t even know him, but one thing led to another, and now I have a friend in Australia that I still haven’t met in person personally, but we remain in contact.
Do you plan to go on tour?
Absolutely. I feel like I can share something else that goes a step beyond music. I want to be on the road and do some of these festivals. Right now, I do “Maldito” [“Damned”] and “Sagrado” [“Sacred”] nights. My Maldito nights are all rock’n’roll, experimental, psychedelia. And then Sagrado nights are a laugh. I tell stories about the past, and I play beautiful songs in theaters. Now, I’m with Paradigm, and I will strictly be doing Monte Sagrado.
It’s a new beginning for you: an album, tour, new management, new life.
When I was sick, I took a keyboard, a guitar and some books to the hospital. And I was terrified of falling asleep because I was afraid of never waking up again. I had my five-year scan a few months ago, and it was super clear. I talk about being grateful because it has helped me push aside the fear, but it doesn’t take away that we as human beings are delicate. So when I got the good news, there was great joy. I was on my Ducati, and I didn’t go one block. I had to get off, and I just started bawling. I called my mom, my dad and, obviously, my wife, who was just so happy. I haven’t cried so much since I’ve been ill. Prior to that, I didn’t realize how much I kept inside. I had three tumors in my stomach; I was a young man with a frown. I can’t help but think I was just trying to be hardcore back then. You couldn’t shake me. I didn’t give a fuck. Now, I don’t give a fuck because I got my health, I’m alive, and I’m happy.