July 13 marked the four-year anniversary of the death of Joan Sebastian, the fabled Mexican singer/songwriter who rose from a poverty-stricken childhood in rural Mexico to become one of the most recorded and top-selling contemporary acts of all time.
Although Sebastian was 64 at the time of this death, which followed his battle with cancer, he had continued to record and perform at a prolific rate. In fact, his last studio album, 2013’s 13 Celebrando El 13, went to No. 1 on Billboard’s Top Latin Albums chart.
In memory of Sebastian’s career on the anniversary of his death, here is Billboard’s interview with him following the 2013 release of 13 Celebrando el 13 at a moment in his life when he was newly cancer-free.
Your new album is titled 13 Celebrando el 13 (13 Celebrating 13). Why?
I recorded a song called “Que Dios Bendiga” (God Bless) which I wasn’t sure what material to pair it up with. It’s a very unique song; kind of a vallenato, but instead of the accordion it uses the tuba. I confess I have a lot of songs stored away, and when I went through my catalog, I liked a group of songs that had been recorded by other artists but I had never sung. I took 12 of those and along with this one, we had the album concept. The 13 refers to 2013 and is a very significant number for me because I started playing guitar at 13. The guitar Gibson made for me has 13 hearts, representing my eight children with five women. My name has 13 letters. And I’ve been a cancer survivor for 13 years.
These songs in the album have been performed by the likes of Alejandro Fernandez, Vicente Fernandez — many of Latin music’s biggest names. Do you write specifically for them?
I never write songs for singers. I write for my muses, for the people that inspire me. If others interpret those songs it’s because as a producer and composer I think they work for them.
What is your writing process?
90 percent of my songs come from my own experiences. I first analyze my feelings, I let them mature and develop inside. And once that experience or feeling is assimilated, I write a melody — I think melodies are out there floating in the universe — and I marry it with my words and I have feeling turned into song. I write everywhere. One time I was taking a shower, and a song came to me that made me burst into tears. I thanked God I was under a shower because no one saw me cry.
You’ve beat cancer for 13 years and just had exams that showed you’re in excellent health. I’m amazed that you’ve never stopped performing for long. How have you dealt with this illness?
I’ve returned to live three times and all three I’ve fought hard. The hardest moment was the first time, when I gave it too much importance and I sat to wait for the doctors’ orders. That’s when I was closest to death. When I realized that the applause made me better, that my contact with my audience was what made me cling to life, I discovered the most vital aspect of my battle. I honestly think the story would be different if I didn’t have my fans’ support.
You continue with your Jaripeo shows [a kind of Mexican-style rodeo and horse show]. How important is this to you?
It’s my biggest source of work. I do a Jaripeo show every two weeks. Sometimes I’ll do three to four a week. I ride five horses during an hour and a half. The horse is like my best accompaniment. When I’m on a horse, I even feel handsome!
Much of Regional Mexican music today deals with drug and violence-related themes. Can romanticism prevail?
If you analyze my music or my themes, you’ll find feelings and romanticism. I have to underline that if I ever sang corridos, I did it with the aim of preserving our culture and traditions. But I was always very judicious when it came to details that spoke of death or tragedies. That’s always been the case with my music. If there’s a movement I’m against, it’s movimiento alterado. And I hope my people understand that I’m the person least inclined to like that music, because that kind of violence killed two of my sons.
You are such an eloquent writer and speaker. Where does it come from?
My time in the seminary was very important for my education. That’s given me a foundation. Above all, I’m a happy man. Happy with life. I’m a man of faith. And with everything that happens around us, I believe as human beings we can achieve an even better life.