Leiva’s musical influences and affinities aren’t hard to figure out at first sight. On a balmy early Spring day in Barcelona, the tall and lanky 38-year-old singer and songwriter stylishly references the universal look of a rock troubadour, wearing black jeans, desert boots and his wide-brimmed hat. He has bushy mutton chops, and his beaky profile and light piercing eyes can recall Bob Dylan, one of his musical heroes. As he folds himself into a chair at an outdoor café, there is no guitar strapped to his back, though it would not be a surprise to see one there.
Nuclear, Leiva’s fourth solo record, was released March 22 on Sony Music Spain. He calls it a production “without fireworks.”
Months before the album was released, Leiva had already sold out a June 29 date at Madrid’s 15,000 capacity WiZnik Center; few tickets are left for both another added show and his May concerts at Barcelona’s Palacio Sant Jordi arena. The story repeats itself in other Spanish cities.
Leiva is well-known in Spain, even beyond fans of his albums. Last year, he won a Goya award for his song “La Llamada,” from the soundtrack of the movie of the same name, and he was recently featured in a cover story and fashion spread in the Sunday magazine of national newspaper El Pais. Still, anyone who takes a look at the Spanish song charts, which are now dominated by the same reggaeton and trap artists currently ruling global Latin music sales, could be surprised by the demand for tickets to Leiva’s upcoming tour.
“I continue believing in the album format and an instrumentation that defies trends,” he says. “I think that in these times of fast music, when music is being both made and consumed so rapidly, there’s a part of the public that is remaining faithful to me instead of going to the other side.”
“Rock is in really good form in Spain right now,” he adds, nodding to the success of Vetusta Morla, Love of Lesbian and other bands of his generation who have gone from touring the festival circuit to filling stadiums at their solo concerts. “Maybe it’s not what the media focuses on, but rock bands are playing the big venues. There’s a resurgence of rock in Spain; I think we are generating a movement that goes beyond what is coming from outside of the country.”
Leiva, whose given name is José Miguel Conejo Torres, grew up in an airport-adjacent neighborhood in Madrid, where a running joke was that all the kids played loud rock to cover up the noise of planes flying overhead (he still lives in the area). He taught himself to play several instruments, and started playing in bands when he was 13. By 19, he had chosen music over college. Pereza, his band with Rubén Pozo Prats, was signed by an RCA scout and recorded six albums before disbanding in 2012.
Growing up, Leiva listened to Dylan, Leonard Cohen, The Beatles, the Kinks, the Stones and other artists whose albums were brought home by his older brother. (“Everything was in English.”) His father, a journalist and poet, sowed his love of words.
Leiva says the songs on Nuclear were inspired by everyday moments. “It’s the eyelash you find on the sink…In my case, inspiration doesn’t come from big things. I have the sensation that the most important songs come from the moments that are apparently the most normal and everyday that you usually don’t notice.”
In addition to the studio versions of the songs, whose pop-rock riffs and sticky choruses are stadium ready, the CD and vinyl packaging of the album-itself an artistic object created by Madrid designers Boa Mistura- includes a separate disc of spare acoustic versions.
“I think we’re living in a time when people need stories in which they can see themselves,” says Leiva. “Today, songs have a lot of aesthetics and not enough stories. It becomes mechanical and it’s consumed in a very mechanical way. For me, songs are more important than styles. I think it’s important to take time to listen to the music.”
Listen to Nuclear: