The summer of 1997, Noel Schajris arrived in Mexico from Argentina with $600 in his pocket — the proceeds from the sale of his upright piano. He had left behind his sick mother and a fledgling music career for the promise of stardom as the singer of a Mexican funk band. The group went nowhere, but Schajris signed as a solo artist with Sony Mexico and released his debut album, Cita en las Nubes (Date in the Clouds), in 1999. It marked the start of a career that has lasted two decades and seven solo albums, as well as five more as half of the Grammy Award-nominated duo Sin Bandera.
Schajris’ sound — both on his own and with Sin Bandera — borrows from different eras, traditions and genres, mapping out a future that crosses borders and generations in Latin music. Sin Bandera — which translates to “Without a Flag” — formed just a year after the release of Schajris’ solo debut. Alongside Mexican singer-songwriter and guitarist Leonel García, Schajris created a unique form of Latin balladry, with touches of jazz and R&B, that showcases his soulful and plaintive tenor.
Starting with De Viaje (2003), the duo placed three titles in the top 10 on Billboard’s Top Latin Albums chart, including the one-week champ Una Ultima Vez in 2016. The act also earned five top 10s on the Hot Latin Songs chart, led by the No. 1 hit “Mientes Tan Bien,” which ruled for eight weeks in 2003. Schajris also landed a solo top 10 on Latin Pop Albums with Uno Es Uno in 2009.
While the COVID-19 pandemic delayed Schajris’ 20th-anniversary plans, it also opened him up to new creative ventures. “It was an awakening,” he says. In 2020, he launched a multimedia platform on his website (noelschajris.fan) that provides exclusive access to content, merchandise, tickets, streaming and album sales to over 500 monthly subscribers.
“The pandemic made me realize where I stood, and I said, ‘It’s time to move,’” he says. “My goal was to be really close to fans; to take everything from the kitchen directly to them. To do that, I needed to have my own business.”
Schajris still records and tours with Sin Bandera, which is managed and booked by Westwood Entertainment and signed under the Sony banner. For the past two years, he has been fully independent on his own Dynamo Productions label, which is distributed through Spain-based Altafonte; and he’s managed by Diana Rodríguez of Criteria Entertainment, whose clients include Moby and Draco Rosa.
“Noel has a spectacular vocal range, and his domain of the piano, as well as his composing ability, grow every day,” says García. “Through the years, we have come to understand the sentimental and musical importance this project has, both for us and our fans. Our solo careers have allowed Sin Bandera to feed from our individual experiences.”
In October, Schajris will begin a 15-city North American tour, promoted by Sound Talent Group, in support of Mi Presente (My Present), a new album with 20 tracks. As he celebrates the 20th anniversary of his solo debut, the 46-year-old composer discusses his Elon Musk fandom and why leaving behind the majors allowed him to bet on himself.
You’ve found success both as a solo artist and with Sin Bandera. How did that first happen?
I was getting ready to compose my second solo album, and Leo [García] said, “Do you want to try a few songs? We sound good together.” Many people thought I was crazy to step into a duo. But I had gigs all over Mexico City, and every time I invited Leo to come sing with me, we got the biggest ovation of the night, playing songs no one knew. Sin Bandera was different. At the beginning, people thought it was boring — the songs were too long, too slow; they didn’t have a huge chorus. It took a while, but when we exploded, we really exploded.
Success is a lot of work, and it’s exhausting, and Leo needed a break. He hadn’t released a solo album, and he needed to explore his identity. And now, as I look back on my 20 years, celebrating so many things, I see the growth of our solo careers and Sin Bandera, and both shine. It’s a beautiful time to celebrate music.
What’s the biggest difference between Noel Schajris and Sin Bandera records?
It’s a different musical exploration. Sin Bandera is ballads and R&B and a little bit of hip-hop. It’s a third sonic energy that Leo and I only generate when we get together. It’s impossible to explain. But it’s like yin and yang. I’m a little bit the smile, Leo the frown. Historically, I’m the melody guy. I’m like Elton John, and he’s Bernie Taupin. But increasingly, I’m becoming perhaps not “a little Taupin” but maybe a “little ‘Pin.’” (Laughs.) I’m learning and becoming more confident in my songwriting, which has to do with the liberty of having my own label and making my own decisions.
What song makes you the proudest?
“Entra en Mi Vida” [written with García] is perhaps the most important song I wrote, because it’s the song that changed our careers.
What is your biggest songwriting asset?
When it comes to songwriting, I’m a little old school. I don’t understand those songs that have 10 writers. A song is something that’s very personal, very from the heart. I’d say [that] at the most, four people can co-write. Otherwise, it’s too much. It’s a process that needs to be treated with a lot of respect.
You have both an independent and major-label career. That is very unusual in this business, no?
Yes, and very original, because those of us who break with the majors usually do it 100%. I wanted to do what was best for me. I wanted to explore my solo career through my own platform, but with Sin Bandera, we are still with a major. I do have one foot in conventional channels, and I’m not fighting against what works. Sony administers my publishing, and I’m very happy with that. The catalog I’ve built is important; it’s my legacy. I’m simply looking at reality and deciding how I can best manage my solo career, which is what I control 100%.
Were you worried about leaving a major-label deal?
I thought about it for a long time. I didn’t look for another label deal because they all have the same structure and philosophy. What I slowly came to understand, and especially during the pandemic — which forced us to stay home — is that shows represent 70% to 80% of my income. And that’s when I realized how much my music generates [for myself], and it didn’t generate much. I was trying to grow those metrics, but if you don’t own your masters and your music, you don’t get much.
How is your revenue now?
Sin Bandera generates eight to 10 times more revenue. After all, I’ve been a recording artist for 20 years, but I’ve owned my masters for only two. As you may imagine, there’s a major catalog of successful albums and songs that are still administered by and belong to Sony. But if my catalog generates a huge amount per month, I may only get 10% of that. But on my own platform, launched just six months ago, I get 100%. The beauty will be when we speak in a couple of years, I’ll be able to say that I own my catalog and I have over 10,000 subscribers, and we can take a great vacation.
To go solo, you also had to build a new team. How did you approach that?
Something I’ve learned in the past couple of years is that you need a manager who is next to you, and if they want to be with you, a handshake is enough. If you want to do something, you’ll do it whether you have a signed paper or not. When you have that drive and that belief in a project, that’s all that matters. I have Diana Rodríguez; Manuel Vera, my publicist, who was previously my manager; and Altafonte distributes me. Everything is great teamwork. All my relationships right now are based on handshakes.
Your new pride and joy is your website, which operates as a multimedia platform that offers a subscription model. How does it work?
Our team of engineers built it from scratch. Ricardo Arjona had something similar, but in reality, we built a brand-new platform. In my case, my goal was to be very close to the fans and take everything directly to them. That closeness and interaction has been essential. I offer vocal master classes. We’re selling T-shirts. If you buy your CD, I sign it and mail it to you. It’s an experience I’d never had before. We’ve sent some 500 CDs and about 600 vinyl albums. There’s definitely a nostalgia for physical formats, and I pay a lot of attention to the credits.
Have you invested a lot in this new venture?
Yes. I can’t stop watching videos of Elon Musk where he talks about his investments. Obviously, I’m not comparing myself to Elon Musk, but six months after launching, the signs indicate that we’re going in the right direction. In my opinion, this is where the industry is headed. The market share for indies is growing. You can control your content, connect with your fans and have a return on what your music generates.
You have close to 800,000 followers on Spotify and over 500,000 subscribers on YouTube. Are you leveraging those audiences to grow the new platform?
Yes, but it’s also about getting back to reality. Whether you have 500, 600 or 1,000 people who follow you, it’s an incredible achievement as an artist. And those 1,000 subscribers on your platform are equal or better to a million elsewhere. You can sell millions of albums, like we did [with Sin Bandera], but what you get after advances and returns is minimum. What I generate with my platform, my product and my store may be small for now, but it’s so much more gratifying because it brings me closer to my fans and to my art.
Why does this business model make sense for you?
As a soloist, I realized some people were interested in big money and not in developing concepts. There’s an audience, and I’m going to connect with them and I’m going to generate real numbers, not those inflated numbers that make you think that any video that has less than 200 million views is a failure. It’s crazy. Having any number of people see and appreciate what you do is an incredible thing. Noel Schajris, the guerito [little blond guy] from Sin Bandera is a developing artist. The way I see it, I love music in any format or style, and I’m blessed to live from it. Thank God, I’ve done it for over 20 years.
‘Truly One of a Kind’
Noel Schajris’ solo career has allowed him to stretch himself sonically by collaborating with other artists and like-minded composers, from Maluma, Camila Cabello, Alejandro Sanz, John Legend and Luis Fonsi to Paul Williams, Luis Enrique and Claudia Brant. Following are some of their reflections about his songwriting legacy.
Claudia Brant: “We’ve written countless songs, and he’s one of the most talented people I know, with unmatched musical ability and talent for melodies.”
Camila Cabello: “His joy, enthusiasm and passion for music are contagious. His songs were always playing in my home, and his incredible lyrics and melodies have been part of every memorable moment with my family.”
Luis Fonsi: “There are few singers who can draw so much emotion with just piano and voice. I’ve had the pleasure of writing and singing many songs with Noel, and the feeling he puts in each note is unique. Congratulations, my brother. To 20 more years of good music.”
Maluma: “My admiration for Noel as a composer and recording artist is indescribable. It has been an honor to collaborate with him and perform these songs on international stages. He is truly one of a kind.”
Alejandro Sanz: “Friendship can grow based on notes, songs and experiences. I’ve had the pleasure [of sharing] the stage and a friendship with Noel. I want to congratulate him and thank him for treating music with the kind of sensibility that any musician can reach.”
This story originally appeared in the May 15, 2021, issue of Billboard.