The last album Phil Ramone produced is in Spanish.
Due Aug. 27, “Confidencias,” an album of Latin-American standards by Alejandro Fernandez, one of Mexico’s biggest stars, bears Ramone’s signature: the exquisite arrangements, the live vibe, a sound that’s big and intimate at the same time. And carrying it all is Fernandez’s velvety voice, an instrument that has taken him to the top of the charts across continents for more than two decades.
“These are the great songs of Latin music,” Ramone said in an interview last year. “I always loved the music of Mexico…There was a chance for us to meet in New York [in 2011]. And we talked about the concept of making an album together. And we thought maybe we’d do an orchestra, a big band vibe to get the swing. Because these songs are some of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard. And he’s one of the great artists of all time.”
“Confidencias” is about more than just music, though. By bringing together an iconic Latin singer and an iconic American producer, the album attempts to bridge two cultures and two marketplaces at a time when the U.S. Hispanic consumer’s makeup is changing.
The resulting is an album of Latin standards, arranged American style — and featuring duets with two mainstream stars of different generations, Christina Aguilera and Rod Stewart — that still retains a touch of Latin romanticism, particularly in its use of big strings.
“Because of the way Phil works, it has a more mainstream sensibility,” Fernandez says, speaking on the phone from Los Angeles, where he was putting the finishing touches on “Confidencias.” “But also, I’d never done anything similar. It’s a very classic album of romantic ballads. And there’s several versions where you can really, really feel that American beat in the songs and the arrangements.”
Truth be told, the album’s first single, “Hoy Tengo Ganas de Ti” — a cover of a Miguel Gallardo song from the 1970s that was also covered by Ricardo Montaner in 2007 — is quintessential Latin. But it features Aguilera, which gives the song a contemporary and pop twist. The track was chosen as the main theme of new Televisa soap opera “La Tempestad,” which began airing in Mexico last May and debuted in the United States on Univision on July 29. In Mexico, “Hoy Tengo Ganas de Ti” has remained at No. 1 on the country’s radio charts for eight consecutive weeks and has sold 80,000 downloads since its June release, nearly double-platinum for digital sales in that country, according to Amprofon, Mexico’s recording industry association.
Expectation for the album in Mexico has been heightened by a hilarious Nescafe campaign that features a series of housewives whose middle-aged husbands morph into Fernandez when they take a sip of their morning coffee. “Wake up with the one you’ve loved your entire life,” the slogan says, underscoring the timelessness of both Fernandez and the brand.
In the United States, “Hoy Tengo Ganas de Ti” is just beginning to feel the effect of the soap opera’s airing. The track has risen to No. 15 on Billboard’s Latin Pop Airplay chart and No. 42 on Top Latin Airplay, and should develop strongly in the next few weeks. But it’s already No. 7 on Latin Digital Sales and has spent eight nonconsecutive weeks in the top 10. Airplay is on the rise, but the strong early sales suggest that listeners are discovering the song on YouTube (where postings of the audio have exceeded 9 million aggregate views) and through friends and relatives who’ve seen the soap in Mexico.
Once that soap begins to air stateside in prime time, and with the added benefit of Univision’s multiple platforms and the affiliation with Aguilera, Fernandez should reach a wide audience, including new fans who may not have known about his music or who may have regarded it as an “older” variety of pop.
“When we sat down to plan the next project, we thought there was a big hole in the market,” says Jesus Lopez, chairman/CEO of Universal Music Latin America & Iberian Peninsula, Fernandez’s label. “There is no one better in the Latin market who can record an international album of standards; those classic songs that are known by several generations around the world but hadn’t been revisited in a contemporary fashion. We decided we needed an experienced producer who could give us a sound that was competitive at a worldwide scale. That’s why I came up with Phil Ramone.”
Lopez arranged for Ramone and Fernandez to have dinner in New York, and the two immediately hit it off.
“[Phil] was enamored by Alejandro and he thought he was a great star and that he had it, he had that thing that lights up the room,” recalls Ramone’s son Matt, who handled his father’s business affairs. “And musically speaking, he thought he had chops. He said, ‘This guy can sing.'”
As discussions unfolded, Ramone became more certain about the project. While the deal was being negotiated for he and Fernandez to work together, he told his son, “‘Whatever it takes, I’ll do it. I really want to do it,'” Matt says.
In a career that spanned more than six decades, during which he crafted hits for everyone from Paul Simon and Billy Joel to Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett, Ramone had worked with several Latin acts, including Jon Secada, Argentine rocker Fito Paez (for whom Ramone produced his 1999 album “Abre”) and multiple albums for Gloria Estefan. But working with Fernandez was still a departure. He’s the youngest son of Vicente Fernandez, widely considered the most prominent living ranchera singer and one of Latin music’s biggest icons. Subsequently, Fernandez was pushed into the limelight early and eventually built his own sound and persona, capitalizing on his brooding good looks and gorgeous voice.
To date, the younger Fernandez has sold more than 2.6 million albums in the United States, according to Nielsen SoundScan. And while most Latin acts talk about crossing over from Spanish to English, Fernandez is one of a handful of artists who’s managed to become a superstar by crossing over from traditional ranchera to pop. That duality began in 1997 with “Me Estoy Enamorando,” a collaboration with producer Emilio Estefan that established Fernandez as an international star.
In 2009, Fernandez simultaneously released pop and ranchera albums — both titled “Dos Mundos” — that featured different tracks and different producers. Afterward, he began to mull a standards album, something he’d done at the very beginning of his career when he covered classic boleros in ranchera style.
“We started to listen to songs from the 1970s, more or less, and there were great, great songs that could be rescued,” he says. “We looked at the music styles and decided we wanted to take the big band route.”
That’s when Lopez proposed working with Ramone. In him, Fernandez found a producer that pushed his boundaries in the studio, and in Fernandez, Ramone found a star willing to step beyond his comfort zone, as he does in “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out,” featuring Rod Stewart, where Fernandez adds some gravel to his vocals to match Stewart’s grit.
“Phil didn’t want to keep doing the same type of standards album,” Matt says. “He wanted to put a different spin on it with creative arrangements. Phil would make an artist totally comfortable. A lot of times if you’re a megawatt star in your own right and you’re asked to do something, you can be self-conscious about it, even more so than a normal person.”
Early in the production process, Ramone invited Fernandez to meet the musicians, a seasoned group that included drummer Gregg Gield, guitarist Dean Parks, bassist Kevin Axt, saxophonist Gordon Goodwin and trumpet player Arturo Sandoval. Once Ramone began recording the ensemble, he asked Fernandez to record three or four takes live. Although vocals were also done separately, much of those live takes are the basis for “Confidencias.:
“This album will show fans are willing to buy full albums, not just tracks, when the repertoire is solid,” Universal Music Latino/Machete GM Luis Estrada says. Although Universal is pushing “Hoy Tengo Ganas de Ti” to radio, much of the marketing is centered on the album itself, with a TV campaign that kicks off Aug. 20 and will run nationally on Univision for three weeks, as well as a series of weekly Twitter and Facebook messages from Fernandez on each of the album tracks.
Universal is offering incentives tailored to different retailers, such as autographed copies pre-orders at Walmart and an exclusive deluxe CD/DVD for Target.
Although Ramone was largely finished with the album at the time of his death, he didn’t hear the finished version of “Me Olvide de Vivir,” a duet with Fernandez and his father, the first time the two recorded in the studio in nearly 20 years. “The right opportunity hadn’t presented itself,” Fernandez says. “Maybe because I went toward pop and he didn’t move from ranchera. But this song was a perfect fit. My dad has been sick [during his farewell tour last year, the elder Fernandez was diagnosed with liver cancer but has since recovered], and when we heard this song we both cried because it says so many important and pertinent things.”
The duet reaffirms Fernandez’s connection to not only his father but also his pedigree as a ranchera act.
“I still sing Mexican songs. I still travel with my mariachi,” he says. In fact, on the horizon is a project of Mexican music. “I’ve always made it clear that I’m not abandoning Mexican music. It’s my origins, my roots and the music fans got to know me with.” But in the meantime, he adds, “this album will have a great life. I’m sure of that.”
At the time of his death, Ramone had cleared his schedule to recuperate from surgery for an aortic aneurysm and then “get on with his life,” in Matt’s words. That it wasn’t meant to be makes “Confidencias” that much more poignant. “It meant a lot to him,” Matt says. “He loved projects where it’s one on one, and the artist challenges himself, and the label [said], ‘Do what you guys want.’ That’s when you can do a great album.”
“It’s a beautiful tribute to [Ramone] and to Alejandro,” says “Confidencias”‘ mixing engineer Frank Filipetti, who worked with Ramone for many years. “I had the chance to try to make something sound good as opposed to concentrate on a specific radio market, which we so often have to do. And we were always conscious of the Latin influence, but at the same time we wanted it to be a timeless record that could be played anywhere in the world.”