It takes a lot of hard work to keep the crown as queen of all Latina musical artists. But Gloria Estefan makes it look easy.
Latin music’s premier female artist — with seven Latin Grammys and more than 100 million albums sold — has a new album, a Broadway show about her life, a football team, multiple businesses and a daughter headed to college. Even so, she finds time to help Hurricane victims, advocate against repression — like that in her homeland of Cuba — defend human rights, fight against violence and in favor of religious freedom, as she recently participated in the TEDx conference in Rome, where she met her second Pope.
How does she do it all? It’s a combination of luck, prayer and teamwork, she said, referring to her husband, music mogul Emilio Estefan.
A new Broadway production will document the incredible lives that Gloria and Emilio Estefan have lived — from their escape from Communist Cuba to the pinnacles of their careers.
Estefan also talked about her upcoming album, for which she recorded 16 songs in four days and that she described as a collection of her favorite tunes. “All my life, I’ve loved standards. Johnny Mathis. Javier Solis. Trio Los Panchos. I always wanted to do it. I chose songs that were very special to me,” Estefan said. “They were all songs that somehow spoke to me personally.”
One of those is “El Dia Que Me Quieras,” by Carlos Gardel. “It was our wedding song, the first song we danced to as husband and wife.” She recorded that one in English, “which I think will make a killer wedding song,” Estefan said.
She also wrote a Spanish version of “Smile,” by Charlie Chaplin, and recorded it as a duet in Spanish and Italian with Laura Pausini.
Estefan also gave young artists some advice in the new world of the music business. The most important: “Keep your day job,” she said.
While the business is still weak, however, the artists who have to write and sing and perform because they can’t stop themselves will be the ones who succeed, she said.
“The internet has been a blessing and a curse. The curse we know: A lot of people appropriating your intellectual property without paying for it,” Estefan said. “But I think it’s important to realize the blessing of the internet, which is that everybody has a voice and you can break through, even without a record company. You can put out your voice and if you know what you are doing, it will get noticed,” she said, pointing to the South Korean artist PSY as an example.
“An artist is going to make music, is going to write, is going to paint, is going to do anything artistic people do. We are not going to stop making music because the business is not good.”
She had a job as an interpreter at Miami International Airport and was studying to become a psychologist when she began her career. Emilio Estefan worked at Bacardi. “Our son was just born and he had great health benefits,” she said. But the luck that put her on stage with her future husband’s band — then known as the Miami Latin Boys — was her true destiny, she said.
“When we made the decision lets go for the music we both said if it doesn’t work out, hey we will go back to our day jobs,” Estefan told the crowd during a Q&A session that was alternately in English and in Spanish.
“I was going to be a doctor, but I think my music allowed me to help more people than I could have done one-on-one as a psychologist. Just like other people’s music really helped me.”
Leila Cobo, executive director of Latin programming for Billboard, said Estefan is an “accidental star.” While she captivated the room with her confidence, the artist confided that she was really a shy person and didn’t want to be on stage as the lead singer — at first.
“My personality does not love being the center of attention. But the music was always number one. I have sung since I could talk. I kind of learned how to be the front guy or girl in the band — it took me 10 years to get comfortable with it,” Estefan said, adding that she took a speaking class at the university to help her.
“It was so painful for me. But I love it and I love music and I realize the more I relaxed and let people see what music meant to me little by little, when I got on stage it was like being home.”
She said she thinks that people connect with her music because she sings from emotion. “They know they are hearing something from the heart.”
“Music was my lifeline,” she said about growing up in San Antonio, Texas, after she left her homeland. Her father was ill, she had to learn English and a boy at her school called her stupid.
“If I had not had music, I don’t know if I would have made it. It was very, very tough what I was going through. I locked myself in my room with my guitar. I’d cry. I’d sing and the tears would come. It was healing. It cured me when I was growing up.”
It also helped heal her from the tour bus accident she had in 1990 which broke her back and could have left her permanently disabled. Today, she said she is thankful for the experience.
“I wouldn’t change what happened, because what I went through, and how it helped other people to see me go through this. I would not change what happened – although I don’t want it to happen again.”
It also brought her and Emilio closer together. “He never left my side for six months. He would bathe me. I couldn’t sleep for more than 45 minutes at a time so he would stay up all night and hold me. “
They wrote the song “Out of the Dark” together after Emilio found the words stuffed in a pants pocket — words he had written the day of the accident when the ambulance reached light.
“That song was a very big thank you for the prayers,” she said.
But usually the music comes first — the words, later. “I listen to the track to see what it makes me feel and then write the lyrics,” Estefan said.
She told many young artists in the audience — many of whom crowded the stage to give her demo CDs — that they should only keep trying if they love it. And especially in today’s challenged industry.
“It’s not safe, ever. And you shouldn’t expect that if you’re doing this career.”
“You have to be honest. You have to be you.
“Do it because you love it and not because you want to be famous, because fame is not what you think. And especially now that sometimes the monetary rewards may not be there. It even gets more to the core of doing music and art for the sake of putting it out into the cosmos.
“Stick to your guns. Don’t let anybody tell you no. You have to persevere. If one door closes you have to find another way.
“Do music for the sake of the music and the success will come. Don’t focus on the prize being fame or fortune or whatever.
And finally, “Have a day job.”