Colombian rocker Juanes has always been trend-forward. And so, his last two albums — 2019’s Más Futuro que Pasado and 2017’s Mis Planes son Amarte — was heavy on exploration, trying out different genres and different urban rhythms and yes, touches of reggaetón.
But introspection, amplified by the pandemic, led Juanes (real name: Juan Esteban Aristizabal), to look inwards and backwards. His new Origen (Origin), which releases May 28 on Universal Music Latin along with an Amazon Prime Video documentary of the same name, is a journey in time to the songs that defined Juanes’ life and career. Ranging from Mexican icon Juan Gabriel’s “No Tengo Dinero” and Carlos Gardel’s “Volver” to Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing In the Dark,” Origen is not an album of duets, but an homage to tracks both classic and obscure — done in vintage Juanes style.
“I wanted to do this music my way,” says Juanes, chatting during a listening session in his home studio. “These are songs that marked my childhood, my teen years and my early adulthood. This was curated to show my life. Mis Planes Son Amarte was an experiment that took me to the limit of where I can go [musically]. I wanted to return to a place where I felt I was myself.”
Juanes has long worn his musical influences on his sleeve. Traditional Colombian music, heavy metal and ’80s and ’90s rock — and of course, his signature guitar playing — have been the hallmarks of his sound, along with often deeply personal lyrics. In Origen, he gives up the words to others for the first time (although he’s played covers before, this is his first covers album), but the music is entirely his own.
When I ask him if the word to describe some of these new arrangements is “subversive,” Juanes laughs. “All of it is subversive, in fact. When you take on such iconic songs and artists, the only way to do it is being subversive. We weren’t afraid; we were eager and respectful,” he says. “Deconstructing a song like Gardel’s ‘Volver’ and understanding it from the inside out is very cool.”
Producing with Sebastian Krys, Juanes tackled Joaquín Sabina’s “Y Nos Dieron las 10,” for example, in a ranchera versión. Juan Luis Guerra’s classic, up tempo merengue “La Bilirrubina,” kicks off with his oft-used acoustic Colombian guitars. Everything sounds live.
“From the moment we started producing, Sebastian and I wanted to get away from what I’d done recently with beats and urban sounds,” he explains. We wanted to return to that more vintage sound of the ’70s. All the instruments you hear were played live.”
It takes some serious geeking out to get to the heart of an album like Origen. Here, in his own words, Juanes walks us through the essentials for the project.
The Recording Studio: We recorded all guitars and voices in my home studio [in Miami]. Technology has advanced so much you don’t need a big recording studio anymore. We did drums in Los Angeles with Pete Thomas. Carlitos del Puerto played bass.
The notion of recording in a studio has changed so much, that many engineers rarely record drums. I wanted to recover that manual, romantic notion of recording, of miking until you find exactly the sound you want, of not using samples. Sampling is cool, but I wanted this more artisan approach. I wanted to return to my essence, which is that rock nostalgia.
The Sound: We wanted it to sound vintage. Harry Styles’ album, for example, has a very cool vibe. A lot of very current artists want to reminisce and go back to the place that delivers a beautiful sound. We looked for sounds from beautiful instruments, like the Mellotron and the Rhodes piano. I love the Rhodes. We also used a Farfisa and a Clavinet. The aim was for that analog, punchy sound. Like Led Zeppelin or The Clash.
The Guitars: I used, three, four electric guitars, and also acoustic guitars. I play Gibson and Fender. My sound has always leaned toward Fender since the beginning of my career, but Gibson has some sounds I really like. And I also use Sadowsky, which is more boutique. The guitar sound is also different in this album because we recorded with real amps, and that gives it that extra breathing room.
I record guitars in different ways. One is analog with a mic and a speaker. But there are other technologies, like Fractal Audio, that I like. We recorded all the guitars with a Shure 57 microphone, which is great to record guitars. It’s used a lot in rock, because it’s a bright, uni-directional microphone that captures the sound — very in-your-face.
Redoing Juan Luis Guerra as Ska: I used to be a metalhead, very radical. And when [Guerra’s 1990 single] “La Bilirrubina” came out, it really impacted me, because I had a completely different concept of tropical music. I never paid attention to bachata before. Knowing that Juan Luis Guerra went to Berklee really impacted me. Plus, the song coincided with my girlfriend at the time — college, dances, graduations — and then I met him in person, and I just admire him so much. I respect him enormously.
We took a ska approach to the song. We were looking for a more punk version, something that wasn’t merengue. And we went with ska. The vocals had to be syncopated, like Juan Luis’, otherwise it would be a different song. In fact, we tried with other beats, but we always returned to ska.