Raul Malo on Great Singers, Being Born 50 Years Too Late and Just What Ailed the Mavericks

When a reader asked me recently who my favorite contemporary vocalist was, the first name that thought-bubbled over my head was Raul Malo's.

He first turned heads -- and weakened knees -- with that rich, velvety, golden-toned baritone as frontman for the celebrated, sorta-country band, the Mavericks. The Cuban-American George Jones (if not Roy Orbison) is now making solo albums; his latest is the eclectic "Lucky One," behind which he's now on tour. There's a stop scheduled tonight at the Birchmere.

I interviewed George Jones last year for the Kennedy Center Honors, and he had the darndest time articulating what makes him such a great singer. How are you with your own self-analysis?
[Laughs.] I totally understand! I don't know that there's a technical thing that I could articulate. But I will say this: Whatever song I sing, I sing it because I want to sing it. It comes from an honest place, if that makes any sense. I don't sing things just for the sake of commercial success or money or this or that. I sing 'em because I think they're great songs, or good enough songs. I remember working with Peter Asher on "You're Only Lonely," and there were a couple of songs that he wanted me to try, and I did try them. But they didn't sound like me. There was nothing I could pinpoint -- maybe a strange word here or there -- but I just couldn't get myself into singing those songs. What that place is, I don't know. I just know when I'm not there. I know when a song just strikes me in a strange way. And then I don't sing it.

Is it like method acting, where you have to get yourself into the right place?
Yeah, in a way, we are method actors. I don't buy that line that you have to live the songs you sing. You just have to make people believe you live the songs you sing. That's the difference. Johnny Cash wasn't in jail, but he could write about it. Bruce Springsteen wasn't working in a factory, but he could sing about it. You have to sell it to the listener, and it has to come from an honest place within. That's all I try to do. As far as the technical stuff, I don't really know. You either have a nice voice and a pleasant voice, or you don't. You can either carry a tune or you can't. But it's not like I woke up one day and could sing; the voice is a work in progress. You're always evolving, developing it. I couldn't even explain how I do it, though. It just happens.

(Much, much more after the jump.)

How much of it is gift, and how much of it is practicing/studying/working on technique?
I would say that given ability would have to account for 96 percent of it. There are people who take vocal lessons, and they sing all the time and go to all the teachers and do all the exercises -- and when you hear them sing, nobody cares. I don't think they're able to connect to the audience. That's something that you don't know how it happens; it just does.

Look at Tom Waits. Certainly not the most beautiful, gifted vocalist of our time, yet I cry when I hear him sing. And I want to hear him sing, even though you have to wonder if his voice is a put-on, because nobody really sings like that. It's a character, yet it's a brilliant character. That's what I'm saying: Everybody has a different way to get there. And then there are people who just open their mouths and sing: Pavarotti, Roy Orbison, Frank Sinatra. That's a beautiful thing, too.

Here's something that I really love about your signing: You have what is, for my money, the greatest voice in contemporary pop music. And yet you never seem to show off -- no needless fireworks. Where and when did you learn that there's something to restraint?
[Laughs.] I think I learned that from just watching everybody else. I kind of equate singing to Olympic high-diving. The less splash the better in that competition. But the way most people sing, certainly on "American Idol," is everybody's doing cannonballs into the pool. We're not really supposed to be doing cannonballs all the time. When you hear Duke Ellington play, he could hold a note and play the same riff for eight measures. It's incredible, it's beautiful -- listen to the space. Like on "Duke's Place" [Malo sings Ellington's sax part] -- he gives us that over and over and over again. I think it's beautiful. There's a subtle genius to it.

In many ways, I think our culture has lost that. We've lost that nuance. We may be getting it back, I don't know. Or maybe there's just a segment of the population that's hanging onto it for dear life. But that kind of cannonball singing is reflective of everything else in our culture: It's in-your-face and brash and ugly and tasteless.

I guess I should say you don't totally sing sans frills. On "Lucky One," there's a terrific moment near the end of "You Always Win" where you do a little "dooby-dooby-doo" riff. It's a great, subtle moment.
It's personal taste. I don't want to do it all the time. But if you do it every once in a while, then it's special. If you put caramel syrup on everything, then everything tastes like crap after a while. But if you put it on just a couple of things, then: "Ohhh, that's delicious!" [Laughs.]

Two exceptions: Bacon makes everything taste better, and Emmylou Harris makes everything sound better.
Listen, there is nothing wrong with both of those things. I agree.

This is going to sound sort of ridiculous, but do you sometimes wish that you didn't sing so well? All anybody ever wants to talk about, it seems, is your voice.
[Laughs.] Honestly, no. It is what defines me, in many ways. It's how people relate to me. I feel fortunate to be able to sing and to make a living at it. But one thing I've had fun with on this tour is I play all the guitars on "Lucky One," so I've had to talk about my guitar playing. Which is really funny from my side, because I play two licks. They sound good, but I only play two licks. It's been funny to have to answer technical questions about my guitar playing.

Good thing you don't make the guitar sound like a cannonball.
I can't! Let's just start there. I couldn't if I wanted to.

That old band of yours, the Mavericks, didn't exactly fit inside a neat little box. But you're really stretching out, stylistically, on "Lucky One." There's are pop songs worthy of the Rat Pack era, a little bit of rock, some vintage R&B, some Western swing. Liberated much?
Absolutely. I think that the shackles have come off. You talk to 10 different people, and they'll put this record in 10 different categories. It cracks me up. But there is a price to pay for that, because it's not an easily marketed record by those standards.

But I do feel very liberated. As much fun as those Mavericks records were to make, it was a band, and there were restrictions within that band. There were some things we just couldn't pull off. Also, there were some things that, as the Mavericks, if we tried to put them on any record, we would scare the heck out of any label. Now, I'm just a singer-songwriter. And as a singer-songwriter, I can pretty much do whatever I want. The creative freedom that I have and enjoy is really to me what it's all about.

The sound and spirit of the album are really classic. Do you ever feel like you were born, like, 50 or 60 years too late?
My whole life -- and this is the honest-to-God truth -- I've always felt like I was born too late. When I was a kid, I didn't like the music my friends liked, so I kind of had to keep to myself about that. I had to go along and nod my head: "Oh, yeah, Flock of Seagulls are great, guys. They're really great, the best." [Laughs.]

But now, I don't feel like that. I feel like I'm supposed to be doing what I'm doing right now, because there's a whole lot of people out there that like it and feel the same way I do about pop culture in general. I finally feel now like I'm rotating in the same direction as the planet, which is really an amazing concept for me. I always felt I was going against it. I was a salmon going upstream with the inevitability that's coming.

You a fan of any contemporary stuff? "Willie and the Wheel," which I love, doesn't count, because that could have been album of the year in 1939.
[Laughs.] Yes. I love this kid -- actually, I don't even know if he's a kid; I've only heard his records and never seen him -- but there's this singer-songwriter out of Portland named M. Ward. I love his records. I think they're really adventurous and groovy. I love the sound of his voice and of his records. They're beautiful, melodic, with interesting lyrics, interesting approach. I love them.

I like Ray LaMontagne. Joss Stone. James Hunter. There's some stuff out there that's really, really great. Is it the stuff you see on TV all the time? Is there anything on "American Idol"? No. There are divisions in our culture. There's gonna be connoisseurs, and there's gonna be people who just listen to what's on mainstream radio. That's the way it's been going for a while. I feel like I'm living proof of that. There's an audience out there that seeks out the stuff that's not beating them over the head every day.

I don't get the sense, by the way, that you're itching to do a Mavericks reunion. Safe assumption?
That is more than a safe assumption. That is money in the bank right there. Not gonna happen. I've done it, I've been there, and it was great fun. But now, I get to do exactly what I want, how I want, when I want, where I want. It starts and stops with me, and I don't have to check with anybody. People will go: "Oh, that's just an egomaniac." Well, yeah, maybe. I'll give you that. But when you make music, you want to get it across and play it a certain way. It has to be an extension of you. Call it whatever you want, but it's my music, and I don't have to compromise it for anyone.

My accountant would probably rather have me put the Mavericks back together and make a country record. But I've fought too long and too hard; I'm finally getting to the place where the genre thing isn't really effecting me. I can't tell you how many people come up to me and say: "I never really know what to expect of you." Isn't that a good thing? I think people forget sometimes what real artists do -- that we have a muse, and we've gotta follow it. Sometimes it costs us. But I'd rather do that than do what people want or expect. If MCA had a choice, I think we would've re-recorded "What a Crying Shame" over and over again. That's just a death sentence. No, I don't want to do that.

So the headline here is: "Cuban-American singer Raul Malo prefers benevolent dictatorships to democracy"?
[Laughs.] Oh my gosh, that would get headlines back in Miami. Are you kidding me? My parents would be destroyed. [Laughs.] No.

The ironic part is that my band now, in all honesty, is more of a band than the Mavericks ever were. That's what I try to tell people: The Mavericks were just a band in name only. We really weren't a real band. To me, a band sits around and jams. A band listens to music and passes the joint around and creates music and goes through arrangements of songs, like, "Hey, we're going to try this here." Ironically enough, that's what my band now does; that's what my I've done since I left the Mavericks.

It's more democratic than when we were the Mavericks, and it resembles a band more than the Mavericks did. One of the things that really bugged me about the Mavericks -- and I don't know if I should even say this publicly -- but they weren't really into being great musicians. The Mavericks were more concerned with being pop stars than they were with being great musicians.

That's always bugged me about it on a deep, personal level. To me, I don't care about hotels or the green M&Ms backstage or the semis. I gave all that up and toured the country in a rental car. I gave up the two semis, the catering and the big gigs just to get to the core of why I make music. That's what the Mavericks lost. We lost the reason why we made music. Everything else became the important part, and there was no real dedication to the craft. But, you know, I'm proud of those records, and I'm proud of what we achieved. I think this happened over time. That's what led to the eventual breakup of the band. And that's really what ended it. That's it.

By J. Freedom du Lac |  April 8, 2009; 2:05 PM ET Interviews
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