Interview: The Mavericks’ Raul Malo
With a new album on the horizon, it’s the perfect time to check in with The Mavericks’ songwriter and frontman
Formed in Miami, Florida in 1989, The Mavericks have long mastered the art of writing pop songs with a worldly appeal. Though perhaps best known for their 90s singles, such as the Grammy winning Here Comes The Rain and Top 5 UK hit Dance The Night Away, their back catalogue is a distinguished one which fuses elements of rock n roll, Latin rhythms and country music, in order to create a sound that is theirs alone. After the band broke up in 2004, frontman and songwriter Raul Malo released several solo albums that showed both his Cuban heritage and continued knack with a catchy melody. Having reformed in 2012, tracks like their 2013 single Back In Your Arms Again proved that they’d lost not of their infectious charm.
Upcoming album, Brand New Day, the first released on the band’s new label Mono Mundo Recordings, has that instantly recognisable Mavericks sway to it and also highlights the maturity of Malo’s songwriting. Ahead of the record’s release, we caught up with him to discuss his creative process…
Congratulations on the new album!
“Thank you, I feel reasonably good about it. I know we worked hard on it and enjoyed the process tremendously.”
This is the first record you’ve released on your own label, does it feel like a brand new day?
“Well I guess so. It’s telling that that’s the title track because, not to be all cheesy about it, it does feel like a brand new day for us. To have our own record label and really be in control of all aspects of our creative life and our business life at this point in our lives is really empowering and scary and wonderful all at the same time. I feel blessed to have this opportunity to be able to make music at a high level again. As a band we’re really firing on all cylinders and we’re thrilled to death with the end results of this album.”
You mention being in control of all aspects, what specific impact did that have on the creative side of things?
“For example, because we’re not on a record label’s schedule there was really no rush in recording the album. I was able to take my time in writing the songs. As the year went on and we toured, I just kept writing songs and whenever I had a batch of them we’d go into the studio and that affords you the time to live with the material. You can arrange it, you can live with it, you can do pre-production, you can edit it and try different verses and re-writes. That happened, I re-wrote a couple of songs, Brand New Day being one of them. You write it the first time and something about it doesn’t feel right and you go through that process. It’s really fun to have the time afforded to us to do a lot of self-editing.
“It was wonderful because we have never really had that. Before, you had to make a decision and go with it, and that’s it. Once it’s done it’s done. We were always under the gun and there was always a timeline issue, you had to get the album out and go on tour.”
Do you present the band with a skeleton of the songs or do you work on them together from the start?
“Sometimes I’ll demo-up a song if I have time. If I’m at home and have a specific idea I’ll do a little work tape just to see how it sounds and then I’ll either present that to the band, and we go from there, or I play it for them on the piano or the guitar and we arrange it that way. For example, on this album The Goodnight Waltz, nobody had heard that song and so I sat down at the piano to play it to everybody and give them a feel for it and how it was going to go down. Nico [Bolas], our co-producer is always at the helm making sure he records everything, pressed the record button unbeknownst to us. I’m just teaching everybody the song and you can hear everybody fumbling around at the beginning, tuning and warming up.
“It ended up being such a beautiful sounding little piece of music and everybody just played perfectly, it was an amazing experience and really more credit to the band than anything. At this point we’ve done a lot of shows together and this band is really smoking. We overdubbed The McCrary Sisters later on but the music part of it is all live and happened in that moment. It was done here in Nashville at Blackbird in Studio A, probably my favourite studio in the world. It’s really kind of magical.”
Has being in Nashville had any direct bearing on the way you do things?
“Sure, and in many ways Nashville has shown me what not to do as well. We’re not part of the country music mainstream here, we were maybe admitted on the playground for about five minutes, but Nashville is a great place to be. I know that the mainstream country leaves creativity by the side but there’s still a lot of great music that gets made here and there’s certainly not a shortage of great musicians and studios. I’m sure it has affected me, I love being here, I think it’s a great city and my kids have been born and raised here. Musically speaking I don’t draw a lot of inspiration from it, but that’s okay, it’s still a wonderful town to be in.”
We know that Elvis is an inspiration that looms large in your life, It’s Now Or Never in particular…
“That’s right, when I first heard that record as a kid it really set the tone for me. To me it was rock ‘n’ roll personified. I know that most people think of rock ‘n’ roll as the early 50s Elvis, and that was all cool and earth-shattering, but when I heard It’s Now Or Never it brought so much music together. I remember listening to it and my mum going, ‘you know that’s an old Italian song, O Sole Mio,’ and that just really blew my mind. Here’s opera, here’s rock ‘n’ roll, here’s country and it’s all brought together by Elvis and his voice. What a glorious combination. I’ve been trying to emulate it ever since!”
Are there parallels in the way you bring together all of your own different influences?
“Absolutely, I grew up listening to all kinds of music as a kid in Miami, Florida of Cuban-immigrant parents. They had an interesting record collection to say the least. It was all kinds of music, it was the rock ‘n’ roll stuff like Elvis, my dad liked Johnny Cash and Buck Owens and mum liked opera and big band and so I had all of this music swirling around. I never thought of them as different genres or even equated that just because you did jazz you couldn’t do rock ‘n’ roll, or if you were doing big band then you can’t be doing latin. I grew up listening to all this stuff and thought ‘I want to do it all.’ I’ve thrown myself into some really fun musical situations throughout the years and I think all that stuff informs the music that we’re making now. My first objective is ‘I want to write a good song,’ and that’s always the case regardless of what the genre is.”
Have any particular themes or events inspired Brand New Day?
“I don’t know if there’s any one particular event. Certainly some of these songs are inspired by the rhetoric and the political climate of the last couple of years. They were written more about the emotions and the rhetoric and the stuff that’s surfaced out of this political climate; the xenophobia, the discriminatory tones and the policies that we’re now putting forward. All of the emotions that led us to this, that’s what inspired some of these songs and others are just beautiful love songs.
“I Wish You Well is a song that I wrote about my dad. He passed away last year and when he started getting ill I would spend as much time with him as I could. I’d go over to the house and we watched baseball and talked about politics and Cuba and never really got into heavy conversations about life or death. We said that we loved each other but there were never really any heavy conversations and I love that because that was my dad. He didn’t want to bring anybody down, he wanted to sit there as if it was any other day. Knowing this man who’d been an integral part of my life, all I could say to him at the end was ‘I wish you well.’ That’s all I could say to him.”
That must have been a tough song to write and record?
“You can hear me break up a little bit at the end of the vocal because we had recorded the afternoon that he passed. My mum had come by the studio and told me that he was now at the end that I needed to come by when we’d finished in the studio. We recorded that song that afternoon and as I was singing it the phones were going off in the studio, it was my wife calling everybody to let us know that my dad had passed. It was a heavy moment.”
Do you find it cathartic to have a creative outlet?
“Absolutely, music has always been that. I think for any musician, anybody who plays music or even if you’re a fan, music is cathartic in that way and it does help us deal with those kind of things. For me as a writer, a singer and a musician, it’s always been a bit of a support system.”
Do you find that being in a band is also comforting, do you prefer it to doing the solo stuff?
“Well I loved doing my solo stuff, I enjoyed that process immensely. I went on my musical quest where I just played music all over the world with all kinds of musicians and I really learned a lot about listening to music in a very deep way, appreciating it and getting inside of it. When you play with some of the best musicians in the world you learn something, if you’re open to it. Everybody that I’ve ever worked with has always been better than me and in turn that makes me a better musician, I’m not afraid to jump into some of those waters. When I made my Today record with all the Cuban musicians and we went on tour, that was an amazing life-changing experience. The stuff you learn just by diversifying yourself is invaluable and I think all that information informs this process now.”
Lastly, do you have any final thoughts on the album and what fans should expect from it?
“I’m hoping they’ll like the songs. It’s a big sound on this record, we went after that purposefully. I’m very proud of the songwriting and I think we did a good job in really fine-tuning the songs, lyrically and musically. There’s a little bit of everything there for everybody, it’s not only an album you can groove to, it’s also an album that is worth listening to.”
Interview: Duncan Haskell
Brand New Day is released on 24 March via Mono Mundo Recordings and The Mavericks will be playing at the Indig02 in London on 28 March. Further details can be found at themavericksband.com