Raul Midón – Owning Your Artistry

March 21, 2018

by Bryan Reesman

Composer, performer, and multi-instrumentalist Raul Midón is a unique personality in the jazz world. Shirking genre expectations and carving his own distinct path, the 52 year-old artist has flourished with a special blend of genre-crossing tunes – everything from R&B to pop to Latin music infusions – blossoming from a Latin session player in the ‘90s to a prolific and acclaimed solo artist in New York over the last 15 years. His ninth and most recent album, Bad Ass and Blind, earned him his first Grammy nomination, for Best Jazz Vocal Album. Midón’s journey from a school for the blind in New Mexico, to the jazz program at the University of Miami, to fruitful session work and beyond is one that offers many valuable lessons for aspiring jazz musicians. We spent an hour on the phone for our JAZZed interview, and I later had the pleasure of speaking with him in person at his post-Grammy party at the Jazz Standard in Manhattan. He offers solid wisdom served up with a sense of humor borne from years of hard work, paying dues, and learning that staying true to oneself is of paramount importance to one’s artistry and sense of self worth.

You picked up drums of four and went to guitar at five. Were you learning more about drums as you continued with guitar?

Always. To me, rhythm is a constant thing. I have a couple of unfinished rooms here in the basement, and I’m going to set up a drum room just so I can have that to record. Rhythm has always been really important to me, so I’ve always done drums, even on the guitar itself.

What was your first real professional gig?

That’s a good question. I played some drums in a country band when I was thirteen in a bar, but I don’t remember what I got paid. It wasn’t a gig really. I did it, but I didn’t really start gigging until after college, to be quite honest. I did some gigs, I did some weddings, I did this and that. But I was very focused on studying music, and for me to get through college took a lot of work and a lot of time. I couldn’t have done what people do, go to college and have a job at night. I just couldn’t have managed that. As a blind person, there is stuff that takes a lot longer to do, like going to the library. With all the extra stuff that you have out to figure out how to do, I needed all the time and energy I could get.

Where did you go to high school and college?

I went to Santa Fe Prep. I got an anonymous full scholarship – to this day, I don’t know who [bequeathed it]. I was at the blind school for a while, and then I became the president of the student council there and realized I was not getting the education that I needed. When I went to the other schools, I realized that we were way behind in math and not getting the amount of homework [that other people were]. The blind school was giving us the amount of homework that might take an average person to do for a couple of hours, and that’s not realistic for what is a good education. A good education is the homework that it would take a normal or smart person to do two hours and a blind person might take four hours. It amounted to not doing the amount of work you should be doing. When I realized that, I had a friend that was going to Prep. This was a very expensive, exclusive school, and very focused on SATs. These people were headed for Harvard and Yale and Brown. I just happened to have a friend that went there, and we started to make noise about how we need to get out of the blind school and a scholarship just came through. I still don’t know who these people were, [but] they came up with the money for us because it was way, way out of our league financially.

That’s a problem for a lot of people – money.

Yeah, and to go to a private high school like this… That was one of the big turning points because without that I don’t think I could’ve handled college. That was my last two years of high school, and I realized I had to learn how to take notes in class, how to get around without everything being catered to a blind person, which is what blind school is. That transition made it feasible for me to go to college.

You went to the University of Miami, which was nice and warm like New Mexico. And had a big Latin music scene.

Yeah. For me, it was all about the jazz program there. I got really interested in jazz in high school and started to get into Coltrane and all that. That’s why I wanted to go there.

You stayed there afterwards.

I stayed there for too long. I graduated in ‘91 and was there until 2002. What happened was I started to get session work. When I first started getting session work, I thought it was like I died and went to heaven. When you work in a local band, a cover band, you’re lucky to come home with $100 a night. So you do a few of those and scrape by. But you make more money in one session than working three months in a local rock band. In the ‘90s, I became part of this “Latin craze” as they called it. A lot of that stuff was being recorded in Miami, so all of a sudden there was a ton of work for us. I was doing two and three sessions a day sometimes and still working in the local bars. It kept me there for a while.

Which people did you record with?

Oh man, almost anybody who was recording in the Latin scene in the ‘90s I sang on. I recorded with Nana Mouskouri, Mercedes Sosa, Chayanne, and later Jennifer Lopez and Shakira. If it had background vocals, I sang on it. Julio Iglesias. Enrique Iglesias. That went on for about ten years. In the studio, it was all singing and all playing. I was playing it, I was writing tunes, and I started to get bored with it after awhile because more than 50 percent of the music was very commercial, very cheesy music. It wasn’t what I was interested in. I was interested in the money.

Then I was actually hired to be in Shakira’s band, and I am still thankful for that. It was a little bit of a leap for them to hire a blind guy to go on tour. I was good, but still I think it was kind of cool of them to do that. It was on the recommendation of somebody that was already working her that I sang on in the studio. Rita Cantero was her name. In a way, that was the highlight of my time there because we did Saturday Night Live. We did Rosie, Letterman, Leno, all that stuff, with me as a member of the band. First of all, I realized I could work. I never toured when I lived in Miami. I was always in town doing sessions. And then I realized that I was sort of this gun for hire and really didn’t want to do that anymore. I was writing all these tunes and starting to do them in the local bars that I was playing in, and people started to say, “Man, who wrote that tune? You wrote that?” People started to demand them in the bars, and people started coming back and saying, “Could you play that song again?”

I got a taste for what it would be like to be your own person, and after a couple of years with Shakira I realized I needed to get the hell out of Miami. I met my wife and she was very instrumental in getting me into things that I normally wouldn’t have done, like going to these Warner/Chappell songwriting events. The last one I went to was a fundraiser for 9/11. They were 25 songwriters there and they put me last, and I blew the room away. The next day they called me and offered me a $100,000 deal. That was the time to move to New York. Some people were questioning it because it was after 9/11 and there was the anthrax thing, and people thought I was crazy. I said, “I’m getting out of here. I’m done with Miami.” That was a life changer. It did everything they say New York is supposed to do.

Your first album came out in 2005. You were building up to that moment. What else were you doing when you got there?

At first, I was going to open mics. I was doing everything I could. I would go to Cleopatra’s Needle, I went to Sugar Bar. The Sugar Bar on 72nd is the place owned by Ashford and Simpson. They had a really good house band there. It was all of Roberta Flack’s band. Then I worked with Louie Vega the DJ for a while and started flying around the world singing to his tracks. Then he put this album together, Elements of Life, and I was on that. In the meantime, I was starting to shop [my music]. I have to give Danny Kapilian credit. He is a producer of shows in New York, and he said to my wife, “I think you should f**k things up. I don’t think you should send demo tapes. I think you should get them to see him live and just start shopping him.” We took it to heart, so then we started to go to record companies, just playing. I went everywhere. At that time, there were a lot more labels than there are now, so I went to Epic, I went to Universal, I went to Jive, I went everywhere. I just went into offices, and it was like the same kind of thing. “Oh, you’re great. What do we do with this guy?”

You’ve got a soulful, silky voice, and your music is smooth but it’s not smooth jazz. There is a certain lusciousness to it, and you display chops without flaunting them.

I think it’s interesting because, in a way, moving to New York really focused me, and even now, at the end of the day I’m musician, but right after that a songwriter. And actually, I’d like to be known as a songwriter before a musician. In jazz, that’s a really hard thing to do because jazz has become this whole revue of things. That’s why I’m so surprised about getting nominated for a Grammy. It’s awesome because if you look at the other nominees in the category, it’s all revue stuff. Standards.

Your new album blends jazz, R&B, pop, even a touch of flamenco. You’re also a reggae fan.

I like good music, and I look music that has commitment to it. It doesn’t have to be complicated, it has to feel like the people that are playing it give a s**t.

You’ve found a way to connect the dots between those genres, so it doesn’t sound out of place if there’s a Latin guitar piece, and the next minute you’re doing a smooth R&B ballad. Then you’re covering Coltrane. You have a very distinct sound, and it’s very natural that you would go to those places.

I’ve been thinking about it a lot since I got this nomination – what jazz is to me. For me, it’s always been a technology. I love jazz because it is a way to educate yourself about music other than in a way of just hearing a song and trying to imitate it. Jazz is a way to learn about how music works. The science of it – how theory works, how harmony works. That’s my attraction. And a way to do it with your ears. When people say playing music by ear, it implies that they’re not trained, and that is completely not true about jazz musicians. They are very well trained, and for me as a blind person I wanted that training. I wanted to have more than just, “I can hear something and play it back.” I wanted to understand the language of music. I wanted to be conversant in the language. That’s what jazz has been for me. And the freedom, which is why I find it so ironic how close minded some jazz people are about what’s jazz, what’s good music, and what isn’t.

Stewart Copeland thinks that most jazz is BS because he feels many people are just noodling. He feels that aren’t many people that are really focused.

It’s true, but it’s also because there’s a fine line between noodling and exploration. [laughs] I think it’s it is very difficult to improvise in a way that is coherent. I think all of us when we start out in jazz are just kind of searching. We’re trying to learn how to improvise over some pretty complex harmonies. So we’re running the scales [to see what works]. So many people never actually get beyond that. They stay in that phase. There’s also this whole kind of macho male thing of “we’re going to play at this really fast tempo and I’m going to outdo you.” At the end of the day, that’s bull crap too because if you’re not playing for an audience then you’ve missed the mark.

You have taught master classes. Private lessons as well?

Yeah. For a few years in Miami when I was doing sessions I had some private students, but I haven’t done that in a long time.

When you do these master classes, what mistakes do you notice a lot of younger players make, and what life lessons can you impart on them?

One of the things I tell people is that you can play almost anything, and if it’s really grooving it’ll sound pretty good. But you can play the coolest stuff and if it’s not grooving – and when I mean grooving, I mean it in a very scientific way, if it’s in time – if you’re playing stuff and it’s kind of wandering around time, it’s not going to sound good.

Your music has groove but you do like to have structured songs in a pop and rock vein.

Absolutely. I was very lucky to grow up with mainstream pop music, along with some of the crappy stuff, [but] there was amazing music on the radio. I mean, Stevie Wonder was on the radio. Aretha Franklin was on the radio. James Taylor was on the radio, and to a lesser extent, Joni Mitchell. You had just all kinds of amazing [music] – you had Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, you had Yes, you had Kansas. You had all of this sophisticated rock, but some of it was still really good pop music. Yes, we didn’t have access to all of the stuff that’s ever been recorded like they do today, but what was on the radio and what was considered mainstream pop music… [like] Steely Dan. That’s crazy. That would never happen today.

The bar has been lowered.

To an extent that is frightening, actually, and not just in music.

What mistakes and misconceptions do young players make and have?

The first thing is get a frickin’ metronome and work with the metronome. It’s really important to really have a focused sense of phrasing and time. That’s probably one of the big things that I talk about, and then depending on the level of students sometimes I get into some finer points of improvisation. When I gave a master class at USC, I got into the “Giant Steps” thing very intensely because there were people who could understand what I was talking about. And sometimes I talk about songwriting. Sometimes I’ve done master classes where there are a lot of people who’ve written songs. You really just need one good idea for a song, and I really believe in hooks. I really do. You’ve got to have something to hang on to. I’m a big believer in melodies.

I think your new album has more of a pop slant to it actually, in a lot of ways.

In some ways, but it’s also the deepest jazz album I’ve done. Actually, the album before it, Don’t Hesitate, had some tunes on there that are just hooky, poppy tunes.

You bridge those worlds.

I put a lot of value in knowing about music and being conversant in music, but it doesn’t have to be complicated to be good to me. It doesn’t have to be complex to me harmonically. It can be. I love good, complex harmony as well, but it doesn’t have to have that. That’s not a necessary component.

You play guitar and percussion simultaneously on stage. You also perform the mouth trumpet. You definitely like to multitask. When did you start bringing that into your music?

I think moving to New York was a big part of it. How do I distinguish myself from the other hundred thousand guitar players in New York City who are playing guitar and singing sensitive songs about their girlfriends? How the hell do I get attention? How do I distinguish myself? New York City is a whole different thing from anywhere else. There are thousands and thousands of people, and they all play for nothing. It’s a heavy place to go, and in a way I went really late my life. The only good thing I can say about it is I also went ready and went ready to kick some butt and knowing what I wanted to do and not getting distracted by weeks of wedding gigs. I want to do this, and if I can’t do this I’m getting out of this city.

You have that jazz pedigree that does allow you to cross over generationally, more so than doing a straight up pop thing.

Absolutely. What I’m realizing, being involved in jazz, when you go to some of these places you realize, “There aren’t any young people here.” That’s really sad and very discouraging, but then you see jazz musicians are their own worst enemy a lot of times because they’re not doing anything that would appeal to young people. I can get bitter about why young people aren’t interested in a good musician just playing, but that’s just not what’s happening. You’ve got to at least have some material that speaks to something that they’re interested in, or incorporate some hip-hop or rap or something. Or you’re not going to get that young audience. I don’t care how good you are.

People are just inundated with music today, and I think many young people are very focused on being a little too up to the minute.

Yeah, and the devaluing of music is a whole other discussion.

I love Spotify for discovering music, but I hate their terrible royalty system.

It’s sad that musicians have not been at the table to make the deals work better for them. What saved my ass is that publishing deal that I got in New York. I bought back my publishing.

When was this?

2005. I actually bought it back before the album came out. You’ve got to write and own your publishing. There’s all this money that’s being made from your content that you’re not getting. Other people are making your money. That’s what’s happened.

The Grammy nomination gives you more exposure, and you can add that to your title now.

I feel like it’s opened up a lot of opportunities for me. I’ve gotten a lot of people calling me that haven’t called me in a while. I feel like there’s a certain window that’s opening up for me that hasn’t been open for a while. And it totally came out of nowhere. I did not expect a nomination, so I’m really happy.

What are your future plans now?

I have an album coming out this year with the Metropole Orchestra, which I’m really excited about. That’s the next immediate project. I’m constantly writing. I’m taking advantage of the time I have post-holiday – and during holiday, by the way – to write and record stuff so that when it comes time to make the next album I’m ready. So I don’t have to write one day before the recording date. Or maybe I do.

I really enjoy writing and recording and being in the nuts and bolts. I actually enjoy it more than touring, to tell you the truth. I like the laboratory of being in the studio. What’s so sweet about it for me is that this is not just my songwriting, my playing, and my singing, but it’s my production and engineering as well. I engineered the record. I mixed it with someone else, but I put it together myself. I engineered it and recorded all my own vocals. I recorded all my own guitars. Most of the stuff I’ve put together in my studio.

How long have you been producing and engineering your own stuff?

Don’t Hesitate was the first album. It actually started before. I did all the demos for Synthesis in my studio, but I didn’t produce any of the tracks per se. I went to L.A. to work with Larry Klein. I guess really it started with Don’t Hesitate, which was the first album I produced and engineered.

Do you advise younger musicians to learn about technology and to learn to record their own stuff or engineer it?

Absolutely. First of all, to get your stuff to people you don’t need a label anymore, for obvious reasons. You could publish on the Internet. You can indulge every sort of creative idea and you don’t have to worry about if it’s going to be liked by the team or the label. You don’t have to come up with a bunch of money every time you want to record. It’s been essential for my well-being as a creative person to be able to say I’m just going to go in and do this stuff, and at the moment I’m not going to worry about whether it’s commercial or whether it comes out or not. Just do it, and to be able to do it on a level that then you can put it on the record. It’s not like it used to be where you’d record it on your four-track and then have to do it again [in a professional studio].

Is there one important life lesson that you’ve learned that you would like to impart to people about music and your musical career?

Always make the album you want to listen to because if you make the album and it doesn’t do well or sell, at least you have the album you wanted to make and are proud of it. But if you make the album that you think somebody else wants and it fails, you’re f**ked on both counts. You will always wonder what would happen if you had made the album you wanted to make. People can say whatever they want, but I can say I’ve made the albums that I’ve wanted to make.

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